On Sexual Assault, Mental Health, and YU’s Silence

By: Molly Meisels  |  February 6, 2020

By Molly Meisels, Editor in Chief

On January 20th, 2020, two young cousins, aged 19 and 24, died by suicide in Jerusalem. It was reported that one of the victims was dissuaded from seeking mental health treatment after a relative sexually abused her. The other was dealing with religious struggles and “feared disappointing her parents.”

With mental health dialogue on the rise in the Orthodox world and events like Stomp Out the Stigma attracting hundreds of students at Yeshiva University each year, mental illness stigmatization is slowly being eradicated by a generation of younger community members. While the stigmatization and fear relating to mental illness at YU is still potent on the individual level, university organizations like Active Minds and their publication, “The Breather,” along with the Mental Health First Aid training sessions hosted on campus, give students hope for a future of healthy discourse. However, it is important to note that many students are disappointed by Stomp out the Stigma’s lack of LGBTQ+ representation. “Everyone is so proud of themselves for ‘stomping out the stigma’ yet they continue to stigmatize a community that needs mental health resources more than anyone,” said one anonymous student. Our community tends to purposefully disregard important facets of mental health — the external catalysts that contribute to mental health struggles. 

When the two ultra-Orthodox cousins tragically died on January 20th, those external catalysts came to mind. The overwhelming cause of death of one of these two women rests on our Jewish community’s track-record of silencing sexual assault survivors and avoiding treatment following trauma.

While the administration of our institution has remained on this sidelines of this issue, the student body has taken active steps to fight sexual assault in our communities. For starters, many students have been pushing for sexual assault and prevention dialogue. Students applied for status for a Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention club last semester, and while they were denied due to logistics with their application, they have reapplied for this semester and are on track to be approved by student leaders. Additionally, on November 26th, 2019, the Jewish Activism Club hosted a panel event titled, “Combating Sexual Abuse in Our Community Through Student Activism.”  

The issue of sexual assault at YU does not only exist within occasional dialogue among our student body, but is also tied to a broader context of the university’s response to sexual assault. YU is currently facing a lawsuit brought by 38 former YU high school students for how the university “failed to protect its students from two rabbis who abused students in the 1950s, ’60s, ’70s and ’80s.” The allegations brought against the two rabbis describe heinous sexual acts against children. When information about these acts was allegedly brought to the attention of YU’s administration, nothing was done to protect the institution’s children. One student attempted to take his own life after an especially traumatic incident with one of the rabbis. Yet YU has remained silent following these allegations, refusing to engage in conversation about this issue with its own students. Their silence is deafening. Instead of assuring students that past assaults are being dealt with, and doing whatever they can to protect their high school and undergraduate student populations, they have chosen to avoid any form of discussion, blaming the silence on their legal proceedings. 

But sexual assaults and related crimes have not subsided in the Orthodox community since the 1980s. Two Orthodox researchers found that the population of those who leave Orthodoxy are four times as likely to have been sexually assaulted as children than the general population. When YU remains silent on the allegations against them, especially when students are pushing for increased awareness towards these issues, they are shamefully contributing to the causes of sexual assault in our community – oversight, suppression, and denial — and to children deciding to leave the folds of Orthodoxy. Sexual assaulters leave scars on their victims for years, and many times the victims become depressed or die by suicide. The 38 victims who are bringing the current lawsuit are facing mental health issues, even decades later. This fact only gets propagated when the incidents are ignored by those in positions of power, precisely like in the case with YU. The least that YU can do as a leading institution of higher education in the Jewish community is send a statement to their student body about the allegations, along with an oath of protection.

Yet YU’s problematic passivity on this issue does not only lie with the lawsuit against them. As reported by the YU Observer in October, YU’s Spring 2019 “ Campus Climate Survey” that was sent to the student body to assess sexual assaults (mandated by New York State law) found that 59% of students do not know if “YU is doing a good job of investigating incidents of sexual assault,” with 72% of students saying that they “don’t know” if “[a]t YU, when it is determined that a sexual assault has happened, the perpetrator gets punished.” This data speaks volumes. 

Students at YU are barely warned about sexual assault or trained on how to prevent it. During undergraduate orientation week, YU distributes a required “Title IX: Non-Discrimination and Anti-Harassment Policy” to incoming students and screens the “Tea and Consent” sexual consent video. Wilf students in their freshman, junior, and senior years, told the YU Observer that YU held their sexual assault prevention training during an orientation breakfast and many students in their incoming class did not listen to anything being said. Moreover, many students do not attend parts of orientation, so it is likely that many students have not received even the most basic awareness training. It is not surprising that in the 2019 “YU Campus Climate Survey,” 25% of respondents say they’ve been to a sexual assault prevention training and 14% say that they’ve been trained in how to intervene as a bystander if witnessing a sexual assault.

This is insufficient. Most students are unaware of how to report sexual assaults on campus and if they cannot report instances of sexual assault, the perpetrators go unpunished and the victims are left to deal with the trauma on their own. While many students are aware of the Counseling Center’s existence as a resource, the Counseling Center does not do enough to reach out to those who might be the victims of sexual assault. At most colleges, posters with information and resources relating to sexual assault are hung in bathroom stalls, yet this initiative has not been pursued by the Counseling Center, as simple as it is. Overwhelmingly, the issue gets buried, and along with it, the health and trust of the victims in the Orthodox system. The Counseling Center cannot deal with this issue on its own. This is an issue the administration as a whole, top-down, is responsible for addressing. Students’ well-being and confidence should be their priority. Right now, they are failing in their responsibility to those who keep this institution running – their student body.