Responding to general concern about reported incidents of alleged sexual abuse amongst the clergy –– in the Baltimore Jewish Times and other publications in recent years –– the Shofar Coalition last week convened area rabbis to guide them in better working with sexual abuse survivors.
“We want people to feel safe,” said Rabbi Elizabeth Bolton of Congregation Beth Tikvah in Roland Park. “We want their safety to be the opening part of the dialogue.”
The Shofar Coalition, the Sidran Institute’s team of mental health professionals working on child molestation, had asked members of both the Baltimore Board of Rabbis (BBOR) and the Vaad HaRabonnim –– the former’s members being modern Orthodox and non-Orthodox rabbis and the latter being Orthodox rabbis –– to meet with them.
On Monday, the coalition met with seven BBOR members: Rabbis Elan Adler of Moses Montifiore Anshe Sfard, Steve Schwartz of Beth El, Yocheved Heiligman of Congregation Shalom Aleichem, Elissa Sachs-Kohen of Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, Amy Scheinerman of Beth Shalom of Carroll County, Elizabeth Bolton of Beit Tikvah and Avram Reisner of Congregation Chevrei Tzedek.
On Wednesday, a similar workshop was held for four members of the Vaad: Rabbis Menachem Goldberger of Congregation Tiferes Yisroel, Dovid Gottlieb of Shomrei Emunah, Moshe Hauer of Shaarei Zion B’nai Jacob and Sheftel Neuberger, president of Ner Israel Rabbinical College.
Last April, more than 20 Orthodox rabbis issued a letter expressing their common concern on the issue of molestation, which followed articles in the Jewish Times and a BBOR advertisement expressing similar sentiments.
These workshops were a beginning step in the process of community healing, according to Shofar Coalition members.
The Jewish Times was invited to the end of the BBOR session to discuss the event with the rabbis.
“Our priority is to protect the victim, not the perpetrator,” Rabbi Scheinerman said.
Rabbi Bolton added that BBOR members might need more training, as there is a great deal about molestation that they did not know.
As a result, the Shofar Coalition said it will continue scheduling informational and training workshops for the rabbis. If anything, the Coalition wanted the rabbis to understand the “red flags” involved with molestation.
“It is a very complex issue,” Rabbi Scheinerman said. “We have so much to learn.”
One clinician said that the top common denominator the rabbis will face with a molestation victim is the victim’s sense of isolation.
The BBOR’s actions, Rabbi Adler said, are “not a witch hunt” to identify perpetrators. “It’s about making people feel comfortable,” he said.
Joan Kristall, who helped conduct the workshop, added, “I think the community needs to heal and it’s an exchange of ideas like this one that will help all of us.”
The BBOR also is discussing a “Shofar Shabbos,” where rabbis would speak from the pulpit on the issue of molestation. Several area rabbis already have taken this action.
Helping Rabbis Help Survivors
Special to the Jewish Times
• Normalize that their symptoms make sense given what they’ve experienced and where they’ve come from. Connect their current thoughts, feelings and behavioral choices to prior pain/trauma/abuse and neglect.
• Universalize, by letting survivors know that they are not alone. One in three women and one in five men experience some form of sexual abuse/trauma by the time they are 18 years old.
• Shift from “you need help” to “you deserve support.” This makes treatment less stigmatizing and reframes it as a gift.
• Address the reality that victimization can challenge a survivor’s spirituality and faith. Survivors can feel betrayed by God or angry at God for not protecting them. Emphasize that these feelings do not preclude having a relationship with God. Emphasize the role that spirituality can play in healing. Partner with therapists to address these issues.
• Explore every survivor’s ambivalence or resistance regarding reporting abuse and/or seeking treatment. The survivor may minimize the abuse experience; fear negative reprisals from family members or the religious community; assume that they have to confront their perpetrator (they don’t); assume that their allegations will not be believed; and believe reporting abuse is contrary to religious values.
• Challenge the notion that “it happened a long time ago, so it can’t be relevant now,” or “there is nothing I can gain by talking about it in the present.” Survivors experience old wounds, thoughts and feelings as if the crime had just occurred.
• Remind survivors that sexual abuse is a crime and justice should be served.
• Remind survivors that perpetrators usually abuse repeatedly. Holding perpetrators accountable is a way to protect other potential victims –– it affects the whole community. nLisa Ferentz, a clinical social worker in private practice, works with the Shofar Coalition and is an adjunct faculty member at the University of Maryland School of Social Work.