Beyond Silence Closing Keynote

By David Waksberg

Many years ago, I was in an area in the Soviet Union that had been a Nazi killing field during the Holocaust.  Thousands of Jews had been murdered there.  But there was no plaque there, no stone, nothing to mark the graves of the victims or even to acknowledge what had happened there.  The fact that Jews had been exterminated there – this was covered up for years.  In fact, the government built a housing project on the site.

I was there 45 years after the end of the war.  And what had happened at that place was still shrouded in silence and denial.  But, around that time, some of the buildings were falling apart.  It turned out the bones of the victims were coming up from beneath the earth and destabilizing what had been built on top of them.

The lie that had been constructed was literally crumbling.

I guess that was the first time I truly saw and understood the cost of silence and denial.

Here is a story from Rachel Lev’s Shine a Light:

“I had no place to run,” writes a survivor of sexual abuse, “no place to hide, no place to find someone I could count on – not my rabbi, not my religious school-teachers, not even my Jewish neighbors.  I had no choice but to submit and muddle through.”

Survivors’ stories are about trust and the betrayal of trust.  And who is the betrayer?  The betrayer is the one in whom trust is placed, and who violates that trust.  First and foremost it’s the abuser, of course – so often someone in a position of trust, power, authority.

But consider –

“No place to find someone I could count on – not my rabbi, not my religious school-teachers, not even my Jewish neighbors”

She placed her trust first in her family – but that’s where the abuse was; and then, in the community (her neighbors), her teachers, and her rabbi. 

That’s what I would do.  If I needed help, where would I turn?  Who would I count on?  My family, my community, my teachers, my rabbi. 

Her experience (and her experience is all we have and, let’s face it, all that’s truly relevant) is that she is let down.  She’s seeking people she can count on.  She finds none.

Is not this too a betrayal of trust?

Now, we don’t really know what happened with her neighbors and her teachers and her rabbi.  We don’t know if she reached out to them and was let down or if she simply perceived that she would be let down and was too frightened to try. 

Does it really matter? 

Do I ever want someone – someone who is in a vulnerable position, someone who needs help – to feel that they can’t count on me?     Because – even if they could count on me – if they didn’t know that they could, then what difference did it make?

It’s not enough to be rock solid.  The person in need must really know that we are rock solid. 

Most of us here – clergy, educators, counselors, Jewish professionals –consider what we do important and even noble and sacred. All of us serve people, serve our communities.  And all of us have people who count on us.  Have we done what we need to do to let them know that they can count on us?  What steps can we take to make that so? 

Survivors’ stories are about trust and the betrayal of trust.  And, like so much of Jewish history and experience, they are about power and powerlessness.

In this story – we are the powerful ones.  We are the ones with the opportunity to come through; we have the power to protect, to heal.  Or not.  But let’s not fool ourselves – there is no middle ground.  There is no such thing as neutrality here.   We either continue and compound the betrayal of trust or we are the ones who interrupt it. 

Alice Walker wrote:  “What is painful is that what I am writing, someone right now is living.”

We learned that 1 in 5 children in this country is sexually assaulted before the age of 18.  Research tells us that patterns among Jews don’t differ that much from the general population – certainly, we are less exceptional than we wish to believe.  Which means that – while we’ve been meeting today, a Jewish child somewhere has experienced incredible pain and horror.

Actually – when I first wrote that, I wrote – “unspeakable pain and horror.”  But I’m not going to say that.  “Unspeakable” is the word I’m not going to say any more.  The fact that this issue has felt unspeakable for so long is such a big part of the problem.  We must end that and the only way to end it is to speak the unspeakable and make visible that which has been hidden.

The single most powerful factor contributing to child sexual abuse is the ability to get away with it.  And the ability to get away with it depends on its unspeakability; and on our collusion, our denial, our silence, our fear.  Silence is the enemy.

We are all here because we know we have the capacity to make a difference.    Let’s be honest, we can leave here feeling a little better about ourselves or we can leave here with an intention and a plan to actually make change – to break the cycle of betrayal, to use our power to heal.  We are leaders.  We can and must be the change we seek.


No single individual can provide the answers.    I don’t believe that is how collective impact works.  But I do have some questions, that I hope will help us to develop those answers together.

We’ve learned an enormous amount today – thanks to our wonderful presenters.  The question now is what we do with what we learned.

Those of us who work in and represent institutions –

-       What did we learn today that is actionable in our professional capacities?

-       Do we have a set of protocols in our congregation, school, or agency?  Did we learn enough to create one?  If not, do we know who to reach out to for help?

-       Do we have a plan to share what we learned with others?  And how will we do that?

-       Are our staffs educated?  Do they know how to identify signs of abuse?  Are they equipped to respond appropriately?  Do they understand reporting requirements?  Do they know how to report? 

-       Do those most vulnerable understand how and where to get help?  Are our stakeholders aware of this issue and aware of our policies?

-       Have we created a culture and an environment that make is as clear as possible that we CAN be counted on?  A culture in which children (and anyone really) feel safe coming to us?  And what would it take to make it so? 

-       Are we equipped to provide the spiritual and emotional support needed for healing?   Are we equipped to provide this support to ourselves?  Are we ready to receive it?

For each of us as individuals – are we prepared to deal with survivors with open ears, open minds, and open hearts?  Are we prepared to be their advocates?  Do we understand how this issue relates with Jewish values around teshuva/repentance, and around the power of words?  What personal and professional learning must we still do and do we know where and how to get that learning?

And what if the accused is a colleague, a friend, a respected mentor?  What then?  Can we be counted on then?  That’s where the rubber hits the road, doesn’t it?  Will we have the courage to still listen with open minds and hearts to something so hard and so painful to hear?  Or will we take the easy road of denial and join the long line of rabbis, teachers, leaders, and neighbors who, when push came to shove, couldn’t be counted on.  This is where leadership of strength, courage, and compassion is needed.

And then there is the communal level.  How do we ripple beyond our own institutions?  So many of us participate in collegial networks.  We have an educators’ council.  Our Day School Heads have their own network.  Our synagogue executives have BATA.  We have networks of teen educators, of early childhood educators.  The Board of Rabbis.  How can we use these networks to share information, learn from one another and help our community get beyond silence?  And how can we use these networks to multiply and magnify our impact?  And how might we build on this network – the 150 of us who came together today – to build on what we learned and shared together, to create collective impact for our community?

And what about those i who don’t belong to our shuls, who don’t go to our schools?  We who are leaders in our community – do our responsibilities end at the edge of our real estate?  And is there no correlation between the experience from the survivor I quoted – that she could find no one in our community she could count on – and an individual’s decision not to affiliate?  If that were your experience – would you?

How can we take what we learned today to make our community a safe haven?   Or, at the very least – a safer haven.

This is a story of power and powerlessness.  And we are the powerful ones.

Many of us think of our institution as a kehillah kedoshah – a place where holiness resides; a place where we are in the continual state of striving for and creating holiness.  And we should, because – whether they are searching for God or knowledge or for community – our stakeholders are looking for holiness.  They seek it in our institutions and they seek it in our community. 

Holiness is what our tradition is after.  It is about understanding what it means to be holy, and then – doing it. 

There are many ways we can be holy and many ways to make our institutions holy.  The rabbis might say that holiness has 70 faces.  But this we know - holiness cannot coexist with violence and abuse.  It just can’t.  And trying to create a community of holiness in a place of silence and denial of abuse, is, l’havdil, kind of like trying to build a housing project and pretending that the housing project is not sitting on a killing field.  It’s bound to crumble.

I think that’s why we are all here, why we all took a whole day out of our busy schedules – because we understand that this work is not a “nice to have.”  It is essential to who we are – as individuals, as institutions, and as a community.

Which is why we can’t let this end here. 

I am grateful to my colleagues on the organizing committee for their leadership and we are all grateful to you for your leadership – in being here, and for your leadership going forward.

Remember that silence is our enemy.  Silence is denial.  Silence is pain.  Silence is betrayal.

Beyond silence means we leave silence behind – as individuals, as institutions, and as a community.  It’s the path – and the only path – of hope and of holiness.

Chazak v’amatz, v’rachmanut.  May we possess the strength, courage, and compassion, and may we give to one another and to our colleagues, our congregants, our students, the strength, courage, and compassion to make it so.