Facing Fears in the Orthodox Community

By Clara Hersh
The Observer

December 30, 2008

In the film "Narrow Bridge," writer and director Israel Moskovits confronts the controversial issue of sexual abuse in the Orthodox Jewish world. Moskovits plays the protagonist, Daniel Schneider, a philosophy major attending secular college. He meets Rachel Goldberg (Samantha Leshin) in a philosophy class. The pair quickly forges a bond discussing philosophy and religion, enhanced by the fact that they are seemingly the two Jews on campus. While Rachel has not grown up religious, she is interested in learning more about her heritage. Daniel helps Rachel learn about Judaism and both grow to admire each other over the process, during which they begin dating and eventually become engaged.

Their relationship has its complexities. Rachel is quick to open up to Daniel and divulge her past, but Daniel is very elusive about his life before college. Whenever Rachel asks about his past, Daniel evades her questions and hastily changes the subject. A flashback reveals that the reason for Daniel's elusiveness is because when he was young, Rabbi Kaufman, a teacher whom he trusted and who had helped him in his struggle with Judaism, had one day offered him a ride home, then took a detour and sexually abused him.

When Rachel goes home with Daniel to meet his parents, Daniel is once again confronted with his childhood trauma, as well as Rabbi Kaufman himself. This throws Daniel into a state of panic. He starts to fight with his mother and fiance and draws away from them. His behavior is so erratic that Rachel begins to question whether or not she made a mistake accepting Daniel's marriage proposal.

The climax occurs when Rachel gives Daniel an ultimatum. She demands Daniel tell her what is bothering him, and threatens that she will go back to college and break off the engagement if he does not comply. In an emotional confession, Daniel tells Rachel about the rabbi who abused him, and she suggests that he bring the rabbi to justice. Before Daniel can have such closure, however, the rabbi is struck by a car and killed. Daniel is left to mend his emotional wounds without the resolution he needed. He ultimately finds solace in his relationship with G-d, his fiancee, and his supportive family.

"Narrow Bridge" confronts many contentious themes. First, Moskovits tries to tackle the quest of a Modern Orthodox boy in college. Daniel is the first one in his family to go to college. After a lifetime of Jewish education, he is thrust into a secular college where he must survive as the only Orthodox Jew on campus. This situation has a straining effect on Daniel and his family, and his mother is not entirely supportive of Daniel's engagement to a baalat teshuva [one who chooses to return to Judaism.] Daniel disagrees with his family on what it means to be an Orthodox Jew and this conflict manifests itself when he brings Rachel home to meet his parents.

The other main theme in "Narrow Bridge" is the presentation of sexual abuse in the Orthodox Jewish community. There is a false assumption in many religious communities that sexual abuse does not exist within their enclosed society, making it harder for victims to come out or call their abusers to justice. Although "Narrow Bridge" was amateur in its filmmaking technique, this particular message is presented with powerful force, showing the damage inflicted on the victim and the effects that appear later in life. Daniel's relationship with Rachel was strained because of his abuse, and it also affected his view of G-d and justice because in his view Rabbi Kaufman had not received proper retribution.

Sexual abuse occurs in all communities. What may cause it to be more damaging in a religious community is the denial of its existence, or worse, total awareness of the situation, followed by abrupt concealment. There have been cases where teachers were found to be sexual abusers, but rather than being publicized, were merely relocated to other schools, putting other children at risk. Many abusers are not strangers, but individuals that have a bond with their victims. Like the Catholic priests who abused children in their community, Rabbi Kaufman was a clergy member in power who had the respect and admiration of the child he damaged. Sexual abuse from a clergy member could be even more traumatizing because it has the power to cause disillusionment of the religion itself. One of Daniel's most admirable attributes in "Narrow Bridge" is his utter conviction to Judaism despite his abuse.

Israel Moskovits deserves commendations for confronting this important issue. In his film he exposes the reality of sexual abuse in the Jewish community, making it accessible not only to Jews, but to non-Jews, too, who are unaware of the effects. "Narrow Bridge" has been screened on campuses around the country and is continuing to open the dialogue in the Jewish community about this significant problem just beginning to break its surface.


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