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."

Saturday, March 6, 2004

The Vicki Polin Story

© (2004) By Vicki Polin
Originally published by The Awareness Center’s Daily Newsletter - March 6, 2004

From time to time reporters from various newspapers call me wanting to know about The Awareness Center, who I am, and why I do what I do. It was for that very reason that I had originally wrote the article “How The Awareness Center got Started.”

Some time ago a reporter came to my home and started asking me some very personal questions. It left me feeling extremely uncomfortable. As a therapist and also the executive director of an international organization I am always weighing the pros and cons of letting the world know who I am and sharing details about my past. This is not out of shame, but from a sense of wanting to keep my private life, private. I also have to consider whether sharing my life experiences will help or hurt The Awareness Center.

Can you imagine what it would be like if the only way you could get or do your job was to tell the world how old you were the first time you had sexual relations (especially if your first experience was from being sexually abused/assaulted)?

Then you are asked to make a list of any and all of the people you had those types of relations with, and asked how many times? I can't even imagine anyone sitting through a job interview being asked such questions. Yet, that is exactly what seems to be happening when many reporters call me or other directors of organizations that address sexual victimization issues for interviews.

As a victims' advocate, one of the things I advocate for the most is giving survivors a choice. Remember, choice was something that was taken away from them during their victimization. Having a choice is vital to their healing process. Needless to say, when I share anything or decide not to share something about my own personal life, it's because I have a right to privacy.

I share what I feel comfortable sharing, and like anyone, I have a right to keep parts of my life private. I'm not keeping “secrets,” I just don't feel like I have to expose myself to the world.

I have never felt uncomfortable saying I am a survivor of childhood sexual victimization. I am also a survivor of a sexual assault as an adult. At this time in my life I do not feel comfortable sharing the details or the identities of those who victimized me. Again, just as I advocate for all the survivors who contact me, this is about choice. It does NOT matter what my reasons are for not disclosing names. It is the choice I made.

I have no problem sharing that I am like a third of all women and a fifth of all men in the world. I was sexually victimized before my 18th birthday. There are specific issues and problems that I will face the rest of my life. And yes, I have been in therapy, which means I have a psychiatric history.

Having a psychiatric history can be looked at in many ways. Does that make me crazy? Should I lose credibility for what I say or do? Or does it mean that there was a time in my life when I needed help sorting out my life experiences, and got the help I needed? To be honest with you, I would trust someone who admitted they needed help and got it, over someone who doesn't admit needing help and hasn't taken the steps to get it.

Over the last few weeks I found myself dealing with some issues that I never thought I would have to deal with. Someone from my past started saying things about me in an attempt to hurt me and The Awareness Center. I will be the first to admit that there is some truth in what was being said, but I must stress that sadly a lot of it was distorted, taken completely out of context. I have nothing to hide, and I feel it is time for me to share some personal things about myself and my life experiences.

My life has not been an easy one. Like many other survivors of abuse, I have things I struggle with, and at times feel ashamed of. In my early twenties I was homeless for a short period of time. I was lucky, I never got into the drug scene like so many other survivors do. There were times in my life that I was suicidal and acted on my impulses. This was because I never learned how to identify or express my thoughts and feelings as a child, and felt as if I had no other choice. However, once I learned to identify and process my thoughts and feelings, and learned healthy ways for expressing myself, my life changed dramatically.

I have been very fortunate that throughout my life I have found some very special people whom I like to call my mentors. Sometimes I wonder, if it weren't for them, if I would have ended up locked up on some back ward of a state psychiatric institution, or wonder if wouldn't be alive today? It’s very scary for me to think about. But the fact of the matter is that I know my story is not that unusual for someone who has had similar experiences as mine.

A few years ago I made some choices that sometimes now I wish I didn't. However, looking at where these choices got me, I can see that they were not so bad after all!

When I turned 40 I'd given up my life in Chicago to follow my quest to learn what it means to be a Jew. I was extremely fortunate that a rabbi I knew offered me a full scholarship which included transportation, housing, and tuition to a women's yeshiva in Israel. To be honest, I really didn't even know the basics of Judaism. Prior to going to Israel I had been living in downtown Chicago in a high-rise located right in the heart of yuppieville. I had always been an unaffiliated Jew. So here I was, going from not knowing who Abraham and Sarah were, to attending a charedi yeshiva (religious school) in Har Nof, Jerusalem, Israel.

I have an undergraduate degree in women's studies (feminist studies), and all of a sudden I found myself living in an ultra religious community in Israel. Can you imagine the culture shock?...

I'll admit that I never had a positive concept of God or Judaism, especially given my life experiences. It's also important to note that the rabbi who sent me to Israel told me not to tell anyone about my abuse history or I would be shunned by the community... So there I was, going from being a strong victims advocate and someone who had some mastery over their own world, to living on what appeared to be Mars.

Years earlier I had gone backpacking in Europe for several months to escape the pressures of going to court after being stalked by the man who raped me. A friend suggested that it might be a good use for some money I had inherited, to “invest in good memories.” Prior to leaving for Israel, I had again been through a rough spot in my life, and I was hoping that Israel would be somewhat of a repeat of my Europe trip--the reinvesting in the making of good memories.

When I left Chicago for the women's yeshiva in Har Nof, I knew nothing about Israeli politics. I really had no idea who Arafat was. I was a Palestinian sympathizer. All I knew about Israel was what I heard on the news...

During one of my first weeks in Israel I remember hearing the story of a “Palestinian” woman who tied bombs on to her child, put her child on a bus and blew up “Jews.” She was thought of as a hero by her people... If she would have done that in the United States she would have been arrested for murder. All of her other children would have been removed from her custody. She would have gotten the death penalty. This tragedy and others like it, opened my eyes.

Prior to going to Israel I had spent a long period of time rehabilitating from injuries I incurred in an accident: I had been in and out of casts on my legs and braces on my arms for about 3 years. I had gained a lot of weight during that period, hadn't walked much, and knew that I needed to live in a place that was handicapped accessible. I was told Har Nof was. However, it turned out that it was far from that... For those of you who have never been there, I had to literally climb up about 80 stairs just to get to the next block! Har Nof is built into the side of a mountain. Definitely NOT handicapped accessible... This reality added tremendously to my challenges.

While still adjusting to Israel, Jewish life, and the physical challenges of my surroundings, I was also being treated for a medical complication that left me feeling exhausted most of the time. Getting around was extremely difficult, I was overwhelmed emotionally, in culture shock, and physically not feeling well. I got pretty burnt out pretty quickly and found it difficult to attend my classes. I kept calling the rabbi who sent me to Israel, telling him I wanted to come home, but he kept encouraging me to stay, to get to know Jerusalem. I followed his recommendations the best I could and stayed in Israel until after the high holidays that year.

Once back home, I was totally overwhelmed and confused by my experiences in Israel and was trying to integrate them into my life. This trip was far different from backpacking through Europe for several months--it changed me forever. Imagine my upset when on top of that and of my health problems, I had to face the fact that I was the victim of identity theft...

Coming back to Chicago, meant I had to jump start my life again. Due to the identity theft, everything I had was gone. I missed some of the friends I made in Israel. A year and a half later and following many times of going back and forth about it in my mind, I decided to make aliyah. It was February of 2001. I was moving to a new country, and going to learn more about Judaism, yet this time at a pace that would suit me better. I'd have all the time in the world. Still, shortly after arriving in Israel, I began to question my decision. It was harder than I thought.

I didn't know how to read or write Hebrew. I briefly went to Ulpan (a Hebrew class for new Israeli immigrants). My finances were tight. I struggled with all sort of things many people who make aliyah struggle with.

I met so many wonderful people during my time there, and had some very exciting experiences, yet I was homesick. I missed being able to know if my mail was a bill or just junk.

During my first week in Israel I went to a NEFESH conference. NEFESH is an organization for Torah observant therapists. I wasn't observant, yet I was interested in what NEFESH was doing. I started hearing about the way Israel was dealing with sexual victimization and it really concerned me.

For years I toyed with the idea of creating a Jewish organization, yet I kept telling other people to do that. I really never felt a connection to a Jewish community, so I didn't feel I was qualified. I had heard about the Lanner case and also about the case of the Kosher Butcher back in Chicago prior to making Aliyah. A friend at the time kept hinting to me to do something and get involved, but once again I didn't feel I was the right person for the job. But something changed while I was living in Jerusalem. I remember being on Ben Yehudah and a friend explaining to me the number of runaways that hung out there. I started to look and see what that friend was talking about. I started to get to know some of the kids there, and heard their stories and struggles. I was told about several so called “outreach workers,” who were nothing more then “alleged” pedophiles. What great pickings they had to do their form of “outreach.” So many “throw away kids” there for them to choose from.

There were so many kids hanging out on Ben Yehudah, from the totally unaffiliated to the ultra-religious. It saddened me a great deal to see the number of teens from charedi families that would change their clothes as soon as they got to town, and finding it a relief to act as most teenagers act. The hardest part was hearing the same percentage of kids from religious homes as non-religious homes talk about abuse. For many of the teens, this was the common thread. They felt they had no where to turn, so they would go to the local bars, get drunk and or use drugs to escape from their pain. That is when I realized that if I didn't do something, no one was going to.

Prior to making aliyah I created and ran an organization called “CNN-WATCH.” It was really a fluke how it got started, and that aspect of my life could be a book in its self. Basically after working in the sexual trauma field for about eighteen years, I thought that it was time for me to take a break. For some strange reason I thought running this media watch group was the way to do it. Needless to say it didn't take me long to realize that dealing with biases in the media was very similar to working with sexual trauma. During the seven months I lived in Israel, I ran the organization. I also began to transform my private practice web page into The Awareness Center’s site.

There is something about my personal life I always struggle with saying publicly, yet at this time in my life I feel the need to share it. I was born with several congenital heart defects. When I was a child I had corrective open heart surgery. I was always told that I was perfectly fine after that, but in 1997 I learned that that wasn't the case. I still had a very rare heart defect, that would someday require more corrective surgery.

Unfortunately, my heart defect has been causing me some health problems. I haven’t made this public before because I find this information to be quite personal. But the truth of the matter is that if it wasn't for my health problems I wouldn't have been able to do the work I'm currently doing. I never know from day to day how much energy I'll have, so needless to say I live on a disability check. Since the creation of The Awareness Center, my disability check has been our primary funding source of our organization. Yes from time to time we get donations, but basically because of my health, and the fact I do have an extremely limited income, I have been able to volunteer my time -- work for nothing. Our organization is so vitally needed, that I can't seem to keep up with the demands. Like many other nonprofit organizations, we need to start hiring staff. We can only do this with your financial support.

I want to stress that The Awareness Center is far more then just me (Vicki Polin). Our organization would not be able to function without the hundreds or even thousands volunteer hours donated by our volunteers. None of which have been compensated for their time, and or expenses.

How and Why did The Awareness Center get started?

The reason is simple. I took my life experiences, and what I saw happening in Israel and knew things had to change. I did not want one more child to have to go through what I did. I did not want one more survivor to have the experiences of seeking treatment from an inexperienced therapist who really didn't understand the ramifications of sexual violence. I did not want one more family to be turned away by their community after allegations were made that their child was molested by a rabbi (of any affiliation). It kills me each and every time I hear about such things happening. It's not in my nature to sit back and do nothing. No one else seemed to be doing anything, so I had to. I also needed to make sense of my life, and my experiences. Developing The Awareness Center, Inc. gives my victimization a reason for happening. I know what it's like to be sexually assaulted by someone you trusted; I know what it's like to have your world fall apart; I know what it's like to have to start all over again, and how you have to force yourself to trust again.

So when a news reporter contacts me and asks me personal questions, I really want to ask them; Does it really matter who sexually violated me as a child or as adult? Does it matter how old I was or how many times it happened? To me what matters is what I do with all of these experiences, and how I can use them to make the world a better place.