One of my teachers in Hebrew High School was Phil Jacobs, who was then the editor of The Baltimore Jewish Times. Throughout his tenure as a journalist in Atlanta, Baltimore, and Washington DC, Jacobs made it his cause celebre to courageously report about systematic examples of sexual and physical abuse in the Jewish community, even producing a documentary entitled Standing Silent, which he chronicled the communal tensions he experienced when attempting to expose examples where Jewish educators and rabbis were shielded from prosecution for sexual or physical abuse by the members of the Jewish community. While taking this difficult stand was obviously challenging for my teacher, ultimately it was the right thing, the Jewish thing, to do, because the consequences of shielding abuse is far greater than the potential embarrassment of the Jewish community having to admit that we face similar challenges to the rest of society.
As a result, I was delighted to read Mark Oppenheimer’s piece in The New York Times this past weekend entitled No Religious Exemptions When It Comes to Abuse. In this article, Oppenheimer chronicles how religious communities have struggled to come to terms with moments where their own clergy were perpetrators of these horrible crimes, specifically citing the work of Phil Jacobs as an upstander, rather than a bystander, to standing up for the rights of victims of abuse. To quote Jacobs in the article:
- “When I started in 1982, there was an 11th commandment — ‘Thou shalt not air thy dirty laundry’…When I started calling people, they said, ‘You’re not going to put this in the paper, are you?’ So I found out Jews didn’t get AIDS, didn’t get divorced, didn’t abuse their wives or children.”
What I loved about this insightful quote from Jacobs is that he recognizes the hesitation on the part of faith communities to acknowledge the existence of universal societal challenges within those communities, for fear of how the community might be perceived. Reading this article, Jacobs’ quote also reminded that the Jewish community’s task in addressing abuse is simple: We must be transparent about examples of abuse, and recognize that the Jewish community’s uniqueness cannot be found in the absence of these societal ills, for these ills exist everywhere, but rather we can find the Jewish community’s uniqueness if and only if we use Judaism to take a community on a pathway to healing in moments of communal pain. May we not shy away from seeing these ills in our midst, and strive to bring healing to those victims who are asking our community to see their pain, and help walk with victims on a pathway towards healing.