Tisha B’Av, the Holocaust and The Power of Speech

In our Shul, we try to include some programming on the Holocaust on Tisha B’Av. This year in addition to the CCHF videos, we had a survivor tell his story, and we showed a number of videos about the Holocaust. Although the turnout for the CCHF videos and the survivor’s story were very good, the Holocaust videos did not draw big audiences. I think the low video turnout is because many people, who’s parents were not survivors, want to move past the Holocaust and it’s extremely painful images.

I think there are two important messages of the Holocaust. The first one is from the Haggadah:

“And it is this [covenant] that has stood for our Forefathers and us. For not just one enemy has stood against us to wipe us out. But in every generation there have been those who have stood against us to wipe us out, and the Holy One Blessed Be He saves us from their hands.”

We need to remember this and realize that until the coming of Moshiach, we always have to be pray and do our hishtadlus to try to mitigate the effects of those who wish to do us harm.

The second message gives us insight on why it makes sense to remember the Holocaust on Tisha B’Av itself. Rabbi Noson Weisz points out that

“God never retaliates hastily against public sins committed by the Jewish people. Before He initiates concrete corrective measures He sends us messages of ‘tochacha.’ The destruction only arrives if we fail to react to the words of ‘tochacha’ and make no move to institute changes in our lives to mend the spiritual flaws that caused us to sin.

Sin alone never brings on destruction. God is just; it is He who made us mortal and fallible and gave us free will. If He were to destroy us for the sins we commit, the destruction could be laid at His own doorstep.”

In the days of the Moshe through the destruction of the Second Beis HaMikdashes, the tochacha was through prophecy, and much of the Tisha B’Av liturgy is focused on our shunning their words. In our post prophecy the tochacha comes through harmful events, like the Holocaust, making the exact improvements needed difficult to discern, but the often quote Talmud in Yoma (9b) gives us some general direction: “Why was the Second Temple destroyed? Because of sinat chinam, senseless hatred of one Jew for another.”.

This year the Chofetz Chaim Heritage Foundations videos, titled the “Last Tisha B’Av”, focused on working on the sin of Loshon Hara. In his “practical steps” presentation, Charlie Harary pointed out that this is only the third time in 16+ years that this was the topic, although most of us would have initially thought otherwise.

As part of his presentation, Charlie informed us of a new internet project called PowerOfSpeech.org. It gives us social media tools to help us work on our speech collectively.

Please take a look at Power of Speech, so we can make some personal efforts towards making this the Last Tisha B’Av.

Important New Children’s Book – Let’s Stay Pure

We have learned that blockages in our bodies are the root cause of disease. Detoxification, the removal of blockages is the basic cure for disease. And never accumulating blockages in the first place, is the healthiest and most flowing state for our bodies to be in of all.

Our bodies parallel our souls, and the blockages that cover our souls cause our spiritual sense of dis-ease. It is possible to become aware of what blocks us from accessing our souls, and we can consciously learn how to remove the blockages. It is also possible to help children avoid accumulating these blockages as much as possible. This is done by helping children develop the inner resources to deal with life’s challenges, which are all around.

My Let’s Stay Safe book (Artscroll/Mesorah/Project YES, 2011) focuses on ways to keep a child’s body safe from harm, which in turn protects the child’s spiritual development. My new book, Let’s Stay Pure, highlights the importance of safeguarding each child’s radiant soul by creating healthy boundaries on the materials, activities, and other influences to which we allow a pure neshama to be exposed.

A couple of years ago, a mother contacted me and basically begged me to write a kind of “Guard Your Eyes” book for children. Once I started writing it, I realized it was actually expressing the thoughts that guided my parenting when my children were growing up. From my own experience growing up, I knew that destructive values seep in subliminally, diminishing clarity without our being aware of it. A pure neshamah craves truth and needs all the help it can get to shine brightly and joyfully.

Hashem has given each of us a pure neshamah in order to experience the greatest, deepest, and most lasting pleasure possible in this world. It now seems easier than ever for a neshamah to get covered over with garbage. Yet keeping the connection between a neshamah and its infinite Source clear from debris brings incomparable pleasure. Although children appear small, each child has a neshamah that is as infinitely gigantic as an adult’s, and each neshamah is always seeking pure nourishment. It takes a lot of thoughtful effort to nurture a neshamah in our current generation, but it is so worth it.

When we provide our spiritual heart, as well as our children’s core, with the pure nourishment it needs, the spiritual arteries don’t become clogged. (It’s the junk that forms the gunk.)

Let’s Stay Safe has helped protect the innocence of many children. I hope that Let’s Stay Pure will help to further protect many of our children’s pure souls. Through a honed awareness that comes from learning to be more careful and wary, our little ones actually have a much greater chance of being able to retain, yet refine, their sense of trust in our world, instead of losing it, G-d forbid.

There was one jar of pure oil left that was found amidst the garbage in our Holy Temple during the first Chanukah, and it miraculously created a light that continued shining. Despite the garbage that may presently block all of our light from streaming through, the pure potential miraculously remains in each of us, and we can still find it.

And by helping children protect the spark within from becoming obscured, our little candles retain the ability to shine with a healthy glow, each with a uniquely beautiful radiance.

Bracha Goetz is the author of twenty-four Jewish children’s books: http://www.amazon.com/Bracha-Goetz/e/B001KCI086. Pages from her new book, Let’s Stay Pure, published by Torah Temimah Publications can be viewed here: http://www.judaicapress.com/Lets-Stay-Pure.html.

Can You Picture G-d Differently?

Debbie’s father would beat her almost daily for looking “too happy.” Over forty years later, she is asking, “How am I supposed to believe in a G-d that’s described as an all-loving Father?”

Yaakov volunteers as an advocate for victims of sexual abuse. He has heard so many chilling accounts that he is feeling overwhelmed by the enormity of his mission. “Is G-d in the closed dark rooms where children are having their innocence stolen from them?” he asked last week.

As the relative of a recent victim, even later in my life, I suddenly found myself, not only experiencing profound disillusionment, but even having a very shaky time continuing to believe wholeheartedly in an all-merciful G-d. And I was surprised to find out pretty quickly that I had PLENTY of company in that too.

Yes, even for many adults, an image of a vengeful G-d can still override all the other ways in which
G-d can be understood.

It was astounding for me to discover, as I began to unexpectedly meet more and more survivors of abuse, how common it is for those survivors who still believe that G-d exists to picture G-d as a powerful and often cruel tyrant.

I began to struggle toward a new way of picturing G-d to help these survivors, and to help myself as well. I learned that imagining G-d very differently can transform lives – and this is possible even for those that have been deeply scarred from abuse in their childhood.

The key, it seems, is remembering that our souls are a part of G-d.

And since who we really are is our souls, who we are, essentially, is a part of G-d. Having anger toward G-d for letting cruel things happen, loses its force, the moment we see ourselves as being a part of G-d too.

Like G-d, our souls transcend the physical world. Like G-d, our souls go on forever. Like G-d, our souls can see and yet they cannot be seen. Our souls are a part of the endless spiritual entity that we can’t possibly grasp, and yet, at the same time, they are the deepest truth we know.

So it turns out, our souls are the best understanding we have of what G-d could be.

And since our souls are a part of G-d, they are made of the same infinite and invincible stuff that G-d must be made of. So our souls will never give up. Our souls are the sparks that can never be snuffed out, no matter how searing the pain has gotten in areas that cover our souls. Even the souls that have left this world as a result of the abuse on their bodies – those sparks are still shining too.

It’s not easy to comprehend that we are souls, as we live in a physical world that is constantly reminding us that we are bodies. And it certainly is not easy to understand that even the horribly painful things, happen for an ultimately good purpose. But not believing that, leaves everything arbitrary, random, and nonsensical. Our souls can’t buy that.

“As I wander through the dark, encountering difficulties, I am aware of encouraging voices that murmer from the spirit realm.” These words were written by Hellen Keller. Darkness can surround a person physically or emotionally. Yet no matter how many difficulties we encounter and no matter how much suffering is endured in this lifetime, there is always one still small spiritual voice that never goes away.

One’s self esteem can be trampled on, but the blows can never reach one’s innermost core because that’s untouchable. Harsh messages can muffle the inner voice that is still, miraculously, continuing to give us encouragement to go on. Abuse in dark rooms can obscure one’s inner light. But a person’s pure spiritual essence continues forever to remain as unsullied as ever. And maybe the most amazing part of all is, no matter what we’ve been through, down deep, we continue to know this.

We are not able to see why very painful experiences may be required in order to reveal our purest essence. Maybe the crucible we pass through can help our entire being ultimately emerge in our most sensitized, integrated, and compassionate state. We only get glimpses into the purpose of our soul’s journey in this lifetime. What we can readily discern, though, is that our soul only wants what is absolutely best for us, since it is us, in our most unpolluted form.

Picturing G-d differently, for those whose trust was broken early, begins by recognizing that there is a “piece” of G-d within our souls. Getting in touch with the part of us that nobody could touch in a demeaning and destructive way – helps reveal our hidden radiance. Through regaining trust in our pure souls, we let calmness, love, and joyfulness stream back into our lives.

Instead of picturing G-d as the sadistic abuser known too well, those who have been deeply crushed – even closest to their core, as innocent, purely trusting children – can come to picture G-d like the indefatigable souls that never deserted them. Then even without yet fully understanding why the suffering had to be, we can all become capable of shining our obscured light once again. And each time a soul’s light manages to still shine in this world – miraculously – and heroically – it’s light can even shine into a closed dark room.

Bracha Goetz serves on the executive committee of the national organization, Jewish Board of Advocates for Children. She also coordinates a Jewish Big Brothers and Big Sisters Program in Baltimore, Maryland and is the author of fifteen children’s books, including Remarkable Park , What Do You See in Your Neighborhood? and The Invisible Book.

This article was originally published in the Jewish Press on February 25, 2011.

How to talk to Our Children about Personal Safety

Here are signs to protect our children from danger:
In 95% of cases, the molester’s not a stranger. He’s someone you know and respect. He’s disarming. He is drawn to children. And he’s awfully charming.

This is a handy little jingle for parents to keep in mind, but even though it’s short, my rhyme is not for little children. In order to adequately prepare our children, however, first we need to be aware of the red flags ourselves. Then we simply need to schedule an “annual check-up” time to clearly and calmly bring up the subject of personal safety with our children.

What would be a good day each year on the Jewish calendar for us to easily remember to discuss this safety topic with our children? It’s useful to pick a particular day that comes once a year, so we’ll be more apt not to forget to do it. (We don’t want to discuss it too often, as we do not want to instill excessive fear in them, but we do want them to remain cautious.) Holidays that require substantial preparation are not appropriate times for such a discussion, but how about Lag B’Omer? The warm weather has arrived, so it could be a good time to remember to have a yearly frank, yet upbeat conversation about this important safety issue – maybe even right along with reminders about fire safety rules.

But if Lag B’Omer has long since gone by, and we have failed to have a prevention education with our children, it is essential for parents to cover this topic with their children before they have gone off to camp.

Parents can have a safety talk about the prevention of molestation with children as young as three, with age-appropriate adjustments being made gradually as maturity and understanding grows, year by year. We do this just as we would discuss any other safety hazard, with some increased detail for our older children.

We can start off by telling our three year olds that nobody should ever touch them in the areas that are covered by a bathing suit. The only exceptions would be a parent or a doctor, who may need to check those areas for health reasons and put cream on a rash in those private areas. If anybody wants to touch them there at any other time, for any other reason, they should say “no” to that person, even if that person is a family member, babysitter or counselor. And if somebody has already touched them in their private areas, they should tell you about it. We can tell them that if anybody ever touches them in a way that doesn’t feel right, they can ask the person to stop, try to get away as fast as they can, and tell you about it afterwards.

Another conversation, at age four, could remind the child of the basics that were discussed the previous year and add that family members may include older brothers, uncles, a step-father, grandfathers, and cousins. Neighbors and family friends may not touch the areas that need to be covered by a bathing suit either. And not only should nobody touch their private parts – nobody should touch any part of their body in any way that doesn’t feel right. If a touch feels strange to them, and they are not sure if it is wrong or right, they should come and ask us about it. We really want to know. Even if they feel silly asking us about it, we very much want them to ask us. We can explain that there are good touches and bad touches. And we can encourage them to ask us about any touching that they are not sure about as well.

At age five, we can tell them that they will probably have some questions for us after we talk with them about personal safety, and we hope they will feel comfortable to ask us their questions at any time. Too much information is overwhelming to a child, so we want to try to keep each annual conversation about this topic, short and simple. We can remind them annually that if anybody ever tries to touch them in a way that feels scary or wrong, even if it’s just a soft, stroking of their arms, some tickling, or picking them up, they can tell the person doing it to stop, and then they can let us know about it.

We can also add on, at whatever age we feel it’s appropriate, that nobody should ask them to touch or look at their private parts either. And every year there can be a reminder of this safety rule as well. We can ask them, “What if someone wanted to touch you and said to keep it a secret?” And wait for their responses. We can remind them that secrets like that are bad and dangerous, and those are secrets that they need to tell us.

Another important point that could be added one year would be that somebody who has been treating them nicely for awhile by giving them extra attention, treats, money, or gifts, may gradually or quite suddenly start acting in a way that makes them feel uncomfortable. We can explain that this could be very confusing, as a child might feel that if the person has been so nice to them, that they should go along with whatever confusing touches the person may have started giving them. It’s very helpful to explain the typical “grooming” process in this way, so the growing child will at least be familiar with this possibility. With this awareness, a child or teen is much more apt to respond to inappropriate touching as an unacceptable real danger if, G-d forbid, his safety is ever jeopardized in this way.

As the children grow older, even through their teens, we can annually add to their basic training that if anybody ever asks them to watch or do things that feel scary or wrong, we hope that they will not feel embarrassed to tell us. We can let them know that it’s best to tell us right away, but even if they didn’t tell us right away, whenever they do tell us, we still very much want to hear about it because if something disturbing or frightening may have happened to them,it was not their fault. This needs to be emphasized, calmly and clearly, once a year.

It would also be helpful to explain to an older child that confusing touches can lead to holding on for a long time to confusing feelings. Some children may have even enjoyed certain aspects of improper interactions, like the extra attention it brings, and they do not need to feel ashamed of having this mixture of feelings. The best thing for their neshamas, however, is to not keep any kind of confusing feelings locked up within them. Great relief can come from talking about any disturbing secrets they may have with someone they feel they can trust. We need to reassure them that such burdens don’t have to be carried by them alone. We can also let them know that if they ever feel that they have something to share that they do not feel they can tell us, we can help them find an appropriate professional with whom they can speak.

In age-appropriate ways, as our children grow, we need to reaffirm to them on a yearly basis that victims of abuse are not responsible for the abuse. They need to tell an adult they trust about what happened, and continue telling until someone takes action to stop it.

By teaching our children how to guard the precious bodies that Hashem has given to them, we will not be abdicating our responsibility to them. It is still our responsibility to protect them, but this annual training will make it that much more possible for us to fulfill our parental obligations. In helping to protect our children from molestation, we are guarding not only their vulnerable bodies, we are also shielding their innocent souls.

Bracha Goetz is the author of twelve Jewish children’s books including Remarkable Park , The Invisible Book and The Happiness Box. She also serves on the Executive Board of the national organization,Jewish Board of Advocates for Children, and coordinates a Jewish Big Brother and Big Sister program in Baltimore, Maryland.

Originally published in the Jewish Press on Jun 28 2010

Waking Up Is Hard To Do

Silly me! It took me so long to open my eyes to the fact that we could have religious leaders who appear outwardly very pious and above reproach, but really aren’t. Waking up is a struggle alright.

Over thirty years ago, after searching for spirituality in many religions, reading the book, A Tzaddik in Our Times, had such a powerful effect on me. I saw for the first time that a pure, simple, kind and spiritual life could be found within my own religion. It seemed like a way of life that most valued those who courageously cared about the downtrodden. If this was the way a true Jewish hero could be identified, this was the kind of Judaism about which I wanted to learn. And, thank G-d, I got to do that. The teachers in the women’s division of Ohr Someyach, at Neve Yerushalayim and at Aish Ha Torah all seemed to embody these kind of beliefs as well. They offered such a wonderful world view, an idealistic and yet practical one that I was so grateful to finally find.

Getting married and leaving the baal teshuva yeshivas to settle in an apartment and find work, was sort of like landing with a thud, though. We discovered that the real Orthodox world we moved into wasn’t all that much like the idyllic picture that had been painted, but we were determined, with G-d’s help, to make our own beautiful world within it. With tapes and seforim and shiurim as encouragement to stay on course through the years, we were able to keep on overlooking all the behavior that didn’t seem to fit in with the lifestyle we’d chosen. And we were OK with making excuses for each seemingly crooked, arrogant or illegal action we’d encounter. As baalei teshuvas, we figured that we probably just didn’t get the whole picture. They must have great reasons, based on the Torah, for doing what they were doing – and we just probably didn’t understand them yet.

For many years we were blessed to cultivate a genuinely happy frum home, thank G-d, just overlooking what we thought were a few “bad apples” or seemingly wrong behavior that we couldn’t understand fully. But then something hit us in the face that was so traumatic, we couldn’t look away anymore. The intimidating cover-up that followed was probably even more shocking and horrifying than the initial trauma, however. We learned overnight that we were trying to be dan l’chaf zechus (giving the benefit of the doubt) too often, even when it wasn’t appropriate. We found out that could sometimes be extremely dangerous.

Naïve and way too trusting, we were hurt to the core of our beings, but not disillusioned enough to leave. We knew there was nothing better out there anyway– we’d been there and done that already. And checking out would just give the frum perpetrators and their Mafia-style supporters, that much more power and free rein as well. So we came to see that what we needed to do was ask Hashem for help to try to encourage others like us who lack the confidence and courage as we did, to work on addressing the denial and strive to actually implement improvements. Everybody has to pick and choose what they are willing to stand up for, but if frum people are less fearful of standing up when they see smaller wrongs, they hopefully won’t have to get a brick thrown in their face to wake up, like we needed.

We can’t blame our rabbis or the institutions and organizations they lead for not having courage if we don’t have it. As we take on the responsibility to clean up the dirty business we encounter, their actions will reflect ours. We initially were drawn to Torah Judaism because it seemed so sweet, and for so many of us, it really is. At the same time, we need to accept the difficult truth that power corrupts in this way of life too. We really thought that in this more spiritual lifestyle, money, power and political machinations would not sway our community’s leaders. We were taught stories about great rabbis in the past who wouldn’t take one coin for a yeshiva if the funding might have been somewhat tainted from some unsavory source. And since it is emphasized repeatedly in the Torah that bribes are strictly forbidden, we actually thought that those in positions of authority who dressed like they believed in these precepts, would actually be scrupulous about following them.

To take just one area in critical need of improvement as an example: we can wait for the administrators of our schools to create basic safety plans and written policies for dealing with sexual predators. We can wait for community leaders to demand that our day schools conduct background checks and fingerprinting of their employees, just as public schools do. We can wait for somebody harmful to teach our children about inappropriate touching. Or, each one of us can decide to take responsibility when our children are being left unprotected. We can “vote with our dollars” if that’s all that will get our administrators to pay attention. But first we have to stop fearing them.

Before the destruction of our Second Beis Hamikdash, corruption was widespread among the Kohanim Gedolim. Much more recently, in the past generation, there were many Jewish people that turned away from Orthodoxy after widespread corruption in the kashrus industry became apparent. The corrupt flaws proliferating in our midst now involving financial scandals, prostitution and abuse are being highlighted, so that we can remove them. We have a lot of work to do on ourselves if we really want to be shining lights to the world, and not just dim bulbs.

The Vilna Gaon reminds us that just as water (which is often compared to Torah) helps plants to grow, it also helps weeds to grow. Alongside the wondrous blossoming of our Torah communities, abusive and corrupt behavior can also grow, strangling what is most valuable, if left unchecked. In order to have a beautiful garden, we can really never become complacent about the weeding that goes along with it. The weeds look so much like the real thing, but they are out to strangle all that is good.

Scandals are G-d’s way of nudging us to get weeding. So after the denial, the shock, and the disillusionment have passed, we can be grateful that G-d still thinks we are up for the job.

Abuse causes agony not just for the victim, but for the victim’s family members as well, who are shunned and silenced, while well-connected perpetrators are supported. And yet, when I asked my husband just last week, what he would say if he had to tell a person in one sentence why this way of life was valuable, he responded that he would still say, “It brings the deepest pleasure possible.”

What’s different about my family now is that we are finally no longer so complacent. If it feels in some ways like we’re living under an oppressive regime in our midst, we are coming to understand now that we’re the ones responsible for letting that situation develop. Through education, however, we can enlighten each other about the frum-style intimidation and cover-up tactics that have become so successfully entrenched. In the future, things can really be the way we thought they once were.

We want to wear the outer garbs and perform the rituals as long as they are vehicles that can continue to bring us to a higher level of consciousness about G-d. Unwilling to surrender the soul of Judaism, we’re craving integrity. Parents can devote their lives to instilling purity in their children, and then have their efforts destroyed overnight. May Hashem give us all the courage to keep waking up.

Bracha Goetz serves on the Executive Committee of the national organization, Jewish Board of Advocates for Children. She also coordinates a Jewish Big Brothers and Big Sisters Program in Baltimore, Maryland, and is the Harvard-educated author of eleven children’s books, including Aliza in MitzvahLand, What Do You See in Your Neighborhood? and The Invisible Book. For presentations, you’re welcome to email bgoetzster@gmail.com.
This article originally appeared in the Jewish Press (4/23/10)

BTs in Passaic Lead The Fight Against Sexual Predators

The Jewish Week had an article this week titled A Haredi Town Confronts Abuse From The Inside. That town is Passaic and resident Mitch Morrison points out:

Passaic “is unlike many Orthodox communities in New York and New Jersey. It is neither Modern Orthodox nor Chassidish.” It has, Morrison wrote, a demographic distinction that may explain why its Orthodox community is responding to the sexual abuse issue more aggressively than others. “It is, per capita, home to one of the largest populations of baalei teshuva and is among the fastest growing religious Jewish communities in the country.”

After a recent program at Ahavas Yisroel in Passaic, Rabbi Ron Yitzchok Eisenman moderated a panel discussion among five Orthodox Jews who said they had been the victims of sexual abuse at the hands of other Orthodox Jews. The rabbi regularly uses his pulpit to preach against the evils of sexual molestation. It was noted that:

“The people who came out” to the Ahavas Israel program “were largely from the [baal teshuvah] community,” says Lesley Schofield, a member of the congregation who attended the panel discussion. Baalei teshuvah, people from non-religious backgrounds who turned as adults to lives of traditional Judaism, have “a lesser fear of dealing with controversial things” than many “frum from birth” (the so-called FFBs) Orthodox Jews do, Schofield says. Because their family members are outside the community, they are less fearful of harming relatives’ marriage prospects, a motivation that keeps many Orthodox people from drawing attention to themselves or speaking out on controversial matters.

So are children in Passaic’s Orthodox community safer because of the activists’ work?

“Yes, 100 percent,” Lipner says. In Passaic, he says, a child making an accusation of abuse will be believed, and the perpetrator will be confronted. Because of attention focused on the subject, parents there say they are more protective of their children.

“If you’re a child abuser,” says Marc Stern “you don’t want to live in Passaic. There’s no refuge here.”

As a therapist, Lipner says he frequently deals with Orthodox Jews who were sexually abused and state they do not feel understood or accepted in Orthodox communities. “Now I can say, ‘Move to Passaic.’”