When the nightmare began, Shlomo (not his real name) was sure he could still put an end to it: One slap or a serious talk and the child would surely understand there's something utterly wrong with his behavior.
The boy, only 9-years-old, "pulled out his penis from his pants and told his sister to taste it and even mentioned it tasted like ice-cream or chocolate," the indictment against him stated. "The sister obliged and licked his penis. In these acts, the defendant caused the minor to perform an indecent act on him."
Shlomo, however, did not imagine that the horror going on underneath his nose was just the tip of the iceberg, which threatened to break up his family.
"One of the girls told me what happened," he remembered. "I was shocked that he could even say such a thing, and punished him by banning TV for two weeks. I though that maybe watching television might have put ideas in his head and thought that should I distance him from the element which brought on the behavior I would be distancing him from the source of evil."
Shlomo, a father of eight residing in a religious community in northern Israel, held a talk with his kids that night in order to make it clear that a dangerous red line had been crossed. He never imagined that the worst was yet to come. "I sat with them all at the diner table and said: 'We have private parts, and no one has the right to show them to anyone else in the family or outside the family.'"
The talk however, much like the punishment, was of no use.
'No open discourse on sex education' (Illustration photo: Ohad Zoigenberg)
Three years later Shlomo found himself in a police station with two of his sons. His youngest boy too, he learned, had molested his sister.
"The defendant called his 8-year-old sister to his room. When she entered he locked the door, refused to let her out and covered the key hole with a tzizit (fringe attached to a four-cornered garment). They undressed and the defendant started stroking the minor's behind, and she granted his request and began rubbing his genitals. The defendant then lay on top of the minor and inserted his penis…"
It was the mother who had filed the police complaint, having realized that something terrible was going on in her house.
"A normative home," her husband said. "A religious home educating its children on modesty, clean language, Zionist values, social behavior and proper behavior between the siblings. I'm very open with the kids. We're national-religious, not ultra-Orthodox. I talk to them about sexual relations explaining that one should wait until one is married."
Unfortunately, there are virtually no accurate data on sexual abuse in the religious sector. There is no body dealing with religious kids who have been subjected to molestation or are sexually active in the State of Israel. Their unique living environment is not being addressed, one that consistently avoids open discourse on sex education.
Dr. Aviad Hacohen, dean of the Sha'arei Mishpat College and member of the Takana forum fighting sexual abuse in the religious sector, has studied the phenomenon and stated in 2007 that 95% of sexual offences in Jerusalem were performed by the religious and haredi.
"Several years ago, I began looking into the issue on a data-based level," he said. "It turned out that the law enforcement authorities, both the police and the prosecutor's office, were aware of the data but refused to expose it based on sectorial affiliation in order to avoid branding a certain group in the population. The fact that all the hearings on these types of offences were held in closed doors and subject to gag orders prevents issuing accurate data."
Nevertheless, Hacohen continues to methodically gather informal information and has categorically determined: "This is a wide-scale phenomenon which is no less prevalent than that in the non-religious sector. For example, most of the serious incest offences within the Jewish sector in Jerusalem are performed within the religious society. This is topped by the bond of silence, the severe modesty rules creating increased sexual tensions and lack of sex education, helping the phenomenon to grow."
Have you, as a legal expert on the matter, witnessed a growing trend of sex among minors within the religious sector?
"The religious public is not immune to global trends. The phenomenon which we are witnessing in the world is seeping into this sector too. There is no doubt that it has grown in the last decades, despite having always existed."
Why is that?
"Firstly, promiscuity is growing in certain sectors which have turned it into an ideal state, a lifestyle which is not to be ashamed of; secondly, the availability of pornography. In the past, access to porn entailed effort and now with one click of the computer minors are being exposed to the most hardcore materials. When it comes to the religious sector, there are also more specific causes: The bond of silence, or more accurately the bond of silencing, causes the issue to not being addressed openly. Minors are not aware of the dangers and when such a phenomenon is exposed many rush to conceal it."
Last week, for the first time since the country's inception, we learned that the state-religious education system has acknowledged the existence of the distressing phenomenon and has even devised a program addressing the matter. The program, implemented in female students since 2005, has not yet addressed the word "sex." The "Life Education in the Family" program will be studied in religious junior-highs and high-schools in the coming school year.
Dvora Rosenberg, head of the program, said that it was created in order to meet a real need. "The teens and educational staff felt they were lacking ways with which to cope with the issues the program addresses," she said. "We must talk about modesty but at the same time open the issue up. We must also openly address the issue of purity and explain the meaning of the deep relationship between a man and a woman."
Rosenberg explained that many of the teens turn to the media and particularly the internet for answers on the subject. "An absurd situation has been created in which they get knowledge and tools from the media and other sources, which are miles away from the values of Judaism."
Another reason Rosenberg noted for the introduction of the new study program was the prevalence of a longer period of bachelorhood in the religious society. "The phenomenon has raised the need for professional help in setting up a family from a young age with the school serving as a central and leading element."
Within the program, Rosenberg is careful not to explicitly address issues such as pre-marital sex, masturbation or plain "making-out." "Global changes in the structure of the family and the status of women are warranting a discourse on family values and a dialogue involving the importance of emotions, thoughts and dilemmas of both female and male students" – This is the closest expression describing the hormonal roller coaster teens experience.
The new program will be implemented by counselors and education staff that have underwent special training and will be studied in separate classes for boys and girls. The materials will draw from Jewish philosophy, halacha, psychology, physiology, literature and film.
According to professional sources, the age of sexually-active teens in the religious sector is consistently dropping. Exposure to "secular" contents places them in a hopeless situation: On the one hand, the natural urge to explore boundaries and experience new things, and on the other, a almost total lack of legitimacy to talk about human sexuality.
Professionals and educators say that the number of welfare and police cases on religious minors involved in sexual activity is on the rise.
"There's a constant increase in the number of religious kids who are involved in sexual activity who come to us," said Dr. Daniel Gottlieb, a religious psychologist and clinical director of the Shinui Institute specializing in children's therapy.
"I see this more and more. It's happening and it's a cause of concern. We usually treat cases only after the sexual issue has been exposed and after the child has been "caught" in the act, and it definitely relates to higher exposure to internet. The religious non-haredi sector is far more similar to the secular sector: There is a wider need to resemble TV icons than religious figures.
"It is far easier living in the haredi world where there are clear boundaries, and a parent signs the school protocol not to allow internet or TV at home. Life in the national-religious society is the hardest because on the one hard, they maintain an orthodox outlook based on halacha, and on the other hand they acknowledge the importance of combining the religious world with the outside world."
When Shlomo found out his kids explore porn websites via their cellular phone he immediately blocked them. "I explained to them that sex was sacred, a beautiful thing between a man and his wife, not purely a physical element but a mental one too, which should not happen before marriage. 'What you see on the internet is not normal, it's the evil instinct which is sadly inside us, contaminating us.' I know that it only takes one time for a child to be exposed and feel it inside his body, wanting to experience the sensation again and again."
Rami's parents (not his real name) were sent to the Child Protection Association after they learned he was involved in "sexual acts with another boy from the neighborhood," according to a welfare report. They were shocked to learn that their son, second to oldest of six, was watching porn films on his friend's computer. "The same boy offered Rami and his brothers to simulate what they had seen in the movies on themselves, which they did."
According to the report, in one of the instances, Rami and his friends watched a porn film and at the end of it staged a scene, which was filmed by the friend, unknown to Rami. "The friend directed Rami to force sexual intercourse on him."
Rami only later learned he was being filmed, but his friend's parents, having watched the video, filed a police complaint against him.
The professionals who treated Rami determined he was not sexually aggressive and stated he was engaged in sexual activities not befitting his age and life situation. The welfare clerk approached the police and asked them to close the file against Rami, who she said was dealing "with a sexual identity crisis."
Attorneys Amikam Hadar and Hedva Shapira witnessed a growing phenomenon from their experience as lawyers. "In the last six months we've gotten 10 cases of sexually active religious kids," Shapira said.
"And their age keep dropping, these are 9-year-old children. We are no longer surprised but continue to ask 'what are we as a religious society doing to deal with the phenomenon?' The answer is: Nothing. The religious sector is burying its head in the sand and it's time to force its leaders to handle the matter. Kids are only provided with sex education prior to marriage, teaching them things they knew at the age of nine. The whole world of sexual content is open but is not to be discussed in school, the youth movement and certainly not with the parents."
Rabbi Yuval Sherlo, head of the Petah Tikva hesder yeshiva and member of the Takana forum which recently gained headlines following the Mordechai Elon affair, said he was not aware of the extent of the phenomenon. "I assume no one knows, since naturally these things are done secretly. But I know the phenomenon exists, mainly from online websites where parents consult with rabbis on these issues."
Sherlo pointed to a number of reasons for the drop in the age of sexually active kids, mainly the exposure to internet and "its shocking contents," as well as the sexual nature of TV program, dwindling parental authority and the growing gap between parents and children.
When she was 14-years-old, Tehila's (not her real name) behavior began to change for the worse. Showing signs of depression she consulted rabbis who recommended natural treatment which did not lead to a significant change. What her parents were most distressed about was her growing provocative behavior.
"She began wandering around, was absent from from home and formed unclear relationships with men," the welfare clerk told the court. Having turned to psychological consultation, her parents learned she was being sexually abused by random men she encountered and to whom she offered herself in exchange for food, candy and clothes, though she never lacked these things at home.
A psychiatric evaluation determined that Tehila had decided to leave religious life, dyed her hair, wore excessive make-up and "was behaving in a manner inconsistent with her social-religious background."
Writing to the psychiatric committee discussing her case, Tehila noted, "I am perfectly healthy and need no treatment. I was kicked out of school for hanging around boys. I know it's wrong to hang around with boys and want to return to school."
Dr. Gottlieb said that it has been proven without a doubt that over-exposure to sex and violence effects children's behavior. "When a child is told: No, no, no, he wants it even more. But on the other hand, when a religious kid crosses these boundaries it is far more serious than with a secular child: The religious person has not only barriers of law and morality, but the barrier of halacha which is a far thicker red line than others. These kids can always be found to have other interpersonal problems."
From what age can one determine that a child's acts fall in the realm of sexual crime?
"Roughly from the mid-adolescent years. At the age of 11-12 a child does not really understand what he's doing and does not attach a sexual significance to his acts."
In the lack of sexual significance, what is the intent?
"An effort to embrace an adult model. If, in a movie a child sees an adult relieve stress by smoking a cigarette and drinking a shot of whiskey, he'll imitate that. What's worrying in children's irregular sexual behavior is the lack of empathy. There's no point getting caught up with the sexual aspect, it's more important to understand the real problem, which is a personal difficulty in the child's ability to empathize - the anti-social aspect of control and power in this behavior."
Currently, Shlomo is attempting to pick up the piece of his life: His two sons were removed from home for a long period and are undergoing intense psychological treatment while in the midst of their trials.
"At the beginning I couldn’t stop thinking: 'Why did it happen to me?' There was just one TV in the house and it was locked inside our bedroom. The kids watched only certain programs which passed our screening. After that, I attributed the whole thing to the problems between myself and my wife."
Is it possible that if the boy had someone to talk to it would not have happened? Maybe he was afraid to talk to a teacher or a friend?
"Had they learned in yeshiva about sexual deviation, had there been some sort of education, maybe their curiosity or their disturbance' had evaporated. They had no information. They expressed the beastly side of their personality in the absence of tools to contain it. Had they learned something on the matter I believe that their way of coping would have been different."
Are you not angry with your kids for what they did to their little sisters?
"No, because they are victims – of tension in the house, of the internet, of their sexual impulses which they did not know how to restrain. We're all humans. It's lucky we discovered this horrible thing, because had we not, they would have continued hurting others not just within the family, but outside it too and turned into sex offenders. I'm glad I know every little detail: Who did the hurting, who got hurt and who witnessed it. It's all out in the open and we have 'rooted out the evil amongst us.'"