Beyond silence: Confronting child sexual abuse in Jewish community

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

A few years ago, Congregation Beth Jacob faced a situation without precedent in the Redwood City synagogue: a teenage student working as an aide in a religious school classroom was accused of inappropriately touching two young girls.

“My community was rocked,” said Rabbi Nathaniel Ezray. “I’m sometimes amazed about how we’re ill-prepared for things we need to be prepared for.”

The experience provided a quick education for the congregation, which reported the situation to authorities and consulted with an outside expert for guidance in handling it. The synagogue now has explicit guidelines for those who work with children. Still, several years later, the pain hasn’t gone away.

“I think that trauma takes a long time to resolve,” Ezray said. “I think people think it was dealt with thoughtfully.”

Handling the delicate, troubling and painful issue of child sexual abuse is challenging for any synagogue, where staff members typically are not experts on such matters. Clergy and administrators may suddenly find themselves in the unexpected position of making reports to legal authorities, counseling the families of victims, protecting the rights and privacy of the accused and rethinking safety and hiring policies.

“I know when I called around to tell people what happened in our school, many people confided that they don’t have policies in place,” Ezray said.

The Jewish community operates a range of programs for children, including preschools, synagogue Hebrew schools, day schools, summer camps and youth programs. Yet across the Bay Area, those institutions have a wide variety of policies, from robust to minimal, when it comes to preventing, reporting and responding to allegations of child sexual abuse.

“We heard from people that [they’re] seeing complex situations but don’t know how to handle it,” said Naomi Tucker, longtime executive director of Shalom Bayit, a Bay Area Jewish organization dedicated to combating domestic violence in Jewish homes.

Concerned that the topic is insufficiently addressed within the Jewish community, a coalition of local Jewish organizations, including Shalom Bayit, the Board of Rabbis of Northern California, Jewish LearningWorks and the Bay Area Jewish Healing Center, organized a conference last month at Peninsula Temple Sholom. The Nov. 18 gathering in Burlingame, called “Beyond Silence,” brought together more than 150 Bay Area rabbis, cantors, temple administrators, educators and Jewish agency executives for a day of educational workshops about how to recognize and prevent childhood sexual abuse.

Conference participants created prayer flags with healing messages.

“Every one of you here are agents for change and light,” Ezray told the group during the opening plenary session. “Every one of you here has courage and strength to be the difference.”

Underlining the importance of the dialogue, Santa Clara District Attorney Jeff Rosen and San Mateo Police Chief Susan Manheimer, both Jewish, attended and spoke at the conference.

“We read in Deuteronomy, ‘Justice, justice shall you pursue,’” said Rosen, who spent five years exclusively prosecuting child sexual abuse and rape cases as an assistant DA. “Child sexual abuse doesn’t get taken care of unless it’s pursued by a community.”

The conference was the first time the local Jewish community had come together to talk openly about child sexual abuse, said Tucker, who sees parallels to attitudes she encountered when she began organizing around the topic of domestic abuse in the Jewish community 23 years ago. One of her major obstacles then was convincing people that domestic violence was a Jewish problem.

“Congregations and clergy said, ‘Abuse? That doesn’t happen here,’ ” Tucker said. Now, the Jewish community is undergoing a similar evolution in its understanding of child sexual abuse, she said. “I’m so thrilled to see this tremendous leadership move in our community today.”

In the United States, about one in every three to four girls and one in every six to eight boys will be sexually abused before they turn 18, the majority of them — 90 percent — by someone their family knows and trusts, according to Miriam Wolf, a licensed clinical social worker and director of forensic interviewing for San Mateo County, who gave the day’s keynote address. The rates are similar in the Jewish community, experts agree.

Rabbi Nathaniel Ezray

The Beyond Silence coalition came together two years ago following a cover story in J. that revealed a terrible secret about a much-loved figure in the Bay Area Jewish community (“Former Bay Area Jewish leader accused of molesting boys in ’60s and ’70s,” Oct. 24, 2013).

As detailed in the article, Sheldon Mitchell, who died in 1980, was the founder of Camp Arazim, a Northern California Conservative summer camp (now closed). He also co-founded the regional arm of the United Synagogue Youth program. In 2013, his son, Tom Mitchell, posted on a Facebook page for Camp Arazim alumni that the elder Mitchell had molested him and other boys repeatedly over the years, using his position as a trusted youth leader to gain access into their lives. Several other victims came forward and confirmed the allegations anonymously to J.

Tom Mitchell, now 57, addressed last month’s conference by video, saying, “No kids or adults spoke out” about the abuse. He claims that camp officials learned of the abuse at the time, which led to his father abruptly leaving his position as administrative director in the summer of 1976. But they didn’t report it to authorities or to the children’s parents, according to Mitchell.

“I assume that the adults who knew didn’t know what to say or who to tell and that they swept it under the rug,” he told J. shortly after the conference.

Shalom Bayit director Naomi Tucker

It’s that culture of silence that Mitchell hoped to change by telling his story. He told J. that he believes the most important ways adults in the Jewish community can help fight child sexual abuse are by reporting it immediately when they learn of the abuse and focusing on bringing help to the victims.

“It’s my belief that childhood sexual abuse will never stop. I’d like to see more people learn how to provide help and support to the child victim as soon as possible,” said Mitchell in the video, adding that he never got help for the years of abuse he suffered starting at age 11 or 12. That contributed to ongoing problems in his life, he said, including using drugs, dropping out of school, developing an eating disorder and falling into bankruptcy.

“I was objectified and dehumanized. I didn’t receive the support or tools needed. I learned to disassociate and lost my identity,” he said.

The Beyond Silence campaign initiated by Mitchell’s story was an attempt to respond to the incident and bring the attention of the Jewish community and Jewish leaders to the issue of childhood sexual abuse. It started with an ad campaign in J. meant to convey that the Jewish community was paying attention to and cared about the issue.

Santa Clara DA Jeff Rosen

Ezray, who knew the Mitchell family when he was growing up in Sacramento, was shocked by the disclosure and felt firmly that a strong response was necessary from the clergy. He took a leading role in organizing the Beyond Silence conference and wrote a February 2014  op-ed in J. to accompany the first Beyond Silence ad, signed by 130 local rabbis.

“I think that [clergy] are the voices of Jewish values, especially when it comes to issues where people are afraid to talk,” Ezray said. “When I read of Tom’s story, when I heard of his pain and had that terrible awareness that I probably know many who suffered at the hands of his pedophile father, I knew I had to do whatever I could do.”

To the Jewish professionals who convened at the November conference, the message was clear. Because they interact frequently with children, they have the opportunity to play a crucial role in combating child sexual abuse at every level: by preventing it within their institutions, by recognizing it and reporting it when they see warning signs, and by helping children, families and communities to heal when it has occurred. Yet, due in part to a lack of communication about the issue, consistent protections are not in place across Jewish institutions, and at some the existing policies are insufficient, according to Tucker.

No comprehensive survey has been done about how Bay Area Jewish institutions handle child sexual abuse, and it’s rare to find a Jewish leader who would admit their community’s policies don’t measure up.

Still, said Tucker, “you have many, many synagogues that are connected to children’s programs, religious schools and preschools that don’t have a clear protocol in place.”

Most Jewish organizations do a good job with one aspect of the issue, which is reporting signs of child sexual abuse to child welfare officials. People who work professionally with children, such as teachers and day care providers, are legally required to report abuse when they suspect it, and generally, Bay Area Jewish organizations that serve children and families train their staff well on that point, Tucker said.

Tom Mitchell addresses the conference via video. photo/courtesy tom mitchell

But for some organizations, that’s as far as it goes. And it’s not enough, Tucker said. A good child sexual abuse policy “has to flow through every aspect of the organization.”

On the prevention side, that means careful screening during the hiring process and having guidelines in place regarding appropriate interactions between staff and children. Those guidelines should be thoughtful and tailored to the mission of the organization, according to Jenny Pearlman, the San Francisco Child Abuse Prevention Center’s senior program manager for community education.

For instance, Pearlman doesn’t recommend that organizations implement blanket “no-touch” policies between staff and children. “If you’re a mentoring organization, a Boys & Girls Club, that doesn’t work,” Pearlman said in a Beyond Silence workshop about prevention. “That was the old policy.”

Instead, Pearlman recommends defining appropriate and inappropriate touch: nurturing touch or touching while playing sports is appropriate; punishing or sexual touch is not.

Some Jewish camps and schools engage children in dialogue about staying safe and establishing healthy relationships. Because their work is focused directly on children, they have often given more thought to these issues than synagogues, which serve many different populations, experts say.

Conference participants gather in a closing circle after a day of workshops.

Camp Tawonga, a Jewish summer camp near Yosemite National Park, has robust abuse protection policies in place meant to help staff understand how to interact with campers in a healthy way and to raise red flags when something doesn’t seem right. Jamie Simon-Harris, Tawonga’s camp director, said at the Beyond Silence conference that the camp’s hiring process is meant to carefully screen applicants through the interview and training process. Campers are taught the mantra, “If you see something, say something.” Every year, Simon-Harris said, she receives multiple reports of familial abuse from campers who have heard something from a friend.

“It’s kind of the anti-narc,” she said.

Though it may not be possible to end child sexual abuse, it is possible to help children by intervening quickly and helping them heal emotionally, said Wolf. Research shows that the kind of response children get when they tell trusted adults that they have been abused affects how they understand the abuse, as well as how quickly and effectively they can overcome its effects.

When they feel believed and are made to understand the abuse was not their fault, children show more positive outcomes, even when they have endured terrible trauma. In this way, Jewish traditions and teachings and the support of trusted mentors and relatives can offer a framework for helping abused children, according to Tucker.

Beyond Silence attendees work at an art table.

“When a leader of your synagogue or your school acknowledges to a survivor or to their family that they believe you, that carries a lot of weight,” Tucker said.

“It’s a Jewish responsibility to provide a safe and nurturing space for kids. We also have millennia of spiritual tools to help people recover from trauma,” said Rabbi Mike Rothbaum, director of education for Berkeley’s Congregation Beth El, who attended the conference with four other staff members. “[This conference] encouraged me to talk to my other colleagues at Beth El and make sure we had a clear and consistent set of policies about this.”

In this way, synagogues arguably have a unique role to play in helping victims and, more controversially, helping perpetrators of abuse to heal. Many participants at the Beyond Silence conference spoke of teshuvah, or repentance.

“At the end of the day, what this community may understand, more than others that I speak to, is that the issue of child sexual abuse is one in which hurt people hurt people,” said Manheimer, the San Mateo police chief, referring to the fact that many abusers were victims themselves as children.

“This is an area where clergy can also be of huge impact dealing with perpetrators and really talking about concepts of teshuvah and accountability and knowing what it takes to change behavior, knowing that that’s a really hard thing to do,” Ezray said.

Last month’s conference was just the beginning, organizers said. Participants suggested a number of further ideas, including creating a central resource to help Bay Area Jewish agencies share their policies with others and formulating best practices for different types of institutions. Tucker said the Beyond Silence coalition will meet again within the next two months to discuss next steps.

“What is clear is there’s already more awareness than there was” before the conference, Tucker said. “We also know it’s happening, and staffers are talking about it and they’re hungry for information.”

For information, see www.norcalrabbis.org/beyond-silence.

Drew Himmelstein
Drew Himmelstein

Drew Himmelstein is a former J. reporter who writes about education, families and Jewish life. She lives with her husband and two sons.