Sexual Abuse in the Orthodox Jewish Community: A Literature Review

Lusky-Weisrose, E., Marmor, A., & Tener, D. (2021).
Trauma, Violence, & Abuse, 22(5), 1086 – 1103.
Type of Profession:

This study reviewed the literature on sexual abuse within the Orthodox Jewish community (OJC) and reports of the experiences of victims, perpetrators, the Jewish and general community, and professionals in the North America, Israel, and Australia. Results suggest that promoting interventions based on community knowledge and resilience, together with training in order to better understand the needs of the OJC and of closed communities in general.


Expanded Abstract: 
Sexual abuse is a cross-cultural phenomenon related to multiple cultural contexts including religious affiliation. Religiosity is a prominent cultural issue when discussing sexual abuse (Harper & Perkins, 2018; Tishelman & Geffner, 2010), particularly in communities characterized by normative and physical isolation from the surrounding society (Foynes et al., 2014). The Haredi, or Orthodox Jewish community (OJC), constitutes a significant minority group of the worldwide Jewish population. It is characterized by cultural conservatism, steadfast loyalty to the community, and strict religious behavioral codes. To date, only few empirical studies have explored the issue of sexual abuse within the OJC. This literature review addressed experiences and reports of victims, perpetrators, the Jewish and general community, and professionals in North America, Israel, and Australia. With regard to sexual abuse within the Orthodox Jewish community (OJC), there is body of literature (e.g., Alessi & Zevi, 2009; Bedihi, 2008; Ben Meir & Levavi, 2010; Dorff, 2003; Neustein, 2009; Neustein & Lesher, 2008; Resnicoff, 2012), alongside media and new media publications (e.g., Ettinger & Hasson, 2013), whereas research writing under scholarly standards remains extremely poor (Katzenstein & Fontes, 2017). This article reviews this literature in order to form a basis for future research, with the hope of expanding the knowledge on this important phenomenon.
Articles included in the review were collected from peer-reviewed databases and bibliographies. Three main themes emerged from the analysis of the literature: (1) disclosure of the abuse, (2) perceptions and attitudes toward sexual abuse, and (3) implications of the abuse. Note that whereas some of the topics discussed in the articles were similar to the general literature, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) following child sexual abuse (CSA), others were uniquely related to the OJC context, such as the victims’ difficulty to disclose due to the lack of words for describing sexual body parts arising from religious prohibitions. As in the general literature (e.g., Tener & Murphy, 2015), all articles dealt with delay or absence of disclosure by the victim but also offered unique religious-cultural characteristics that might cause it. Some of the victims mentioned not being aware that the sexual interaction they had experienced was abusive (Zalcberg, 2017). Others found it difficult even to name sexual abuse (Epstein & Crisp, 2018; Hamo & Idisis, 2017). Children in particular found it difficult to find anyone to whom they could disclose because all the adults in their lives had some kind of relationship with the perpetrator (Tishelman & Fontes, 2017).
Victims as well as perpetrators referred to the atmosphere of secrecy in the community, especially with regard to sexuality (Boehm & Itzhaky, 2004; Hamo & Idisis, 2017; Zalcberg, 2017), or in the words of one participant, “In the Haredi world, life is one big secret ... my mouth was automatically sealed” (Zalcberg, 2017, p. 596). In terms of familial barriers, some wanted to spare their parents any distress and explained that the entire family could be stigmatized, which could affect future chances of good matrimonial matches for the victim and other family members (Hamo & Idisis, 2017; Zalcberg, 2017). With regard to the individuals to whom the abuse was disclosed, when victims did disclose, they did it usually individuals close to them such as parents, religious-educational figures, friends, and siblings, in cases of CSA (Epstein & Crisp, 2018; Zalcberg, 2017), as well as in general cases of sexual abuse (Yehuda et al., 2007). Zalcberg (2017) indicated that the CSA victims tended to disclose more to parents and less to religious-educational figures.
Results suggest promoting context-informed interventions based on community knowledge and resilience, together with appropriate training in order to better understand the needs of the OJC and of closed communities in general. The researchers identified three “critical findings”:  
  1. Disclosure of sexual abuse in Jewish-Orthodox society is usually absent or delayed, partly due to concern for the community’s reputation and difficulty addressing the event as an abuse. Victims tend to disclose to relatives, educational figures, and friends, whose reactions range from empathy to victim blaming while focusing on the perpetrator’s needs. 
  2. The victims and community’s perceptions range from acknowledging to unawareness or inability to address or define the abuse. Perpetrators’ perceptions include various justifications for sexual abuse.
  3. Implications of the sexual abuse are mainly negative, including stigmatization, hypersexuality, and higher PTSD symptoms. The abuse also leads to changes in religiosity in both directions, while religiosity can moderate PTSD symptoms.
(The expanded abstract is excerpted and adapted from the article cited above).