By Todd Kadish
Originally published in Issue 2 of Apikorsus! magazine, July 2020
The frum community often fails to adequately support victims of Child Sexual Abuse. As awareness about it has grown, though, so has the Abuse Excuse: the claim that most people who leave Orthodoxy have been abused, and that the abuse is the primary reason that they left.
Child abuse, particularly sexual abuse, is a horrific crime; and there are serious problems in Orthodox communities around issues related to the sexual abuse of children. While I could easily write an entire article on the Orthodox community’s failures in confronting child sex abuse, this is not that article. This article is about a specific, related phenomenon involving the Orthodox Jewish community: a phenomenon that I am calling the “Abuse Excuse.” This is when Orthodox Jews claim that the primary reason people leave Orthodox Judaism is because they were abused. Often there is an explicit claim that the majority of OTD (“Off the Derech,” i.e., ex-Orthodox) Jews are child sex abuse survivors, a claim which is sometimes made with scorn towards the OTD community as a whole or even the alleged victims themselves.
There have been some positive developments in recent years as awareness has grown in some Christian and Jewish fundamentalist communities, and a few organizations have been created within those communities to combat the scourge of child sex abuse. But there is still a long way to go.
The victims, who are the most vulnerable and powerless of people, are violated in the most intimate of ways. Sadly, child abusers are often trusted family members, friends, and neighbors. Victims suffer lifelong effects from the abuse, including vastly increased risks of depression and anxiety, feelings of guilt and shame, social withdrawal, substance abuse, sexual dysfunction, and self-harm. Tragically, for many victims, their pain culminates in suicide – some after a lifetime of suffering in silence.
One would hope that the incidents of child sex abuse would always be handled with the utmost concern for the victims, with care and compassion. This should be especially true of religious groups, which claim to believe in the sanctity of human life and to hold themselves to high standards of behavior. In my experience, however, this is not the case in many fundamentalist religious communities. Such communities consider child sex abuse a wrongful and sinful act; but often protecting community interests and leaders takes precedence over helping victims of abuse. These communities have failed to take sufficient steps to confront and stop abusers, and some have even protected abusers from secular authorities. Many have also failed to take steps to prevent future incidents of abuse, and have opposed legislation which would make the consequences of abuse more severe.
Orthodox Jews claim that the primary reason people leave Orthodox Judaism is because they were abused.
Again, while there is much to discuss concerning community’s failings in dealing properly with cases of child sex abuse, in this article I’m focusing on the Abuse Excuse. The charge that being a victim of child sexual abuse is the main cause of people going OTD is most often heard orally, particularly when it is made with hostile tones and the related claims that the OTDers / alleged victims are angry and/or mentally ill. I have also seen these nasty assertions in private online conversations. The claim has seeped into the public sphere on multiple occasions, albeit usually in less inflammatory language. Frustratingly, often, those making the excuse are Orthodox leaders who have taken commendable stands against child sex abuse.
Perhaps the most remarkable example of this occurred in 2017 following the release of the documentary film One of Us, which recounted the stories of three ex-Hasidic Jews from Brooklyn. As discussed on the website Vozisneas.com, Rabbi Avi Fishoff, the founder of the “Twisted Parenting” organization which serves teenagers and young adults “in crisis” and their families, and someone who has spoken against abuse and abusers, addressed the film in a video. Vozizneas.com reported that Rabbi Fishoff noted that all three of the individuals profiled in One of Us were abuse victims (two were abused as children and one experienced domestic abuse by her husband). Rabbi Fishoff then stated, regarding the Footsteps organization which has served many ex-ultra-Orthodox Jews, including those profiled in the film:
There never should have been an organization that was created by people off the derech to help off the derech . . . It should have been us. We failed. We created Footsteps and now we don’t like their attitude. They were raped, molested, abused people left for dead; they opened up an organization to help other people in that same matzav [situation] and we don’t like their attitude? Where were we? . . . We didn’t open up the hospital. So the inmates had to open up the psych ward… (emphasis added)1
Rabbi Fishoff’s alleged determinations about, apparently, all OTD’ers and Footstep members is rather strange, as it is based on a sample size of three people, three people whose particularly dramatic stories (including many aspects other than abuse) were chosen to be the subject of a documentary. Also, one wonders whether Rabbi Fishoff realizes that upwards of 40% of all Americans may be victims of either child abuse or domestic abuse. Regardless, it appears that Rabbi Fishoff is unaware that among Footsteps’s staff members, lay leaders, and supporters are never-Orthodox Jews and non-Jews, along with several still-Orthodox Jews. As for Footsteps’s membership, while it is possible that a disproportionate number of abuse victims are active members for various reasons, including the excellent services and referrals Footsteps provides for those in need, I can personally attest that, as with the OTD community at large, the majority of “Footsteppers” are not survivors of child sex abuse.
Some explicitly claim that the majority of OTDers are abuse victims. There are, to my knowledge, no reputable studies to back up such claims.
Public expressions of the Abuse Excuse are usually made with more sensitive language. For example, Orthodox Rabbi Yakov Horowitz of Monsey, New York, who has admirably supported abuse victims and has been attacked by members of his own community for exposing abusers, wrote in 2006 that:
In my opinion, the number one risk factor – by far – for children abandoning Yiddishkeit is abuse and neglect. This is not to say that the majority of kids who are off the derech were abused. But of all the complex and varied educational, social and familial factors that present risk to our children, the most damaging by far, in my opinion, is abuse. The very real threat posed by external influences, such as TV, Internet, ‘bad friends’ are all firecrackers compared to the “atom bomb” of sexual abuse. Left untreated, abuse undermines a child’s security and comfort, erodes his or her faith in adult society – and in our Torah community, their belief in the Torah and in Hashem Himself.2
Unlike Rabbi Horowitz, some who bring up the Abuse Excuse explicitly claim that the majority of OTDers are abuse victims. For example, Rabbi Avram Skurowitz, former Head of School at the Modern Orthodox Brauser Maimonides Academy in Dania Beach, FL and a supporter of education about sex abuse, posted an open letter on Facebook in 2013 entitled Child Abuse: The Primary Cause Of The “Off The Derech” Phenomenon, in which he claimed:
[M]any Orthodox mental health practitioners who work with teenagers and young adults who went “off the derech” attribute the majority of cases to their being sexually abused by a frum role model or family member as a child or adolescent. Several directors of organizations who work with teenagers who are “off the derech” such as Our Place, Project YES, Project Chazon, and MASK, estimate the percentage to be as high as 70-90%. Rabbi Dr. Jerry Lob, in a speech on May 30, 2012 states that being sexually abused is the #1 cause of teenagers and young adults going “off the derech”…3
There are, to my knowledge, no reputable studies to back up such claims, which I am quite certain are untrue based upon my years of experience interacting online and offline with thousands of ex-fundamentalists, including ex-Orthodox Jews. I have participated in and have run various social and support groups, including
creating a meetup group which brought Orthodox Jews and people from various other fundamentalist backgrounds together for social and educational events. Of the many OTDers I have met and spoken with, most have never indicated they were abused as children, and most who have participated in surveys asking about abuse have indicated that in fact they are not child abuse survivors.
Further, many discussions and polls in online groups leave little doubt that abuse of any type is not among the more common reasons we leave Orthodoxy. It is clear from these online posts that even among those of us who were abused, most of us left for other reasons.
My impression from these informal sources is supported by Nishma Research’s Surveys of Those Who Have Left the Orthodox Community (June 19, 2016 and July 21, 2016). These show that among those surveyed, only 7% of those who have left Modern Orthodoxy and 6% of those who have left any type of Orthodoxy indicated that sexual abuse, physical abuse, or domestic violence constituted one of the reasons they left the community. According to the survey, the most common reasons given for leaving Modern Orthodoxy, at 22% each, were “conflicted learnings, intellectual thought” and the “role and status of women,” with various other responses including “general doubts, loss of faith” (10%), “no questions [allowed], unanswered questions, lack of openness” (9%), “judgmentalism, rumors, gossip, not accepted” (9%), “my sexual orientation” (9%), “religious practice, chumrahs, minutiae, no spirituality” (9%), and “community hypocrisy, double standards” (8%) all outpacing the combined abuse/domestic violence total. Among the verbatim responses listed in the surveys were “No one hurt me: I was not abused or addicted or molested or unloved; my parents are wonderful, and I was, and am, a productive and happy member of society. I just do not believe. And I am not the only one.” Another: “We are NOT a bunch of losers who had no friends as kids. We are NOT guys who couldn’t learn gemara. I excelled at learning (I’m a freaking doctor for crying at loud). Most of us leave because we don’t believe, not because we were all abused or other such reasons.”4 5
The remaining question is whether that minority of OTDers who are child abuse survivors is disproportionately large. Is the percentage of survivors in the OTD community higher than that of the general public? My years of experience with many OTDers leads me to suspect (admittedly, without scientific support) that the answer is yes. I think that abuse survivors are a larger percentage of the OTD population than of the population as a whole. This is likely due to the role abuse has played for some of us in our analyses of ourselves and our communities. I think most people on both sides of the Orthodox/OTD fence would agree that questioning the ethics, values, and leadership of the Orthodox community can lead one to question Orthodoxy itself, and being a victim of evil within the community, or observing the community’s failures to confront that evil, naturally leads to such questions. I am an abuse survivor who “went OTD,” and while I left Orthodoxy primarily for intellectual reasons (I no longer believe Orthodoxy’s central tenets are true), coming to grips with the abuse I experienced and seeing the way the Orthodox community has dealt with abuse issues did impact my worldview, my view of Orthodox Judaism, and my willingness to make major life changes.
Still, while the proportion of OTDers who are abuse survivors is likely higher than the general population, we are a minority of the overall OTD population. So where did the exaggerated claim that most OTDers are child sex abuse survivors, along with the implication that most OTDers leave due to such abuse, come from? From my research, it appears to have entered the discourse partially due to anecdotal estimates by Orthodox activists which are taken seriously (see the quote from Rabbi Skurowitz above). Worse, there are false rumors about “studies.”
An example of the latter phenomenon appeared in 2015, when Rabbi Shraga Feivel Zimmerman, the former Rabbi of the Jewish community in Gateshead, England and current av beit din (“Master of the Court”) for the London Federation of Synagogues, penned a rebuke of a convicted British Orthodox Jewish child molester – whom Rabbi Zimmerman himself testified against. Towards the end of Rabbi Zimmerman’s otherwise admirable letter discussing the suffering of abuse victims, he writes that “A recent study in the USA placed child abuse as the single biggest cause for people going ‘off-the-derech,’” and added the bizarre claim that “despite all of this, over the past few months I have received many letters from victims who all seem to have a similar refrain: ‘Granted the molester is sick, but what about the community?’” First, I am certain that most of those who express more concern for the community than victims are not victims themselves. Second, there was no study, at least no reputable one which can be located, that “placed child abuse as the single biggest cause for people going ‘off-the-derech.’”6
It’s not difficult, though, to find examples of misleading and sensationalist reports in the Jewish media which Rabbi Zimmerman may have mistakenly relied upon and misinterpreted. The New York Jewish Week7 and The Times of Israel,8 for example, ran a July 19, 2018 story by Sam Sokol of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA) entitled Study Finds Widespread History of Sexual Abuse Among Formerly Orthodox. That story included the claim that, “individuals who have left the Orthodox community are more than four times as likely to have been molested as children than the general population,” citing as its source an article entitled “Childhood Sexual Abuse, Mental Health, And Religion Across The Jewish Community” from Volume 81 (July, 2018) of the Child Abuse & Neglect Journal.9
A review of the article cited indicates that the quoted claim is misleading. The central “four times” claim, which is not supported by statistics in the article itself, appears to rely on statistics regarding surveyed OTD individuals who stated they experienced “involuntary sex,” defined as involuntary penetrative sex, approximately three (not four) times more often than always Orthodox, Orthodox who were formerly non-Orthodox, and those who were never Orthodox. When other forms of molestation including unwanted touch are included, the numbers appear to indicate that that OTDers are less than 50% (not 300% or 400%) more likely to have been molested. Worse, the sample size for OTDers was only 36 people, far less than the numbers sampled among the always Orthodox (100), Orthodox who were formerly non-Orthodox (98), and never Orthodox (138). The result regarding “involuntary sex,” in fact, was reached upon the affirmative responses of ONE male (of 16 surveyed), and 6 females (of 20 surveyed). Regardless, even if the slightly under 20% of OTDers who reported they were victims of involuntary penetrative sex were representative of the OTD community as a whole, and that rate was somehow three or four times higher than that of other Orthodox Jews and non-Orthodox Jews (and perhaps twice the national rate, according to information in the article), that would still leave 80% of OTDers who simply were not victims of such penetrative abuse, with over 60% of OTDers not victims of any type of childhood sexual molestation, as well as those who were victims but left for other reasons. There is essentially no basis to conclude that most OTDers are child sex abuse survivors.
While the above study was particularly problematic, it is nevertheless the case that, regarding actual statistics about the prevalence of child abuse in secular society, in the Jewish community as a whole, in the Orthodox Jewish community, and in the OTD community, whatever numbers we have are murky. This is due to various problems including difficulties with reporting (particularly by children themselves, and particularly in closed and controlling communities), the difficulties victims sometimes have recognizing or acknowledging abuse even after they are no longer children, and differing rates of abuse in differing communities.
Regarding the U.S.A. in general, a variety of studies I have reviewed have found varying rates of child sex abuse of all types, up to approximately 16% for males, and up to approximately 33% for females. While females are significantly more likely to be victims of child sex abuse, males are more likely to be victims of same-sex sexual abuse and sex abuse by clergy members, as well as child abuse in the form of physical violence. My review of the literature indicates that there is a general consensus that 20-30% of all children in the U.S.A. are victims of child sexual or physical abuse by the time they turn eighteen, with heavy overlap of perpetrators and victims regarding sexual and physical abuse.
While the proportion of OTDers who are abuse survivors is likely higher than the general population, we are a minority of the overall OTD population.
I have also read dozens of articles about child sexual abuse and its consequences, and I have never seen any indication that rethinking one’s religious beliefs or leaving one’s religious community are among the more frequent effects of child sexual abuse. I note that one soon-to-be-published study regarding OTDers – indicating that 25% of male respondents and 30% of female respondents reported an unwanted sexual encounter (apparently placing OTDers slightly above mean national averages) – also found that the impact of the sexual abuse on the decision to leave Orthodoxy, if any, was not statistically significant.
Plenty of people, of course, make claims without evidence, driven by personal motivations. The Abuse Excuse, the erroneous view that most OTDers are abuse survivors (or, worse, “screwed-up” or mentally ill survivors) serves to protect the Orthodox community’s self-image.
In that regard, I believe the central reason some Orthodox Jews make this claim is to “save face.” The Orthodox community routinely dismisses people who leave Orthodoxy as irrational. It’s what the “reasons” the community gives for why people leave all have in common. Supposedly, people leave because they want to experience more physical, including sexual, pleasures unencumbered by religious restrictions; to have more “fun”, because OTDers are for whatever reason “confused” or mentally ill or have been misled. That someone might leave for rational, let alone intellectual, reasons is simply something the community cannot accept. Claiming that people leave Orthodoxy for reasons which are not rational helps reinforce the beliefs of those who stay Orthodox, and allows them to hold on to the conviction that their belief system is obviously rational and defensible. The Abuse Excuse even serves the worldview of some Orthodox rabbis and leaders who are on the right side of the fight against abuse, such as the rabbis quoted above. For them, the idea that most people leave due to shortcomings in the community reinforces their belief that there is nothing inherently wrong with Orthodoxy itself.
Whatever the reason for making the claim that most OTDers are abuse victims, it has several implications which those making the claim have probably not considered. First, plenty of child abuse victims, even in Orthodox communities, are abused by people outside of their religious community. Why would an Orthodox Jewish child leave Orthodoxy because someone from outside their community, someone who was not Jewish, or a Jewish person who was not Orthodox, or even an Orthodox person from a separate Orthodox community, abused them? Why would that lead them towards anger at their own community, especially if people within their community who were told about the abuse were compassionate and supportive? If a person who was abused by someone outside of their religious community leaves because of it, that implies that there was a lack of sensitivity in the community to the horrors of sexual abuse and/or a lack of support or services for victims.
As for people who were abused as children by members of their own religious communities, here, too, there is no clear reason why that should lead to victims leaving their religious communities. If someone is abused by a person who is not a leader in their religious community – for example their parent, or a teacher – and the religious community expressed disgust and anger towards the abuser and showed compassion and concern for the abused, that person would not have reason to blame the community as a whole and might express gratitude and appreciation for the way their community dealt with the abuse. Also, in the odd situation where someone left a sheltered religious community under the misimpression that abuse did not occur in the outside world, they would likely realize their error after leaving and perhaps return.
Less than half of Jews raised in Orthodox homes remained Orthodox. The implication would be that over half of Orthodox children were sexually abused!
Thus, to whatever extent it is true that people who are sexually abused as children are more likely to leave the Orthodox community, that should lead to questions about the community’s treatment of abuse and the abused, not to criticism of OTDers or the abused.
The worst implication of the Abuse Excuse for the Orthodox community concerns its worst actors, those who are so heartless that, instead of showing compassion, they insult victims and call them “screwed up” survivors. Such insults, which I have heard repeatedly in private discussions, say more about the speaker than the target. Name calling is the opposite of support, and is inexcusable when directed at the most vulnerable among us. Further, people who claim without basis that OTDers overwhelmingly left due to child abuse demonstrate a profound lack of respect for the OTD community. No community (including the OTD and Orthodox communities) should be subject to false allegations and claims, and it is imperative that Orthodox Jews actually speak to OTDers and get to know their stories. If they did, they would learn that most of us are not child abuse survivors, and that the vast majority of us, even most who are abuse survivors, left for a wide variety of reasons.
Oddly, the claim that most OTDers are abuse survivors, if taken seriously, would probably lead to the conclusion that the Orthodox community has an unusually large problem with child abuse (a claim which I have never seen established with scientific data). After all, according to the 2013 Pew Research Center’s Religion and Public Life Project, less than half of Jews raised in Orthodox homes remained Orthodox. The implication would be that over half of Orthodox children were sexually abused! That borders on absurd. I think that there are problems particular to the Orthodox community which might make sex abuse more common – but not greatly so – in the Orthodox community than in society at large. These problems include shame, particularly for homosexual acts for men, even if they were not the instigators or at fault; loss of status, particularly “purity” status for abused women; a reluctance to turn community members over to secular authorities; and a reluctance to criticize abusers or their protectors who are prominent teachers and rabbis. I also acknowledge that there are factors in the Orthodox community, such as segregation of the sexes, which may make certain types of sex abuse less likely. The truth is that we just don’t know whether abuse is more prevalent in the Orthodox community than it is in society at large, but I think it’s safe to say that it isn’t as rampant as the Abuse Excuse implies.
I’d like to say a word about my personal experiences. I come from an entire family of baalei teshuvos, people who consider themselves “returnees” to traditional/Orthodox Judaism. I was harassed and abused as a child by a family member, both before the family turned to Orthodoxy, during, and after the religious transformation. My family had many problems (including untreated psychological/psychiatric problems). I believe that one of the reasons that my family became Orthodox was because my parents were attempting to escape from family problems. They wanted to focus on something else, something which made them feel special, holy, and good. It was useful for them to shift their attention towards their newfound, tight-knit community and to focus on properly following the wide array of laws and customs which governed their new community and their own daily lives.
I do not think this because I believe all or most baalei teshuvos are “screwed up.” I knew plenty of well adjusted, happy, and rational people who became Orthodox Jews. I believe that it is a mistake to suggest that people with severe problems constitute the majority of those making such major life changes, whether into or out of Orthodoxy. In both cases, I think they are a minority. OTDers and non-Orthodox Jews should not make unsupported judgments about baalei teshuvos and, similarly, Orthodox Jews should not make unsupported judgments about OTDers.
The Abuse Excuse is essentially a tool for gaslighting: a form of manipulative emotional abuse where baseless claims are made to discredit, insult, anger, or confuse the target. The hurtfulness of the Abuse Excuse has been related to me by several OTD’ers, mostly younger and in far more vulnerable positions than myself. I have heard about parents assuming the only reason people go OTD is due to abuse or other trauma, and therefore suspecting without reason that their children were abused. These parents’ insistence that their child must have been abused insulted the intelligence and honesty of their children. Multiple young adults described to me the terrible experience of having their psychological stability questioned without basis, primarily by parents who did not even bother to have an open discussion with them about their decisions to leave Orthodoxy. And, yes, actual abuse victims were hurt the most by the Abuse Excuse. In addition to the fact that they were actually abused, their abuse had now been weaponized against them.
The Abuse Excuse involves factually incorrect claims about OTDers. Most OTDers are not survivors of child sex abuse, and even among those who are, most did not leave due to having been abused. While those who use the Abuse Excuse range from Orthodox supporters of abuse victims to Orthodox bad actors lacking compassion for victims, all of them are making claims which are hurtful towards both the OTD community in general and abuse victims in particular. My message to the still-Orthodox is this: If you want to understand OTDers, talk to them and ask them why they left. And if you want to help child abuse survivors, oppose abuse within and beyond your own communities by supporting individuals and organizations which combat abuse. Show empathy towards victims’ life experiences and struggles. Don’t make judgments about them, and certainly don’t attack them for their life decisions. That’s abusive, and inexcusable.