When my sister and I were growing up in the Haredi community, we were abused by a rabbi. Between the ages of six and 11, this man — a member of our close family — physically abused me, and sexually abused my younger sister.
* C4's Jewish abuse documentary didn't tell the whole story
* Orthodox Jewish community, Joe Byrne feels cheated by a recent C4 documentary.
When Dispatches: Britain’s Hidden Child Abuse aired at the end of last month on Channel 4, I watched it with interest. The programme had been widely advertised. Its central revelation was to be that British orthodox rabbis were forbidding their followers to report child abuse to the police. As a member of the orthodox community who suffered abuse as a child, I knew how important this was.
The documentary began, and it soon became apparent that Jackie Long, the presenter, hadn’t learnt how to pronounce correctly the word Haredi (meaning the Ultra Orthodox Jewish community). She made it sound like “Harrods”, when it should be pronounced “Cha-rei-dee”, with a strong stress on the middle syllable. Would it have been so difficult, I thought, to ask one of the Jews in the programme for a few pronunciation tips?
A few minutes later, she called one of her principle interviewees “Ephrom” when his name was actually “Eph-ruy-im”. She later showed an important document, written in Hebrew, to the camera. She was holding it upside down.
These errors seemed minor at first, but they indicated a more serious problem. The Dispatches team had clearly been slapdash in their research, and did not seem concerned with creating an accurate portrayal. Sadly, this impression was confirmed in the substance of the documentary.
When my sister and I were growing up in the Haredi community, we were abused by a rabbi. Between the ages of six and 11, this man — a member of our close family — physically abused me, and sexually abused my younger sister. The matter eventually came into the open, and it caused a split in the community. Many people made it clear, in no uncertain terms, that the authorities should not be involved. But there was another group that supported our right to report our abuser to the police. We did so, and the man went to prison for a number of years.
The abuser in question – let’s call him Rabbi A – was no drunken reprobate. His violence towards me was clinical and systematic, carried out in response to minor infringements such as failing to keep my room tidy enough. He would keep a detailed tally of my “crimes”, and look for an opportunity when he had me alone. Then he would secrete me away behind some bushes, in an upstairs room at the synagogue, or behind the garden shed, and administer the beatings with a leather belt or a length of garden hose. This happened to me weekly, sometimes daily.
Actually, I count myself lucky. Compared to the abuse which many children suffer, my own was not that bad. Certainly it was eclipsed by the treatment my sister received. I did not ever see him sexually abusing her, but looking back I can recognise the signs.
Rabbi A was deeply manipulative, and managed to ensure that neither my sister nor myself told my mother what was happening. So it all first came out at school. I went to a Haredi school and the headmaster – another rabbi – had a special concern for me. Noticing that something wasn’t right, he called me into his office one day and asked me about things at home. Without thinking, I began to let the whole story come tumbling out.
He told my mother immediately. She came into school that same day, and we had a meeting in the headmaster’s office. He told me that he had spoken harshly to Rabbi A on the phone, and had given him one last chance. I can still remember his words: “If he does it again, I’ll throw the book at him.”
I suppose he should have informed the police immediately. But he didn’t yet know about the sexual abuse, and things are always much clearer with the benefit of hindsight. As soon as Rabbi A had me alone, he hit me across the face and told me never to tell on him again. I didn’t reply; but deep down I knew his time had come. The following day I told my headmaster what had happened. True to his word, that was the last time I saw Rabbi A.
I have since pieced together what happened next. My mother and headmaster called the police, and they marched in to the synagogue to arrest Rabbi A. In a darkly comic moment, they seized the wrong rabbi and dragged him out in the middle of prayers. But eventually they got their man. The case went to court 18 months later, and I was cross-examined by an aggressive QC for two days. I was 11 years old, and broke down only once.
This period of our lives was the most stressful our family had ever experienced. While the court case was going on, my mother was targeted by a group of ultra-orthodox hardliners who despised us for having talked to the police. Somehow, she protected my sister and I from it at the time, and told me the details only recently. It was a campaign of intimidation. Her car was vandalised. Rubbish, including soiled nappies, was pushed through our letterbox. She was spat at in the street, and cursed for generations. Many kosher shops refused her service. She received threatening letters; even our solicitor – a Haredi man – was sent a note saying that if he continued to represent us, his house would be burned down and his children killed.
And most humiliating of all, letters appeared under the windscreen wipers of all the cars in the synagogue car park, stating my mother was mad and we were under her influence. The same letters were sent to our teachers, and to my mother’s employer. Reading this, you are probably wondering why I criticise the Channel 4 programme. The reason is simple. The intimidation was carried out only by a hardcore element of the Haredi community. Many others stood up to them, including my headmaster and our solicitor, both high-ranking rabbis and ordinary people. These people gave us emotional, practical and even financial support, and refused to be intimidated.
A group of senior rabbis even held meetings with those who attacked us, and argued with them, citing Talmudic sources, to suggest that going to the police was the right thing to do. I will always be grateful to these people for their courage and compassion. It was wrong of Dispatches to ignore them, and irresponsible to allow the hardline sects to characterise the entire Haredi community.
The orthodox Jewish community is not a monolithic entity. There are countless sects and sub-sects, and each has a slightly different set of values. Nobody can know the numbers for certain. Perhaps there are more hardliners than moderates; personally, I suspect it is vice versa.
Either way, I can assure you from my own experience that a great many within the orthodox community are appalled by the notion of keeping abuse under wraps. These are good people, and I believe Dispatches should have given them a voice.
Joe Byrne is a pseudonym
"Haredi" - Ultra-Orthodox Jew - One who trembles before God!" A new and frightening expression that surfaced in the 1980s.