Unkept Secrets: ‘People often look the other way’
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Unkept Secrets: ‘People often look the other way’

Deborah Cicurel reviews an emotive exploration of child sexual abuse in the Orthodox community 

Deborah is a freelance journalist

The taboo of child sexual abuse is one explored in a spate of recent documentaries, from Leaving Neverland and Abducted In Plain Sight to Tell Me Who I Am.

But while it may be easy to believe such things happen outside of our community, the opposite is tragically true.

Director Dalit Kimor has confronted the issue head on in Unkept Secrets, a brave, shocking and emotive documentary on child sex abuse within the Orthodox community.

Migdal Emunah, a charity for Jewish victims of sexual abuse and their families, recently hosted a screening of the film at JW3 as part of UK Sexual Abuse and Sexual Violence  Awareness Week.

It makes for a powerful but uncomfortable watch, in which a woman called Genendy and two brothers, Yanky and Mendy, reveal their systematic grooming and abuse, in Genendy’s case by her own father, a famous rabbi, and the brothers by a prominent and respected rabbi.

What made each of their experiences even more devastating was that when they finally spoke out, they were shunned and ridiculed by a community they had trusted, who denounced them as liars or moissers (informers) and effectively cast them out.

In Genendy’s case, she was cut off from her family, while the brothers’ parents rallied around them to try to convict their abuser, even though their community shunned them.

Their mother, Ornit, worries for her children and fights for justice in scenes that are moving and heartbreaking.

They are helped by Shana Aaronson, a victim advocate with US-based charity Jewish Community Watch, which works to prevent child sexual abuse within the Orthodox Jewish community.

Speaking to Jewish News this week, Shana says there has been an explosion of survivors coming forward to talk about their traumatic experiences from a wide range of ages and backgrounds.

“There was an incredible taboo and, very slowly, people started talking about it,” she says. “For many years, the only people who would talk about it were individuals who had left the community, who thought they didn’t have as much to lose.

“Slowly but surely, you started to see people who also looked outwardly religious, who were talking about having been abused, and that’s one part of what was so important in this documentary because we don’t see enough of that.

“Any kind of situation where a survivor comes forward to tell their story is unbelievably brave, and specifically coming from these insular communities, where they’re shattering stigmas.”

Shana says prominent abusers rely on the stigma of speaking out within Orthodox communities to groom and abuse their victims.

“Abusers rely on apathy and the fact people loathe to get involved and think ‘this doesn’t concern me and it’s none of my business’. So often, supporting an abuser means doing nothing and supporting a victim means taking action. So it’s sometimes easier for people to look the other way.

Victim advocate Shana Aaronson

“In the documentary, you see extreme examples where people intervene in supporting the abuser, because they want to believe it isn’t true. Eventually people came out in support of the victim, but it took a very long time.

“What people don’t talk about is the fact that, just as groomers slowly ingratiate themselves and build a relationship and a rapport with their victims, they also groom communities, creating the same dynamic with the victim’s parents and the wider community.

“So if anyone comes forward, they have crowds who think they’re a great, righteous individual, a family man and a wonderful teacher with a solid reputation.”

Even at the end of the documentary, when  the brothers’ abuser is convicted for seven years, Genendy hears from another victim of her father, validating what she’s felt all along, the viewer feels the victims’ continuing struggles. Genendy is seen inviting some of her 11 siblings to her son’s barmitzvah, only for them all to hang up the phone the minute they hear her voice. So why won’t her own family members believe her?

“There are psychological mechanisms and really strong cognitive dissonance at play,” Shana explains.

“It’s a matter of convincing them something happened that changes everything they know about their family, reality and community. That has such implications for their lives and it’s very hard to convince someone when they are really determined not to believe it.”

The only way to battle against this is to encourage everyone to “speak up”, says Shana.

“If you hear about something in your own community, speak up and support the victim,” Shana advises. “Being active on social media is important, so the community is aware this is an issue and it does go on.”

For more information and support regarding child sexual abuse, visit www.jewishcommunitywatch.org or www.migdalemunah.org.uk

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