Child abuse plagues Jews too, forums panelists say

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As a newly trained psychotherapist and social worker, Julie Robbins knew that child abuse persisted in all walks of life, in every corner of humanity. But as a faithful Jew, a part of her also believed that it could not happen in her community.

One day 15 years years ago, Robbins was asked to handle a child-abuse case involving a Jewish family. That a rabbi was accused of molesting a young girl was shocking enough. The matter grew more troubling when Robbins learned the rabbi's name and realized he was a personal friend.

Taking on the case, Robbins soon observed that the young girl and her family were ostracized, not supported, by the local Jewish community.

"I think that was the biggest shame, the biggest shanda, of them all," Robbins said.

Hers was one of many stories aired at "Breaking the Silence: A Forum on Child Abuse in the Jewish Community," held recently at San Francisco's Congregation Beth Sholom. Robbins was on a four-member panel whose speakers also included Kaiser Permanente Medical Center pediatrician and neonatologist Ami Goodman.

Child abuse is very much a Jewish concern, Goodman said. While no separate statistics chart child abuse within the Jewish community, she noted that 2.5 million children are abused each year throughout the United States. Left unchecked, the problem will worsen, she said, because statistics also show that many victims grow to be victimizers themselves.

"If we stand idly by and deny the problem, [and do] not act to prevent the problem…this will lead to not only the loss of the child's soul, but of the future of the world," Goodman said.

The forum was made possible by the Koret Synagogue Initiative and moderated by Congregation Beth Sholom's initiative program director Janet Harris. The speakers' panel also featured UCSF Medical Center professor emeritus Dr. Moses Grossman, who is a pediatrician, and California Department of Social Services senior staff attorney Neil Snyder.

Panelists affirmed the need for child-abuse education among Jews and vowed to find ways of breaking the cycle of abuse. Robbins, who has devoted much of her career to those very goals, cited some heartbreaking statistics.

Each year, she said, some 1,200 American children die from abuse. Most abuse — sexual, physical and verbal — occurs within the family unit, she pointed out. And figures show, Robbins noted, that by the age of 18, one in every three American females and one in every six American males has been sexually abused.

In his medical practice, Dr. Grossman has seen many abused children.

"When do you intervene?" Grossman asked the audience, alleging that too many people witness clear evidence of abuse yet remain passive. "Where do you draw the line? The line is not easily drawn."

Snyder recalled that when he was in law school 25 years ago, he took a course on juveniles and the courts. Yet the class included no mention of child abuse. Since then, he noted, laws have been enacted to punish abusers and protect those who report them.

This year, in fact, California law has expanded the list of those who must report all evidence of suspected abuse: The list now includes firefighters, animal control officers and humane society workers. Those who report evidence of abuse, Snyder said, are well-protected. Those who keep silent, he warned, face misdemeanor charges and civil liability.

Robbins summed up the forum with a call for Jews to start addressing the child-abuse problem. Twenty-five years ago, she told the audience, child abuse was not considered a problem in the Jewish community — simply because Jews weren't talking about it.

"I think what we need to do is start talking about it," Robbins said. "I think we need to be very open.

"We know how to deal with trauma and pain and crisis and violence," she said. "That has been our history since the beginning of time."