Friday, November 5, 2010

Do Girls Matter? Sexism and Sexual Abuse

By Vicki Polin
Huffington Post - November 5, 2010

Over the last ten years there's been so much emphasis and media attention on cases of clergy sexual abuse - with the perpetrators being priests, pastors, monks and rabbis - that we seem to be forgetting that forty-six percent of cases of child sexual abuse are perpetrated by family members. We also cannot forget that according to statistics girls get molested two to three times more often then boys -- or that the effects and long-term ramifications are just as horrendous as their male counterparts.
Over the last twenty-six years of my involvement in the Anti-Rape movement I have to admit that I have been amazed at seeing so many male survivors coming forward with their disclosures of child molestation. Even Oprah's on to the male survivor bandwagon, producing two shows on the topic of male survivors of sexual abuse; which will air on November 5th and 12th.

My concern is that girls and adult women who are survivors of child sexual abuse seem to be getting lost in this new shuffle. I have also noticed an altering of history from some survivor groups in which they are forgetting the roots of the Anti-Rape movement. Advocating for survivors of sex crimes did not get it's start in 2002, with the Boston Globe's exposé on the Catholic Church. We cannot forget that if it wasn't for several brave women joining together in consciousness raising groups back in the early 1970's, we would have no idea about how many people were being molested as children, or how many adult men and women were being assaulted. 

Why is it that even in 2010 we want to forget the value of the feminist movement? If it wasn't for the brave heroes of the 1970's getting together and sharing personal details of their lives we would never have been able to offer hope and support to those who had been sexually victimized. We would not have begun to educate the public on the issues and ramifications of rape nor would research that effects more then a quarter of the population of the world have been started. 

How quickly we want to forget that back on January 24, 1971 the New York Radical Feminists sponsored the very first gathering to discuss sexual violence as a social issue. April 12, 1971 was the historic moment in which for the first time in history there was a gathering of survivors -- all women, who created the very first "speak-out" -- where they shared their personal stories publicly; and over 300 people attended. 

I personally got my start in the Anti-Rape Movement back in 1985 working for one of the first incest survivor organizations. During the early years it was mostly only women who came forward sharing stories of child molestation. For the last 12 years of my work has been focusing in Jewish communities on an international basis. I have been amazed to see this same phenomenon happening within the orthodox world. Female survivors of sexual abuse have been taking a back seat to their male counter part. For every 10 males who come forward, there is only one woman willing to share her story, come forward and begin the healing process..

I have also encountered some discrimination at workshops and or with other organizations that have been popping up in the Jewish world; the leaders are all male. I have been told that they believe women are too emotional to be a part of the movement, let alone to speak out publicly. I understand the cultural differences of the Orthodox world in which it is frowned upon for a woman to speak or educate men in public for reasons of modesty, yet why are they not coming out speaking to each other? Will they really loose value as a person if it's known that they were victims of a sex cri

-- Vicki Polin authored this article. Polin is a Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor and the founder and director of The Awareness Center, Inc., which is the international Jewish Coalition Against Sexual Abuse/Assault

Monday, November 1, 2010

Vicki Polin: 2010 Jewish Community Heroes Semifinalist

It's quite simple, Vicki Polin created The Awareness Center eleven years ago, an organization also known as the International Jewish Coalition Against Sexual Abuse/Assault, which is dedicated to ending sex crimes in Jewish communities globally. 

Vicki works within every movement of Judaism, from the unaffiliated to renewal, reform, reconstructionist, traditional, conservative communities and all the way to the orthodox, charedi and chasidic world. Vicki's job has not been easy, because she's been shining a light on things no one wants to acknowledge as being problematic. Over the last eleven years Vicki's been threatened, spit on, insulted and verbally abused in her attempts to mentor and advocate for those trying to use the legal system to obtain justice. Vicki's resilience helps her to continue on to educate and protect our communities from sexual predators, and also offer support to those who have already been victims of sex crimes. Her personal mission is to offer hope and healing to many of those who feel they have been tossed aside.

Under Vicki's direction, The Awareness Center does its best to act like the "Make A Wish Foundation" for survivors of sexual abuse/assault and their non-offending family members.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Tattoo me: Religious markings could actually be a cry for help

By Vicki Polin and Michael J. Salamon
Cliffview Pilot - September 5, 2010
Besides the fact that it’s trendy, many young adults today feel that having tattoos is a way to define who they are as a person. But that declaration of individuality could contain an ominous message, one that requires we all pay attention. 

Although once part of everyday popular culture, the trend has blossomed among those from extremely religious backgrounds. 
Sometimes it’s a call for help.

In a recent case, a 14-year-old boy‘s father became livid when the teen had a dove professionally etched in blue and white on his thigh. The father was understandably upset and wanted to ground his son for life. He also threatened to sue the tattoo artist for proceeding without adult permission.

According to his son, he completely missed the point.

“I am telling my father in a very rebellious way that I want peace in the house,” the son said. “I am so tired of his anger and shouting.” 

At a kosher butcher’s shop recently, a teenage girl on line pushed the hair off the nape of her neck to reveal a small Star of David inked onto her skin. Who knows what motivated her to tattoo herself with that symbol at that place? A reasonable guess is that she was proud of her heritage but did not want many people to see the “art.”

After all, tattoos aren’t permitted in the Jewish faith.

Here’s where it gets sticky:
Self-mutilation is often a symptom of unresolved psychological issues, usually associated with those who’ve been physically or sexually abused. In its worst stages, youngsters cut or burn themselves until they bleed.

Those who’ve done it have said they felt numb or in such severe emotional pain that the physical pain they cause themselves helps relieve some of the emotional distress.

No one is saying that getting a tattoo falls under that category. For one thing, it’s done in one location and, in most places, not repeatedly. At the same time, research shows that we cannot ignore it as a POSSIBLE indicator of trouble.

A recent study of 236 college students at a Catholic liberal arts school found a correlation among sexual activity, tattoos and body piercing — but none between body modifications and religious beliefs or practice. One possible explanation is that those who tattooed themselves were rebelling against their childhood lifestyles. 

Over the years we’ve seen victims of abuse move from Torah-observant, Orthodox households into more secular surroundings. At the same time, many abuse victims from secular backgrounds have shifted from what they grew up with and headed on a journey of becoming more observant. 

Both groups of survivors have one thing in common: They are searching for a deeper meaning, reason and or purpose to why they were targeted to be victimized.

In the Orthodox world, a woman wouldn’t be caught dead in short sleeves in public, let alone wearing a bathing suit.  Yet one survivor, who was sexually abused by an older brother for four years, beginning when she was 11, disclosed that she had the words “Kadosh, kadosh, kadosh” (holy, holy, holy) tattooed in Hebrew on her back in her thirties.

She deliberately labeled herself, she said, so that both she and the world would know that no one could ever abuse her again.

We’ve encountered all types of ethical dilemmas working with Jewish survivors of childhood abuse. But this now is a trend that carries severe implications for those who submit to the tattoo gun. Raising the ethical stakes, youngsters tend to have various prayers that have great meaning to them tattooed on their arms, backs, legs and chests.

One had Torah verses inked into her skin: “Hear oh Israel the L-rd is G-d the L-rd is one”, “Hashem shall bless you and watch over you. Hashem shall shine the light of His/her face upon you and make you favorable. Hashem shall raise his face towards you and make peace for you.”

The Torah often tells us — figuratively — to “write these words on your heart,” not on the vessel that conveys you through life.

Which brings us to another serious drawback:
According to Jewish law, these words are not allowed in a bathroom or in view of a naked body. One halachic advisor has told survivors to cover those areas of their bodies when going to the bathroom or taking a shower. Yet there are times when this is impossible to do, depending on where the tattoos are.   

Growing up Jewish and being sexually abused as a child — especially in the ultra-Orthodox world — becomes a greater nightmare when no one believes the survivor or gets him or her the necessary help from a qualified mental health provider.

All too often, nothing is done at all. Either the victims feel so much shame that either they don’t tell anyone or it takes years to do so, or they‘re simply not believed when they do.

As children, and even as young adults, many of these survivors had no idea how to deal with or process the thoughts and emotions that go along with being sexually victimized.  When a survivor lacks words or is disbelieved, the emotional pain intensifies. All too often, they turn to drugs or food as a coping mechanism to anesthetize the pain.

Or they attack the “thing” that caused them pain in the first place: their bodies.

In many ways, people look upon these symbols as cool or hip. Unfortunately, they can also represent a cry for help, not unlike certain other forms of self-mutilation. It’s important that those of us whose loved ones take to the tattoo needle make it our business to find out the REAL story behind the markings, just in case.

Monday, June 21, 2010

From the Heart

© (2010) by Vicki Polin, MA, LCPC
Originally published in The Awareness Center's Daily Newsletter

I'm sharing the following with you, because I know I am not the only person who has ever experienced what I'm about to share with you.  It's a topic which I doubt has really ever been discussed in detail in any public venue.

Several years ago I saw an elderly couple walking in a parking lot of a mall in my home town.  The couple looked very familiar to me, yet I was having a difficult time placing them.  As I got closer I realized who they were. . . I said, "hi mom, hi dad".  They looked at me, said hello and then wished me a good day as they went on with their day.  These were two people who I spent the first eighteen years of my life with.  Though they are biologically my parents, they are virtually strangers to me.  

Today is my father's 78th birthday. It's such an odd thing to say that I haven't known my father since he was 47. He's been out of my life for over 30 years.

I know that I am not the only adult survivors of child abuse (emotional, physical and sexual abuse) that is confronted with not knowing what to do, nor how to feel when birthdays, mother's day, father's day and or other holidays or anniversaries come around.   For me, these types of days often leaves a void of emotions and feelings. 

I know that several other adult survivors of child abuse may also need to separate from their families to heal, yet often keep it a secret for fear of being shamed or looked at as being different. I felt that it was important to share my experience in hopes of helping others realize that they are not alone, and to know that they do not need to keep their silence any longer.  

I also felt the need to acknowledge my father's special day some how.  I guess this note is my way of saying "Happy Birthday Dad".

Friday, June 18, 2010

To Survivors of Incest and other forms of Child Abuse Regarding Father's Day

Father's day is approaching, if you are a survivors of incest, remember you are not alone.  Not all father's should or need to be honored.  Just like any holiday, be kind to yourself.  Surround yourself with people who inspire you to heal.

Remember you are good and always have been. What happened to you was a crime.  It's NOT your fault.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Unprecedented Case Brings Brooklyn Rabbi to Secular Court to Be Sentenced

By Yasmina Guerda
Brooklyn Daily Eagle - April 13, 2010

Outside Hasidic Realm, Rabbi Lebovits Faced New Trend in Sexual Prosecutions

Brooklyn — As the Vatican struggles with fresh headlines on scandals of child sex abuse, the Jewish communities throughout the world have been embroiled in a similar plague. In the last year, Brooklyn’s State Supreme Court has issued an increasing number of subpoenas to members of the Jewish Orthodox community in relation to child sexual abuse cases. Until recently, most of these cases were handled for the community by the community and entirely within the community.

The increase in the number of cases reported to the secular justice system by members of this particularly closed group is the result of a long process: bridges built between secular and religious judicial authorities in Brooklyn, and a strong collaboration between Jewish organizations and the District Attorney’s office through the project Kol Tzedek, Hebrew for “Voice of Justice.” The program has now reached its first year milestone.

He could spend the rest of his life in jail, but he remained silent during the four days of his trial. Baruch Mordechai Lebovits is a corpulent 59-year-old rabbi from Borough Park, in Brooklyn. On March 8, 2010, the day his verdict was to be announced, he arrived in the Kings County State Supreme Court striding behind his two lawyers, his face looking down to avoid the stares of a dozen bystanders outside Ceremonial courtroom No. 1.

Lebovits was followed by five of his relatives and friends. Slowly, more and more of the rabbi’s supporters quietly entered the courtroom and congregated in the benches behind the accused. Soon, two thirds of the seats would be filled with members of the Borough Park Jewish Orthodox community. Interviews with some of these men and women revealed their complete rejection of the charges: that Lebovits molested one of his 16-year-old students in 2004. His supporters were equally unconvinced by the multiple counts of child sexual assault for which Lebovits has yet to be tried. By the end of this year, Lebovits will be judged for allegedly abusing two other children.

Seated 30 feet away from his molester on the other side of the room, the plaintiff Yoav Schonberg, now 22, was surrounded by his father, a few friends, and Kal Holczler, who claims to have been molested by his own rabbi when he was a teenager. Schonberg was the prosecution’s primary witness against Lebovits. He was timid, obviously at odds with himself, and Justice Patricia DiMango had to ask him several times to speak up during his testimony. Speaking haltingly in a frail voice, Schonberg explained to the court that on May 2, 2004, Rabbi Lebovits offered him a free driving lesson. After a few minutes, Schonberg said, Lebovits instructed him to pull the car over, at which point the rabbi unzipped the young boy’s pants and began performing oral sex. According to the Assistant District Attorney Miss Gregory, the same thing happened to Yoav Schonberg, who was 16 back then, nine more times, until February 22, 2005. “It happened many many more times, but my son wasn’t able to remember the specific dates so it is not valid for the prosecution,” explained Yaakov Schonberg, the plaintiff’s father.

When the verdict was handed down, Lebovits did not move. He did not grimace; he did not sigh almost as if he had expected it, despite his “innocent” plea. Among his supporters, though, a few wiped tears from their cheeks and gasped for breath. Many started making calls as soon as they left the courtroom, to keep the rest of the community updated. The jury found the rabbi who is also a teacher at the Munkatch yeshiva (religious school) and the owner of a travel agency in Borough Park guilty of eight of the ten counts in the indictment. The sentence will be read today. For these charges alone, Lebovits faces up to 32 years in prison, four years for each count on which he was convicted. But at least two more trials await the rabbi this year. One of his alleged victims was 16-years-old and the other was 15 at the time the assaults are said to have occurred. “In the community, I’ve spoken to dozens of families who say their children were molested by this man. Dozens! The problem is that half of them don’t want to let it be known, and the other half can’t do anything about it because it’s too late,” explained Yaakov Schonberg, in reference to the five-year statute of limitations that make it impossible for victims to file a lawsuit after they turn 23.

Brooklyn is home to over 300,000 Orthodox Jews – mainly in Williamsburg, Flatbush, Crown Heights and Borough Park — but for decades, prosecutors very rarely tackled alleged child molesters in this community. According to an October 14, 2009 article by Paul Vitello in the New York Times, “of some 700 child abuse cases brought in an average year, few involved members of the Orthodox Jewish community. Some years, there were one or two arrests, or none.”

In the past year, however, according to the Kings County D.A.’s office, 30 members of this community in Brooklyn have been prosecuted for child sexual abuse. Among those 30 prosecutions, half were for misdemeanor offenses, half for felony crimes.

This sudden breakthrough in the ability of the secular judicial system to prosecute sex crimes within this tight-lipped community has been facilitated by Kol Tzedek, the program that Brooklyn D.A. Charles Hynes launched a year ago. Its goal was to build a dialogue between secular law enforcement agencies and Orthodox Jews as well as within the community itself.

Kol Tzedek includes a hotline for victims to report abuse and receive psychological support anonymously until they are ready to go to court. The program also has a prevention component, operated with the help of three Jewish social organizations – the Jewish Board of Family and Children Services, Ohel Children’s Home and Family Services, and the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty.

“It is a very scary issue,” said Dr. Hindie Klein, the psychotherapist who runs Ohel’s Tikvah Mental Health clinic in Borough Park in which several victims of sexual abuse have been treated. Klein is also in charge of Kol Tzedek at Ohel. This social services organization specializes in Jewish communities, provides help in several fields job search, poverty, mental health, foster care, etc, and last year, it celebrated its 40th year of existence. “Many members of the community don’t even know what is and what isn’t considered sexual assault!” Klein explained. “It’s Sabbath, the whole family gets together, and then you notice that this uncle or this neighbor has been playing a lot with your kid, taking him on his lap, touching him affectionately … Where is the line? Sometimes it’s nothing, and sometimes it’s worrying. The first thing that people lack in this community is definitely knowledge on this matter,” she pointed out, stressing each one of her words with both her hands. “But even then,” added Derek Saker, Ohel’s spokesman, who was sitting next to Hindie Klein, “once they know their children have been molested, families won’t always have the right reaction. There’s the fear of the stigma, enhanced by the fact that this is a very close-knit and modest community that we are talking about.”

According to Rabbi Nuchem Rosenberg, an activist who works in Williamsburg to prevent the sexual abuse of children, “If a kid comes home and tells his parents that one of his teachers or his rabbi touched his private parts, parents will have one of these two reactions: they will either slap him in the face and ground him for lying and being immodest, or they will tell him that it was nothing and that he should forget about it.” The general disbelief and/or denial was also noted by Shoshannah Frydman who is in charge of the project Kol Tzedek at the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty, a social services agency operating in New York City. “In any community, it is a topic that people refuse to face, and in an insular community, as is the Orthodox Jewish community of Brooklyn, of course, these things tend to be hidden under the carpet even more. They have a different understanding of child protection and criminal justice.” Frydman also said that there was an important lack of information on sexual abuse itself. “People think that if their children were abused, it is going to influence their whole sexuality, or create problems when it comes to finding a wife or a husband.”

An indication of the resistance within the Orthodox community to bringing child molesters to justice can be found in posts from blogger Yerachmiel Lopin, who writes about child molestation in Brooklyn: “A source in Boro Park tells me that [a flyer calling for witnesses to testify against Lebovits and to contact Miss Gregory at the D.A.’s office] was strewn all over his neighborhood on Shabbat morning on November 21, 2009. By noon the flyers had all been removed. … It is striking that this secret activity is being undertaken. One would have thought that given the many children he may have molested the community leadership could easily assure the necessary roster of witnesses.”

“We can’t let things be handled by the community. Our only way out is to turn to secular justice,” insisted Victoria Polin, the social worker who founded the Awareness Center, based in Baltimore, MD. This international organization has been fighting child sexual abuse for eleven years in Jewish communities throughout the world by means of prevention programs and information workshops. Polin’s Awareness Center also helps survivors deal with the consequences of having been sexually assaulted. “So many children end up committing suicide, or falling into drugs… They can end up having very serious health problems because some were abused when they were very young and they had their insides torn; girls can have long-term gynecological issues; others will refuse to go to the dentist during their entire lives because of the trauma of having somebody else put something in their mouth,” Polin said.
In Williamsburg, on November 5, 2009, several newspapers reported that Motty Borger, 24, committed suicide, two days after his wedding. As his new wife was asleep, at 6:45 a.m., Borger jumped from his seventh floor room at the Avenue Plaza hotel. Although no suicide note was found, friends of Borger’s told reporters that, a few days before Borger killed himself, he had confided to his father-in-law and to his wife that Rabbi Lebovits had sodomized him.

“My son hasn’t killed himself,” said Yaakov Schonberg, the father of the abused boy in Lebovits’ trial. “But he spent four years navigating between crack and cocaine addiction, he was unable to get a job, he started stealing money from synagogues to finance his addiction… and of course he was arrested several times for stealing that money. It’s a vicious cycle!” In 2008, Yoav was sent to a rehab center in Los Angeles, CA, but he only stayed there for one month. Since then, even though he still wears his black velvet kippah, and considers himself a Jew, Yoav Schonberg says he has left the Hareidi world: he no longer goes to the synagogue to pray, he shaves his beard regularly and has stopped wearing his hair side curls. His father still has the side curls and follows the dress code of the Munkatch Orthodox sect, but he has also partially withdrawn from its strict rules: “I am under no rabbi. No rabbi tells me what to do now,” Yaakov Schonberg said.

This trend is not specific to the Jewish Orthodox communities, according to Victoria Polin, the Awareness Center founder. “When something this tragic happens, of course, victims will lose trust in their community, and that is why it is so important that secular authorities be there for survivors. Otherwise, they will feel like they have nobody to turn to,” Polin insisted.

District Attorney Hynes, who has spent his whole career in Brooklyn, is used to dealing with leaders of the Orthodox Jewish community. Several times in the past ten years, advocates for victims of sexual abuse have accused Hynes of seeking peace in his jurisdiction by turning a blind eye to the community’s practice of funneling abuse cases through religious tribunals and shutting out secular justice authorities. “But the real problem,” said Jerry Schmetterer, spokesman for the Brooklyn D.A., “was that they just didn’t trust us. We really feel it’s working well now. The fact that the program Kol Tzedek is anonymous is what really made the difference.”

Dr. Hindie Klein who, as the director of a mental health clinic, has received “many anonymous calls from frightened parents looking for information,” said that the reason why it is so difficult for a family to talk to secular authorities is that they don’t know what consequences their call will have. “Will everything break out publicly? Will their family be outcast for something that could possibly have been nothing? They need to know that their call will have no consequences unless they decide otherwise.” According to Klein, as well, total anonymity and privacy is what Kol Tzedek’s strength depends on.

Every Orthodox Jewish community has religious tribunals, composed of three, or sometimes four rabbis. These rabbinical courts, called “Bet Din,” Hebrew for “House of Judgment,” are intended to settle every disagreement within the community and only rarely choose to report cases to secular judicial authorities. “It’s a matter of protecting the community,” explained Yaakov Schonberg. “By handling problems yourself, you prevent the others from knowing about those problems and from using them against you.” Breaking the rule and reaching out to secular authorities when there is a problem within the community, according to Schonberg, will get you excommunicated more often than not. Excommunication means that someone will not be allowed in any synagogue of the community, his/her children won’t be accepted in any yeshiva, and shopkeepers will refuse to do business with that person. “The pressure on the family is huge!” added Yaakov Schonberg.

In Lebovits’ case, for instance, the prosecutor presented evidence that pressure had been applied to the victim by a local religious court to persuade him to drop the charges. One of the defense attorneys’ witnesses was Rabbi Berel Ashkenazi, a friend of Lebovits’ who had come to court to testify that the victim was a “con man” as defense lawyer Arthur Aidala described him and that he was not worthy of trust. Ashkenazi, 44 years old and the father of nine children, had also been the plaintiff’s teacher, from October 2003 until June 2004 at Spinka religious school in Borough Park. Assistant D.A. Miss Gregory brought to the trial copies of a letter sent by one of Borough Park’s rabbinical courts to Rabbi Ashkenazi. It stipulated that Ashkenazi, to whom Schonberg had gone for assistance, should offer financial support to Schonberg to treat his drug addiction, and help him to a rehab center “if and only if” he agreed “to drop the case in a non-Jewish court.” This is just one of the many types of pressure a rabbinical court can apply to the community it rules in, if they are suspected of committing “Mesirah,” Hebrew for “informing.”

In the courtroom, after Assistant D.A. Gregory asked him to do so, witness Rabbi Ashkenazi explained what the concept of “Mesirah” meant for the Orthodox community: “A Jewish man is not allowed to go to a secular court against another Jew without the permission of his rabbi,” Ashkenazi explained. Then, Gregory continued: “And could you tell me what happens if someone does not follow that rule? Would that person be stigmatized for not doing so?” After a few seconds of hesitation and stammering, Ashkenazi replied: “If someone doesn’t do so, the rabbi would have to talk to him.” When the questioning was over, the witness swiftly got up from his seat and walked rapidly towards the exit of the courtroom, looking straight ahead, avoiding the stares of the audience.

The plaintiff’s father said he had also been under pressure during the month before the Lebovits’ trial began. “As soon as the date of the trial was officially announced, I received calls from everywhere, even from Israel!” He said people were calling to ask him to drop the case and go to a religious tribunal instead. “But you have to understand, rabbinical courts used to mean something,” Yaakov Schonberg said. “They used to have real authority and real moral superiority in the community. Now it has become a business, a way to make money!” Schonberg explained how thirty years ago, there used to be only one Bet Din in Borough Park and another one in Williamsburg, and how now, there were dozens in each neighborhood. “Now, it’s usually three young rabbis who know very little, fresh from rabbinical school, and they call themselves rabbinical court!” he said, gesticulating vigorously. He paused and added: “They don’t have to be approved by anyone, there is no election, no nomination, no validation whatsoever. They just open an office, put a sign that says “Bet Din,”… and charge each plaintiff $100 an hour!”

Rabbi Nuchem Rosenberg, who has for over ten years been strongly encouraging victims to bring sexual offenders before a secular court, said he was now considered an outcast in Brooklyn. He was excommunicated two years ago after he launched a hotline to “teach victims and their relatives how to react when they are confronted with a sexual abuse situation.” “Today, there isn’t one synagogue in this borough that will accept me, even the most liberal ones,” Rosenberg said. “Such pressure has been made on every rabbi in Brooklyn that now I have to go pray in Manhattan, and even there, my rabbi received several calls from leaders in Williamsburg asking him not to let me in anymore. But he answered ‘No one rules in my synagogue but me!”

For Yaakov Schonberg, the fact that sexual crimes in the community are perpetrated by rabbis, teachers and other community leaders is “what’s worst about it. … These people have a very high stature, everybody knows and respects them.” According to Lebovits’ defense attorney Arthur Aidala, Lebovits’ son, Chaim, is “a multi-millionaire,” who has “businesses all over the world,” a fact that Schonberg uses to describe how powerful Lebovits is, according to him.

“I do not know anything about money pressure or any other kind of pressure,” said Dr. Hindie Klein, the director of Ohel’s Mental Health clinic in Borough Park. “What I do know, and this is the case in every community, not just in the Jewish Orthodox world, is that sexual abusers are generally in a position of authority over the child.” She added: “It can be rabbis, but also teachers, camp leaders, or family members. The thing is that when a rabbi does it, it has a more dramatic resonance, because they represent this moral authority, and they are supposed to know better.”

One of the big problems judicial authorities face when dealing with the sexual abuse of children in Jewish Orthodox communities lies in defining the extent of it. Looking only at the cases reported to secular authorities, the problem would be almost non-existent. Jewish advocacy groups for sexual abuse victims argue, however, that molestation in the Hareidi community is heavily underreported to secular authorities. According to Victoria Polin, from the Awareness Center, “it is generally considered that 84 percent of child sexual abuse cases are never reported to the police. But in the Jewish Orthodox community, we believe the rate is around 99 percent … And this is an optimistic estimation!”
According to a study issued in 1988 by the National Institute of Mental Health, the typical child sex offender molests an average of 117 children. “There aren’t many sexual abusers in each community,” observed Rabbi Nuchem Rosenberg. “But even if there’s only one or two in each neighborhood, the problem is that it’s easy for them: they have all the children at their disposal.”

No organization seems to have kept any record or statistics concerning child sex abuse in the Jewish Orthodox community. The Metropolitan Council offered support, long before Kol Tzedek, to sexual abuse victims “but [they] never ever reported the number of calls [they] received on a file or anything. [They] have absolutely no figures concerning the percentage of children being sexually abused in our communities,” explained Shoshannah Frydman, head of Family Services at the Met Council.

Which is why, Dr. Hindie Klein from Ohel said, Kol Tzedek is such a step forward. “They have done a fabulous job at the D.A.’s office, encouraging victims to talk. They are extremely culturally competent and they keep records of the calls. This is going to help evaluate the extent of the problem in depth.”

Both the Met Council and Ohel Children’s Home organize regular meetings and workshops with Jewish Community Council’s directors and other community leaders in schools and synagogues, as well as with social workers throughout Brooklyn. “The aim of these meetings is to give information on what sexual abuse means for a victim, how to handle the trauma, how to identify a sexual offender in the community...,” explained Shoshannah Frydman.

While the Kol Tzedek hotline’s goal is to guide survivors mainly towards a secular legal process, the Met council, Ohel and the Jewish Board focus more on prevention, treatment, awareness, specific training of social workers within the community, outreach and financial support both for sexual abuse victims and for perpetrators. “There are a number of skilled clinicians who are providing treatment to the victims in our Borough Park counseling center,” explained Faye Wilbur, licensed social worker and coordinator of Kol Tzedek for the Jewish Board. “Our therapists are especially trained in working with trauma, and are members of the Orthodox community.” Apart from Kol Tzedek, the Jewish Board has, since 1995, been taking part in another program to fight the sexual molestation of children in Borough Park. Called “Be’ad HaYeled” (Hebrew for “On behalf of the child”), its goal is to “educate the community on the signs and symptoms of abuse and neglect,” explained Jo Gonsalves, director of communications for the Jewish Board.

Ohel Children’s Home and Family Services also tried to tackle the issue repeatedly. In the past years, this social agency produced several videos with survivors of child sexual abuse testifying on camera, and appealing to other victims to come forward and search for professional assistance.

Kol Tzedek is the program of which the purpose is specifically to encourage sexual abuse victims to press charges in non-Jewish courts. However, it is not the Brooklyn D.A.’s first attempt to address issues that touch specifically the Jewish Orthodox community, nor is it the first attempt to address specifically the issue of child molestation in that community. A domestic violence program, called Project Eden, and an additional project to fight drug addiction, were launched several years ago. But more importantly, in 1997, Ohel had already partnered with the D.A. to create the Offender Treatment Program. Its aim, as its name clearly suggests, was to treat child sexual abusers who were members of the Orthodox community. But the program is now defunct. According to an article published in 2000 in The Jewish Week, the program treated 16 sexual offenders. Eight had gone through the secular criminal justice system and had been assigned to treatment. The remaining eight were also in treatment, but their cases had been handled by local Bet Dins and had never reached New York criminal courts. After a few months, the program died and it took the Kings County D.A.’s office more than ten years to come up with a new system. “It is essential to have a program that is respectful of the nuances,” explained Faye Wilbur, the counselor and social worker in charge of Kol Tzedek operations for the Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services. “The program’s partners have staff that speak the language of the community, literally and figuratively.” The importance of this factor in building trust in secular justice was also stressed by Derek Saker, from Ohel Children’s Home and Family Services: “When you’ve been through such a horrendous experience, the last thing you want is to talk to people who do not understand where you come from,” he said.

The Kol Tzedek hotline welcomes callers Hebrew or English. The phone is answered by a full-time licensed social worker specialized in the needs and conventions of the Orthodox community. “Should a caller want to file a prosecution, they will then be taken care of by the team of 18 prosecutors in the Sex Crimes Unit with similar specializations,” said D.A.’s spokesman Schmetterer. “The final goal, of course, is to have them press charges, because it is the only way for us to fight child sexual abuse in the area. But we never push them, we let them go through the process at their own pace. It’s all about building trust.”

* * *

After only one year of existence, Kol Tzedek still has to prove its long run efficacy. Brooklyn D.A.’s spokesman Schmetterer made it clear that “for now, there are no plans to expand the program,” although he acknowledged that “obviously, with more resources, [they] would be able to do more.”

However, at the beginning of March of this year, the state granted the Met Council $500,000 for the purpose of intensifying its prevention program throughout the 25 Jewish Community Councils in New York City, nine of which are located in Brooklyn.

The funds were requested by Brooklyn’s Democratic assemblyman Dov Hikind, and are part of a bigger budget, also allocated in March 2010, and dedicated to abuse awareness and action in other communities. Hikind has made the fight against child molestation in the Jewish Community the signature issue of his term. In fact, it was partly in response to one of his weekly radio shows, in the summer of 2008, that Kol Tzedek was launched a year ago. On his radio program, Hikind several times prompted victims to report to competent secular authorities what had happened to them, and, according to him, he received dozens of private calls from survivors every week.

How the $500,000 will be spent to fight child sexual abuse has yet to be determined. According to the Met Council, most of it should go to prevention and educational programs in Borough Park, the neighborhood which carries the largest Jewish Orthodox community outside of Israel.

“We feel we are getting a lot of support from the local councils, the schools, the synagogues…” noted Shoshannah Frydman, from the Met Council. This observation is shared by most children’s advocates: things are starting to change among members of the Orthodox communities. “We are now facing what the Catholic church faced ten years ago,” said activist Rabbi Nuchem Rosenberg. “Awareness keeps growing day after day. It’s going to take some time, but we are getting there…,” he added. And for Ohel spokesman Derek Saker as well, the struggle has only just begun: “Curbing this issue is going to take a long, long process, and there still needs a lot to be done tremendously!” confirmed Derek Saker, at Ohel.

Still, “five years ago, if you Googled ‘pedophilia and orthodox Jews’, you would’ve only gotten results for anti-Semitic websites,” noted Victoria Polin, from the Awareness Center. “Now, you get respectable organizations, reliable reports, specialized advocacies, blogs maintained by members of the community itself.” And this transformation was also noticed recently by Yaakov Schonberg, the father of Baruch Lebovits’ young victim: “Two years ago, if I had walked into a synagogue after Lebovits’ “guilty” verdict, everybody would have been very hostile for attacking such a well-respected rabbi. But now, it’s the opposite: I’ve been considered as the winner, I’ve been welcomed as a hero!”

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Purim and the Impossible Dream

© (2010) By Vicki Polin
Originally published in The Awareness Center's Daily Newsletter

This film is dedicated to all of the "Queen Esther's" living in the world today who are struggling to accomplish goals in their lives that many believed were impossible, especially to the women who are risking their lives to make the world a better place for us all. I especially dedicate this film to the women who are fighting to survive after being sexually victimized and are being shunned, shamed and blamed for the actions committed against them by their perpetrator.

I too have been facing a great number of challenges over the last 18 months. I know that soon the dream that at times felt was impossible will soon become reality.

They say Purim is one of the most joyous and fun holidays on the Jewish calendar since it commemorates a time in which the Jewish people were saved from extermination while living in Persia. What always concerned me in this story is that all of the Jewish people were freed, except for Queen Esther. After risking her life, she was left behind, cut off from her people.

(2010) Photographs by Vicki Polin 
Music: The Impossible Dream sung by Sarah Connor   

Monday, February 15, 2010

“A Day in the Life of..A Rape Crisis Advocate”

Alliance Blog

Name: Vicki

Organization: The Awareness Center, Inc. (international Jewish Coalition Against Sexual Abuse/Assault)

Q: How long have you been a Rape Crisis Advocate?
26 years

Q: How did you become a Rape Crisis Advocate? Is it your full-time job? If not, what is your full-time job?
I started volunteering time at VOICES in Action back in 1985, a few month after the international organization got started.  It was one of the first organizations on childhood sexual abuse.  Besides being an incest survivor I am also the survivor of a sexual assault at the age of 23 and another one at the age of 50.  After being sexually assaulted at age 23, and going through counseling, my advocate asked if I would like to share my story with high school students in Chicago.  I started doing it and realized that I wasn’t alone and that by speaking out that I was helping others who might not have gotten help.

I went back to school and got my degrees and am a licensed clinical professional counselor.

Q: Why did you become a Rape Crisis Advocate?
I wanted to help others who are victims of sex crimes heal. I learned how important it was to have people in my life who understood what I was going through and wanted to be there for others.

Q: Describe a “typical” day as a Rape Crisis Advocate. What is a day like if you are not called? What is the process once you do receive a call? What is it like for you while on-call?
I am the founder and CEO of The Awareness Center, which is the international Jewish Coalition Against Sexual Assault.  I deal with survivors on a daily basis from all over the world.  We do our best to operate as the make a wish foundation for Jewish survivors of sex crimes.  When someone calls we try to help them obtain what ever it is they are looking for.

Q: What kinds of sexual assault victim services does [Organization] provide?
We offer a clearinghouse of information and resources on our web page.  It’s sort of like “everything you ever wanted to know about sexual violence and sex offenders but were afraid to ask”.  We also provide resources to survivors who are Jewish from within every movement in Judaism.  Resources include counseling, legal, law enforcement, medical, holistic, etc.  We also have a Jewish Sex Offender Registry which is an online database of cases around the globe.  Due to funding shortages our database is not up to date.

Q: What areas of NYC are serviced by your Rape Crisis Program?
We work within in all Jewish communities through out New York, by providing information and resources. We area also in the process of developing a self-help group in Brooklyn.  We are currently looking for a location to hold weekly meetings.

Q: How can people learn more about [Organization]?
By visiting our web page at or by calling 443-857-5560.  We are a volunteer based organization with little funding so at times it can take us up to a month to return phone calls.  They can also send e-mails to

Q: In your opinion, what is currently the most pressing issue facing Rape Crisis Advocates in NYC?

Because The Awareness Center works within The Jewish Community, we are faced with so many obsticals especially in the orthodox world.  Things are changing since we got started 10 years ago, yet we still deal with the fact that the majority of cases are not reported to law enforcement, instead they are reported to local orthodox rabbis who tell victims not to report crimes to the police.  We are slowly seeing more cases coming out in the news media, yet in the more insulated communities survivors are shunned and shamed if they are assaulted and or try to make police reports.

Q: What advice do you have for people interested in volunteering?
We often have to warn survivors especially from the orthodox world that they will get harassed for helping victims and that we do our best to train them to be prepared.  We are trying to organize a 40 hour Rape Victim Advocacy Training Program which will include Halacha (Jewish Law).  We have not been sucecssful in funding the program, yet would love to team up with a program in NYC to do so, in hopes of better addressing issues in the ultra orthodox world.  If this is something you would be interested in doing please call me

Q:  Where do you see the City’s sexual assault services in 5 years? 10 years?
My hope is that there will be trained advocates from the orthodox world working in local rape crisis centers to help build a bridge between their communities and the rest of society when dealing with sex crimes.  Unfortunately, we have pseudo-advocates out there that don’t have the education or training who are working with those who are part of the problem.  I would like to see this practice end.

Q: What does a world without sexual violence look like to you?
Q: What current event has your attention the most right now?
There are some cases that will be breaking soon, once the survivors are ready to go forward.  We also doing everything in our power to start our first self-help/networking group in NYC for Jewish survivors of sexual violence.  One goal is to have several meetings each week that are especially geared for those from the more insulated communities.

Q: What is the most significant change in the City’s services since you have been working as a Rape Crisis Advocate?
When I first got started, there were very few rape crisis centers across the country. If I remember correctly NYC had the first one, that opened back in 1975.  I got started right after the laws changed in which there was a legal definition for sexual abuse and assault.  It’s amazing how much better things are today then they were 26 years ago.  Between things like a national sex offender registry, Megan’s law, a legal definition for stalking and sexual harassment and also now survivors can obtain orders of protection if they are being talked by their offender, etc .  There still is a great deal of work to do, yet we’ve come a long way since 1985.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Rubashkin Kin Guilty in Sex Case


A son-in-law of Sholom Rubashkin, the kosher meat mogul convicted of financial fraud in November, has pleaded guilty to child endangerment in a case related to the sexual molestation of a 13-year-old boy at a mikveh. Under a plea bargain agreement, he faces up to 60 days in jail.

Under oath, Rabbi Yaakov Weiss admitted to: “While naked, knowingly having inappropriate physical contact with a child, who was also naked at the time,” according to the prosecutor in the case. On January 11, Weiss pleaded guilty in an Albany, N.Y, court to endangering the welfare of a child.

Under the plea bargain, Weiss will not be required to be listed in a registry of sex offenders.
Prosecutors said they agreed to the deal to spare the boy and another child victim from the rigors of testifying at trial.

“This case has subjected these boys to an enormous amount of community pressure,” said Shannon Sarfoh, bureau chief of the Special Victims Unit of the Albany County district attorney’s office.

The mother of one of the two 13-year-old boys told The Forward, “We’re pleased that it’s over and glad that the children didn’t have to be subjected to testifying.” The Forward’s policy is not to name children or their families in such cases.

Weiss, 29, established a Chabad center in Colonie, an Albany suburb, and an affiliated Chabad Hebrew School. Indicted August 25, he served as an emissary of the Chabad movement until a few months ago. Weiss was suspended by Chabad, as soon as the charges were filed.

Weiss was charged with four counts related to sexual molestation of the two boys. Weiss pleaded guilty to child endangerment, but under the terms of his plea bargain, he admitted his guilt to other counts in the indictment under oath in court, Sarfoh said.

He pleaded guilty to advising one of the boys, in a phone call, to lie to his mother and to police about what had occurred.

The maximum jail sentence for the child endangerment charge is 60 days. A March 1 sentencing hearing was scheduled. As part of the plea bargain, Weiss will also be on probation for three years and will be evaluated by a psychologist.

If he had been convicted of all four counts with which he was originally charged, Weiss faced up to two years in jail.

“He got a slap on the hand. Across the country people are copping pleas so they don’t end up on sex offender registries,” said Vicki Polin, founder and chief executive officer of The Awareness Center, which advocates on behalf of victims of rabbinic sexual abuse.

“Our courts seem to care more about white-collar crime than they do about our own children,” she said. “If he’s not on a sex offender registry, it means he still can teach. There are so many cases just like this and then they just re-offend.”

In June 2007, Weiss gave a ride to one of the 13-year-old boys, who is the son of another Lubavitch rabbi in the area. They drove to the local mikveh, which is on the grounds of the Albany Jewish Community Center.

It wasn’t unusual for her son to get a ride to the mikveh with the rabbi, the boy’s mother told the Forward. Some Lubavitch men have a custom of immersing daily in the ritual bath that they regard as spiritually purifying. According to court documents, her son looked to Weiss as “a rabbi, teacher and spiritual advisor.”

At the mikveh, Weiss “touched his penis to the boy’s buttocks,” states the indictment. It charges that Weiss did the same with the other boy.

Weiss and his wife, Roza, settled in Colonie six years ago. They have three young daughters.
Roza is the eldest daughter of Sholom Rubashkin, who now sits in an Iowa prison awaiting sentencing stemming from his conviction on 86 counts of bank and wire fraud. He was a senior executive at his family’s company, Agriprocessors, formerly the country’s largest kosher meat producer. Immigration officials who raided the plant in May 2008 found illegal immigrants employed there and arrested 389 people. The firm subsequently filed for bankruptcy and was sold.

The Rubashkins are a prominent family in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn. The night before her husband’s plea, Roza Weiss appeared at a Crown Heights fundraiser to raise money for her father’s defense fund so he can appeal his case.

Reached on his wife’s cell phone on January 11, after his court appearance, Weiss softly told a reporter that he had no comment.

His lawyer, however, had plenty to say.

Even after his client admitted guilt in court, said Arnold Proskin, “He molested nobody.”

The entire case, he said, is rooted in a Chabad turf war between another area Chabad emissary and Weiss.

“It’s a political Orthodox Jewish game,” said Proskin. “The father of one of these boys is head of Chabad in a neighboring town and wants Colonie very, very bad. He’s jealous of him. In my mind, there’s not a doubt that this is what this about.”

If Weiss returns to teaching local Hebrew school classes, the mother interviewed by the Forward said it wouldn’t bother her.

“We’re just going to rise above it. I have no personal vendetta,” she said. “I wanted to protect my child and other children. I think it’s going to be good enough to do that, and hope it will also turn the tide a little bit so people don’t feel they can operate with impunity.”