Sexual abuse strikes at the Jewish community, too

Nine years ago, a 19-year-old religious woman came to see clinical social worker Gail Bessler-Twerski. The woman had the traditional shaved head and wig, but her husband reported she wore sheer stockings, listened to secular music and read mainstream magazines. She was about 100 pounds overweight and couldn't get pregnant.

Although she had sexual difficulties in her marriage, she had been meeting men in hotel rooms. The family's rabbi had referred her to Bessler-Twerski.

During treatment, it came out that between the ages of 9 and 16, the woman's father had sexually abused her. There was evidence that the father also had abused her two sisters.

Child molestation in the Jewish community? According to Bessler-Twerski, the typical Jewish reaction is, "This could not happen to us."

But the social worker knows all too well that it can.

A practitioner in Roslyn, N.Y., Bessler-Twerski was in the Bay Area for the ninth annual International Conference on Jewish Medical Ethics, sponsored by the Hebrew Academy. On Monday of last week, she addressed an audience of about 50 on the residual effects of childhood molestation among adults.

"Sexual abuse and incest exist in the general population, even in our community," said Bessler-Twerski, who sees substantial numbers of Jewish clients in her practice.

Unfortunately, she estimated, only one in six cases overall gets reported. And this means that a victim and the family fail to use the best defenses against the problem — prevention, early detection and treatment. "The child is taught not to talk about it," she said.

Some of the reasons victims and other family members remain silent rather than report the crime or seek treatment, Bessler-Twerski said, are denial, fear, shame, feelings of responsibility and loyalty to the perpetrator. Even when a victim does seek treatment as an adult, the childhood episodes are not always reported.

Using examples from her own practice, Bessler-Twerski described some typical symptoms of hidden abuse, which include eating and sleep disorders, sexual dysfunction, depression, withdrawal, borderline personality disorders or even multiple personalities. She told the largely professional audience to look for a cluster of symptoms when making a diagnosis.

Although boys also are the victims of sexual abuse, Bessler-Twerski — who serves the traditional Jewish community in her practice — has only treated female victims.

Comparing the effects of childhood molestation to the post-traumatic stress disorder of Vietnam veterans, Bessler-Twerski said reactions are often delayed and may not emerge until triggered by some event.

Examples include being in a new situation, the death of the perpetrator, pregnancy, birth or having one's own child reach the age when one was abused.

While there is no evidence that abuse is higher in the Jewish community than in the general community, Bessler-Twerski said Jewish families are not immune from the cycle of abuse that passes from generation to generation. She described a religious man who had sex with seven of his grandchildren, both boys and girls. He had been abused as a child and was never treated.

In that family Bessler-Twerski tracked four generations of abuse.

"Offenders need treatment, too," Bessler-Twerski said.

She said the community needs to be educated about child molestation and the importance of getting a victimized child into a safe environment.

Bessler-Twerski's husband, Abraham Twerski, was in the audience. A rabbi, psychiatrist and author, he said the Jewish community is reluctant to acknowledge a problem in its midst. He told of getting a call from a woman who tried to buy a copy of Twerski's most recent book about domestic violence, "The Shame Born in Silence," at her local Jewish book store. The store told her that it refused to carry the book.

Twerski said one reason Jews are afraid to admit problems is out of concern that no one will want to marry into the family.

"Everything takes time," said Twerski, who has been speaking about alcohol and drug abuse in the Jewish community for 20 years.

Although sexual abuse can devastate a family, with treatment, there is hope, Bessler-Twerski said.

Recently the religious woman who had been sexually abused as a child came to see her. The formerly obese woman was bright-eyed, slender, well dressed and happy. She had divorced her first husband, remarried and was expecting her first child.