Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Vicki Polin Interviewed by Luke Ford regarding rabbi Saul Berman

Vicki Polin Interviewed by Luke Ford regarding rabbi Saul Berman
Luke: "What is rabbi Saul Berman's complaint with the center?" 

Vicki: "His complaint has mainly to do with our handling of the case of rabbi Mordechai Gafni. From the beginning, I've had no idea where he was coming from and why he is trying to protect an individual who confessed to statuary rape a 13-year old girl. Rabbi Gafni has never shown any signs of remorse. He has never made teshuva [repentance] to the individual he assaulted. Rabbi Berman has sent The Awareness Center several long elaborate letters of complaint. No matter what we did or said, he just wasn't satisfied. It's obvious that he is lacking the needed education so that he could have a better understanding of sex offenders and in working with survivors of sexual violence. It saddens and scares me that a man of his statute is not willing to learn." 
Luke Ford's Entire Interview with Vicki Polin
December 15, 2004

I call Vicki Polin Wednesday night, December 15, 2004. She runs The Awareness Center.
Luke: "Tell me why you started The Awareness Center?"

Vicki: "I've been working in the sexual victimization field since 1985. I started as a volunteer, and then went back to school to get my degrees. As time has gone on, I've gotten more in touch with my Jewish identity. I started to realize that there was nothing out there for the Jewish survivors of sexual violence. For years I told other people to start something, no one did, so I ended up creating The Awareness Center. 

"It was a gradual process. In April of 1999, I started changing my private practice web page into The Awareness Center as it is now. 

"Back in the early 1990's, I was working in a rape crisis center on the South side of Chicago. I was a clinical sex abuse therapist, working with kids who were sexually abused. I was the fifth Caucasian hired and the first Jew. As I worked with the kids, I had to learn about black history, Kwanzaa, and black power. I started realizing that I knew more about their heritage than I did about my own. That's when I started learning about Judaism." 

Luke: "How did you start getting support for The Awareness Center, particularly from Orthodox rabbis?" 

Vicki: "As I was recreating the web page (, I was also googling Jewish web pages finding e-mail addresses and sending notes to everyone who had an e-mail address listed -- letting them know what I was doing and asking if they were interested in joining forces. That's how I met Na'ama Yehuda, Dr. Michael Salamon and rabbi [Yosef] Blau and rabbi [Mark] Dratch. I'll never forget when I got an e-mail back from rabbi Blau, I didn't know who he was. I had to ask someone who he was. My friend told me he was OK and I should contact him. I did that immediately and the rest is history." 

Luke: "What have been the typical areas of conflict between you and Orthodox rabbis regarding the center?" 

Vicki: "It seems that everybody has a different perspective on halacha and the way we deal with cases. It all depends on which case we're dealing with, what the halacha seems to be." 

Luke: "Why did rabbi Dratch leave the center?" 

Vicki: "He was under a great deal of pressure with his position with the RCA. It was a conflict of interest between the two organizations. You would have to ask him." 

Luke: "How is dealing with sexual abuse different in the Orthodox world than outside of it?"

Vicki: "First of all, the Awareness Center is not an Orthodox organization. It is a Jewish organization. We have individuals calling us from all affiliations and including those from no affiliation. On our web page we have cases of alleged and convicted rabbi abuse from every affiliation.

"In the secular world, people read newspapers and watch TV. They tend to be pretty progressive in the way they see individuals who have been sexually victimized, especially children. In the Orthodox world, it is often so insulated, that I feel that I am back in the 1980s trying to educate them on the basics. Many just don't have the information available to them that they need." 

Luke: "How do you tell the truth when someone alleges sexual abuse?" 

Vicki: "One of the myths that people have is that the majority of claims individuals make of sexual violence are made up. You have to realize that it is only 1-2 percent of cases where there might be false allegations. If and when there is a case of false allegations -- it is usually a cry for help, something else is going on in the life of the individual. Either way, the individual needs help. 

"One of the things The Awareness Center does is to look for consistency in what a caller is saying. 

"The statistics of occurrences of childhood sexual abuse is the same in the Orthodox world as it is in the secular world. I even read a study some time ago saying the statistics are the same in rural China. Basically one out of three-to-five women and one out of every five-to-seven men have been sexually abused by their 18th birthday." 

Luke: "Don't you think the Jewish community is taking this more seriously than it has in the past?" 

Vicki: "It depends on which community you are talking about. I was recently talking to a rabbi from an extremely insulated community -- he basically was saying that anybody who makes these kind of allegations is crazy. It appeared that he bought into the myth that 'Jewish people don't abuse their children.' It enraged me, and made me more determined to do what ever I could to make sure our rabbinic leaders become educated." 

Luke: "What is rabbi Saul Berman's complaint with the center?" 

Vicki: "His complaint has mainly to do with our handling of the case of rabbi Mordechai Gafni. From the beginning, I've had no idea where he was coming from and why he is trying to protect an individual who confessed to statuary rape a 13-year old girl. Rabbi Gafni has never shown any signs of remorse. He has never made teshuva [repentance] to the individual he assaulted. Rabbi Berman has sent The Awareness Center several long elaborate letters of complaint. No matter what we did or said, he just wasn't satisfied. It's obvious that he is lacking the needed education so that he could have a better understanding of sex offenders and in working with survivors of sexual violence. It saddens and scares me that a man of his statute is not willing to learn." 

Luke: "Do you feel like you need to educate these rabbis?" 

Vicki: "Definitely. I'd love to do training with them. One of the long-term goals of The Awareness Center is to have some kind of certification program for rabbis. Once they are educated we would be able to use them as referral sources for survivors, their family members and those who offend." 

Luke: "How much training does a rabbi need?" 

Vicki: "When I worked as a rape victims advocate, I had to undergo a 40-hour training on some of the basics. That's what I wanted to start out with. Rabbis need to understand what the symptoms are of someone who has been sexually violated (both adults and children). They need to know about the different types of sex offenders, and how to help families members of sex offenders. They also need to know what to do when an alleged or convicted sex offender comes to their minyan. They need to know some of the basics of how to make their minyans safe for everyone." 

Luke: "What role does rabbi Blau play with the center?" 

Vicki: "He's my partner in crime. He is our halachic advisor, does a lot of hands on work -- doing a lot of case management. And most important, he's always explaining to me -- who's who in the Orthodox world." 

Luke: "Do you believe that God called you to be a sex abuse victims advocate?" 

Vicki: "It's hard for me to say that it comes from God. Please remember that I come from an atheist background. I'm really learning as I go along. What I feel comfortable saying is that the universe has opened its doors in this direction for me. Every time I try to walk away, it just doesn't let me."

Luke: "Have you ever been romantically or sexually involved with someone you were [counseling]?"

Vicki: "No."

Luke: "What do you think about suppressed memories, are they valid?"

Vicki: "Instead of me answering this question, I would like to refer you to a dynamic web page that discusses all of the relevant information on the topic." 

Luke: "Is the center a one woman show?"

Vicki: "The Awareness Center is a coalition of several different individuals who are dedicated to ending sexual victimization in Jewish communities around the world. We currently are all volunteers (I can't wait until the day we have the funding we need to hire staff). I may be the most visable, but we have a team effort going on. We would not be able to do the work I'm doing without Rabbi Yosef Blau, Na'ama Yehuda, Dr. Michael Salamon, Renee Cannella, San, Adam and a slew of other people. 

Luke: "Are you the poster “Me” (AKA: Jewish Whistleblower)?"

Vicki: "I am NOT the individual who posted on the Protocols blog, who used the name of "ME" (AKA: Jewish Whistleblower). I wish I was as intellegent and as articulate. The "ME" poster has a vast knowledge of Hebrew and Torah. I don't."

Wednesday, December 1, 2004

1,320,000 Jewish survivors of CSA living in the United States today!

© (2004) by Vicki Polin, MA, LCPC
Originally published in The Awareness Center's Daily Newsletter - December 1, 2004

Too many adult survivor of childhood sexual abuse feel that they are alone. There are times survivors feel that they will never “fit in” because of what happened to them as a child.  The truth is that they are not the only ones who feels this way -- it’s a common theme for most of those who were emotionally, psychologically, physically and or sexually abused as children.  It is also a fact that many adult survivors of all forms of child abuse report that keeping secrets and remaining silent -- often leads to a severe depression.

We all have to remember that according to statistics (in just about every country), that one-fourth of the population has been sexually abused by the time they reach their eighteenth birthday.

Considering there are just about 306,000,00 people in the United States, there are just about 76,500,000 survivors of child sexual abuse.  There are about 5,280,000 Jews living in the US -- meaning there at least 1,320,000 are survivors.  According to the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics there are around 5,432,700 Jews living in Israel -- meaning there are around 1,358,700 Jewish survivors of child molestation.

It’s very difficult to deal with the denial in Jewish communities.  I have to admit that I get extremely frustrated when I hear how much time and money is spent making sure a cow is kosher, that an eruv is in place or the time, money and research put into the kiruv movement (Jewish outreach) -- yet when it comes to shining a light on child molestation, no one wants to hear about it nor fund organizations like The Awareness Center (International Jewish Coalition Against Sexual Assault).

Over the last nine years I heard story after story coming from observant communities where parents are told if they report sex crimes to law enforcement -- their children will no longer be allowed to attend Jewish day schools or yeshivas . . . or that their children will not find a good shuddich (marriage partner).  In some orthodox communities parents are told if they tell anyone their child was molested the school would have no choice but to expel the child “for having sexual relations”.  Instead of getting the needed help and protecting other children from the same fate, parents and community members are bullied into silence.

I often think about the political strength survivors of sex crimes and non-offending family members would have if we all banded together and start speaking out.  I truly believe that a small group of people can make a difference.  We need individuals to be trained by legitimate Rape Crisis Centers in becoming certified advocates. We also need each and everyone of you to learn how to use your voices.  We all must organize and speak out against the injustices we have faced in our communities.

Too many of our rabbis and other community leaders have a responsibility to stop this shame/blame game they have been using against our most vulnerable.  We must demand that they start allowing education programs in their congregations on all aspects of rape prevention and start to offer proper and appropriate help to those who have been victimized as children.  We must demand that our rabbis honor and respect those who have been abused -- just as they would any veteran of war.  Survivors of all forms of child abuse should be seen as hero’s -- especially after they start coming forward to report the crimes to law enforcement and or speak out.

As survivors we all have a responsibility to do our part to ensure our offenders are reported to law enforcement officials and hopefully brought to justice.  We gain power and control over our lives by these actions and also by using our voices.  Considering the fact that offenders have multiple victims, our silence can and does lead to more children becoming the next victim of a sex crime.

If you are a survivor of child abuse remember -- no matter what you are feeling remember you are not alone.  Things can and will change and get better.  I’ve seen it happen not only for myself -- but for other survivors too!  The pain you feel today is real and needs to be honored, respected and embraced. Your feelings are real -- but they will not always be so intense.  I know you will have many good days in the future and you have to believe that will happen.  One of the most important life lessons I’ve learned over the years is that when we are educated on the issues, have the right connections and determination -- each and everyone of us can help to make the world a better place for others who have been abused and also prevent one more child from being harmed.

Monday, September 27, 2004

Letter to the Editor - The Re-Invented Rabbi

By Vicki Polin - Executive Director, The Awareness Center
The Awareness Center - September 27, 2004 
(The following letter was sent to The New York Jewish Week in response to the article "The Re-Invented Rabbi")

Rabbi Marc Gafni (AKA: Mordechai Winiarz
The Awareness Center wants to thank Gary Rosenblatt and The Jewish Week for the courage it took to publish the story on Rabbi Mordechai Gafni (AKA: Marc Winartz, Mordechai Winiarz, Marc Gafni). We also want to thank the three women who were brave enough to share their "alleged" history of being sexually violated by such a prominent public figure. These three women should be seen as heroes. 

According to the article "The Re-Invented Rabbi", Rabbi Gafni confessed to having sexual relations with a 13 year old girl. He pointed out that he was "only 19 or 20 at the time of the relationship." According to New York law, an adult is someone who is age 18 or over.  Keeping this in mind, Gafni's actions would be considered "statutory rape." But we need to keep in mind that the "alleged" victim who was only 13 years old at the time is quoted as calling this "relationship" as "repeatedly sexually assaults over a nine-month period."
Rabbi Gafni is very fortunate that he committed this confessed crime in the United States. If he would have been a few hundred miles north in Canada, there is NO statute of limitation on sexual violence committed against minors. 

It's also hard not to believe the cases of Judy and Susan. If Rabbi Gafni confessed to having a "sexual relationship" with a 13 year old, how difficult is it to believe that he would also "allegedly" sexually assault a 16 year old who was living in his own home, or the alleged attempted rape of a 22-year-old woman. 

Judy stated in her recall of her assault that Mordechai was married to his second wife at the time, yet Gafni stated he only had "adult relationships with women at times when he was single, and was never abusive." He already confessed to having a "relationship" with a 13 year old, so who's telling the truth?

The Awareness Center is the Jewish Coalition Against Sexual Abuse/Assault (JCASA). We are an international clearinghouse of information that deals with sexual violence in Jewish Communities around the world. If you or someone you know has been sexually victimized, please feel free to contact us.

Vicki Polin, MA, ATR, LCPC
Executive Director - The Awareness Center 

Thursday, September 9, 2004

Facing A Mixed Legacy: First Carlebach conference to grapple with issue of abuse head on; opposition to street naming.

By Adam Dickter - Staff Writer
The Jewish Week - September 9, 2004

As the 10th anniversary of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach's death nears, his family and followers are working on a tribute to the charismatic man whose guitar-strumming, story-telling and bear-hugging approach to Judaism inspired a worldwide spiritual outreach movement that continues to thrive. 

But the first international conference on his legacy may be tempered by past allegations — some dating back decades — that the pioneering rabbi harassed or abused women, although no such accusation was brought publicly while he was alive. 

The Awareness Center, a Baltimore-based advocacy group for Jewish victims of sexual abuse, has issued a "call to action" against efforts to rename an Upper West Side street Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach Way. 

And in planning the three-day international conference here in late October to commemorate the rabbi's teachings, Carlebach followers seem to be tackling the issue head-on by scheduling a session on boundaries between rabbis and their disciples. 

Rabbi Naftali Citron, leader of the Carlebach Shul in Manhattan, which is organizing the conference, would not say if the session stemmed from the allegations, but cited increasing attention to the issue of relationships between clergy and their flocks. 

"This is more the reality of what is going on in the last few years," Rabbi Citron said. "Sometimes people get very close to their spiritual leaders." 

He said other sessions at the conference would include workshops on spiritual activism, how to start a Carlebach minyan, and new and old chasidic teachings. 

Rabbi Citron said it was unfair to allege improper behavior after Rabbi Carlebach's death.
"Reb Shlomo was a great man, and it pains me that different things are being said about him when he is not here to defend himself," Rabbi Citron said. "People could have come forward when he was alive to talk about what he did or didn't do." 

Amy Neustein, a sociologist who studies abuse in the Orthodox community, said until recently a perception of futility has kept such abuse victims from speaking out, as in the case of many religious communities. 

"They tend to hide their victimization because the community has hitherto been unresponsive to their plight," said Neustein, who contacted The Jewish Week in response to an e-mail from the Awareness Center. "What they often do is sacrifice their victims on the altar of shame." 

Allegations of impropriety by Rabbi Carlebach first became public four years after his death in a 1998 story in the feminist journal Lilith. The article claimed that he "sexually harassed or abused" women over the course of a Jewish outreach career spanning four decades. 

In the article, several women spoke of encounters with Rabbi Carlebach involving inappropriate contact or behavior. Others said they heard from other women about such experiences. 

According to Lilith, a group of Jewish women confronted the rabbi about his behavior in a private meeting in Berkeley, Calif., in the early 1980s and, after initially denying a problem, he declared, "Oy, this needs such a fixing," said participants. 

Rabbi Carlebach split from the Lubavitch movement in the 1950s, rejecting the strict separation of the sexes, and forged a brand of celebratory Judaism that encouraged the participation of women. Across the country today, his presence is felt in rousing Carlebach Shabbat ceremonies rich in song and dance at Modern Orthodox and other congregations.
He was known for literally embracing his followers, male and female — an untraditional practice among Orthodox rabbis. 

"It was a different time, a different way, a hippie kind of generation," said Rabbi Citron, a former student of Rabbi Carlebach. "It was no secret that he hugged and kissed women, and got plenty of flack from the religious community. From what I know of him he would never knowingly ever hurt somebody." 

But Vicki Polin, director of the Awareness Center in Baltimore, which is dedicated to addressing childhood sexual abuse in Jewish communities around the world, believes that renaming a street in honor of Rabbi Carlebach would be insensitive to those who have made allegations against him. 

"They also deserve to have a voice," Polin said. "It would be very difficult for them to walk down a street and see that it was named after him." 

Polin's Web site features a page on Rabbi Carlebach's history, including the Lilith article.
Penny Ryan, district manager of Community Board 7 in Manhattan, which must approve the name change before it is submitted to the City Council, said Tuesday that she had received several calls on the matter. 

"We asked them to come to the committee meeting when it will be discussed," Ryan said.
The meeting will be held Tuesday night at the community board's office. 

City Councilwoman Gale Brewer, whose district includes the Carlebach Shul on West 79th Street, where the street would be renamed, said she had been unaware of the allegations against the rabbi until Tuesday, when she heard from the community board about the calls. 
"I will go to the hearing and listen," Brewer said. "There will be discussions. I'd like to hear what everybody has to say. I know the daughters and the rabbi and I know they are good people." 

Carlebach's daughters, Neshama and Dari, have started an online petition to support the name change. 

"We have been given the opportunity to rename West 79th Street from Broadway to Riverside Drive in his name, Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach Way," reads an introduction on the petition. "It is only too appropriate to honor him in this way, to forever remember how he changed lives as he walked up and down this street." 

A call to Neshama Carlebach, who has followed in her father's footsteps as an inspirational singer, was returned by a family friend, Corey Baker. 

"It's too early, on such a sensitive issue, to be giving a comment," Baker said.
Rabbi Goldie Milgram, one of the women who told Lilith she was molested by the rabbi — in her case at a summer camp when she was 14 — said she would not oppose the street renaming in his honor. 

"There are many public figures who had significant shadow sides," said Rabbi Milgram, an author and teacher in Woodstock, N.Y. "It is not for us to remove the places they have earned with their work but to rejoice in the good they have done, to provide opportunities for healing those who were hurt and not denying their pain." 

Naomi Mark, a Manhattan psychotherapist and longtime student of Rabbi Carlebach who will participate in the boundaries panel at the conference, said the rabbi "never wanted to be a flawless guru." 

As the 10th anniversary of his passing approached, Mark said she hoped Rabbi Carlebach would be remembered for his ability to empathize and inspire. 

"He really understood our lives and the sense of alienation people sometimes feel living in the modern world, trying to juggle spirituality and Judaism in the context of the many contradictions they feel," Mark said. "He understood what those struggles are like and that's what made him different from other traditional rebbes.

Friday, April 2, 2004

Incest, Pregnancy, Abortion and Halacha (Jewish Law)

© (2004) By Vicki Polin, MA, LCPC, Michael J. Salamon, Ph.D., FICPP, and Na'ama Yehuda, MSC, SLP, TSHH

Originally published in The Awareness Center's Daily Newsletter
It is always difficult to talk about abortion, and even more so when religion is part of the conversation. Aside from the religious/Halachic questions, much of the debate becomes highly political. Nevertheless, The Awareness Center feels that it is imperative to address the extremely delicate issue of abortion, particularly when it comes to incest, sexual abuse, and sexual assault.

There is no doubt that life according to Jewish teaching is sacred. Pregnancy and procreation are encouraged as one of the most important "mitzvahs" (good deeds) for both Jewish men and women. Every person born, every "nefesh" (soul), is "as if a whole world is created" (Maimonides). That said, according to the Jewish view, we don't just make human beings: we are obligated to make humane human beings. As Jews, we are encouraged to follow a life of "Tzedaqah", a word that not only refers to justice, but to proactive use of good, such as mercy to the poor and needy. Justice, "Tzedaqah", is a prime Jewish virtue and needs to be applied to those already living, to our children, to their mothers, to our communities. Pregnancy is imperative to the survival of the Jewish nation. However, the life of those already living comes before the life of those yet to be born. A fetus, though precious, is not seen as having equal standing as a born person. Rashi, in his commenting on Sanhedrin 72b, says that a fetus is not deemed "nefesh"—a person—until the head emerges in the birthing process. Indeed, as a rule, the Halacha (Jewish Law) rules that a mother's health comes first. The Talmud says: "If a woman suffers hard labor and travail...her life takes precedence over it's (the fetus) life" (Mishne 6).

This precedence isn't limited to life and death situations. Take the case of a pregnant woman who had an ear infection. The doctors said that she could become deaf if she carried to term. The rabbinical response was that deafness "will ruin her life, make her miserable in all her days, make her undesirable in the eyes of her husband...therefore, she should be permitted to abort her fetus..." (Ben Zion Uziel, Mishpetei Uziel, Hoshen Mishpat, 3:46). Most religious authorities agree that not only physical health, but also the mental health of the mother is included. Under some conditions, such as to avoid disgrace in a case where a married woman got pregnant by another man, abortion is not only allowed, "it even may hold the reward of a mitzvah" (Jacob Emden, Responsa She'elat Ya'avetz, No. 34).

How can one possibly call abortion a "mitzvah"? Because sometimes the circumstances are that it is a meritorious action, a sacred choice. The right to choose an abortion has deep religious roots that are based in the "sanctity of life" and on the particular circumstances of each conception.

If a woman who strayed and got pregnant by another man might be allowed to abort the fetus—how much more so if the woman was raped? What if the fetus is the product of incest? What if the woman is still a child herself?

We at The Awareness Center believe it is up to each individual to decide for themselves the best way to handle their particular situation—and hopefully with the aid of compassionate and qualified help. Adults might have access to a support network of people to assist them. However, children often do not have such access, nor do they have the knowledge of how to handle the problem of pregnancy, or the burden of misplaced shame. For their sake, and the sake of adults without support, we find that it is of importance to suggest the following basic guidelines:

A. We strongly advocate that a minor, or an adult without a support network, find an adult with whom they can confide.
B. This person should be someone who is more than just trustworthy and someone the victim feels comfortable with, but someone who can give guidance and direction.
C. The supportive adult need not be the minor's parent (especially if the pregnancy is due to dysfunctional family patters and/or incest...): he or she could be a teacher, rabbi, neighbor, therapist, rape crisis counselor, medical doctor, or another trained professional.
D. Schools and communities need to provide sex-education programs that include information about rape-prevention, rape-crisis centers and hot-line numbers, so that minors in need know where to go.
E. Teachers and rabbis need to educate themselves about resources in their community, the legal and ethical issues of reporting child-abuse, and the Halachic ruling and/or resources in cases of pregnancies that are the product of rape and/or incest.
Perhaps it could be efficacious to further discuss these delicate situations anecdotally. Case histories of survivors who faced these dilemmas can help us gain critical insight for how to best address such troubling issues.

Diana was thirteen when she became pregnant by her father. She had no idea what was happening to her body. She'd gotten her period for the first time just the year before. When her period was late, she didn't feel like she could tell her mother—so she told one of her friends, Mandy, who had an older sister named Sarah. The three girls spent a lot of time talking and together they decided to call pregnancy hotlines to see what they suggested. What they learned was that if Diana said she was 15 or 16, she could have an abortion without telling her parents, but if she was younger she needed a parent's permission to abort. Diana would have to lie. The three girls made a plan: Mandy and Sarah would tell Diana's parents that Diana was coming to spend the weekend with them, and tell their parents that Diana's parents were going out of town and wanted Diana to stay with them. That Friday, the three girls cut school and went to the abortion clinic. When they were done they came home, and the sisters told their parents that Diana had the flu—an excuse for Diana to stay in bed for a few days to heal. If these girls had a trusted adult to approach, they would not have had to sneak around. Diana wouldn't have had to lie and possibly risk her life. The incest could have been stopped. Had their school provided a sex education program that included information on rape prevention and education, the girls would have known who to go to, Diana would have learned that there was help available to her. She would have known she was not to blame.

Esther was the typical teenager. Coming from a modest, religious home, she was an average student, very active in high school, and had many friends. However, she also had a secret. One she never shared. Esther was an incest survivor. Her father began molesting her at very early age, so much so that Esther couldn't remember her father not bedding with her. As she matured, Esther faced a dilemma—at sixteen, she had a boyfriend, Joel, and wanted to be sexually active with him. However, how could she sleep with Joel if she was also "sleeping" with her father? Having grown with incest as part of her life, and with secrecy, she couldn't see at the time how this conflict was intrinsically wrong! Esther decided that she would refuse her father, even though she knew such refusal would come at a price—refusing her father meant that he would become even more physically abusive to her than before. Esther knew the sacrifice she was making but wanted to be "true" to Joel.

Late every night her father would try to enter her bed, but Esther would tell him no. And every following day he'd find some reason to punish her, often to beat her. When her father's violence started getting to her, Esther remembered how her father would never sleep with her if she had her period. So every night before she went to bed, she would insert a tampon, and when her father came would tell him "not tonight daddy, I've got my period." At first he'd leave, and she was safe for another night, but after several weeks, when she told him once again that she had her period, her father erupted with rage, punched her, and pulled the tampon out, stating "I knew you were lying!" He then raped her.

Two weeks went by and Esther realized that she didn't get her period. As more days passed, she got very scared. She was never late before! Somewhere inside she knew she was pregnant. She didn't know what to do. Also, was she pregnant by Joel, or was she pregnant by her father's sexual assault? Joel had no idea that Esther was an incest survivor. He knew of the physical violence, but didn't know what to do about it. Esther decided to tell Joel that she was pregnant by him, and the two of them decided that it would be best for her to get an abortion. Esther was relieved—her real fear was that the baby was really a result of the rape... She needed help, but she didn't know what to do or who to talk to. Imagine how horrible it must be to be sixteen and not sure if you are pregnant by your boyfriend or your father!

As extreme as Esther's case might seem there are all too many like her, and if not properly addressed the ramifications of these situations can last a lifetime. Esther knew that she could never go to her mother for advice—her mother was herself a battered woman and as it was Esther felt responsible for her mother being hurt, often putting herself between her mother and father so that she would get hurt instead of her mom. Esther ended up keeping a terrible secret and going through the abortion by herself.

Unaddressed trauma can often last a lifetime. From the time she was 11 until she was 17, Varda was repeatedly raped by her older brother. She, too, had an abortion when she was 15. She, too, had to go through it alone. Telling her parents that she was going to visit summer-camp friends for a long weekend, Varda took a train out of state and paid for an abortion and a three-day stay at a motel with the money she earned baby-sitting. She had no one to ask for references about the abortion clinic she found in the yellow-pages, no one to help her when her fever shot up and she bled heavily and could barely keep down food or drink. Her parents never asked any questions. Twelve years later, at the age of 27, Varda is single. She makes excuses when she is offered dates and fears getting close to anyone—she is too scarred inside to have children. She is too ashamed to say why. Varda now lives alone and gets panic attacks whenever she goes to visit her family and sees her nephew play with her nieces or whenever she has to sit to the same table as her brother. She has difficulty sleeping and tends to withdraw from social activities. She suffers from severe clinical depression. Though there's no guarantee that early emotional support and clinical intervention could have prevented Varda's long-term consequences of trauma, maybe if she had someone to talk to, she wouldn't have ended up in a shady clinic, would be able to deal with the incest and raise a family of her own. She'd be spared the pain she is still going through now.

Jewish law teaches us that life is sacred, and that we are to cherish the living over the unborn. All the more so when the unborn was conceived through inconceivable acts. Following the teachings of "Tzedaqah", we are called to provide the needy and destitute with compassion and real-life help. Incest and rape can and do result in pregnancies. While we work to end sexual assault in our communities, we need to open our hearts and minds to support the victims of such crimes and to offer them information and help in their time of excruciating decisions. We need to let survivors of rape and incest see and feel that they hold no shame in our eyes—the shame is on those who hurt them. Let's educate our children so that they are no longer vulnerable, and educate ourselves so that we can help the ones who were taken advantage of. Abortion is never an easy thing to do, but in some cases it is not only allowed, it can even hold the reward of a Mitzvah!

Wednesday, March 31, 2004

Letter to the Editor - SNAP Supporter

 Letter to the Editor
SNAP Supporter
The Journal (Webster University) - March 31, 2004
I wanted to let you know that The Awareness Center supports the efforts of SNAP, requesting that Webster University let Rabbi Magencey go.
The Awareness Center is The Jewish Coalition Against Sexual Abuse/Assault. Please take time out to visit our web page where we have listed the old articles regarding Rabbi Magencey. You may be interested in reviewing the documents for yourself:
The Awareness Center contacted the licensing board at the state of Missouri, and asked if Rabbi Magencey was in violation of the agreement made years ago. On July 2, 2003 a response was sent to us from Pamela Groose, Executive Director - Missouri State Committee of Psychologists.
The response is : "To teach Intro to Psychology would not require a license to practice psychology and the same would go for religious studies. Whether or not his prior problem with his Missouri Psychology license is a problem for him teaching at the universities would be a decision of the universities."
Magencey is teaching at Webster University and Washington University. He is a part-time rabbi at Covenant House, working with senior citizens.
The state and Magencey, a psychotherapist in Chesterfield, signed a stipulation that strips Magencey of his license in Missouri and bans him from practicing in any state or foreign country.
Magencey is the son a prominent rabbi in St. Louis. His Father, Rabbi Avraham Magencey a beloved, respected man was the 'mohel' of St. Louis for years.
Vicki Polin, Executive Director
The Awareness Center

Wednesday, March 24, 2004

Web Site Tracks Sexual Abusers

By Debra Nussbaum Cohen - Staff Writer
The Jewish Week - March 24, 2004

Vicki Polin's efforts have received praise and criticism in the Jewish community.
From an apartment in a fervently religious section of Baltimore sits a nonobservant Jewish woman working fervently herself on a project that has become the center of her life and is making an impact — for good or bad, depending on whom you ask — in the Jewish community internationally.
Vicki Polin, 44, created and runs The Awareness Center, an organization devoted to the issue of sexual abuse in the Jewish community.
Essentially a one-woman operation, the center exists only on-line, through its Web site,, and over the phone. Polin and her board members, who include prominent rabbis and professionals knowledgeable about issues of sexual trauma, consult with people who turn to the organization for help.
All sorts of Jews, from all over the world, contact The Awareness Center for advice, counseling and referrals, says Polin, who puts in 60 to 80 hours a week on the project. She says the Web site is visited by about 15,000 people each month — victims of abuse, called "survivors" in the sexual trauma community, their family members, rabbis, lawyers, law enforcement officials and others concerned about the issue.
It is a clearinghouse with layers of information that includes lists of clergy, therapists and medical doctors who are sensitive to the needs of sexual trauma survivors, definitions of different types of abuse, and articles published by The Awareness Center explaining aspects of surviving and reporting such experiences.
The site also includes links to relevant sites within other faith communities.
The controversial element in The Awareness Center's site is its listing of rabbis who are believed to be sexual abusers. The documents listed were all published elsewhere first.
In some cases the people named have been prosecuted and convicted by the courts. In others the posting is based on allegations alone.
And that, say some, is unfair.
"It's a dangerous precedent to have a Web site listing unsubstantiated accusations made against people," says one New York rabbi, who asked not to be named.
The site also lists rabbis accused or convicted of a broad range of sexual misdeeds, from viewing child pornography several times to rape. But in order to distinguish the degree of severity of the offense, a viewer has to wade through the pages of documentation that have been posted.
"It is like guilt by association," concedes Rabbi Mark Dratch, an Awareness Center board member and head of the Rabbinical Council of America's Task Force on Rabbinic Improprieties.
Rabbi Dratch and others say that the good accomplished by the organization outweighs the potential damage of some of its postings.
"People who are survivors of sexual trauma don't have many places to turn, and Vicki has succeeded, through the accessibility and anonymity of the Internet, for people to have resources, have places to call," Rabbi Dratch says.
"If we had more resources we'd be in a better position to separate different levels of offenses, different kinds of accusations," says Rabbi Yosef Blau, a dean at Yeshiva University and Awareness Center board member.
"But without a much larger organization, at this point this is about all that could be expected to do under the circumstances. Hopefully people will read the articles and not just see names on a page.
"It's a tricky business, at what point we go public," he says.
Polin agrees it's a dilemma.
"We're not doing it to hurt people. We're doing it to protect people," she says.
The site also names rabbis without identifying their denomination. That's because sexual abuse "is a Jewish problem, not an Orthodox problem, or a Reform problem or an unaffiliated problem," Polin says. "It's a Jewish problem."
With the help of a law clinic volunteer, Polin hopes to gain status soon as a tax-exempt, nonprofit organization.
The project was born out of her experience working as a counselor with sexually abused clients in Illinois, where she lived at the time, through an organization called Voices, Victims of Incest Can Emerge Survivors.
"I'd get calls from people who were Jewish, and I found that I had to refer them to Christian resources," Polin recalls. "I realized I was handing over Jewish survivors to missionaries, and that really bothered me. I started telling everyone that the issue needed to be addressed in the Jewish community, but nobody did."
She said a number of Christian organizations were dealing with these issues, "and it always bothered me that there was nothing like it for Jewish survivors."
Now her efforts are being embraced by the Jewish establishment, with 140 rabbis of every denomination adding their names to the list of endorsers. And Polin says she has more to add but just hasn't had the time to get to it.
In the last few months Polin has been invited to address the conferences of Jewish Women International and of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance.
Her organization is struggling to stay afloat, though, with a few small donations to support the effort. Polin says that with more funding, she would like to put together a large conference — a "summit" — later this year of rabbis and other Jewish professionals, professionals working in the sexual trauma community, law enforcement officials, survivors of abuse and their family members.
Another goal is to set up a rabbinic certification program, "so if we need a referral we can say `this rabbi has that training,' " Polin says.
"We'll provide about 40 hours of training so they know the different kinds of offenders and victims, know the difference between sexual harassment, abuse and sexual assault, and domestic violence."
One person who praises Polin's work is a rabbi listed as a sexual offender by The Awareness Center.
"I give the Awareness Center a lot of credit," says Juda Mintz, an Orthodox rabbi who was released this month from a federal prison into a halfway house after serving 10 months on charges of viewing child pornography.
"We know that dealing with clergy there has been tremendous cover-up and denial. There have been concerted efforts by powers-that-be within the Jewish community to cover up or at best minimize what is more often than not serious offenses," he says.

"If this is a mechanism by which those offenses can be uncovered and the community can be sensitized, that is all to the good. And I say this as a perpetrator."

Friday, February 13, 2004

Orthodox Feminists Debate Future

By Phil Jacobs
Baltimore Jewish Times - Feburary 13, 2004

The Fifth International Conference on Feminism & Orthodoxy is scheduled for this Sunday, Feb. 15, and Monday, Feb. 16, at the Grand Hyatt Hotel in New York City. JOFA, the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, which was founded in 1997, is the event's sponsor.

The conference's theme this year is "Women and Men In Partnership," asking the question are Orthodoxy's defined gender roles unchangeable.

Workshops over the two-day conference cover many issues touching the overall theme. Its opening plenary is titled "Judaism as a Gendered Experience." The description of the plenary asks the question, "Is there Jewish value in breaking gender differences down?"

Topics of the workshops range from "Raising an Orthodox Feminist Child: An Interactive Dialogue With Mothers" to "Love, Learning and Laundry: Gender Roles Within Jewish Marriage" to "Sharing Life Cycle Events: Inclusive Ceremonies and Roles for Women."

There are workshops asking how men and women can work together to effect change, giving women more inclusion in ritual practices within synagogue life. Issues of sexuality, issues of divorce and the agunot (women who have not been given a Jewishly legal divorce by their husbands), and exploring gender roles within Orthodox schools are also on the program.

JOFA describes as its mission the expansion of "the spiritual, ritual, intellectual and political opportunities for women within the framework of Halachah" (Jewish law). It advocates "meaningful participation and equality for women in family life, synagogues, houses of learning and Jewish communal organizations to the full extent possible within Halachah."

Laura Shaw Frank and her husband, Rabbi Aaron Frank of Pikesville, will both be speaking at the conference. Mrs. Shaw Frank, an attorney, is one of JOFA's founding members. Her husband, Beth Tfiloh Community Day School's Lower School Judaics principal, has made the issue of gender roles in the classroom a personal focus.

"This is a getting-together of like-minded people to explore issues that don't get explored enough," said Mrs. Shaw Frank. She will be presiding over a workshop titled "The Politics of Gender in Confronting an Abusive Rabbi" as well as teaching a workshop called Kol Kevudah Bat Melekh Penima (All The Glory of the King's Daughter is Internal). The phrase from Psalms is traditionally cited as a prescription for modesty among Jewish women and as the reason why, according to the course description, "women should remain at home and not in the public sphere."

Mrs. Shaw Frank's workshop will ask how these interpretations can work in terms of modern society.
"We want to enhance the lives of Orthodox women as well as their synagogue lives and their communal lives while remaining faithful to the requirements of Halachah," she said.

The conference draws up to 2,000 people. "It's a real movement, and it needs a conference," said Mrs. Shaw Frank.

"I must live in a community that adheres to Halachah," said the former Wall Street lawyer. "It's of paramount importance to me. I have concerns and needs as a woman that I don't believe contradict Halachah."

Rabbi Frank will present a workshop entitled "Scenes from the Classroom: Gender Education in Action," as well as "Orthodox Day Schools: Can We Do Better?" The second workshop offers questions such as "How do we educate young girls and boys to understand their relationship to gender and gender roles?"

"My main goal is to have teens think," said Rabbi Frank of the gender seminars he's held at Beth Tfiloh, "to have them be aware of the messages they are getting around them. My goal is not to tell them this is right or wrong, but to make them be critical consumers of gender messages."

He gives an example. He asked his seminar participants once to free associate between Jewish men and Jewish women in the form of a list. What words describe Jewish men, what words describe Jewish women.

One of the words that was listed under the Jewish women category, he said, "mini-van."

He takes it to another level when he says, "What does it really mean when a woman wants to wear tefillin," he asks. "What does it mean for girls to see a woman wearing tefillin? Some kids have thought about it, some haven't. I want them to become thinkers."

At least one other panel will include a Baltimore expert, Vicki Polin, founder of the Baltimore-Based Awareness Center, an Internet resource for information on childhood sexual abuse.

More information on the conference can be obtained by checking the JOFA Web site at .

Tuesday, January 6, 2004

Spirituality, Sexuality, and How Survivors of Childhood Sexual Abuse Experience God

(This article was originally published by The Awareness Center in 2004 and republished by The Times of Israel on March 8, 2015.  The article was co-authored with Michael J. Salamon, Ph.D., and Na’ama Yehuda, MSC, SLP, TSHH.)

Spirituality and Sexuality are very often confusing issues for adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse, and for several valid reasons. In families where the concept of God is present, a child’s first representation of God is either of their parents or through their parents. If you have loving, kind parents you may develop a view of God that is loving and kind. If, however, you grew up in a family of violence your perception of a higher power would be of a being that is controlling, explosive and violent. For children who have been sexually violated by their parents, their role model for God is that of a sex offender. Survivors’ internalize a view of a punishing, abusive God, who only allows bad things to happen to them because “God loves them.” They live in a place where nothing is safe, not even their thoughts, because God can read those and therefore punished for even feeling angry, upset or disrespectful. Given the way children develop a perception of the world, a survivor of the heinous crime of incest would naturally question the veracity of a kind, loving God.

The Talmud (Moad Katan, 17a) relates that a respected Rabbinical educator was rumored to have been involved in behavior that was “hateful.” The commentators suggest that he was either an adulterer or seduced young women. The Rabbis ostracized this individual. Unfortunately, despite this tradition to ostracize such offenders, Jewish communities have not taken such a strong, responsible position toward molesters. Too often when allegations of child molestation are brought to the attention of community leaders, parents or relatives of victim’s are reminded that discussing issues of molestation within the community or bringing these types of allegations to the public would result in any number of negative outcomes for the survivor. These consequences include difficulty finding a marital partner of substance for not only the survivor, but also other family members, or could result in the survivor or family members of survivors not getting into good yeshivas (schools). There are tales of families of abuse victims of having to relocate to another town as a result of the political pressures following disclosures. Not only does the survivor have to struggle with their trust and belief in God so does the survivor’s family. 

We have begun to discuss the possibility of a correlation between assimilation and childhood sexual abuse. According to the most recently available data one in every three to five women, and one out of every five to seven men, have been sexually abused by their 18th birthday. As part of the healing journey, the majority of survivors of abuse reach the point where they try to integrate what happened to them on a spiritual level. Many are in twelve-step programs, surrounded by individuals of other faiths, yet the Jewish survivors often feel different. Jews have very different customs then that of their Christian friends. When a survivor is from an unaffiliated background, they may feel at a loss — unsure of what to do, or how to do it while survivors from backgrounds that were more traditional and included a Jewish education may feel betrayed by that background. The confusion of the healing process adds to the inability to find a healthy spiritual place within their own religion. So what is a Jewish survivor of childhood abuse to do?

Up until now there have been very few individuals who are “survivor friendly” in the Jewish community. We need to start opening our minds and our hearts to begin listening to survivors of childhood sexual abuse bearing witness. Just like holocaust survivors, who were initially shunned, survivors of childhood abuse need to be allowed to speak in order to heal, to be able to learn to connect with God, to see God as something other then neglectful, abusive and cruel. Those listening to these disclosures have a responsibility to themselves, their families and to the survivors. It is vitally important to make sure they have access to a support group conducted by a trained facilitator who is experienced with compassion fatigue (secondary post-traumatic stress disorder), so they are allowed to debrief and maintain balance, after hearing the voices of survivors.

Karen is a thirty-year-old survivor of childhood sexual abuse. She indicated that she spent her life trying to connect to something that was spiritual, yet felt she was failing. Over the years she approached many rabbis asking them questions. Unfortunately, the Rabbis, due to a lack of training, were unable to help her understand either her questions or the concepts with which she need the most help. Most had difficulty listening to her disclose her abuse history. When Karen was a child, while her father was molesting her, he would say “this is how you know God loves you . . . you know anything that feels this good has to have come from God . . . this is how you know God is inside you.” Knowing this information would be critical in understanding Karen’s difficulties with the concept of God. Yet most Rabbis doing outreach were unable to help her reframe her experience and make it possible for Karen to learn to connect.

Rivka was in her teens when she first disclosed to a friend that her father, a rabbi was molesting her. Her father was also a principal of a school for young boys. Her friend told her mother, who in turn, went to a local community leader to ask for advice. Because of the stature of her father, the community leader suggested they keep quiet about the abuse. As time went on, Rivka was unable to cope. As a teen she ran into some difficulties and ended up moving into the home of one of her classmates. Due to political pressure within the community, the family that Rivka resided with was asked not to daven (pray) in the synagogue they had been members of for years. The family was dedicated to helping Rivka heal, and were not about to put her out on the streets. Rivka eventually went to college, was able to support herself financially, got married and is the mother of three. Rivka came from a Torah observant upbringing, but from her experiences with the denial of the community, she no longer practices. She feels betrayed by her family, the Jewish community, and most importantly by God. When speaking to community leaders of the town she was from, and when her name is mentioned, they make comments such as she’s happy, she is married and has children. But they are not completely correct. Rivka’s is in mourning. She misses her biological family, she misses her connection to her community and she feels that has no one to talk to about her feelings about God.

Mitch grew up in family filled with physical and sexual violence. The family belonged to a synagogue and his parents made sure to enroll all their children in programs so that they could learn about Judaism. There was a problem — Mitch was deaf. None of the Jewish educational programs had interpreters. Mitch was not proficient at lip reading and disclosed that he was bored and felt left out. Growing up Mitch never felt that he was a part of his family since the majority of his family members were not proficient in sign language. He was alone isolated in his deaf world.

School was Mitch’s only respite. He was enrolled in a school for the deaf, and could communicate freely with people who could understand and relate to him. Growing up in the South and being deaf meant that he didn’t have any Jewish friends. As he reached high school, he wanted to be like his friends. Most of them went to church. Mitch had no concept of God, and was like a sponge to learn, to connect to something spiritual. Mitch’s concept of God was that of a father who was filled with anger and rage. No one in the Jewish community ever took the time to meet Mitch’s needs. He never was given the opportunity to express his thoughts and feelings about his concepts of God to anyone Jewish. But then the missionaries reached him. Like so many survivors, the desire to feel loved was strong. His new friends knew this and showed him unconditional love. He would do anything to feel loved and cared for, and if it meant learning about another religion, then he did it. When his family realized what was happening they tried to rectify the situation, but again it was done in a way that appeared to be an attempt to control and abuse him. Their attempt was unsuccessful. To this day Mitch’s views Judaism as something that is abusive and wrong.

The more our communities, and our leaders are educated on the issues relating to childhood sexual abuse the easier it will be to help heal the oozing wounds of childhood sexual abuse. Band-Aids can only cover up an infection. Our communities need to do major wound care, some individuals may require “spiritual surgery,” while others my just need a topical ointment. But together as a community, as a people we can come together and heal the world.