Brave doc tells how religious community covers up abuse

Doreen Wachmann talks to an observant psychologist who lifts the lid on a previously taboo subject of abuse in the Orthodox world

MUCH has been written about abuse in the Catholic Church but less about that committed by Orthodox Jews and covered up by the religious establishment.

One man who has been brave enough to raise the lid on the Orthodox community's tendency to protect the perpetrators of abuse rather than the victims is New York psychologist Dr Michael Salamon.

His courageous comments are made in his recently published book Abuse in the Jewish Community - Religious and Communal Factors that Undermine the Apprehension of Offenders and the Treatment of Victims (published by Urim).

Revelations about abuse in the Catholic Church led to a torrent of abuse against the Church with many objecting to the Pope's visit to Britain because of the issue.

But Dr Salamon, an Orthodox Jew, claims he is not a "charedi basher".

He says: "I was born into a religious family. I grew up going to yeshiva."

When asked whether he would describe himself as charedi, he said: "I hate religious labels. When I was growing up there were no distinctions. I still believe there should be no distinction.

"I guess people would refer to me as modern Orthodox. I and all my family went to very prestigious yeshivot. My wife Naomi also attended the Orthodox school system."

Dr Salamon became interested in the subject of abuse in the Jewish community early in his career as a psychologist.

Cases of abuse in the Jewish community were referred to him 30 years ago when he was the only Orthodox person working in a clinic on research for the National Institute of Mental Health.

In one case a young woman in her late teens was abused by a close relative. But her family refused to believe it was true.

Dr Salamon said: "They could not accept the reality. She was left feeling rejected and dejected."

Five years later he was involved in a domestic abuse shelter for women that catered for religious Jewish women. More recently, in his New York practice, Dr Salamon has dealt with around 125 abuse cases within the Orthodox community.

His decision to raise his head above the parapet and speak out publicly on such a contentious issue began with the book he wrote three years ago, entitled The Shidduch Crisis.

That book, critical of the charedi system of micromanaging arranged marriages, was inspired by what was happening to Dr Salamon's own children who were reaching marriageable ages.

He recounts: "My nephew in Florida was getting married. As my daughter was off from college she wanted to help her aunt and uncle get ready for the wedding.

"When she was getting on the plane she was standing next to this lovely young man who was wearing a kippa and tsitsit, like the kind of person she would normally speak with.

"They got a conversation going and they ended up getting married.

"But a week before the wedding a local shadchan calls up and said there's a problem. I asked what it was, whether there was anything wrong with the boy or his family.

"She said there was not but she added, 'This is not the way we do it. This is not the way they're supposed to meet'. The stupidity of the situation pushed me to the point that I was hearing too many stories from too many people.

"I wanted to do some research."

He discovered that "people were being forced together who were not necessarily appropriate for each other, they didn't have enough time to meet one another because they were pressured".

Dr Salamon said: "The problem is that you have to go through a system which is very restrictive, which does not allow people to meet whatever way they want to meet.

"But if you ask the rabbis who teach these children, most of them met their wives at a library or at school or walking in the street."

Dr Salamon met his wife when she was a helper and he a counsellor in a summer camp. They started dating five years later.

The psychologist feels that the sometimes crude method of pressurising youngsters into quick marriage decisions has led to a huge increase in divorce in the religious community.

He said: "The crisis is that the divorce rate is much higher than it's ever been in the Orthodox world.

"Our research indicates that the divorce rate could be as high as 30 per cent."

Dr Salamon discovered that "a lot of the problems we're seeing in these marriages relate to domestic violence".

"They sort of know they're violent yet they're trying to force them into marriage," he said.

He gave the following example of what was a too common pattern: "A young woman had been going out for a month or two with her husband-to-be when on a major Brooklyn highway, someone cuts up her fiancé in his car.

"He jumps out of his vehicle, goes to his boot, pulls out a baseball bat and he breaks the offender's car. He jumps back into his own car and drives away. The girl is frightened. They're engaged. They have the wedding date.

"She calls her father. They call his rabbi and the shadchan, who say, 'It's out the norm, it's not who he is, don't worry about it'.

"They are married for a few months and everything is smooth. Suddenly, she does something he's angry about and he starts punching her."

Dr Salamon blames her parents for not having protected their daughter, instead of listening to the shadchan and the rabbi.

He added: "After the shidduch book was finished, I kept thinking about cases I was seeing,

"I went to my records. For the last several years there were at least 125 cases of abuse I was treating in the Orthodox world."

Although Dr Salamon says he has received hate mail since the publication of his latest book, most of the response has been positive.

He has even been invited to speak in England where he has been told a similar situation exists.

© 2012 Jewish Telegraph