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, www.theawarenesscenter.org, 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."