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5775 – Annus Horribilis

By ReligionSeptember, 2015December 13th, 20236 min read

To say it’s been a difficult year for our community would be a gross understatement. The Royal Commission case study exposed us to the world, warts and all. The evidence from victims and their family members confronted us with their pain and suffering. The fallout has ripped our community apart, and opened up the deep rifts that lay festering beneath the surface for years.

As we stand at the end of the Jewish year, we can look back at what has happened and how things have changed. Leaders have resigned, promptly or less so, but this has not been the sort of orderly transition we needed. The clearing of the decks has left chaos, divisiveness, and an even bigger leadership vacuum than previously. It is clear that there is a still long way to go.

Is our community in better shape than a year ago? There is certainly a greater awareness of child sexual abuse. There has been a surge of activity from all parts of the community in improved policies and procedures, and education at many levels. I recently attended a lecture on the topic and found the comments about the effect of childhood trauma on the human brain very disturbing. We need to be confronted by uncomfortable things to challenge long-held attitudes. In the area of child protection, positive changes are certainly afoot.

Is our community – on balance – in better shape than a year ago? I don’t think so. We are more fragile than ever. Have attitudes to victims and their families changed? Do victims feel more empowered to report abuse? Not yet. Has the ‘Code of Silence’ (if there ever was such a thing as it was portrayed in the media) been ‘broken’?

One thing is clear: there has been a shift. Power has shifted to a number of advocates who use a willing media to drive their binary agendas. Not happy with the decision to give or not give someone an aliya in shul? Feed it to the media. Think the choice of a communal position, pubic speaker, or a chazzan is questionable? Feed it to the media. Even private conversations are now liable to be thrown open to public scrutiny. These are all very disturbing developments. The ins and outs of our community continue to be exposed to the world, and portrayed negatively by a sensationalist media. Dare to speak a slightly contrary opinion, and you will be slammed in the media, ‘linked’ to someone else who has also been smeared (and in our community, everyone is connected to everyone), and instantly any debate or discussion is shut down. This is the new ‘Code of Silence’ that has enveloped our community. People are paralysed with fear of “starting up”, and always looking over their shoulders wondering if micro decisions will be attacked.

The pendulum has swung from one extreme to another.

As a result, attention is diverted from the many other issues facing our community, most notably a renewal of leadership.  This process ought to have been a yerida l’tzorech aliya – a backward step that leads to an advancement. But so far, it’s all yerida. Advocates are very quick to demand resignations, but that’s only a small step in the process. One of my children remarked: “all anyone talks about is the Royal Commission”. There is a genuine risk of ‘issue fatigue’, where people have just had enough and are desensitised. That would be a terrible outcome.

As we stand at the end of the year, we can look back and feel very disheartened. But what we must do instead is look forward. To what? And how?

We need to bring the pendulum back to the middle.

We need to challenge the bullying behaviour at the extremes that seeks to polarize us, and that presents a binary choice of “you are either with us or against us”. We must stand up for the moderate middle. We must accept that individuals are not entirely good, nor entirely bad, but a complex mix. And we can therefore appreciate the good people do at the same time as criticizing the bad.

Rather than letting issues create walls between factions, we must engage with people who have a different perspective on things to our own and seek to understand their view, and hope that they will reciprocate and seek to understand ours. We will then likely find that we agree on more than which we disagree. I have done this and have been pleasantly surprised. We must develop a comfort with dissent and debate. We can’t all agree on everything, but we can respect other people’s views and their right to hold them and express them.

We must remember that not everything that happens in our community is about child sexual abuse. Equally, we can’t take our eyes off the ball in making our community safer for children against this terrible scourge. We are multi-layered with many issues and challenges, and they are all important. Ethics of the Fathers (2:21) puts it very aptly: “It is not upon you to complete the task, but you are not free to desist from it“. We can’t solve all our problems instantly, but we can continue a process of improvement.

The past year has been one of turmoil and divisiveness and negativity. But the past year has come to and end, and now it’s time to close the books on it. If 5775 has been a year of yerida, we must make 5776 the year of aliya.

Shana Tova U’Metuka!

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