December 10, 2018

Fighting Sexual Abuse in Charedi World

Twenty years have passed, but the moment that drove Rebecca Shwartz to become a pioneering women’s rights lawyer in Jerusalem remains crystalized in her mind.

As a direct result of that one incident, Shwartz today operates Min HaMezar, a growing nonprofit that seeks justice for sexually abused ultra-Orthodox women and girls in Israel.

Shwartz, 36, was part of a delegation of 20 Israelis who recently spent a week in Los Angeles on an educational trip sponsored by the Gesher organization and the Israeli government to observe and interact with members of Diaspora communities. A lifelong Charedi, Shwartz said one of the reasons she came to America was to educate, encourage and motivate women who feel powerless — a commitment born one night in 1997.

The summer of that year, when she was 16 years old, she attended a seminary camp with her best friend, also 16.

“Very late one night, my friend told me she had been getting abused for eight years,” Shwartz said. “I was shocked.” The alleged perpetrator was visible in their ultra-Orthodox enclave of B’nai B’rak. “I knew him, too. I asked, ‘How can it be? I didn’t see anything.’ ”

While the Charedi community maintains an insulated existence to shield its members from perceived negative influences of the secular world, Shwartz said she would come to learn that the arrangement works equally to prevent criminal acts, such as sexual abuse, from being reported to authorities.

That night in the camp, as her friend shared her story, “my friend was crying, and I was crying, too,” Shwartz recalled. “I said, ‘I need to do something.’ I didn’t know what, but something.”

Shwartz went home and immediately relayed the revelations to her mother, whose skepticism was typical of the Charedi community. When Shwartz suggested, “Let’s talk to her parents,” her mother dismissed the story.

“My mother was a simple woman 20 years ago,” Shwartz said. “No one knew anything then. My mother said, ‘It can’t be. Your friend must have been dreaming. [Her abuser] is Charedi. He follows the halachah.’ ”

Undeterred, Shwartz urged the victim to tell her parents. “They’ll kill me,” the fearful girl said.

Shwartz assured her friend, “I’ll come with you. Don’t worry.”

However, when the girl’s parents heard her story, they blamed her. “Something must be wrong with you,” Shwartz recalled them telling their daughter. “Maybe you have not been tznius (modest).”

“They sent her away to a school overseas,” Shwartz said. “She was very mad at me. I felt as if I had done a terrible thing.”

The victim fled her Charedi community, permanently. She became secular and has never married.

“I was innocent and very naïve,” Shwartz recalled.

As a result of that experience, Shwartz unofficially launched her career of attempting to persuade abused ultra-Orthodox women and girls — and others — to tell their stories so that the guilty men can be punished.

Shwartz pledged to herself, “When I grow up, I will open a place where girls who can’t talk to anyone will be able to find a solution.”

Her teenage naivete may have been erased in a single night, but there were signs she would choose her own path. The eighth of 11 children, “I always was different,” she said. “I would look out for the poor, for victims no one was paying attention to.”

Married at 19 and soon the mother of two, she was in her mid-20s when she enrolled in a Charedi law school. Outside of classes, Shwartz volunteered at an office that gave legal advice to the poor. When the few religious women who came to the office seeking help were turned away, Shwartz despaired.

“I saw their look,” she said. “They had no one to speak their language. I wanted them to know that I was like them. I sympathized with them.”

Rebecca Shwartz (far right) speaks at a 2016 event, teaching women how to educate children to be protected. Photo by Boaz Cohen

“I started to get so many cases that I didn’t know how to handle them. It was amazing.” — Rebecca Shwartz

Employed in the state attorney’s office early in her career, she examined prison files and learned that far more crimes of abuse existed in the Charedi community than she had realized. “When men went away from the community, I thought they were leaving the country,” she said.

No one in the Orthodox media was interested in reporting Shwartz’s discoveries. “I wanted to say to victims, ‘Someone is willing to help you. Please come.’

“I said, ‘OK, I will make pro bono cases.’ I wrote on Facebook, ‘I want to help. It’s free.’ I started to get so many cases that I didn’t know how to handle them. It was amazing.”

A mother of four, she started her own law practice six years ago. Her husband, Manny, is a journalist who posts stories about her cases on the news website where he works.

Despite the response she has received from abused women, Shwartz said she does not believe there is more abuse today than years ago in the Charedi community. The difference, she said, is that the abuse is now being reported.

She said she was heartened by the response she received during her visit to the United States.

“I gave lectures to women from all over the country on women’s empowerment and coping with sexual abuse,” Shwartz said. “There was a tremendous response. Women were eager to hear, to learn, to receive information and to open their hearts.

“All of us, here and in Israel, have one thing in common: To keep our children’s souls healthy in a protected body.”

Swastika posters left in north London playground 4 consecutive days

Police are stepping up their presence in a charedi Orthodox Jewish neighborhood of London after swastika posters were placed in a playground there four days in a row.

London’s Jewish Chronicle reported Friday that local police have increased patrols in Stamford Hill and are investigating the matter.

The local branch of Shomrim, the Jewish volunteer security group, first reported the posters to police Monday, and they have appeared every day since then. The playground is next to a Jewish senior home, many of whose residents are Holocaust survivors.

Stamford Hill Shomrim’s Shulem Stern told the Chronicle the posters have sparked “a sense of anxiety and fear amongst local parents.”

“The daubing of Nazi symbols in a place where Jewish children study and play is an act of racism intended to spread fear and alarm,” Marie van der Zyl, vice president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, told the Chronicle.

The northeast London neighborhood is home the largest charedi Orthodox community in Europe, according to the Chronicle.


Choosing between love and obligation

“Fill the Void,” which won Israel’s equivalent of the Academy Award last year, is a love story unlike any Hollywood fare and it is set in a Jewish community unfamiliar to most Jews.

The movie is by and about a Charedi, or ultra-Orthodox, enclave in the center of Tel Aviv, centuries removed in time and place from the swinging citizenry a few blocks away.

The film’s central character is Shira, at 18 the youngest daughter of the family, about to be married to a promising young man of the same age and background.

Then tragedy strikes. Shira’s 28-year-old sister, Esther, dies while giving birth to her first child, and amid the mourning, Shira’s match is put on hold.

Esther’s husband, Yochai, now a widower responsible for the newborn baby, realizes that he will have to remarry eventually and a matchmaker comes up with a prospect, a devout widow in Belgium.

When Shira’s mother learns that Yochai, and, worse, her only grandchild, may leave the country, she seeks to forestall this calamity by having Shira marry her dead sister’s husband.

While hoping that Shira will marry Yochai, her parents leave the decision up to her, and the conflicted girl must finally make her own choice.

“Fill the Void” is the first feature film for both director-writer-producer Rama Burshtein, and for Hadas Yaron, who portrays the young Shira. During a recent visit to Los Angeles, Yaron and Burshtein sat down for separate interviews with the Journal.

Yaron is 23 and had no problem playing an 18-year-old girl, but she faced another difficulty. Coming from a secular family — no actual Charedi girl would act in the movie — Yaron had to get the feel of living in a closed Chasidic environment.

But once she put on the modest clothing demanded for the role, she said, “I felt very holy and harmonious.”

With only one previous role in a minor film on her resume, Yaron got into her part so convincingly that she won Israel’s best actress award last year and did likewise at the prestigious Venice Film Festival in 2012.

Asked how the role affected her, Yaron responded, “I learned that you can’t judge people by how they look or how they are dressed.”

Director Burshtein had the advantage of having lived in both the secular and ultra-Orthodox worlds. Born to an Israeli father and an American mother, she moved from New York to Kfar Saba, near Tel Aviv, shortly after her birth.

She returned to New York at 17 and remembered, “I was totally secular and pretty wild … but at the same time, I was always a seeker.”

Once she was introduced to the Charedi community through a friend, “It was an instant conversion … it was like coming home,” she said.

As Burshtein believes, and illustrates in “Fill the Void,” it is a common misconception that in the Chasidic community parents pick husbands for their daughters, regardless of the girl’s wishes. Actually, she argues, while parents may arrange the options for marriage partners, the final decision is up to the daughter.

In any case, she maintains that whatever the differences in outlook among denominations, “being Jewish is all about feelings.”

Given that love and passion are common to all humans, what may be more pronounced among the Charedim is “the power of commitment.” By that, she means the determination to “do the work” needed to make the marriage successful and permanent.

The best time for a girl to embark on such a commitment is when she is around 17, Burshtein counseled.

In her own life, Burshtein, 46, practices what she preaches. She and her husband, a psychotherapist, have three sons and one daughter between the ages of 16 and 11, having had the four kids in the span of five years.

While planning the outline of “Fill the Void,” Burshtein was determined not to get into the religious-secular conflict in Israel, and she cited her reason in a director’s statement accompanying the film.

“I set out on this journey out of a deep sense of pain,” she wrote. “I felt that the ultra-Orthodox community has no voice in the cultural dialogue. You might even say we are mute. … Our political voice is loud — even boisterous — but our artistic and cultural voice remains muffled and faint. I’m not good at agendas and politics … I am good at telling about those things I’m passionate about [and] they are all tied to the ultra-Orthodox world of observance.”

Burshtein has started writing the script for her next project, which will probably be set in New York. She wouldn’t reveal more but pledged that the movie would “always be about my world.”

“Fill the Void” opens at Laemmle’s Royal Theatre in West Los Angeles on May 24, and at the Playhouse in Pasadena and the Town Center in Encino on May 31.