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What, Indeed, Was Manis Friedman Thinking?

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The Internet has buzzed for the past few days over a video of Rabbi Manis Friedman discussing his thoughts about sexual abuse and how it should be handled. His remarks were reprehensibly callous and chillingly dismissive -- especially to those still struggling with an aftermath of depression, fear, feelings of worthlessness and sometimes even suicide, as well as mourning the loss of a precious and fundamental part of their psyches and souls. One would never tell someone sitting shiva (mourning) to "just get over it."

Yes, it does get better, and survivors can overcome and thrive, particularly with understanding and appropriate support. It cannot get better however if one does not recognize how bad it is in the first place. Insistence that there is no real problem to begin with only compounds the difficulty. As a survivor of chronic, violent sexual abuse, I found Rabbi Friedman's statements ill informed, insensitive and deeply offensive, shunting the formidable struggles of survivors of such deeply damaging crimes.

Since first opening up about the abuse I experienced, I have reached out to many different rabbis longing for support and guidance in dealing with the haunting repercussions of being systematically abused and molested from the ages of 6 to 10. The vast majority of the rabbis, in whom I had place my fragile trust and hope, expressed insensitive, dismissive attitudes similar to Rabbi Friedman's. At the time, even some of my family, not realizing the extent of the harm caused by this trauma, displayed attitudes like Rabbi's Friedman's: "Zei a menstch (be a decent human being)"; "get over it." Such exhortations would suggest that those still struggling to overcome abuse are defective or unwilling to move on as a decent human being would -- that those struggling are not only defective but only have themselves to blame for not "moving on."

Many contend that Rabbi Friedman's intended message was that abuse cannot touch the deepest part of person and one is not inherently ruined but can overcome victimhood and still achieve great things. However, the potentially inspiring sentiments are contradicted by the inescapable indictment of those still struggling and his chuckling amusement and glibly insensitive remarks. He compared molestation to diarrhea -- a trivial "embarrassment." Instead of offering hope and reassurance to survivors that they are nonetheless worthwhile and capable, Rabbi Friedman trivializes the extremely difficult challenges faced by survivors and the exacting effects of sexual abuse, ultimately castigating those struggling as embarrassing, defective derelicts. Some are attempting shift the focus to what Rabbi Friedman may have intended, but we have been left with only his words, which are damaging.

Rabbi Blau, the spiritual advisor at Yeshiva University expressed that "it is shocking that anyone in today's world doesn't understand the trauma experienced by someone who had been abused. The greatest rabbanim in Israel starting with R' Elyashiv OBM have said that, if we know that a child was abused, you must go to the authorities. That is not a question. There is such a literature about the effect of abuse on people's bodies that it's just shocking that someone of any stature can dismiss it and make such absurd comparisons."

I have always held Rabbi Friedman in high regard. I believe his teachings and words have often been thought provoking, moving and inspiring; he has done many great things and helped countless people. However, Rabbi Friedman's remarks in this instance betray a long-standing, serious problem within Orthodox communities: minimization sexual abuse and insensitive, dismissive treatment of survivors. This problem must be addressed, but there are some would would prefer it continued to be overlooked.

One of Friedman's sons contacted me to asked that I remove a link to the video from my Facebook page, and the original video had been removed from youtube without explanation. A second video and an article entitled "What was Manis Friedman Thinking" appeared yesterday, seeming to promise clarification on the first. However, the first video was not acknowledged and parts of it appeared to be contradicted by the second. For example, Rabbi Friedman said in the first video that "sometimes, psychologists can cause more damage than good." In the follow up, he emphasizes the importance of psychologists in counseling abuse survivors and their role in helping survivors heal and overcome their trauma. While Rabbi Friedman clearly states in the second video that rabbis cannot replace police or therapists, those specially trained and experienced in assessing and addressing such matters, he insists on the importance of the rabbi, whose nebulous role is not clarified. Given Agudath Israel of America, the umbrella organization for Orthodoxy in the Unites States, directing adherents not to report sexual abuse to the authorities without the permission of a rabbi, and Rabbi Friedman's overall message regarding authority is ambiguous if not equivocal. The ambiguity and contradictions only raise the question of what Manis Friedman was thinking.

Indeed, there seems to be a general lack of clear answers and leadership within the Chabad community on such issues. A townhall meeting was held in Crown heights last Spring in which Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes and prominent survivor advocates spoke about the communal responsibility in dealing effectively with the grave matter of sexual abuse that has affected so many members of our community. School officials, religious leaders and public figures, such as Rabbi Manis Friedman, were noticeably absent. A source close to the event organizers stated that a Crown Heights school dean indicated he would not attend because "the issue isn't important enough," and "they didn't want to highlight this issue in public." Attitudes such as these have long played a role in the silencing survivors and sweeping sexual abuse under the rug.

With two fellow survivors, I spoke with a local Chabad school teacher regarding Rabbi Friedman's remarks and the problem of sexual abuse within Orthodox communities more generally. I asked this rabbi what he thought was the appropriate course of action when students disclose that they have been sexualy abused; I questioned specifically whether he believed such cases should be taken to the authorities without the first requesting permission of a rabbi. His response was an unequivocal "no." He explained that, as Jews, we must handle such matters the Jewish way, and force alleged perpetrators before a beis din (religious court); only if the perpetrator does not comply with the beis din, should the case be reported to authorities. I have known this teacher for most of my life as a kind and thoughtful man who has always exuded a very positive and uplifting energy. I trust that this teacher, Rabbi Friedman and many other leaders act with conviction and the best of intentions but nonetheless do not have a clue how to adequately handle sexual abuse -- without either the appropriate training in addressing sexual abuse or the power to prevent further abuse without the involvement and guidance of the appropriate authorities. This lack is all the more alarming given both Rabbi Friedman and the local teacher's decades of experience and being mandated reporters.

Manny Waks, a heroic whistleblower and inspirational survivors advocate who had been abused in an Australian Chabad school, lamented the damage done by the "ignorant and offensive" remarks of Rabbi Friedman, a prominent rabbi and global leader, to the entire Jewish community and in perpetuating negative perceptions of the ultra-Orthodox in particular, but

"most concerning, he is having a direct, damaging impact on victims and survivors of child sexual abuse and their families. Some of those who have not yet addressed their abuse will think twice before taking any measures to obtain justice and to alleviate their pain and suffering. And some of those who already have taken measures will be self-critical. I can only hope and pray that this scandal does not cause victims additional trauma, potentially leading to extreme consequences."

Waks had been subjected to such dismissive and shocking treatment, as have many others.

Rabbi Friedman's remarks are a public statement of the status quo within Orthodox communities -- dismissive treatment of survivors of sexual abuse, minimization of sexual abuse and a general failure to address the matter. Paradoxically and despite efforts otherwise, Rabbi Friedman's insensitivity has inspired more discussion of the once taboo subject of sexual abuse, highlighting the utter ineffectiveness of many community leaders in addressing the problem. Two rabbis serving on the extremely divided Crown Heights beis din, Yosef Braun and Yaakov Schwei, had issued a halachic ruling that cases of abuse must be reported to authorities. A civil rights and social justice advocate, Eli Federman has been tracking sexual abuse cases and reports that, within five months of Braun and Schwei's ruling, more arrests were made than in the previous 20 years. This result illustrates the great power and effectiveness that leaders can have when they take an unequivocal stand for justice.

The current contradictions and ambiguity beg questions. It is time for community members to demand answers, support survivors and insist, as have Rabbis Braun and Schwei, that abuse be reported.