Every story is real: a pledge to bring sexual abuse into light

It is an honor to be part of a group of over 130 rabbis — with more still joining in — signing the statement “Beyond Silence” on the back page of this week’s J., saying hineini, we are here. It gives me great hope that we are responding in such great numbers to sexual abuse in our society.

My activism was catalyzed upon hearing painful revelations reported in this paper about sexual abuse perpetrated by a trusted Jewish community member many years ago (“Former Bay Area Jewish leader accused of molesting boys in ’60s and ’70s,” Oct. 25, 2013). This drove home the reality that sometimes it takes years for victims to come forward, and that the painful impact of these acts affects people in dramatic ways.

Writing about my pain in learning this and wanting to step forward in helping the healing process, I wrote an op-ed that was published in the same issue (“A rabbi’s view: turning to our tradition for guidance”).

The original article made me realize that, despite great strides in awareness, education and communal response, sexual abuse remains a woefully under-addressed problem in our community. I thought of people who have spoken to me over the years, and I know that not only are people reluctant to come forward, but that much more could be done as a community. My public stance in these pages encouraged others to speak to me and share their stories of abuse, often perpetrated by a trusted person. Each story is real, whether it took place in or beyond our community. We need to address it head-on.

Several colleagues and experts in the field eagerly joined me in saying: “Enough silence!” The Beyond Silence statement is a collaborative piece put together by this group, with colleagues across every Jewish denomination. We hope to educate, activate, support, communicate and advocate, and we are developing several initiatives to help victims and prevent further abuse.

We are driven by the knowledge that sexual abuse remains underaddressed despite earnest action by law enforcement, social services, educators, mental health professionals and clergy. The sexual abuse of children continues with frightening frequency. The Centers for Disease Control estimates that one in four females and one in six males will be sexually abused by the time they are 18 years old. This is a problem that crosses social, religious and economic strata and includes the Jewish community. The rabbinic statement we have called Beyond Silence affirms that we will add our efforts to others that reach for tikkun, or repair, of this societal ill.

Our statement declares: Nishma — We are listening. We are present to the pain, shame and suffering that accompanies sexual abuse. We understand that many do not step forward for fear of not being believed. We are aware of the toxic stress and ensuing pain that is created by abuse. Communal denial and shameful secrecy adds to and exacerbates this pain and stress. We hope that public acknowledgement of the existence of sexual abuse in all areas of society, including our own community, will open doors for people to heal, knowing their story will be believed by their rabbis.

One aspect of the rabbinic statement is to frame the issue of sexual abuse through the prism of Jewish values. As we listen and open our doors and hearts to your stories, we affirm that every human being is created b’tzelem elokim, in the divine image. This central Jewish tenet affirms that each person should be cherished and nurtured. Each person deserves to thrive in a safe environment where we can realize our full potential. To foster tzelem elokim, we pledge to be present, to listen and to act.

Na’aseh — We are acting. There is so much to do in response to this issue. The Beyond Silence statement affirms that we will create forums for healing. We will build on the existing guidelines and training for institutional safety and make sure the hard work that so many are currently doing becomes a model to the entire community. We will study and teach about the different, complex aspects of this issue. We will create opportunities to teach parents and children how to find their voices, to help prevent further child abuse, and to support those who are healing from abuse that has already occurred, whether recently or decades ago.

Much work remains to be done as we create Jewish and secular communities in which we fulfill our obligation to protect and nurture the next generation.

Rabbi Nathaniel Ezray is spiritual leader at Congregation Beth Jacob in Redwood City.