Book of the Week: Michael Lesher, Sexual Abuse, Shonda and Concealment in Orthodox Jewish Communities

shonda.coverWhy does anyone write a book about child sex abuse? More to the point, why does anyone, a religious Jew in particular, write a book about how respected rabbis – the leaders of one’s own religious community – have concealed crimes against children and protected their abusers?

I suppose the best way to answer the question is to reverse it – to ask, instead: How could I not write the book?

After all, I’m not just anyone. I’m a writer. I’m a lawyer. I’m an Orthodox Jew. And, most important, I’ve been wrestling with the unacknowledged dimensions of the sex abuse issue in my religious community since 1995 – when I first learned of a young girl forced from her mother’s home nine years earlier, and into the custody of a father she had accused of molesting her, so that Orthodox rabbis could go on claiming that child sex abuse doesn’t happen among “our people.” I don’t list these facts as “credentials”; they are the underpinnings of personal responsibility. I hope one day to see all abuse victims, including those in my community, transcend their tragic pasts. But if I, with my unique qualifications to expose the causes of their suffering, had decided to keep on writing poems and short stories while their tales went untold, how could I ever look them in the eye?

Let me give an example of what I mean. In 1998, I began what was to be a fourteen-year quest to uncover the truth about the abandonment of the prosecution of Rabbi Avrohom Mondrowitz, the alleged perpetrator of what is perhaps the worst case of serial child sex abuse in New York history. Year by year, as my legal and journalistic campaign unfolded, I met and spoke with many young men who described themselves as Mondrowitz’s victims. I heard their suffering. I tasted their sense of isolation and betrayal. If I had given up on the case before learning, and revealing, all I could about its shameful cover-up, wouldn’t I have been betraying them too?

That is why writing this book felt, to me, like the fulfillment of a promise. You can’t demand that victims of abuse expose their most intimate and wrenching secrets and then, when it’s your turn, go less than all the way in trying to reveal the evils they face, not just from the sex abusers themselves (those predators inevitably scattered throughout the community) but from the religious leaders who ought to be protecting children and who, instead, are adding to their victimization. If you want honesty from others, painful as it is, you have to be honest yourself – even when it’s uncomfortable.

I offer this as a rationale for writing the book, but it is also meant to underscore what the book is not. I did not write it to settle scores with anyone, nor to pick quarrels with rabbinic leadership. I have no taste for religious controversy per se. What I have written is what I believed had to be written. I could not be silent about cover-ups of crimes in my community without becoming part of the cover-ups myself. And, arrogant as it may sound, I didn’t know of anyone else who could pick up the subject if I let it drop.

Someone had to show that child abuse victims in Orthodox Jewish communities are not alone, that they do not represent exceptions or aberrations – that what they suffer is symptomatic of deeply rooted patterns in the religious institutions they share with each other, and with me. Someone had to examine what such patterns reveal about the religious community’s real attitudes toward its children – and to suggest how those attitudes might be changed. I’m sure a better person could have done a better job. But a better person wasn’t available: I was the one who happened to be at the right time and place, who had the knowledge and the tools to try my hand at what needed to be done. How could I refuse?

One other point seems worthwhile here. During the years it took to write the book, I sometimes wondered whether other problems facing the world deserved attention more urgently than the subject I had chosen. After all, global warming or nuclear war, to name just two threats, could spell the end of human civilization. Why concentrate on cover-ups of child sex abuse within one religious group, even if that group happens to be mine?

But it seems to me that if we’re to have any hope at all of solving the problems that overshadow our future, that hope will have to rest on our children. After all, they will be the adults of tomorrow, as will their children after them. If we don’t protect our children now, while we have the chance, who will be there for the rest of humanity when we’re gone? Every young life we allow to be poisoned means the loss of one more hope for the world’s survival. So anything that leads a culture, religious or otherwise, to build a more humane environment for its children is a critical step in the right direction. And for a writer, that seems reason enough to devote oneself to a book like this one.