The Child-Rape Assembly Line: In Ritual Bathhouses of Jewish Orthodoxy, Children Are Systematically Abused
Rabbi Nuchem Rosenberg—who is 63 with a long, graying beard—recently sat down with me to explain what he described as a “child-rape assembly line” among sects of fundamentalist Jews. He cleared his throat. “I’m going to be graphic,” he said.
A member of Brooklyn’s Satmar Hasidim fundamentalist branch of Orthodox Judaism, Nuchem designs and repairs mikvahs in compliance with Torah Law. The mikvah is a ritual Jewish bathhouse used for purification. Devout Jews are required to cleanse themselves in the mikvah on a variety of occasions: women must visit following menstruation, and men have to make an appearance before the High Holidays such as Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Many of the devout also purify themselves before and after the act of sex, and before the Sabbath.
On a visit to Jerusalem in 2005, Rabbi Rosenberg entered into a mikvah in one of the holiest neighborhoods in the city, Mea She’arim. “I opened a door that entered into a schvitz,” he told me. “Vapors everywhere, I can barely see. My eyes adjust, and I see an old man, my age, long white beard, a holy-looking man, sitting in the vapors. On his lap, facing away from him, is a boy, maybe seven years old. And the old man is having anal sex with this boy.”
Rabbi Rosenberg paused, gathered himself, and went on: “This boy was speared on the man like an animal, like a pig, and the boy was saying nothing. But on his face—fear. The old man [looked at me] without any fear, as if this was common practice. He didn’t stop. I was so angry, I confronted him. He removed the boy from his penis, and I took the boy aside. I told this man, ‘It’s a sin before God, a mishkovzucher. What are you doing to this boy’s soul? You’re destroying this boy!’ He had a sponge on a stick to clean his back, and he hit me across the face with it. ‘How dare you interrupt me!’ he said. I had heard of these things for a long time, but now I had seen.”
The child sex abuse crisis in ultra-Orthodox Judaism, like that in the Catholic Church, has produced its share of shocking headlines in recent years. In New York, and in the prominent Orthodox communities of Israel and London, allegations of child molestation and rape have been rampant. The alleged abusers are schoolteachers, rabbis, fathers, uncles—figures of male authority. The victims, like those of Catholic priests, are mostly boys. Rabbi Rosenberg believes around half of young males in Brooklyn’s Hasidic community—the largest in the United States and one of the largest in the world—have been victims of sexual assault perpetrated by their elders. Ben Hirsch, director of Survivors for Justice, a Brooklyn organization that advocates for Orthodox sex abuse victims, thinks the real number is higher. “From anecdotal evidence, we’re looking at over 50 percent. It has almost become a rite of passage.”
A high school friend of mine used to live in the Syrian Jewish neighborhood of Gravesend, Brooklyn, down near Coney Island. He described it as an insular, conservative, and somewhat bizarre ethnic enclave that included many opulent houses.
As we were putting together this issue, we realized that coordinating a fashion shoot inside Syria would void our insurance. So I got back in touch with my old friend and asked whether he knew of any families who might be willing to be photographed and possibly interviewed. I stressed that it would be a respectful, straightforward fashion spread, and he was kind enough to put out some feelers.
Here’s one of the responses sent to my friend from the father of a Syrian Jewish family (extended ellipses have been left intact): “Definitely not interested….. We do not like articles written about our community…… It is bad press, which causes unwanted attention…. Please discourage your friend from writing this piece….”
All the replies were in the same vein. Luckily, we tracked down a Syrian Jewish family living in nearby Sheepshead Bay who were willing to participate. The kids—Jack, Linda, and Etsik—were born in the US and said they feel no strong connection to Syria. Linda added that living near many other Syrian Jews can be good sometimes because “everyone you know is around you,” but it can also be really annoying because, again, “everyone you know is around you.”
“I don’t like Syrian cooking,” Jack said. “I hate it. It’s all greasy, oily, fat. Ugh.” When asked about his love life, Jack said that his past two girlfriends weren’t Jewish, but he does plan to someday marry a nice Jewish girl.
Their mother, Mari, who was born in Syria, doesn’t miss it. No surprise there: Like much of the Middle East and everywhere else on earth, Syria has historically acted like a nasty little fucker to its Jewish population, at times instituting bans on Jews leaving the country and other extreme restrictions. In the 1950s, Jewish cemeteries were seized and plowed over by the Syrian government. There were around 30,000 Jews in Syria in 1943; by 1968, only 4,000 remained. These days, all but an estimated 16 Jews have left the country, with many families relocating to Brooklyn over the years. I look at these photos and wonder what it would be like for them if their brethren had stayed any longer, and how wonderful life can be in a country where people don’t try to kill you because your ancestors might’ve believed in some bullshit or other.
A Gentile’s Guide to Cheating the Shabbat
The Shabbat is a day of rest and contemplation. If you are observant and Jewish, this means you get one day a week to catch up on your spiritual reflection. If you are unclear on how to do so in this fast-paced modern world, fret not. The Talmud set down precise rules for what is and is not permissible on the Sabbath. These 39 categories of activity—called Melacha—cannot occur between sundown Friday and sundown Saturday. The trick is in obeying the spirit of rules established long before every conceivable modern convenience.
Take just two Melachas, 36 and 37. In the age of electricity, these bans on fire (kindling and extinguishing, respectively) have generated all sorts of thorny debates over interpretation. Does a light bulb violate the ban? How about a battery-operated hearing aid?
The variety of opinions is as wide as the range of options. While The Council of Torah Sages outlawed the Internet, The Association of Orthodox Jewish Scientists offers podcasts. Let’s be honest, there is no seamless way to merge Halachic Judaism with modern life. But there are workarounds:
1. SHABBAT PHONE
It’s Saturday morning. The phone rings. You’re about to answer it when suddenly you remember: It’s the Sabbath. Your hand hovers in indecision over the receiver. Maybe a hurt child needs a blood transfusion. Perhaps a planet is hurtling towards the Earth’s atmosphere and someone is calling to beckon you to shelter. Or maybe it’s just your wife, asking if you taped last’s night’s Undercover Boss. But how will you know if you can’t answer the frigging phone?
The Zomet Institute—an Israeli research institute “dedicated to seamlessly merging Halachic Judaism with modern life”—has invented a Shabbat telephone. Instead of completing an electrical circuit, this nifty device barges in on an existing circuit, thus bypassing Melacha 38, the ban on completing.
2. SHABBAT GOY
Even on the Shabbat, prescriptions must be filled, switches flipped, heaters fixed, stoves lit. But asking for direct help is forbidden, so this service relies on hints and innuendo and lots of goodwill made toward non-Jews. There can’t be any direct quid pro quo, beyond a friendly smile and/or some pastries. Dependence on non-Jews runs counter to the self-reliance that Israel was founded on, which is why there really are no famous ex-Shabbat Goys in the Holy Land. But America is full of such ex-helpers: young Elvis, James Cagney, Colin Powell, and Louie Armstrong (according to darker corners of the internet, a young Obama was a Shabbat Goy, perhaps moonlighting from his mosque duties in Indonesia.)
3. SHABBAT ELEVATOR
Sabbath elevators are regular elevators programmed to stop at every floor during the Sabbath, removing the need to push buttons. They are the flying Dutchmen of vertical transportation equipment, the creepiest of Sabbath workarounds. You know that weird feeling you get when your elevator stops at a floor and nobody’s there? Imagine if this happened on every floor. Spooky.
It took me a couple of seconds to realize the piercing noise was actually 45 adults snoring with reckless abandon. I was officially in hell. In addition to the irregular chortles of slumber there were also a handful of interspersed moans. The only people who weren’t snoring were having orgasms. It was like a David Lynch nightmare soundscape. On top of the aural assault, Matt was inching towards my sleeping bag trying to force a cuddle. I was exhausted, cranky, and I couldn’t take it anymore. I GIVE UP! In life, you can struggle against the tide or you can just make out with Matt in the tent. We smooched for a while and I decided to give him a handy. I mean, I was at Jew camp, what else was I gonna do? It seemed perfectly innocent until he started to unleash a beast within. Even with all the snoring and sighing, Matt’s orgasm grunts were in another league. I was like, “Dude it’s just a hand job, this can’t even feel that good.” It sounded like a bear was eating a wolf.
—I Gave a Handy in a Bedouin on an Israel Birthright trip