By Rachel Tuchman
I know I am not alone in feeling shock, sadness, anger, and confusion regarding the recent news about Chaim Walder. I have so many questions and find it hard to sort them out. How does something like this happen? I have not been able to stop thinking about my disappointment with the behavior and responses from many community leaders, and I even find myself feeling a bit jaded about the Jewish community as whole. Will we ever learn? Why does it seem like it is so hard to stand with victims of abuse? Why are we even talking about lashon ha’ra (evil speech, gossip, slander) and benefit of the doubt when it comes to child safety? I’ve also seen some essays with “prevention” suggestions that seem totally off and lacking in understanding of what puts someone at risk for being victimized. What are the responses we should have as a community when we hear these things, and what can we do to protect our children?
Seeking Solace and Guidance
Dear Seeking Solace,
The Chaim Walder saga has been a watershed moment in the Jewish community and more specifically the chareidi community. I have seen activism from their community that is breathtaking and inspiring. In fact, a viral tweet shared that a group of chareidi women, with the help of the advocacy group Chochmat Nashim, printed and distributed 350,000 fliers to every chareidi household across 20 neighborhoods in Israel with the message: “We support and listen to victims. We believe them.” There have been many amazing op-eds, statements, articles, discussions, and shiurim that have addressed this situation and have taken a strong stance demonstrating staunch support for victims of sexual abuse and clarifying the importance of believing them and taking the proper steps to address reports of abuse in the Jewish community.
That being said, I want to acknowledge that there were also the many, many misguided and harmful “statements” and actions we read and witnessed from individuals with great visibility and profound influence. These statements were incredibly insensitive and, in some cases, outright traumatic for many vulnerable people. It can be devastating to see people we respect and admire acting in ways that don’t align with who we believed them to be. This is a good reminder of why it can be dangerous to put any human on a pedestal. Organizational psychologist Adam Grant says that picking someone as your role model in life can set unrealistic expectations which will ultimately lead to disappointment. “Eventually, you’ll learn they don’t belong on a pedestal.” Alternatively, he says “It’s better to admire people for specific strengths. It reminds you they have weaknesses, too. Knowing they have vices puts their virtues in reach.”
It makes sense that you feel jaded if you wholeheartedly believe that rabbinic leaders, educators, and community leaders will always do what is right. The reality, though, is that they are human and flawed just like us. It is healthier to look at the specific skills and values they exemplify and remember that heroes are only human.
I have many theories as to why it is hard for some individuals to stand with victims of abuse, but I think the simplest (and least controversial) to tackle here is the concept of “cognitive dissonance.” Cognitive dissonance is the mental discomfort that results from holding two conflicting beliefs, values, or attitudes. Humans tend to find comfort in consistency, so this conflict of attitudes or perceptions can feel scary and uncomfortable. This discomfort and fear then motivates people to engage in all kinds of behavior to avoid accepting this reality. They will reject, excuse, minimize, rationalize, deny, or avoid any information that challenges their previously held belief. Psychologist Leon Festinger first proposed this theory of cognitive dissonance in the 1950s. He suggested that people have a strong inner need to ensure that their beliefs and behaviors are consistent. This provides a sense of safety in the world.
These past two years have shown us how destabilizing uncertainty can be and how humans will go to great lengths to try to establish a sense of stability. Cognitive dissonance is especially hard when it affects how we see ourselves. When it threatens our belief that we are kind, smart, moral, and ethical, we begin to justify and find reasons to dismiss the alternative. This makes sense when as Torah Jews we want to believe that we are less susceptible to the “evils” of the world because we have the guidance and “protection” of religion, but this is naive and misguided. Religious observance is not a cure for the ills of humanity. Instead, acknowledging that nothing in this world is black-and-white, reducing binary thinking, embracing nuance, and, in this case, understanding the complexity of humans are all important. Also, taking Adam Grant’s advice of focusing less on individuals and more on specific virtues you admire can be helpful in reducing this dissonance.
While it is very important in our day-to-day lives to be very careful not to speak lashon ha’ra and to give people the benefit of the doubt, these ideas have no place in the discussion of listening to and believing victims of sexual abuse. Sharing information that is relevant to the safety and well-being of a community and its children is not something that we should be questioning.
There were some messages that I saw and heard in (mostly) well-meaning articles or talks that I strongly feel need immediate clarification:
Sexual abuse is not a result of not being careful with talking to boys or girls or being alone with the opposite gender. This assertion ignores that there is such a thing as same-sex abuse as well as abuse that happens in the presence of others. It also suggests that sexual abuse is about hormones rather than power, entitlement, and control.
Calling abusers “not normal” or “crazy” is not helpful. Approximately 90% of sexual abuse is committed by someone who is known to the victim. They don’t appear “not normal” or “crazy” to the victims. They are often loved and trusted by many.
Religious observance does not automatically make you a good person and it does not protect you from doing terrible things. We have all known or heard stories of “pious” people who were doing awful things. Sometimes religion and piety are used to enable, mask, or cover up corrupt or evil behavior.
Victims should know that no matter what and no matter who, they will always be believed. Our kids need to hear this, too. The minute you start talking about how you don’t want to believe an allegation about “X,” you may be shutting down your child from disclosing any harm done to them in the future. What they hear you saying is that you won’t believe them. They may also become afraid of destroying your friendship or relationship with the perpetrator and “ruining” things. Kids need to know we will always prioritize their health and safety over any relationship.
Religious courts are important in our communities, but in the United States they do not have legal jurisdiction and as such they are not the appropriate avenues for dealing with predators. Please go to the police. Organizations like ZAAKAH and Amudim can offer more guidance and support on how to go about this.
False allegations of sexual abuse are extremely rare. Remember that just because it was not proven in court does not mean it didn’t happen. Also, having one accuser versus a group of accusers doesn’t make the accusations more or less true. One victim is enough. One victim is too many.
It is not your fault if the family of the abuser suffers. It is not your responsibility to worry for the well-being of the family of a sexual abuser. The family of the abuser is collateral damage from the abuser’s actions, and while we can have empathy for their pain, we should not feel responsibility. Anyone creating a narrative of guilt or shame in order to silence victims is causing harm.
Talking about these issues does not cause a chillul Hashem; rather, as Rabbi Mark Dratch of the RCA stated in a recent talk, it is not talking about and seeking to prevent these issues that is the chillul Hashem. I’ll never forget when my friend and colleague (and fellow columnist here) Elisheva Liss, LMFT, brilliantly said: “For many communities, our zealousness in not wanting to darshan arayos b’farhesya is promoting the worse kind of arayos b’seser.” (Elisheva Liss currently offers a comprehensive online course to guide parents in fostering healthy attitudes towards sex and sexuality called “Sacred Not Secret.”)
It is the job of parents (not schools, as I’ve seen proposed) to teach kids about healthy sexuality, boundaries, and consent and safety. Naming body parts with their anatomically correct terms, talking to kids about how their bodies work, discussing safe and unsafe touch, secrets vs. surprises, teaching them to listen to their internal cues for hunger and fullness, honoring their friendship preferences, discussing and modelling internet safety and digital citizenship, fostering an open, honest, and non-judgmental relationship where they feel comfortable to come to you with questions and issues and reminding them that no matter what happens they can come to you if they are ever hurt are just a few of the ways we protect our kids. Schools and camps should work to model, support, reinforce, and uphold these values and lessons.
In the next couple of weeks, I will be releasing an online course that will help give parents and educators the tools and the words to have these sensitive conversations with the children in their lives. This course can be also helpful and healing to someone who did not grow up in a home where healthy attitudes were taught and modeled. Be sure to visit my website to sign up when it becomes available. It is crucial that I also point out that we should not only be discussing sexuality in the context of sexual-abuse prevention because this will only teach kids that sexuality is scary and harmful. This is one tiny piece of the conversation that focuses on prevention. There is so much more to discuss and for so many more reasons (that is a whole separate article, though).
It is my hope that this awful experience is not in vain. I am hopeful that the awareness, activism, conversations, and willingness to learn and take a new approach will create lasting change that will keep our children and communities safer for many years to come.
Rachel Tuchman, LMHC, is a licensed therapist in private practice. She not only treats a variety of mental-health concerns but also shares psychoeducation via her social media platform, public speaking, and online courses. You can learn more about Rachel’s work at RachelTuchman.com and follow her on Instagram @rachel_tuchman_lmhc.