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What's the Deal with These Protestors?
by Rabbi Yakov Horowitz

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Tuesday evening, a charming and sincere young man who is a survivor of childhood abuse shared with me that he had driven seven hours each way in order to attend a protest at the "Internet Asifa" in CitiField. He mentioned how gratifying it was and how pleased he was to have made the trip. This was the second rally recently organized by abuse victims - the first was held at a Williamsburg fundraiser for an individual who is under indictment for allegedly molesting a child over a period of 4 years.

These protests have elicited a wide range of emotions among members of our community along a continuum ranging from sorrow and sympathy to bewilderment and bemusement and even to hostility and anger.

Moreover, many members of our community have been asking those of us who are advocates for abuse survivors, "What's the deal with these protests? What exactly do they [the survivors] want?

Others are asking more basic questions, like, "Why can't they just move on with their lives?" or "Someone messed around with a friend of mine, and he got over it. Why can't they?"

Well, my friends, it will serve us well to better understand the survivors and what exactly it is they want. We ought to because this conversation is very long overdue. But in a practical sense, it is imperative that we do because in all likelihood these protests will grow and intensify in the weeks and months ahead. The survivors are finding their voices and they will only gain traction now that the national and even international media is covering the abuse matter as it relates to our community.

To begin with, one needs to really understand why abuse is so destructive to its victims. For that, a careful and thorough review of Abraham Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs might be a good place to start.

In a nutshell, Maslow divided all human needs into 5 groups and suggests that they are sequential in nature -- meaning that until all Level 1 needs are met, it is impossible to move on to Level 2 needs, and that Level 3 needs cannot be realized until Level 2 needs are met.

Here are the groups of needs as Maslow sees things:

  • Level 1 - [The Most] Basic Needs (such the need for food, water and shelter)
  • Level 2 - Safety and Security (the need to feel protected from danger)
  • Level 3 - Socialization (the need to bond with family and friends)
  • Level 4 - Self Esteem (the need to feel self-confident and respected)
  • Level 5 - Self Actualization (the need to "be all you can be.")

For a practical example of Maslow's theory in action; just imagine that your car breaks down on the wrong side of the tracks and you are fearful for your safety. Just then a childhood friend calls and says, "Hi, Yankie, I'm in town for the week. Can we get together and catch up on things?" However, much as you would love to enjoy the Level 3 need of socialization under regular conditions, your brain quite literally cannot even contemplate engaging in that pleasure when your life is in danger.

Child abuse destroys innocent children's lives in so many ways. But perhaps the most damaging component of all, is the fact that is that it totally destroys their Level 2 security -- without which it is quite literally impossible for them to rebuild their lives. How can they ever feel safe again after they were violated? Just imagine what it would be like having a childhood where you were living 24/7 like that fellow in the dangerous neighborhood who had a broken-down car noted above? And this is all the more damaging when it is perpetrated by a family member, friend, or educator whom the children were depending on to keep them safe. For if the adults in whose care they rely on are hurting them, who in the world can they ever fully trust again?

It is also important to note that just like people celebrate sports victories and/or losses in diverse manners, so too do they have different time frames in which they can successfully recover from the incredible trauma of childhood abuse.

All of this is exacerbated when the children come forward and are not believed, or worse yet punished or threatened for reporting their molester. It is quite literally a second round of abuse and it just reinforces their feeling of being rootless and wind-driven. In fact, so many victims report that they were more devastated by not being believed than they were from the original abuse.

Speaking of not believing the victim, research indicates that the overwhelming majority of children who come forward with abuse allegations were telling the truth. Think about it. Why would anyone in their right mind come forward with a claim of being abused if it didn't happen? (The exception to this rule is in messy custody battles where one party clearly stands to gain if the other is maligned.) All the more so in our community where there is unfortunately a stigma attached to those who do so and to their families. Going public and helping to get the perpetrator apprehended, in order to protect the lives of other innocent children, often comes at great personal cost to the survivors and their families.

About five years ago, as awareness in our community about the matter of child abuse began to rise, many of the long-suffering victims began to hope against hope that things would finally change. People would finally "get it" they believed, and they would once again feel welcome and nurtured instead of being treated as pariahs who ruined the sterling reputations of their abusers. Who knows, they might even get their Level 2 security back again.

Then they pick up a charedi publication one weekend and see a picture of a group of distinguished rabbis visiting a monster in a Virginia jail cell, who was serving a 31-year prison sentence for raping his daughter in three continents over a period of many years. More than 10 survivors contacted me as soon as that picture ran in the paper. "How could they do that to us?" they asked me. "Don't they know that by supporting the molestor they are stabbing us in the heart?" they cried. Well, they are. They really are.

And what in the world should survivors in our community think when they see a huge fundraiser for someone accused of molesting a child? Many of them viewed the very public nature of this effort as clear warning of what is in store in the future for anyone else who might dare report a predator to the authorities.

For many of the survivors, though, the final straw was the Internet Asifa. Why were they so upset? Let me count the ways for them.

To begin with, the kids in the street know the truth -- that the Internet is a firecracker compared to the atom bomb of abuse as far as going off the derech is concerned. Just ask any of them -- or any of the adults in our community who work with the at-risk teen population, what the main reason is for children leaving Yiddishkeit.

Moreover, many of these kids credit the connectivity of the Internet for finally raising awareness of abuse in our community, and as we all know, there is more than a kernel of truth there. "Why are the people running the Asifa blaming the Internet for causing children to go off the derech and saying nothing about the matter of child safety?" they wonder.

Bottom line, there are hundreds and hundreds of abuse victims and survivors who were once part of our kehilos. Some left completely while others exist on the fringes - misunderstood, marginalized, and hurting.

Trust me, the vast, overwhelming majority of them are nice kids who want neither vengeance nor revenge. They do, however, want to see that today's children don't suffer the way they did and they desperately want to see that things are changing as it relates to child safety.

Now that the lid has blown off, these young men and women, who had their innocent childhoods stolen from them, by vicious predators masquerading as upstanding members of the community, will have their voices heard and their stories told. We have two stark choices. We can reach out, engage them and really listen to what they have to say. Or we can continue to give them the back of our hands, and then we will hear their tortured messages through the front pages of the newspapers and under the glaring lights of television cameras.

Recommended reading:

L'maan Hashem - What Will It Take? Let's start protecting our children

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