On Sunday evening, January 9, Dr. Norman Blumenthal, PhD, Director of Trauma, Bereavement, and Crisis Intervention at OHEL Children’s Home and Family Services, and Education Director of the Bella and Harry Wexner Kollel Elyon and S’michah Honors Program at the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (RIETS), spoke at a community-wide virtual event sponsored by the Vaad Harabonim of Queens, Ohel, and Nefesh.
Rabbi Moshe Taub, rav of the Young Israel of Holliswood, columnist for Ami Magazine, and teacher at Shevach High School, welcomed everyone onto the Zoom program. He noted that we cannot hide from the recent issue of sexual abuse that came up, and we need to know how to deal with it as parents. When you give up in a crisis, then tears fall to the floor. Klal Yisrael in a crisis grows and keeps its head up. We learn from it and we use Torah to move forward. May Hashem protect us from stumbling.
Next, the founder of Nefesh, Dr. Karen Feinberg, introduced Dr. Norman Blumenthal. Dr. Blumenthal began by stating that this is a very complicated issue. Challenges and trauma multiply exponentially so that 2+2 equals 8 and 2+2+2 is 38. “Unfortunately, these events have multiple layers, which makes it harder to process with ourselves and with our children.” How do we judge people like this? This man who committed these crimes was a respected rabbi, therapist, and author. Most schools have had safety programs. Children need to know how to protect themselves. Sexual matters are not joked about in our community. This is an important part of life – a sacred part of life relegated to the relationship of a husband and wife. Dr. Blumenthal said that this is a teachable moment. Children need to know that their body belongs to them. People can’t take liberty with your body. If someone does this, it has to be stopped immediately. He noted that ongoing abuse has destructive results.
Just as we protect our children from running into the street, we need to have these discussions with our children to protect them from this. We have to teach them the Torah perspective on marriage and sexuality at a younger age because of the world we live in where there is so much exposure. They are bombarded with messages of how the secular world looks at sexuality. It is too late to teach our perspective on this if we wait until they are getting married.
It is important for children to know that the world is a good place, but children have the capacity to store messages about danger and to apply these messages when issues come up.
Dr. Blumenthal shared how there was a terrible fire in a school in Chicago 100 years ago. All the exits were blocked. Since then, the concept of having fire drills was institutionalized in schools. We have the ability to be taught about a possible dangerous situation but to not focus on it all the time. Just as fire drills come intermittently, so talking about this subject with children should be done intermittently.
It doesn’t matter how rabbinic or holy a person looks. We learn this concept from Rashi. Avraham and Lot looked alike, and Lot’s sheep were not muzzled and freely taking from others’ fields. Avraham had to separate from Lot. They looked alike but they were not on the same level at all. So, looks can be deceiving.
In the same way that Israel trained its citizens to be aware of suspicious objects and report them, we are deputizing our children and teaching them what is appropriate and what isn’t. We need to teach children to be proud of the wonderful body Hashem gave them and to be empowered. They need to know its precious and they need to protect it. He added that we should take advantage of teachable moments to reinforce this message.
The next issue he spoke about was suicide. Again, this is a subject that we don’t make jokes about. It’s an ailment. We have to explain that this is a disease. Most suicides result from mental illness. It can be treated. If you are in pain or you feel out of sync, there is help. There is no heroism in keeping it inside. When people are grappling with depression, it should be ascertained if they are getting the help they need. Children need to know that there is help and they just have to share their feelings.
He added that in this particular case, it’s possible that this person didn’t want to be defamed through the legal process and that is why he did this.
He added that today we don’t like to say “commit suicide” as that criminalizes it. Rather, we say “dying of suicide.”
He then shared the question of whether we say that this person was a bad person or that he was ill. He shared that you have to understand yourself and know yourself. If a person could engage in behavior harmful to himself or others, then he has to exercise more restraint. It’s an alarm to be careful. When speaking about this incident, we have to differentiate between preteens and teens. Younger children see the world in a more simplistic way and for them you should say he was an evil man, the kind of person we try to avoid. For teens, we can introduce the idea that people are complex. The Kotzker Rebbe taught that we are really all of the four sons in the Haggadah. We have all of those qualities inside ourselves. However, even such a thing as illness doesn’t absolve you from responsibility.
Someone asked what to do with this person’s books. Dr. Blumenthal shared that many people find them educational, with positive messages; however, because the behavior of the author was so contrary to our value system, we shouldn’t have these books on our bookshelves. Also, knowing the pain and suffering people have from sexual abuse, we don’t want to have anything in our home that can trigger a memory of this. We have to do whatever we can to help survivors of sexual abuse. He added that an inadvertent message may be implicit in the books.
He said teaching children to protect themselves should start with pre-school. Use puppets or stories about animals. Teach children to trust their instinctive response if something feels “ichy.”
He closed on a positive note. “Thank G-d, we are struggling. We aren’t just brushing this under the carpet. We are using it to prevent future harm and to grow from it. Thank G-d, we have ways to heal. We have resources in our community. This should be an opportunity to enter a new chapter of growth, safety, and understanding how to live better. “May we meet next year on how to deal with Mashiach reality!”
By Susie Garber