BALTIMORE — When Nancy Aiken talks to students in Baltimore’s Orthodox Jewish community about domestic violence and sexual assaults, she asks the boys a simple question: How many of you want to grow up to be a perpetrator of violence?
Aiken knows the students mean it when they say, “No, not me.” But she also knows, statistically, that some will, indeed, become wife beaters or sexual predators.
“There is only so much we can do to train our young women how not to be victims,” said Aiken, executive director of the Counseling, Helpline and Aid Network for Abused Women, or CHANA. “We have to train our young men not to be perpetrators.”
Aiken’s organization, in partnership with Jewish Women International, is getting a major boost with a $350,000 Justice Department grant to recruit men and boys in the Orthodox community as allies in the fight against abuse.
Community leaders say the effort is necessary.
“I don’t know any authority in the Orthodox world today — mainstream authority — who does not already agree that this has to be addressed, it has to be addressed swiftly, it has to be addressed concisely,” said Larry Ziffer, executive vice president of the Center for Jewish Education in Baltimore, who plans to work closely with CHANA in the community.
“To me it’s a huge problem if there is one woman who is abused or one child who is abused, and there were things the community could do and they didn’t do it in the past,” Ziffer said. “If there is anything we can do in terms of prevention, to keep people safe, we have a moral and a legal and theological obligation to do it.”
The three-year grant from the Justice Department’s Office on Violence Against Women, announced last month, is aimed at men and boys of minority groups — such as the Orthodox and immigrant Jewish communities of the Park Heights neighborhood — that don’t regularly tap into secular counseling services or authorities.
The Orthodox community has its own courts for handling abuse allegations. Aiken said the large immigrant Jewish populations in Baltimore — Farsi-speaking Iranian exiles and refugees of the former Soviet Union — are often distrustful of police.
Such communities often “look for Jewish remedies to their concerns, and not elsewhere,” Aiken said. She said that approach leaves out valuable public health and legal perspectives, puts critical decisions in the hands of religious leaders who have, at times, swept problems under the rug and can lead to community silence and a tendency to blame the victim.
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Aiken said the success of the grant will hinge on the support of rabbis and other men in positions of power in Baltimore’s Orthodox community.
Lori Weinstein, executive director of Jewish Women International, which has worked with CHANA on other projects, said the current effort represents a new step in the campaign against male violence in North Baltimore’s closely knit Orthodox community.
“This whole movement has evolved to one where it is seen as just a crucial development in the field that we bring and engage men as allies in the work that we’re all doing to end violence,” she said.
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The problems of domestic abuse and sexual assault in Baltimore’s Orthodox Jewish community surfaced in a series of high-profile cases.
In 2006, the Orthodox community rallied around Cynthia Ohana after her husband, who was found by a civil court to have abused her, refused to grant her a religious divorce.
When Rabbi Jacob A. Max was convicted in 2009 of sexually molesting a woman in a Reisterstown funeral home, others came forward with accusations of abuse, after years of rebuffed requests for help or fear-induced silence.
Such cases have been chronicled by journalist Phil Jacobs — a member of the local community and a survivor of sexual abuse himself.
Jacobs, the executive editor of The Baltimore Jewish Times, began a series of stories in 2007 detailing cases of sexual abuse that implicated revered rabbis and leaders in the community.
The series shocked the community and drew criticism from some, who accused Jacobs of breaking with the custom of bringing claims of abuse or assaults directly to rabbis.
The problem was that in Jacobs’ reporting, the accused sometimes were rabbis.
Jacobs pushed on in his reporting, attracting a film crew that followed him between 2007 and 2010 and produced the documentary “Standing Silent,” which was screened across the country.
Jacobs, who grew up in a secular Reform household but now practices Orthodox Judaism, said the work grew out of personal experience of abuse.
When he was 14, Jacobs said, he was molested on several occasions by a man who would give young boys new sports equipment and invite them to his apartment to watch pornography.
When the man fondled him, he said, the experience was so foreign that he didn’t know how to register it.
“Back then this was not on my computer, my mental computer. I had no idea what he was doing, and I didn’t know what to do about it,” said Jacobs, now 59. “I sure as hell wasn’t going to tell my parents, because somehow it would have turned into my fault.”
Jacobs didn’t start addressing the problem until he was 40, when he told his wife. When he moved back to the Baltimore area, he got involved with a group of local survivors, which led to him meeting the subject of his first story about abuse in Baltimore’s Jewish community.
After that story appeared, Jacobs said, victims flooded him with requests for help or for more stories on the topic of abuse in the local Jewish community.
“My phone at home and my phone at the Jewish Times became like a hotline,” he said. “People were calling and calling.”
Jacobs has since worked closely with CHANA and its offshoot, the Shofar Coalition, which serves adult survivors of childhood abuse.
He called the new grant program wonderful — another step in a shift in the community toward acknowledgment of the problem and a desire to do something about it.
“What they have done is they’ve at least gotten the community to engage in a conversation about an issue that never was talked about before,” he said. “It was kind of buried over, but that’s not the case now.”
Aiken said CHANA is now busier than ever. In 2009, it employed four volunteer therapists providing care for about 20 people. Now it has 42 volunteer therapists helping more than 200 people.
It also has a full-time court advocate, who went to more than 100 legal meetings last year in cases against abusers.
Aiken said the growing numbers reflect growing awareness. She said more victims of abuse feel they have the support to break their silence.
The increased awareness has also carried over into the community. When Stanley Levitt, a rabbi convicted of sexually abusing children in Massachusetts, moved into the Baltimore community last summer, the influential Rabbi Yaakov Hopfer circulated a letter with a photograph to warn fellow rabbis.
“If you should see him in your shul I would encourage you to take steps to inform your congregants in order to ensure communal safety,” Hopfer wrote.
Jacobs said the grant will help the community as it continues to move in the right direction.
“They’re working to get the rabbis’ buy-in, so that the rabbis will participate and make sure that somebody who is a possible victim is positioned better to get help,” he said.
“In the past I have sat in rooms where I’ve heard ‘experts’ say, ‘First, you have to go to your rabbi before you would call police or a clinician’ — and back then everyone accepted that. But I don’t think that’s the case today.”