June 14, 2024
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June 14, 2024
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Orthodox women in Fair Lawn had an open conversation recently about sexual abuse-why it still plagues and menaces the ultra-frum world; how social beliefs and trust in authority is the bedrock that enables predators to commit their crimes. They also heard how far the Modern Orthodox community has come in talking about sexual abuse openly.

Some 30 women gathered in a neighbor’s living room, along with Rebbetzin Shevy Yudin, to hear Judy Braun, author of the once-anonymously published book Hush, speak for this Emunah sponsored event.

Braun based her 2010 novel on a memory from her childhood, when a friend who was molested later tried to commit suicide, during a get together in the Borough Park section of Brooklyn.

“I knew I had to write the story, but I didn’t have the language,” Braun, 33, told the audience, sitting demurely in a blue dress with her hair pulled back in a barrette.

As the daughter of a well-respected journalist in the haredi world—Ruth Lichtenstein, publisher of Hamodia—Braun had already been writing in haredi publications. In order to write the book, she chose to pursue an MFA at Bar-Ilan University, an experience she describes as seminal, in that it was her first encounter with the tools that would enable her to express what she had experienced in her insular community.

And while the Modern Orthodox, professional women listened to Braun describe what it was like to come to terms with one’s community’s blindness to sexual abuse, the gathering also reflected the women’s comfort level in talking openly about sexual abuse in the Orthodox community altogether. The question and answer session heard some questions like, “Do we have guidelines in place in our schools against predators? Are we any better than the Catholic Diocese? Can predators be redeemed and have a place again in the community?”

At times women in the audience tried to qualify their own reaction to the Hasidic community’s silence about sexual abuse. Calling out, one woman said, “Why are we saying it is just the ‘Chassidishe’ community? It took us 20 years to talk about this, and we are the educated ones.”

Braun told the audience that what pushed her to finally write the novel was the accompanying guilt from a conversation with a childhood friend, who told her that her brother had committed suicide because he had been sexually abused. “I told her that I cannot write that story,” fearing the repercussions in her community. At that moment, Braun’s friend looked at her and told her she was like the rest of “them”—her Hasidic community—a silent bystander, a silent killer.

After earning her MFA, when Braun began to write Hush, everything in her childhood experience started coming together in her plot and, in fact, she said, it wasn’t much effort to write the book. There was a rhythm that started to make sense of the hypocrisy and betrayals she had lived with for so long. It was a story that had been waiting for her to write. By contrast, once Hush was published, everything in Braun’s personal life started to come apart. Braun had opened a long-simmering Pandora’s Box, both in her own soul and her community’s soul.

She first published the book anonymously as Eishes Chayil—a play on the words, which is also the highest accolade given to an Orthodox woman—for fear of isolation or retribution to her family. She later revealed her identity in the press following the Leiby Kletzky murder in Brooklyn. “It took just a few days for someone to recognize my voice,” she said of her novel. It was inevitable that she would come public about it. What she could not predict was what the novel would do to her life personally and professionally. Her family had to distance itself from her in order to remain in the community; she lost her friends and everything she had always known.

Since the publication of Hush, she has spoken in many venues about sexual abuse, from the Nefesh conference of mental health professionals in the Orthodox community to SNAP, a national group of survivors abused by Catholic priests. She has also spoken for Emunah in many communities in the tri-state area. Ronnie Faber, senior development associate at Emunah, said in an email that speaking publicly has been therapeutic for Braun.

The fallout from Braun’s book has made her a sort of poster girl of the sexually abused ex-pats of the Hasidic community. As for her childhood community, it sees her as a betrayer, or, she said, as “someone who is not mentally stable.” She has paid the ultimate price one socially pays when talking about the ills in one’s community to the outside world. She is still working through the loss, and explains a lot of this in her essays in the Forward entitled, “Inside Outside.” Her column describes a sort of coming-of-age outside of her community.

Braun said she is most disappointed in the rabbis of the community, its leadership, and the fact that they often are entangled with the predators and their crimes. With the emphasis on being better than the non-Jews, the hasidic community leadership has let her down, as she has come to accept that sexual abuse knows no boundaries.

She told the rapt audience how surprised she continues to be when she learns from once-Hasidic adults how much her book has changed their lives. And while the change in her community has been slow, she said, it has also been real. She sees the women as forcing the change, organizing workshops for parents so they can understand the consequences of abuse, and creating support groups for families. “I heard about two sisters, never having spoken to one another about the incest in their family, showing up at the same workshop in Borough Park surprised to find each other there,” Braun said.

Today, Braun is distanced from her past life, and divorced from her husband. She no longer covers her hair in the traditional Orthodox way, yet she carries both a modesty and fragility about her. This has been a life-altering journey.

“Leaving the community has been a nightmare. It was the only world I knew,” she said. Yet, she added, she has found a new community for herself and her three young children in Modern Orthodox Judaism. “I didn’t know there were so many of you (Modern Orthodox) guys,” she quipped, earning chuckles, nods and supportive statements from women in the audience.

She described not knowing that there were other ways to live Judaism except through Hasidism, and that it has been refreshing to have the Modern Orthodox community support and embrace her public appearances throughout the tri-state area. She challenged the audience saying that there is still no yeshivish or Hasidic community willing to have her speak. “The first step for a community is to be willing to look at itself,” she said, and added, “some communities take 10 years to do that.”

Braun believes that over the next five years there will be an explosion of change in the ultra-Orthodox world regarding sexual abuse. She said change must come from inside the community and she already sees it through the explosion taking place in the blogosphere. She gets new links on a daily basis to sites of the sexually abused from her former community.

Braun’s comments and answers were nothing that many of these women had not read about in the Jewish press in the last decade and-a-half, since the subject of sexual abuse in the Jewish community has propelled itself into the communal conversation with the initial story of Baruch Lanner in the Jewish Week, but there was something intriguing about hearing it from an “insider.”

“You have done a great service,” Olga Saxon, a Fair Lawn resident, said, reaching out to Braun. “You are very courageous.”

Braun is almost finished with her second novel, which will come out in the fall.

By Temima G. Shulman

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