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Sexual abuse: we dare not stand idly by

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As the devastating testimony of victims in the Chaim Walder case emerged a few weeks ago, I felt strongly that, as a community, we need to use the justified outrage it provoked in the Jewish world as a catalyst to renew our resolve as the South African Jewish community to fight the horrifying phenomenon of sexual abuse in all its forms.

As Jews, we have a specific mitzvah, a clear halachic obligation directly from the Torah: “Do not stand idly by the blood of your fellow.” We cannot be passive while lives are being destroyed by sexual abuse. We cannot be silent while predators remain a threat. We dare not stand idly by.

Practically what this means is that we must support and work with the institutions we have established as a community that are specifically geared towards helping victims come forward and report abuse.

That includes state-designated child-protection organisations such as the Chevrah Kadisha’s Community Social Services division in Johannesburg, and Jewish Community Services in Cape Town. It also includes organisations like Koleinu SA, which offers a helpline and emotional and psychological support to victims of abuse.

In addition, in 2017, I established the Abuse Review Board as a place of last resort to assist victims with their cases. Headed by advocate Liza Segal accompanied by other experts in all areas of abuse – medical, social, and legal – the Abuse Review Board is an additional safety net to pursue every reported case to the fullest extent of the law so that no victim is unprotected and no case is swept under the carpet.

We have the institutions required to combat sexual abuse and we must make use of them. In recent community-wide communication regarding the threat of abuse, I have included the contact details of these organisations and how to make use of them.

“Not standing idly by” means taking seriously our halachic obligation to report abuse. We cannot waver. As Hashem says to Joshua when he becomes the leader of the Jewish people at a time of great danger and challenge, “Chazak veematz” (Be strong and courageous).

Strength and courage. This is how, as a community, we must confront this threat. We need to be brave enough to talk about these dark issues in public – in our shuls and schools, in our homes. It’s with this in mind that I convened a community webinar this week on the issue of sexual abuse. Though the subject is deeply disturbing, the most effective way to prevent and address sexual abuse as a community is to talk openly about it. Through empathy and understanding, we give strength and courage to victims to come forward and report abuse.

We especially need to help our children understand this phenomenon, equipping them with the knowledge and awareness to identify predatory behaviour, recognise unsafe situations before they develop any further, and know what steps to take to prevent abuse and how to report it if it happens.

“Be strong and courageous” means not feeling intimidated, helpless, or despondent, held back by self-defeating fear and anxiety. We have to be proactive, which means peering into darkness, acknowledging the problem, and doing something about it – lifting up our voices and using the institutions set up for this very purpose.

Most importantly, we need the courage and resolve to tackle it together, as a community, with a sense of common purpose – an unwavering, collective commitment to righting this evil and stamping it out altogether. These two Torah teachings must be our guiding light: “Do not stand idly by the blood of your fellow” and “Be strong and courageous.”

In my personal capacity, I pledge to continue to do everything possible to raise these issues publicly so that as a community, we can entrench a culture in which victims feel supported to speak about instances of abuse and take action.

Sexual abuse is a crime which thrives under cover of darkness, in secret, and in silence. Now is the time to shine light into the darkness and break the silence. Lives depend on it.

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1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Jo S

    Jan 28, 2022 at 6:13 pm

    This courageous lady needs to be commended. Thank you for writing the book – I look forward to reading it

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