Monday, August 29, 2016

When The Derech is "Off"

Recently, one of my children asked me,
  "If I'm not religious when I grow up, (like the rest of my husband's family) will you still love me?"
 What do I say to a child whose frum grandparents and tens of religious aunts, uncles, and cousins, never met him, and act like they couldn't care less that he exist, yet the family he has, who has no connection to Torah, loves and excepts him unconditionally?
I answered as best as I could.  I told him,
 "I will always love you no matter what.  Just like Hashem loves us no matter what.
"Hashem gave us the mitzvos because he loves us so much that he wants a constant relationship with us.  When we reject a mitzvah, we are rejecting that relationship. We are saying 'no thank you,' to a beautiful gift.  Every time we do a mitzvah, we strengthen that relationship and connection."

I grew up very sheltered, in a litvish, yeshivish family.
As a teen and young adult going out into the 'real world' and meeting different kinds of people, I did not know how to interact with them.  It was hard for me to relate to people different from my family, as real and valued complex human beings with strengths and challenges.  It was hard to feel comfortable with people who were different.  I had been given the message  that we were better than anyone not as frum as us, and this made "them" somehow shameful.  I was taught to be hyper aware and wary of external differences.  I was taught to judge others by their hashkafah and external adherence to halacha bein adom lamakom.  

The classic book, The Giver, by Lowis Lowery, portrays an all too accurate and sad example of what can happen when a family or society, embraces sameness as a value. We can commit moral atrocities without realizing it.
We can be so entrenched in obsession with sameness and rules that we lose a depth and perception, that is inherent in being human.
 This is a hole we can fall into.
Some of us live in this hole.
Here in our hole, we don't seem to feel things as strongly as others do. 
Maybe, because we don't need to.

This problem is regulated by a daas torah, that is not genuine.  This perversion of "daas torah" misuses the power given by us to a rav to enforce a control that is unhealthy and is backfiring.
It is done in the name of Torah, of halacha, and hashkafa.
Some of us accept this interpretation of daas torah above personal responsibility, perhaps because we feel safer this way.  Letting the rav decide seems to leave little room for worry, mistakes or danger.

Many years ago, I was a victim of this so called "daas torah."
I was completely cut off from my family by a rav, who claims to be a moral ethical person.
We must call into question a decision by someone in power, to sacrifice an individual for the (so called) benefit of the family or community.  When we are willing to  dispose of a family member in the name of the Torah, we are playing God. And we are also enforcing a deep fear of rejection in our family and community.

And it doesn't start with cutting people off.
It starts with a society and a culture where we are afraid to make mistakes.  Where we are afraid of being judged. Where for some, image is more important than integrity. A culture where we can be overly concerned with acceptance.  Where we can not afford to be real about where they are holding and what our struggles are.  We are told how to think and feel, and that we must conform or face rejection. 
Perhaps you are at peace with this system, but there are those, among us who are very, unhappy,
tortured even.
Some attempt suicide and some succeed.  Because an aspect of this hashkafah, and system, perhaps without meaning to, has stolen our humanity, our individual souls, without any awareness.  I believe that this is a characteristic danger of every fundamentalist community.

I would like to ask, why?
Why do some of us go along with a system that destroys from the inside?
Is it worth believing in a system that gently, and sometimes not so gently, asks us to give up our ability to think, our responsibility, our moral integrity, for perceived eternal happiness? For "olam habah?"
Isn't that what the fanatical Muslims, the fanatics of every community, do?

We all want a world that makes sense; a world where everything is understood, predicted, and explained.  Some of us have taken solace in a frum world, disconnected from our essence, for this reason.  A world were we don't need to feel or question too deeply.  A world where we don't need to see in depth, or shades of color, because that is a job we have given up to our rav, to our misunderstanding of "da'as torah."

We are currently learning pirkai avos where it is clearly written, "asai lecha rav," and yet,some of us have forgotten what it means to be able to choose a rav.
Some of us have allowed our schools, our families, and our neighbors choose our Rav in spite of the incongruence it brings to our lives.
Some of us have turned rabbonim into parents, and ourselves into obedient children. 
It may be more comfortable this way, but it can be very damaging to us as a family and as a Torah community.

Teaching our children to avoid and segregate from anyone who looks or thinks differently than we do poses a danger of polarizing and objectifying themselves and others. Segregation can turn people into black and white, good and bad, without room for complexity.  By refusing to allow our children to mingle and accept people (even while we may disagree with what they do) who are not exactly the same as we are, or who have not yet taken on certain mitzvos, can teach our children intolerance and fear of differences. Not only in the "outside world" but even within our own families.

We live in a complex world where a trusted rav can be a child molester, and a so called "modern, or non religious Jew" can live the epitome of a life of chesed and integrity.  We must find ways to strengthen our children's connection with themselves, with us, with their families, and with Torah, that does not include absolving them of responsibility for making conscious, thinking, choices.  We must help our children to separate people from behaviors, and refrain from teaching our children to judge others by shallow externals.

Our children need and deserve a deeper understanding of people, and the purpose of halacha Halacha is not about being the same or fearing differences.  Halacha is a tool we have been given to enable us to lead conscious meaningful lives as a moral and ethical society, in constant connection with Hashem.  Like any powerful tool it can be used to build, or misused to destroy.

Educating our children as to the halachos and importance of halacha need not (and in many of our families today, cannot) exclude encounters with others who are struggling with certain mitzvos.  Just as they surely encounter each one of us struggling with our own particularly challenging mitzvos.
 If we want to create a healthy Torah society, we must treat each other like the mature and responsible adults that we are, and allow for differences of opinion and interpretation of halacha, each according to his chosen rav. We must also allow room for struggle and growth as this is what our lives are all about.
 The Torah is certainly strong enough to allow for this.

In reality, our system thrives on question, disagreement, argument, dialogue and intellectual honesty.  Just open a gemara, and take a look.
Read the Torah and you will see that our greatest leaders made  mistakes and they are not hidden from us.
We, the Jewish nation, have a mission and we will never disappear.
 The Torah will never disappear.
People who know me asked me why I remain religious when my frum family treats me this way.  That is a question I have often asked myself.
The answer is simple.
So many important things were stolen from me, including  my family, I will not allow the Torah to be stolen from me as well.
The Torah is my heritage as much as yours, whether you are a rav, or a non religious Jew.
 When we forget this fact, the rest of the world is quick to remind us.

 We are one family.  We are a people who are supposed to set an example. We are supposed to be a light in the darkness.
We are parts of a whole and we can not afford to cut people off.  
We are collectively one body.
We are eyes, ears, arms, legs, a brain, and heart. 
None of us is dispensable.
I hope this is the message I give to my children.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Mitzvah L'sapper, Telling my Children.

Each of my children, has at one time or another asked why they have never met their grandparents.
 I have told them that my family doesn’t want to see me.
"Does that mean they don't want to see us either?"  They wondered.  What did we do?"

 I've answered as honestly and vaguely as I can.
 I have told them that maybe someday they will meet their grandparents.  I have told them my family doesn't want to see me because they are angry with me, and it has absolutely nothing to do with them.
I explained that someone in the family, isn't safe with children.
My family is angry with me for talking about it publicly, and they cut me off.
They want to pretend that it didn't happen.

My children know about my activism. They have been told many times that when it comes to children's safety there are no secrets.  They know that I helped start a child safety organization in our neighborhood.
I hoped this answer would somehow make sense to them.

The older my children get, the more relevant it seems, to tell them the truth.
 I have a public blog, and more importantly, I know that if we are to heal as  individuals, as family and community, sexual abuse is not, and can not be a secret.

 At the same time, I want to protect my children from my pain and trauma.
I don't want them to feel burdened or frightened by my past.

I decided this Pesach, that I was ready to say something to my children from a place of strength.
What could be a better time than at the seder, when it is a mitzvah to talk about our national trauma and redemption?
When we are supposed to feel as if we personally were redeemed.
I was personally redeemed.
The story of YetziasMitzrayim is my own story.
I have come from avdus leceherus.

I begin the discussion with a question and a story.

"Why do we thank Hashem for taking us out of Mitzrayim when he is the one who put us there in the first place?"
One child guesses that Hashem was testing us.

"A little girl is chasing her ball into the street as a car is about to speed past.  Just as she is about to step off the curb, she trips. The little girl is crying and bleeding.
But, her parents are so grateful!
 So relieved!  They thank and praise Hashem.
The little girl is angry.
Can't her parents see that she is hurt and bleeding?
How can they be so happy when she is hurt? 

The toddler has no ability to see the bigger picture and understand the disaster that almost took place.

We too, do not always see the bigger picture and understand why painful things happen to us."
But we know that everything Hashem does is ultimately good.

My children are listening.

"I had a very challenging childhood."  I continue calmly, as if recounting the time I broke my leg when I was twelve.
 "I was sexually abused by my father and my grandfather and it made me feel very bad about myself. At one point, I didn't think I would ever be able to get married or have children.
And now, look at us here at our Seder!
  I am married, and I have you wonderful children!  As far as I know, I am the only one of my immediate family who has the zechus of living in Eretz Yisrael.  Hashem saved me, and not only am I OK, but I now help other people who have been through similar experiences."

As I speak, my oldest son, a teenager, puts his hand on my back.
My daughter, seven, bounces up and down on the couch.  Her mind, I think, is on the afikomen wish list I helped her write earlier.
My middle son, soon to be Bar Mitzvah asks, "What is sexual abuse?"

 "Sexual abuse is when someone with more power than you forces you to do something with your body that you don't want to."
"Well, you force me to wash the dishes all the time!"  He smiles triumphantly.
"I mean, if someone forces you to do something sexual with your body."
"Do you see the difference?"

The conversation moves on, but I stay in the moment savoring my freedom.
Freedom from shame and silence.
 Freedom from self hatred.
Freedom from my past which is, in this moment in the past, where it belongs.

Friday, July 15, 2016

All Who Go do not Return By: Shulem Deen (a review)

Shulem Deen, your story, really touches me.  I am in the middle of reading it right now and I find it strong, brave, and heartbreaking, all at the same time.  Your book and your message are so important.
They are also very personal.
The world I grew up in, similar and yet different than the one you did, also tried to destroy my soul.
 I grew up litvish, yeshivish and was molested in a yeshiva by a rosh yeshiva (my grandfather) and his talmidim (one who was my father).
  I have experienced excruciating pain, anger, sadness, but I am fortunate that I have never lost my faith.
 I am angry and sad for you that your faith, your spirituality was stolen from you.  And they were.  You (and I )were raised in a cult, a well meaning cult, but a cult nonetheless.  The damage and pain our upbringing caused and is causing must be exposed.

To me, faith is not a matter of belief.  It is a matter of experiencing and staying in touch with reality.  When we see the truth that is in front of our faces, nothing can take that away.  I know God/Reality exists because I exist.  I know I was born, not because I remember the event, but because I am here.  I know God is, more real and powerful than anything I can imagine, because Love and Truth/Intelligence are more real and powerful than anything I can imagine.

God, in my experience, is Love and Truth/Intelligence, with capital letters.

I see Love and Truth in front of my eyes every single day, in each simple event and interaction and breath I take.
I read your book, and I see you as a messenger of God, simply because you are a  messenger of Love and Truth.
Your children have no idea what a gem of a father they have, and I truly believe that your father is proud to have a son like you, who has more integrity than most people on this earth. I hope and pray for you that someday your children's eyes are opened and they reconnect with you and the love that you have waiting for them.
With love and hope,

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Can Love be Taught?

My daughter, seven, once found me crying in my bed and wanted to know why I was sad.  I told her I missed my mother.  She hugged me, "So, why don't you go see her?"
"Because she doesn’t want to see me."
"Why not?"

I had to think for a minute.

"She doesn't know how to love me."  I said finally.
"Well, let's show her how. We can teach her."
"How can we teach someone to love?"
"By loving them!"
I laughed through my tears.
"Don't cry."  My little girl wiped my face with her hand.
"It's good for me to cry," I said.  "When you miss someone you love, it's normal to cry."
"Well, can you come make me some food while you're crying, then? I'm hungry."

Another time, my daughter told me,

 "I'm so lucky I picked you and Dad to be my parents.  I just knew you would be kind and loving."
"I try my best to be kind and loving.  I don't know if I always am."
"You are." (Is it legal to remind her that she said this in five years, when she's a teenager??)
I mused aloud,
"So, if you think we choose our parents, why do you think I picked my parents?"
She tilts her head to the side, thinking...
"Maybe you wanted to give them a chance."
 "Or, " I suggest,
 "Maybe like you said, sometimes it's the children who teach the parents how to love."

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

The Jump

It took eight long years to trust my therapist enough to begin healing.

Every time I entered her office, I was triggered and on guard.
Week after week, year after year, I struggled to stay present in the therapy room and not dissociate or walk out.
I kept going back, because I knew the problem was with me and not her.
I knew that I was scared and unable to trust.

I do trust my therapist now.  She has been there with me through so much.
Yet, allowing myself the level of vulnerability that it takes to work on the trauma and shame of my early childhood experiences still feels like jumping off an elevated speeding train.
Onto the roof of a tall building...
And across a three foot gap.
As I fly through the air, I see the bodies below of those who didn't make it.
Although shaken and slightly nauseous, so far I have landed safely.

Will I ever experience the thrill and confidence of knowing that this weekly jump can be safe and fun?  Will I ever know that it is really truly safe to jump, though right now it feels like I am taking my very life into my hands?
This is my work of healing.
When I trust and connect with my therapist, I am not alone with the experience of abuse and trauma as I was as a young child.

Each week I face a moment of panic.
Can I jump fast enough to break through the terror?
Can I jump far enough to make it across the gap?
And will she catch me?

Will she really catch me,

Friday, April 8, 2016

Bomb Threat

If there is one thing that we learn over and over from the Torah, it is this:

Even our greatest leaders, are not immune to mistakes.

Throughout the Torah our most respected leaders, all the way up to Moshe Rabainu, make mistakes and they are not glossed over.
They are highlighted so that we can learn from them.

Changing the subject:

Imagine there was a bomb threat in your child's school.  

  The police are called but no one will cooperate with the investigation.  
No bomb experts, or impartial investigators are allowed into the school.
Because the local trusted rabbonim have already investigated, have consulted their own expert, and insist the school is safe.
The case is dropped for lack of sufficient evidence.

The threat is not traced back to the source. 
There are ticking sounds coming from the walls of the school, but most ignore it.  
Those who ignore it, believe that this is the definition of daas Torah, and their rabbonim must be trusted.

...Other people remind them what has been demonstrated over and over again.

Although they have the best of intentions, rabbonim simply can not detect bombs, and often local "experts" have a conflict of interest.

Monday, April 4, 2016

Dear Baltimore Community, Although I have been gone for many years, I am writing this letter in the hope that today, due to a greater openness in the community, and due to greater awareness and education about childhood sexual abuse, my voice will be heard. Fifteen years ago, the Daas Torah in Baltimore advised my family to cut me off, and they have. I have not seen my parents or siblings in over fifteen years. I was not invited to their weddings, told of their children's births, or even informed when my grandmother died. My mother refuses to see me or my children, her grandchildren. I was killed off because I remembered being molested by my grandfather, a respected talmid chacham.  I was killed off because I remembered my father molesting and raping me repeatedly as a young child and I had to speak about it in order to heal. Speaking up cost me my life.   My kares was senseless and caused years of suffering, confusion, and pain for me and my family. We learn from Tamar the daughter of Dovid Hamelech that incest must not remain a secret. Tamar cried and screamed publicly about the rape by her brother Amnon. The rabbonim of the time heard her and institued the laws of yichud. They realized that if it could happen in the home of Dovid Hamelech it could happen anywhere. The laws of lashon hara are clear.   Whether you believe the allegations are true or not, is not the issue.   You can not believe something you can not possibly know, but at the same time you must take steps to protect your children!   25 years ago, as a young adult in a terrible crisis, I was confused, traumatized and suicidal. The sexual abuse I endured was horrifying and damaging beyond words, but the secondary trauma of losing the support of my family and community was devastating. Although incest is not something one "gets over," today after years of therapy and healing I am thriving. I have been married for over 17 years. I have been blessed with three beautiful children. Yet, my father is still working with children, protected by the rabbonim and the community's denial.  Some in Baltimore still spread untrue rumors about me to try to discredit me. In order to understand and learn from my story, we must understand denial. In my personal experience, denial is a strange and powerful beast. Denial is protective, and mine was just as strong and protective as my family’s.  It took me years to face and deal with my own denial, complicated by my family's, and the community’s denial. One of the hardest feelings to face and heal from was the deep shame and self hatred I had carried from the time I was a very little girl. I had to accept that I had been an innocent child, a victim, and I did nothing wrong. My survival was and is a miracle. I could not have done it without Hashem's help. Abuse and fear are of this finite world.  Truth, love, and acceptance are eternal, and the antidote to denial. Today, I do not judge myself by what others have done to me, or what I needed to do in order to survive, and I hope that if you are a survivor you can hear and integrate this for yourself.  Today, I offer compassion, acceptance, and love, to myself and any child or adult who has been through severe trauma, as I have.  Every day that we live; we choose life.  Every day that we love and accept ourselves, and each other, we are healing ourselves, our families, and our community.