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Israel's ultra-Orthodox community tackles the issue of sexual abuse

The success of a taboo-breaking book is strong indication that a community once reluctant to acknowledge the crime is now beginning to face reality.

The success of a new book aimed at helping ultra-Orthodox parents teach their children how to protect themselves from sexual abuse is a strong indication that a community once reluctant to acknowledge the crime is now beginning to face reality. The book, "Mutav Lehizaher K'dei lo Lehitzta'er" (which translates roughly as "Better Safe Than Sorry" ), published privately by Ella Bargai and Nitai Melamed, appears to be making significant progress in making the issue less of a taboo topic within the Haredi world. The book has the backing of rabbis across the Haredi spectrum - Hasidic, Lithuanian and Sephardi leaders alike - and copies were snapped up as word of it spread. The book has sold out its first printing and will be reissued soon.

Haredi children outside Israel's Ministry of Education in Jerusalem.
Photo by Olivier Fitoussi.

Both Bargai, who is secular, and Melamed, who is Haredi, are experienced family therapists. They are also known in the Haredi community for the training sessions they've conducted for Haredi rabbis and teachers all over the country on how to teach their charges to protect themselves against predators. In some institutions, in Beit Shemesh, Bnei Brak, Jerusalem, Rehovot, Petah Tikva and elsewhere, these training sessions were an act of intervention following an incident of sexual abuse in the school. Such training is regularly imposed on a school by the welfare authorities as an alternative to involving the police, Melamed said. As part of the program, the parents are invited to sessions at which the book is used to explain what is being taught to their children.

That a community reluctant to discuss sexual matters would embrace such a book points to the need for culturally appropriate material to deal with what appears to be an increasing problem. "Every mother and father, no matter in what sector, who has to speak to a child about sexual abuse starts to stutter," said Melamed, who heads the therapist training program at the Michlalah Jerusalem College for Women in the city's Bayit Vegan neighborhood. "But there's no doubt that in the Haredi community the lack of the right words is much more serious. No book [in this community] dealt with this issue, even indirectly."

Unlike in the secular community, where defense against sexual abuse is often part of a general sex education curriculum, "This population isn't interested in conducting sex education in schools," Melamed said. "A book aimed at Haredi children can't show a boy or a girl naked, with descriptions of their genitals," he said. "It's also culturally inappropriate to educate against abuse in a public way, in a classroom."

The book tries to discuss the subject at hand without saying things outright. "It's like printing a recipe in a cookbook, without saying the word 'food,'" said Melamed. "Better Safe Than Sorry" is essentially a Haredi version of a book of the same name that was translated from English in 1996. The English original "A Better Safe Than Sorry Book: A Family Guide for Sexual Assault Prevention," was very popular in the United States. Bargai, a former executive director of the Israel Family Planning Association who knew the original book's coauthor, Sol Gordon, was the one who initiated its translation into Hebrew.

Its opening line, "Most of the time it's fun to be a kid," remains unchanged in the Haredi edition. From there, the book takes children through various instances when it's not so much fun to be a kid, such as when one gets hurt or has to be hospitalized. It gradually brings the young reader to recognize other potentially unpleasant situations that belong to the realm of abuse, sexual or otherwise.

The illustrations are decidedly Haredi, resembling those typical of children's books for the community. All the men have beards and sidelocks, while the women have their heads covered.

Ah, yes - there are women and girls in the book. The appearance of girls and women, in fact, made it unacceptable to the Gur Hasidim, who are known for their very stringent approach to sexual matters. They have refused to allow the book into their schools unless separate versions for boys and girls are produced. "We aren't sure yet if that's going to be possible financially," said Melamed.

But the Haredi perspective is not limited to the illustrations. The book does not distinguish between "good touching" and "bad touching" as do other books on sexuality, but speaks only of "forbidden touching." The book instructs the child to view all touching of one's private parts as forbidden. The explicit reference to "private areas," as the book calls them, is itself the breaking of a taboo.

"In this book we want to talk about your body's private areas. Do you know what your private areas are?" the book asks. "Your private areas of your body are those that are supposed to be covered when you are dressed. Nobody has any right to touch your body's private areas and you are not supposed to touch those areas on anyone else."

The book's biggest accomplishment, according to Melamed, is that it gives parents and teachers a language with which to discuss issues that the Haredi community generally ignores. "Parents go over the book and learn a language with which they can enter a dialogue with their children and ask questions," he said.

By Tamar Rotem