Protesting Agudah's Child Sexual Abuse Enabling Policies

Why We Protested In Midwood Last Sunday – ZAAKAH

Photo credit: Anya Shpilkovskaya

This past Sunday, ZA’AKAH took the issue of child sexual abuse and Agudah’s horrendous record on it to the heart of the Jewish community in Midwood, Brooklyn. We started outside the home of Chaim David Zweibel, and after an hour moved to Landau’s Shul, a block down. A lot happened during that protest, and I want to try and break it down, answer some of the more common questions we got, and talk about my experiences as the organizer.

First I want to talk about why we did this in the first place.

For over 20 years of my life, I was abused. It varied between emotional, physical, and sexual abuse, and it happened unchecked. My family did nothing to help me, in part because my abuser was my mother and they were more concerned with what would happen to her if they threw her out of the house, and in part because they were worried what would happen to our family reputation. I can’t even remember how many times I had ACS, CPS, or the NYPD in my house asking me if I wanted to make a statement, and every time my family pressured me to keep quiet. They said it would ruin my chances at a shidduch. They said I’d be taken away to a foster home to be raised by goyim and mistreated. They said I’d ruin my cousins’ chances at shidduchim. They told me that the neighbors would talk about me.

Never once did they consider me. Never once did they look beyond their reputations, their concerns over their shidduchim, their concerns over what the neighbors would say, and really see how much I was suffering. It was always about them and what they thought was best for them, best for my abusive mother. They didn’t understand what was happening to me. They didn’t understand that I was dropping out of school because I just couldn’t bring myself to care about math and science when I had to worry every night whether I could go to sleep safely, or whether my door would be broken down in the middle of the night. They didn’t understand that those bottles of booze they found in my drawer were my only way of hanging on to life in a world that with each passing day became crueler, less worth staying alive in. They didn’t understand why I stopped going to shul even though to me it seemed that God clearly didn’t seem to care.

Instead they blamed me. They accused me of making up the abuse to justify my aveiros. Relatives of mine who had seen the abuse firsthand, who had been in my house every day to see what was happening to me, suddenly seemed to have forgotten what they’d seen. I attempted suicide twice while living there, and neither time did they know. I didn’t bother telling them because I knew they wouldn’t care. I knew they wouldn’t understand. Suicide doesn’t happen to frum people. It’s assur. So I didn’t even bother telling them.

And that’s the thing. There’s such a pervasive ignorance in the frum world about abuse and its consequences, that the people who do know firsthand what abuse is and how devastating the damage it causes is don’t even bother speaking up. They know that their pleas will fall on deafened, ignorant ears. They suffer in silence. They lose their children in silence. They become addicted, cut themselves, develop eating disorders, attempt suicide, suffer PTSD, anxiety, flashbacks, trauma, relationship problems—they die in silence. Muffled by this stifling ignorance.

This ignorance is not accidental. It’s not incidental. It’s deliberate. It’s caused by rabbis and institutions who fully understand the nature of the problem, yet care more about their power, positions, money, and institutions to do anything about it. It’s caused by rabbis who tell their congregants that the people who talk about sexual abuse are anti-Semites, stirring up blood libels to make them look bad, mentally ill people with axes to grind. It’s caused by the terror people feel in the frum community at the very thought of shidduchim or yeshiva acceptance. It’s caused by a reluctance to accept that someone who ostensibly seems religious—yarmulka wearing, Torah learning, beard sporting B’nei Torah dressed in white and black—could ever do such a thing. It’s caused by an insistence on the infallibility of gedolim regardless of their obvious mistakes and misdeeds, under the guise of Emunas Chachamim.

It’s exacerbated by policies put forth by these gedolim—like Yaakov Perlow, the Novominsker Rebbe, President of Agudath Israel of America, and head of the Moetzes Gedolei Hatorah—that require victims of child sexual abuse and their families to ask rabbis permission before going to the police. It’s entrenched by their lobbying efforts against legislation like the Child Victims Act, which would eliminate the civil and criminal statutes of limitations—which are currently 5 years—for child sexual abuse, and open a one-year window during which people whose cases have already passed the statute of limitations could still file suit against their abusers, and the institutions that covered up for them.

And while the community as a whole may be able to claim ignorance, Agudah cannot. Many survivors and activists have sat with them. Negotiated with them. Poured their hearts out to them. Appealed to the consciences they hoped Agudah had. Nothing worked. They’ve protested outside their offices, outside their annual dinners. It’s gotten us nowhere. Agudah remains stubborn in its policies.

In fact, they do what they can to pretend they actually care. They sent David Pelcovitz around to hold seminars for teachers and educators on preventing abuse. Not once did he mention reporting to the police. When asked why not, he responded that he was told not to address that. They implemented preventative measures in schools, like putting cameras in classrooms, windows in doors, and instituting policies forbidding teachers from being alone with students. They even had some abusive teachers fired.

But it was all a diversion from the real issue: the fact that underneath all of that fog, the truth is that most abuse happens outside of yeshivos. It happens in the home, in shul, in relatives’ homes, in friends’ homes. It happens mainly outside of the institutional setting, and while Agudah is making a big show of implementing preventative measures in yeshiva, they’re doing nothing to protect children where abuse really happens. They’re doing nothing to raise awareness in the community, and when they allow other organizations to try, they make it clear that reporting to police is not to be mentioned at all.

All this means is that they’re more concerned with avoiding civil liability than they are with actually preventing abuse, supporting victims, prosecuting abusers, and giving survivors the resources they need to recover from the abuse they’ve suffered. We’ve tried so long for so hard to make them change their policies, and we’ve finally had enough. We’ve gotten fed up with their indifference. We’re sick of buying their empty promises.

That’s why we protested this past Sunday outside the house of Chaim David Zweibel, and outside of Landau’s, the former because he’s the Executive Vice President of Agudath Israel, and the public face of these policies and lobbying efforts, and the latter because it is a place where we knew our message could reach the people who needed to hear it: The members of the community whose children are put at risk every day because of Agudah’s abuse-enabling policies.

Almost immediately when we lined up outside of Landau’s we were challenged by two men who wanted to know why we were there. When I told them about our cause, they asked me if it happened to have anything to do with Landau’s. I made it clear that the protest was not about Landau’s, and that we were just there because it’s a place we knew our message would be heard. In fact, I mentioned that to anyone who asked me, and several times loudly to the assembled protestors and spectators. Nevertheless, they attempted to shout us down.

When they realized that we weren’t going away, one of them went off to the side to call 911. When the police showed up a few minutes later, they took a look at us, saw that we were simply exercising our right to protest, reminded us to keep part of the sidewalk clear, and left.

Over the course of the protest, we were approached by some other belligerent people who wanted to disrupt us, one of whom yelled at the assembled protestors—which included a couple and their months-old baby—that we were all going to die within this year for what we were doing. He then proceeded to light one of our fliers on fire and throw it on the floor, all the while insulting me for my weight, and yelling about how we were all going to die.

But they’re not what’s important about the protest, and they’re not why we were there.

So many people gave us thumbs up as they drove by that corner, saw our signs, and heard our chants. People came over to us, offering us water. One man even gave us a donation right there on the spot, and thanked us for what we were doing. A former coworker of mine came over to me on his way into Mincha and told me “Tizku L’mitzvos.” Survivors came over to us, told us their stories, thanked us for being there, and said they wished people had been doing this when they were kids so maybe they could have been spared from being sexually abused. Parents of survivors thanked us for raising awareness about child sexual abuse.

The sense I got on Sunday was that there are, in fact, a lot of people who know firsthand how insidious, pervasive, and deadly child sexual abuse is, but have been suffering silently, waiting silently for someone to give them a voice, an opportunity to make their voices heard.

And that’s why we protested on Sunday. For them. For the victims of child sexual abuse, both the ones still alive, the ones hanging on by a thread, and the ones for whom all help is too late. That’s why we’re going to continue protesting, and making our voices heard, making it clear to Agudah that we’re not going away, that we will not tolerate their abuse-enabling policies, that the community will not stand idly by while they allow our children to suffer and die in silence.

That’s why we’ll be back next month, July 23rd, in front of the Novominsker Rebbe’s shul in Boro Park at 3 PM, protesting the policies he’s responsible for imposing, letting the community know that while he may not be there for them, we will always be, and giving them a voice so that they can finally be heard.

To join us at next month’s protest, please RSVP at the event page: https://www.facebook.com/events/261681534310970/

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My Abuser Was Not One Dimensional

Author’s note: This piece is based on something I wrote to some friends while writing a chapter for my webseries. I’m leaving it in its unedited form because that’s how I want the message to be seen. 

Writing about the bad times isn’t hard. That comes easy to me. I’m safe now. The bad times are now a weapon I wield rather than something I’m running from. Know what’s really hard? Writing about the good stuff. I have to keep forcing myself back to Scrivener to keep writing because I don’t want to acknowledge that they happened.

Because why does it fucking matter if there were good times? She fucking abused me on and off for most of my life, and then for 5 years nonstop toward the end of my living there. Why does it fucking matter that sometimes we went to restaurants, and travelled that one time, and used to talk a lot, and went places and stuff? Why the fuck does it matter?

It’s not like any of it mattered when she was trying to kill me. It’s not like it mattered when she was sexually abusing me, beating me, berating me, making me think I was a worthless piece of garbage who would have been better off aborted. None of it mattered when she ran out of the house yelling about getting a gun, then came home 3 hours later and sat there at the table with an oddly shaped paper bag, letting us wonder which of us she’d shoot first. It’s not like it mattered when she made my grandmother her literal slave, made her try to breastfeed her, grabbing her breasts and basically sexually assaulting her, made my grandmother wipe her ass, wash her, clean up her piss.

NONE OF THE GOOD STUFF MATTERED WHEN SHE WAS MAKING OUR LIVES A GODDAMN LIVING FUCKING HELL ON EARTH WHY SHOULD IT FUCKING MATTER NOW WHY DOES SHE DESERVE TO EVEN HAVE IT ACKNOWLEDGED WHY THE FUCK DO I EVEN REMEMBER IT I’D BE SO MUCH HAPPIER REMEMBERING ALL THE TERRIBLE SHIT THAT HAPPENED TO ME AND NEVER REMEMBERING THE GOOD TIMES THEY WERE SO IRRELEVANT TO WHAT SHE DID TO US

It’s not. not for me. For you it is. Read this blog post, read my story, watch my webseries, and remember that there were good times for me with her. Remember that I used to enjoy spending time with her. That she used to be my best friend. Remember that people are never one dimensional. They rarely only perpetrate evil. Remember that they’re not cartoon monsters, that they do good along with the bad. Remember that they can be great hosts while also beating their children. They can be very charitable, while also enslaving their families. They can be the person you turn to for help while also being a sadistic, barbarous, vicious abuser.

Remember that they can be the reason you get up in the morning, while also being the reason their son tries to kill himself.

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Manis Friedman Headlines Event With Child-Rapist Protector

Manis Friedman, inspirational religious leader, and well known speaker, renowned in the Chabad community, and well known for his infamous comparison of sexual abuse to a case of diarrhea, is headlining a shavuos retreat being organized by JEM Retreats, and the Illulian family. The same Illulian family that steadfastly protected registered sex offender, Mendel Tevel, and allowed him to be around children.

People might not understand the extent of the damage caused by this pairing. Let’s start with Manis. Many people feel that because Manis is such an influential figure, and because he’s “helped” and “inspired” so many people, he should get a pass for saying something that’s at worst insensitive. Like, what’s the big deal, right? So he compared sexual abuse and its devastating effects to diarrhea, he apologized, didn’t he?

His apology was half-baked, insincere, a non-apology apology that he forced out to get the “angry bloggers” off his back. But his attitude, and the attitude of the community that worships the ground that Manis walks on hasn’t changed at all. It’s the attitude that tells victims that the community’s comfort is more important than their safety, than their justice. It’s the attitude that would rather pretend that the problem either doesn’t exist, or that it’s not nearly as prevalent as activists would have you believe.

But let’s examine who’s hurt more by which. Sexual abuse is an uncomfortable topic. It’s horrific. It’s painful to think about. It turns the stomach. It offends the conscience to even think about the kind of evil required to commit such a heinous act. It’s almost inconceivable to believe that someone who has ostensibly accepted what they believe to be a moral way of life would be able to do such a thing and live with themselves. But while it may offend your sensibilities to accept that sexual abuse happens, that’s the most you’ll suffer in accepting it as reality.

The victims of this reality, however, suffer so much more. They suffer PTSD, flashbacks, anxiety, depression, addiction, self-harm, suicide, eating disorders, relationship, and sexual problems, the list goes on and on. It’s so much worse than diarrhea. You can’t fix sexual abuse with imodium. Minimizing the problem may make your life more comfortable, but in doing so, in ignoring the very real problem of child sexual abuse in our community, you ignore the suffering of its victims. You stand idly by while they suffer and die.

And that’s the problem with Manis, really. The problem is that he is so influential and inspiring. The problem with Manis is that people listen to him and believe what he says, believe that sexual abuse is no big deal, believe that it’s not worthy of discussion, that it’s blown out of proportion. He doesn’t deserve a pass because he’s respected, he deserves greater accountability because he’s respected. There’s responsibility attached to that much power, and he’s shirked his. If he can’t responsibly handle his influence, then he should lose it. And that’s everyone’s job: To make sure that people like Manis can no longer cause damage through the sway they hold over the people who follow them.

And then there’s Illulian. The fact that the Illulians are paired with Manis just proves my point. Minimize sexual abuse enough, sweep it under the rug enough, and people like Illulian, people who cover up for child sexual abusers like Mendel Tevel, freshly registered as a level 2 sex offender, keep their chezkas kashrus, even though, even more than Manis, they’re responsible for the sexual abuse of children. There can be no crueller irony than the pairing of Manis and Illulian on an ad prominently featuring a kids’ program.

 

This story was first broken by Meyer Seewald of Jewish Community Watch.

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Yom Tefilla Announced To Fight Technology; Silence Still Deafening On Sexual Abuse 

Apparently, the Moetzes Gedolei Yisrael of Israel have called for a “Day of Tefilos” to raise awareness about the spiritual problems technology posed by technology. As a community, we’ve become accustomed to these mass displays of piety, and international calls for prayer in hopes of inspiring a generation, and perhaps some divine assistance, to rid itself from the potential stumbling blocks in the way of spiritual purity, and connection to God. From asifos against the Internet in Citi Field, to international days of prayer, the Charedi world is awash in the mass organization of truly astounding feats of community organizing. One imagines that this kind of response could only be triggered by something perceived as an existential thread to the international charedi community. That is, after all, how they perceive modern technologies like smartphones and the ubiquity of the Internet: as an evil ploy of the Evil Inclination, whose only interest is in making sinning easier than its ever been before. 

But what of the other existential threats that plague our communities? What of the rampant sexual abuse that is enabled by polices like those of Agudath Israel of America, which enable abuse and protect abusers, by mandating that victims of abuse and their families go to rabbis rather than law enforcement when they are abused? Surely this is as much an existential crisis as any other. Surely, with the number of people who eventually leave Orthodoxy, going “off the derech,” as a result of abuse they’ve suffered at the hands of a seemingly indifferent community, something must be done! 

Apparently not. 

You know, it’s interesting. Back when ZAAKAH first proposed protesting the Internet Asifa at city field, I was opposed to the idea. I didn’t see the issues as mutually exclusive. I felt, at the time, that there was enough space on the moral landscape of our collective conscience for two issues to exist simultaneously. One can easily perceive the Internet as being a spiritual threat in need of eradicating, while also acknowledging that child sexual abuse is a horrific violation of our most vulnerable people, and committing to stand against abusers and their enablers. I didn’t attend the protest outside the asifa. I argued with one of the organizers, and tried to convince him to cancel it. I had such faith in my community’s ability to treat both issues with the attention each deserved. 

But it’s 5 years later, and we’ve had no asifa for victims of child sexual abuse. We’ve had no serious commitments by Agudah, and other major Charedi organizations and leaders to stand behind victims instead of abuses. We’ve seen no change in the policy that dictates that victims go to law enforcement rather than rabbis. Agudah continues to pour money into prevention, but still does nothing to ensure that abusers are prosecuted, and victims see justice. They spend all their time trying to make sure abuse doesn’t happen in yeshivos, while doing nothing to protect the majority of victims who are abused in their homes or by people they know. 

They continue to attack those of us who speak up against them, while partnering with organizations like the Catholic Church to oppose legislation that would eliminate the statute of limitations for child sexual abuse. Their excuse? That it would be cripplingly expensive to allow themselves to be open to that kind of liability, and that it’s more important for yeshivos to stay open than for victims of those yeshivos to get any justice. 
And now we’re having an international day of tefillah to fight smartphones and Internet. It’s nice to see that the Moetzes Gedolei Yisrael of Israel have their priorities in order. 

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A Follow Up on Carlebach and The Abuse He Committed

Two years ago, following a “Carlebach Shabbos” at my former shul, I wrote an article in which I described the conflict I felt hearing Carlebach being praised for his selflessness and kindness, while simultaneously aware of allegations that he had molested women. I left the article open ended, simply giving my two sides, and left it open for my readers to responded. And boy, did they. The responses flooded in; comments, emails, Facebook messages, even some in-person responses. They came in heavy, heated, and varied. It’s been two years, and I’ve had time to reflect more on the subject, discuss it with more people, and gain some perspective on the issue. Furthermore, since then I’ve spoken to quite a number of his victims, three of whom left comments on my original post. I’d like to address a few things.

Right off the bat, people challenged me on the ethics of sharing an article alleging that someone who is dead and cannot defend himself committed abuse that has never been proven in court. Many people have claimed it’s simply lashon hara, and therefore refuse to even listen. Setting aside whether or not those same people are as careful about the laws of lashon hara when the person under discussion is not one of the spiritual idols, I’ll take it at face value.

It is lashon hara. But one of the exceptions to the prohibitions against speaking lashon hara is when there’s a to’eles, a purpose. Most notably, if there’s a general purpose in the community knowing, if it will prevent some harm, then it is permitted to speak lashon hara. The benefits of discussing Carlebach’s crimes are twofold. First, it sends a message to the community that abusers will have to pay, in one way or another for their crimes, that death is not an escape from the damage caused by sexual abusers. It’s a powerful message to send because there are so many victims out there whose stories are kept hidden by coercion and fear, because the people who keep those secrets are terrified of what their families, their communities might say or do to them if they dare come forward. The more stories are made public, the more people come forward, the more victims will feel safe and secure in coming forward and telling their stories, exposing their abusers, and pursuing justice against them.

Second, for decades Carlebach’s crimes were covered up. For decades, all his victims heard about him was constant praise bordering on deification, any criticism quashed, any attempt at bringing his crimes to light hushed and suppressed. It wasn’t just his followers either who were complicit. Perhaps they can be forgiven because they were blinded by his charisma and façade, but his right-hand men, his gabba’im were aware of the allegations, and actively suppressed the accusers. And for years all his victims heard were stories of Carlebach’s greatness, the constant praise of a man who could do no wrong, simultaneously invalidating their experiences and exalting the man who hurt them. They deserve to have their stories told, to have their experiences validated, and there are enough of them to constitute a to’eles harabim.

The next thing that bothered people about my article was the comparison to Bill Cosby, a man accused of drugging and raping over 50 women over the course of his life. How could I compare “Reb Shloime,” they asked, to a menuval like Bill Cosby? Carlebach doesn’t stand accused of drugging and raping anyone, just molesting them. And besides, he was a complicated man, everybody knew, nebach, he was probably lonely. It’s nothing like Cosby.

A few things. First, the article was written when the Cosby story was breaking. But more to the point, the comparison is not necessarily to the crimes committed (I’ll get to that in a bit, bear with me), but to the cultural significance of both accusations. Cosby wasn’t just some funny-man any more than Carlebach was just a singer. Both were leaders in their communities. Both had moral messages for their communities, and represented something so much bigger than just the art they each produced. Both were symbols of something greater. And both were accused of just about the most immoral thing a person can do: Violating, in such a heinous and personal fashion, the trust that people had in them and what they represented.

But more importantly, there’s a fundamental misunderstanding people about sexual assault. People assume that if the assault isn’t penetrative, that the trauma isn’t really anywhere near as severe as it would be if the assault were penetrative. Or that if the assault was penetrative, there’s a difference between penetration by a penis, a finger, or a foreign object. That somehow the violation, the trauma, is somehow lesser or more acceptable, or easier to forgive, or easier to do teshuva for simply because the law assigns penalties differently in each case. A sexual assault is a sexual assault, and it is the height of callousness to claim that just because the law needs to make gradated distinctions in penal code in order to actually have a functioning legal system, the trauma is any less severe. Whether penile or digital or with a foreign object, penetrative or non-penetrative, conscious or drugged, sexual assault is a massive violation of a person’s sovereignty over the only thing they really control: their body and their sexuality. Seeing it minimize it in the interest of making one group of people feel better that the guy they revere is not as bad as the guy another group reveres, is disgusting.

This past weekend, after sharing my article again this year in “honor” of Carlebach’s yahrtzeit, two women posted their stories as comments on the article. I’d like to share them below, because it leads me to my final point. The first is by a poster who used the name Shula.

“I was a 15 year old Bais Yaakov girl, enthralled with his music. I was in seventh heaven when he offered me a ride home from a concert. The driver and another person sat in the front, and he sat with me in the back. When he put his arm around my shoulder I was stunned but delighted; and then his hand started massaging my breast. I was 15 and completely naive, had no idea what was happening, but somehow felt embarrassed and ashamed. I just continued to sit silently without moving. This continued until I was dropped off at my house. He told me to come to his hotel room the next morning, and I did! He hugged me very tightly, and I stood frozen, not really understanding what was happening. Then the car came to pick him up, and again I went with him in the car and he dropped me off at school. And I never said a word to anyone, never! I’m a grandmother today, and can still recall that feeling in the pit of my stomach, the confusion and feeling ashamed. I never spoke about this, ever. But all of these comments of denial make me feel I have to confirm that these things happened. He was 40 years old, I was 15. He was an experienced 40 year old man and I was a very naive 15 year old Bais Yaakov girl. In those days we never talked about sex. I had never even spoken to a boy! I didn’t associate him with ‘a boy’ – he was like a parent figure, he was old. But I felt it was something to be ashamed of.

Your article is extremely important – these are conflicts that we have to deal with in life, but if no one ever brings them up, then each person, in each generation, has to over and over again re-invent the wheel of faith. The struggle for faith is hard enough; when these issues are so wrapped in secrecy (and I’m one of those that kept the secret for 53 years!).”

The second was written by a woman who went by the name Jerusalemmom:

“Dear Shula-I had an almost identical story to yours…I was a religious high school girl. 16 years old. I went to his house for a class-his wife opened the door and told me to go downstairs to wait for him. I was the first person there. As I was looking at his incredible library of Judaica he came down-hair and beard wet from the shower. Before I could blink he was on me. One hand down my blouse, another up my dress. I froze in fear. I was so lucky that other people came minutes later for the class and I was “saved.” It has taken me close to 40 years to talk about it. Why bother? People who were his followers give answers like “I can’t believe that” -or “we don’t want to know.” Or “he’s dead and can’t defend himself.”

 

May g-d grant you peace of mind and may you heal completely. Enjoy your grandchildren and teach them to NEVER EVER let anyone touch them without their permission.”

What’s interesting about Jerusalemmom is that this is the second time she’s shared her story on my blog. The first time she was attacked by Natan Ophir, author of the Carlebach biography, Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach: Life, Mission, and Legacy who claimed she was lying. According to him, over the course of his research for his “500 page academic biography” about Carlebach, published in 2014, he had interviewed the women in the Lillith article I quoted in my article, and none of them had stood up to rigorous examination that met his academic standards. I soon found out why.

He started out by asking me to put him in touch with Jerusalemmom. I emailed her and explained to her that Carlebach’s biographer was interested in interviewing her about the claim she’d just made in my comments section for his upcoming biography. I also explained that I got the feeling he’d be adversarial. She asked me for time to think about it, and I went to sleep, expecting to have a response in the morning. The next morning I found a bunch of comments awaiting moderation attacking the veracity of what some unidentified user on my blog had to say in an unverifiable “calumny.” Post after post awaited me in the moderation queue, all of the same kind, along with a slew of emails to my personal account to boot. When Jerusalemmom found out what he was doing, she asked me to remove her comments from my blog, and not contact her again regarding this. I apologized, and removed her comments from the article.

A few days later, the article was posted in a popular feminist Facebook group. Instantly, women started messaging me about their abuse at the hands of Carlebach, and posting comments on the page. Within the hour, Natan Ophir, who just happened to be lurking in that group despite never having participated before, popped up and started attacking anyone in the thread with anything negative to say about Carlebach. He was quickly booted out of the group, not for the comments, but for private messaging several of the women who had left comments on that thread.

In the interest of “fairness,” he sent me the chapter of the book he was writing in Hebrew about Carlebach for review. He said he had included some stories about Carlebach’s “darker side,” which, after reading that chapter, to him meant the claims that he was having contact with women other than his wife. Nothing about the allegations of abuse. When I asked him about it, he claimed he couldn’t find anyone with a sufficiently credible story, despite having spoken to dozens of women about it, one of whom actually confronted him in that Facebook thread about distortions he had made in quoting her in his book.

This all took place in December-January 2014, 20 years after his death. Which leads me to my final point. The third thing people say when these allegations come up is, “Why didn’t these women come forward when it happened? Why are they waiting until he’s dead for twenty years to come forward?” Or, “Oh, it was probably a bunch of women who slept with a celebrity, woke up the next day with buyer’s remorse, and cried sexual assault. You know how it is.” And I’d like to address those claims, because they are worryingly relevant.

The women I spoke to were terrified to come forward publicly. Despite the fact that there’s very little in their lives that they have to lose by doing so at this point. They have families, they’re grandmothers now, for the most part, and they don’t have jobs that hang in the balance if they come out and tell their stories about Carlebach. But they do have to worry about people like Natan Ophir following them around harassing them. They do have to worry about the hatred that Carlebach’s followers seem to have in endless supply for people who have a different, more troubling story about their beloved leader. At this point, many of them feel that it’s just not worth fighting that battle.

But as to why they didn’t come forward sooner? They did. Or rather, they tried. Many of them tried to confront Carlebach about what he did, but when his gabba’im found out about why they wanted to talk to him, they made sure to keep them away. When his followers found out that someone was harboring such an accusation, they made sure to shut them out, and make it plain that they were no longer welcome. The legend they’d built in their minds and their hearts was too big and too fragile to fail. And the truth is it’s not unexpected. Carlebach, to so many, represents the very essence of their Judaism. For many he’s the very reason they have any connection at all, whether spiritual, cultural, or religious, to Judaism. For many, his message of love and acceptance, of connection to God rather than strict observance of a set of laws, of following the spirit to transcend the letter. Without him that message is lost, and without that message they lose their connection.

I feel for such people. I do. And that’s how we return to the original question: Is it possible to separate the art from the artist; the message from the man. Two years ago, when I wrote the article, I didn’t know the answer. But now, to me, the answer is clear. I’ve decided to let it all go. I no longer listen to or sing his music. I don’t feel personally that it’s appropriate to listen to the music and stories of a man whose art gave him the power and status he needed to get away with abusing so many women. I can’t honestly stand at the Amud and sing L’cha Dodi to any of Carlebach’s tunes and feel anything but dirty. I can’t tell myself that God wants my prayers when they come packaged in such poisoned melodies.

I don’t know if that’s the appropriate decision for everyone to make, but that’s the decision I’ve made. But whether people decide to keep listening to and singing his music, or they decide to let it go and find other sources of inspiration, the man and the artist have to die. The legend has to die. Perhaps the message and the music can live on, but not through him. Not through someone who hurt so many people. He doesn’t deserve our praise.

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How We Let Abuse Happen

The following was a response to someone who commented on my recent Hevria post about a Newsweek article detailing abuse and cover-up at Oholei Torah in Crown Heights. I’ve copied the comment here:

Abuse and its cover-ups should never be tolerated. Still, I take issue with your claim that the outrage will always be that the articles by secular outlets are anti-Semitic simply because this is such a searingly uncomfortable subject. It is pretty clear in the Newsweek article that they are pushing an agenda and trying to spread the idea that abuse like this happens BECAUSE of the nature of the religious/Chassidic community (this despite their “disclaimer” that abuse doesn’t necessarily occur more in Chassidic communities than secular). They misreport facts about the insularity of the culture and use their own misunderstandings as support for theories like “abuse is perpetuated because religious people are ignorant and close-minded”, beliefs that reek of bigotry. I think if issues were addressed with more respect, compassion, and empowerment, and less shaming and polarizing sensationalism, they’d be better received by the community and the focus would be less on the anti-Semitism of the article and more on solutions.

My response:

Three things facilitate this kind of abuse and cover-up. I’ll unpack them below. You’re welcome to call me an anti-Semite too, but these are things I’ve learned during my years of being a victim, and my years of activism on behalf of victims.

1) Willful ignorance

2) Denial

3) Conspiracy

Willful ignorance:

There is very little talk about sex and sexuality in general. It’s not considered tznius or appropriate. I’m not going to get into the merits or disadvantages of that, it’s just a fact. We shy away from anything related to it. We don’t use proper words for genitalia, like penis and vagina, we don’t have discussions about safe sex and consent, and we don’t explain children’s bodies to them, generally speaking. Many kids have no frame of reference to interpret what happened to them when they’re abused, because they don’t even know how to relate to their own bodies.

Again, I’m not trying to start an argument about whether we should or shouldn’t change that, but it is the reality. Sex is considered a private subject inappropriate for public discussion regardless of the context. And that *is* due to our religious culture. for better or worse.

That being the case, abusers know that there’s more they can get away with. They know that kids don’t really know what’s happening to them, they know the kids aren’t generally prepared to protest or tell anyone immediately after because they wouldn’t even know how to describe it, and they know that no one would believe the kid anyway, because what kind of nice Jewish person would do that. Which leads to the next two steps, denial and conspiracy.

Denial:

Being that the very topic of sex even in the context of consensual sex is so taboo and private, kal v’chomer non-consensual sex, or sexual abuse. The notion of someone having sex with someone else consensually outside the confines of marriage, let alone someone of the same sex, is so outside the realm of possibility for most sincere frum Jews that the notion of someone having sex with someone else *non* consensually is just impossible to fathom. The idea that someone who claims to have accepted torah and mitzvos, someone who goes to shul 3 times a day, puts on tefillin, keeps kosher, and learns in his spare time – certainly a rebbi – could do such a horrible crime is beyond the comprehension of many.

And it’s completely understandable, but it’s false. And it, again, is because of our religious culture. Once again, I’m not looking to debate the merits or disadvantages, it’s just a fact. That’s how the rank and file who don’t know any better react to abuse allegations. Especially since many abuse victims, by the time they finally pluck up the courage to report, have developed some serious problems, and/or gone off the derech, so to speak. They come off as angry, with an ax to grind, which they must have, because they’re no longer religious.

They must want to get back at the religious people who forced them to keep shabbos all those years, or whatever. No one ever considers that it’s because they were abused that they have psychological issues requiring therapy or meds, in many cases. No one considers that their eating disorders, drug habits, depression, personality changes might have happened as a result of abuse at the hands of the person they’re accusing, because again, the notion is inconceivable, and we tend to believe the nice religious guy with standing in the community rather than the OTD guy with problems. Which again, is the result of our religious culture. For better or worse. Which leads me to the last step, conspiracy.

Conspiracy:

Until now I was discussing people who are not familiar with the details of these cases, and who don’t have any personal connection to any abuse cases. The rank and file, as it were. They’re not involved in the conspiracy, they’re used by the people who are. The people at the top, the roshei yeshiva, principles, administrators – the ones to whom the allegations are often first made – actively silence victims who come forward with allegations of abuse. They’re the ones who threaten students with expulsion, call them liars, tell them it was their own fault, and do their best to keep the victim silence. In Chaim Levin’s case, for example, Rabbi Lustig told Chaim’s parents, after he came to Rabbi Lustig with an allegation against his cousin who abused him for 4 years, that the name of the abuser was irrelevant, and that he should just move on. He also failed to inform the police of the allegation, as he was required to by law.

But it doesn’t stop there. Many times it stops with the leaders. If they tell someone not to come forward, either by convincing them not to “ruin a man’s family,” parnassah, or otherwise appealing to their conscience, or by threatening or blackmailing them into silence, the victim will just give up and not pursue the case further. Sometimes the victim doesn’t care, and wants to pursue the case regardless of what they were told, and what threats were made. That’s when the leaders take advantage of the community’s naïveté.

When the allegations are made public, the community leaders, who themselves have dealt with many cases of abuse, generally behind closed doors, and often by intimidating victims, will issue a public statement standing behind the alleged abuser, and trashing the victim. The community, already ignorant of the fact that abuse takes place, and in denial that it could actually happen, of course sides with whomever their leaders tell them to, because why shouldn’t they? They have a tremendous amount of reverence for their leaders, and have no reason to assume that their leaders are misleading them or lying to them.

And all this is due to the fact that our religious culture, for better or worse, fosters this ignorance, and this denial, which enables the conspiracy.

Now, I just wrote that out in a very long explanation. The condensed version is what you’ll find in those sentences in the Newsweek article you objected to. Tell yourself it has nothing to do with the culture we’ve built around our religion, but it’s just not true. There are many beautiful things about our culture, and many ugly things we’d prefer not to acknowledge. This is an example of the latter.

 

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Dancing in My Chair – The Rest of My Story

It was the same every Simchas Torah, which is why I kept going back to Young Israel Beth-El of Borough Park. I tried other places, but I could never get comfortable. The men and children would gather excitedly around the bimah, anticipation in their eyes, the long-awaited release of the singing and dancing as they circumambulated the bimah, Torah scrolls held reverently to their chests, or high in the air by some of the stronger folks, celebrating the yearly completion of the Torah. Ana Ad-nai hoshia na! And they’d be off.

Slowly at first. My favorite part was always the beginning, slowly chanting the first verse of the portion designated to each of the seven hakafos. All the places I went to skipped the rest. The verses are all from the latter part of Psalms 19 and recited in order at the beginning of each hakafah respectively, yet somehow nobody in the places I’d go seemed able to keep a handle on which verse was said when, and what the words actually were. I always prided myself on knowing the correct verse, and often my voice would be the only one chanting the words while the rest of the congregation took a momentary break to consult a prayer book. We’d start low, slowly chanting, building the melody, our voices rising, higher, until the climax where we’d profess loudly, and joyously, children and Torah scrolls held aloft, our belief in the absolute truth of the Torah, and in Moshe, the greatest prophet who ever lived. And then the dancing would start.

Well, I say dancing. It’s more like running in circles. It’s kind of nice, though. Everyone joins hands, or holds the shoulder of the person in front of him, forming what amounts to a large, circular conga line, typically focused, and dancing, around something important in the middle. At weddings, it’s the bride, or groom. On Simchas Torah, it’s the bimah, where the Torah is read. It gets much livelier than it sounds a few rounds in. Some people grab the person next to them and go off to the side to form their own, faster paced circles. Some people grab the person in front or to the side of them, and encourage them to sing a little louder, smile a little broader, and dance just a little harder.

That’s why I loved going to Young Israel. None of that ever happened there. No one ever grabbed me, or bumped into me. No children ever wrapped their arms around my leg, bumming a ride around the bimah. There were a grand total of three young children in a congregation of older and middle-aged men. I could dance around without holding anyone’s hand, or having anyone touch my shoulder. I don’t like when people do that, but it’s hard to tell people you don’t like being touched. They start looking at you funny, like you’re some kind of damaged leper. Sometimes they ask what happened to you, and actually expect an explanation. Most of the time I put up with it without complaining too much, because that’s what’s expected of me, and honestly I just don’t have the patience to explain to everyone in shul that I really want to be a part of the group, but only if no one touches me.

Sometimes I can handle it. Sometimes I can’t. I wasn’t in Young Israel this year, and I really couldn’t handle it. The night of Simchas Torah I managed to last for two hakafos, and then had to leave shul or risk punching the next person whose hand reached for mine. The next day, I deliberately came late. I told the friends I was staying by that I was hung over from the previous night and overslept, but the truth is, I just didn’t want to deal with hakafos. I wandered into shul around 11 o’clock and sat in a pew watching the merriment. Some people tried to get me to dance, taking pity on that guy in the corner sitting alone, but honestly I’ve become very happy watching from afar. I’m not sad, and I don’t feel alone. I’m with them in spirit. Dancing in my chair.

I’ve disliked being touched for as long as I can remember. Until just a few years ago, I couldn’t remember ever liking hugs, or feeling loved by kisses. I never felt camaraderie from an arm around my shoulder, or a pat on the back. Touch always made me feel intensely uncomfortable, as though anywhere in the world would be better than where I was in that moment. I never really knew why, or gave it much thought, I just knew I didn’t like it. And then one night a few years ago, while working on the manuscript for a memoir I’ve since scrapped, I made a terrifying connection. I was writing a paragraph about how I’ve always hated being touched, and how I’ve never had a hug I liked, and this connection I had never made before hit me like a ton of bricks. I ran over to my blackboard and wrote it all down before the realization went away. As I wrote, it jarred me, left me shaking, but I set it aside and went on with my life.

Two weeks later, I was in a chatroom for an online support group in which I was a member, and we were talking about my aversion to touch. One of my friends in the room asked me if I remember ever liking being touched by anyone, and that same connection hit me again, and this time it was there to stay. I told them everything.

I told them how I could remember hating being touched by my mother. How she used to hover over me all the time, and touch me more than I was comfortable with; how I did ask her to stop every now and again, but she never listened. I was her son and she was entitled to certain things. She hugged me whenever she wanted to, kissed me whenever she wanted to, but sometimes those kisses made me feel funny. I had no idea why, but I knew it was not ok. I told her to stop, but she always told me that a mother is entitled to kiss her child. She would kiss me in places that made me feel aroused. Never on my mouth, or anywhere that would be considered overtly inappropriate. On my ears, my earlobes, my neck, my shoulders, and different parts of my face. I knew how it made me feel, and while I didn’t understand what that feeling was at the age of 5, I knew it was wrong.

She would do this until I couldn’t handle it anymore, and that feeling I was feeling became all-consuming, and 5 year old me knew it had to be relieved. So 5 year old me would masturbate. Sometimes I would do it in private, sometimes I couldn’t go somewhere private, so I would stick my hand in my pants off to the side and do what I had to. Sometimes she would be in the same room and I would try to hide it under the covers. Apparently she saw me doing it, because she would tease me about it when I finished. One name she’d call me when she saw me was “masturbating genius.”

The incident I recall most vividly is when I was 12 and she was kissing me like that at the Shabbos table. She would not stop, no matter how much I protested, squirmed, or tried to inch away from her. My whole family was sitting at that table and she was kissing me that way, and I felt myself getting aroused, and I didn’t know what to do. She would not stop. After about a half hour, I couldn’t contain it any longer, but I also couldn’t leave in middle of the Shabbos meal, so I went to the couch behind my grandfather, masturbated in my pants, and came back to the Shabbos table. She knew. I could see she knew. She started kissing me again. She teased me about it later. This happened for ten years of my life.

When I finished telling my friends in the chat, I was shaking, crying, having a panic attack, and all I wanted to do was die. The shame was unbearable. I felt so dirty, so disgusting. What kind of sick freak masturbates when his mother kisses him. And which mother doesn’t kiss her children? Those other kids never masturbated when their mothers kissed them, what excuse did I have? Was what she did really different? Was it really wrong? I didn’t know. My friends were telling me it wasn’t my fault, but I couldn’t understand how it wasn’t. I had put my own hand, down my own pants, stimulated my own penis, until I reached orgasm. She hadn’t done that, I had done that. And no matter how many times my friends told me that it was her fault because I was a child and she knew what she was doing, it would not sink in.

My friend, who ran the online group, drove in from where she lived, picked me up, brought me to her house for the weekend, and arranged for me to see a therapist the next week. I told my therapist this story, and she also told me it wasn’t my fault, and again, I refused to believe her. “If you had a video,” she asked me, “of what she did to you, what would you think was happening? Would it look like a mother kissing a son?” I thought about it for a second or two, and told her “No. It looks like foreplay.” I had to know, though. “Did she know what she was doing? Did she know that what she was doing was making me aroused?” My therapist asked me if she had ever had sex before. I’m living proof she has. “If she’s ever had sex, which she obviously has, she knows what arousal looks like in someone else. She knew what she did, and what she did was wrong, and it was not your fault. You have nothing to be ashamed of.” No one had ever told me that before.

Even after discussing, and dissecting it with my therapist, I never spoke about it with anyone. It sort of became this festering secret that I stored in my mind’s attic, encrusted in mothballs and collecting dust, until the day I’d be forced to drag it back out and stare it in the face. I don’t know why I’m doing this now. I guess because I’m sick of being that lonely-looking guy in the corner of the shul. I’m sick of having to either go along or leave instead of asking people to respect my boundaries. I’m sick of being the freak.

This doesn’t mean I’m magically going to start liking touch. I’ve known this stuff for years, already, and it hasn’t made me any more comfortable being touched than I was when I didn’t know why. It’s a work in progress. It’s weird, though, I love being touched by the right people. I love a good hug from a close friend. I crave it, and need it, and hate going without it. But there are only a few people whom I trust enough to let touch me. I wish I could carry cards around and hand them out to people explaining my situation and asking them to respect it. Perhaps that’s too much to ask.

I don’t know if I’ll ever be ‘cured’ of my aversion to touch, and I don’t know that life would magically go back to normal if I were. But until that happens, please try to bear with me. If you see me sitting off to the side, smiling slightly, tapping my feet in time with the singing, please don’t come over and ask me to dance. I’m not lonely, and I’m not sad. I’m with you. In spirit. I’m dancing in my chair.

 

 

 

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