The address given at the Anti-Abuse Panel Discussion Held at Rinat Yisrael on September 14, 2014
I am going to leave the analysis of the phenomenon and the detailing of best practices on abuse prevention and victim support to the real experts. Instead I will be sharing my own story–both my experience as a victim of childhood sexual abuse, and my experiences as an adult–that ultimately led me to speak out publicly.
The thing is… my story is not a unique one. It is estimated that one in four women and one in six men were sexually abused in some way by the age of 18. At one point, before I was focused on my own trauma and recovery, I had heard this statistic and believed it to be false–too high, not realistic.
But ever since I began to deal with this issue–as an individual and within the broader community–I have come to believe that if anything, this number is perhaps an underestimation.
A week ago, in this very room, someone who I have known for 20 years shared with me that he too is a survivor of sexual abuse, committed by a fifth grade rebbe. Two days earlier, someone I have known for 25 years shared with me that he was molested by his high school principal, and is one of many who are closely following the lawsuit and management–or mismanagement–of the allegations and lawsuit against the academic institution with which that high school is affiliated.
Both of those conversations were practical and matter of fact. They were unemotional.
But a week earlier I hosted someone else at my home who shared his own story of abuse at the hands of a notorious pedophile in the Brooklyn ultra-Orthodox community. My guest, a man in his forties, is still very much in the throes of his trauma, and was literally crying on my porch about how he should have done more to prevent the monster from ever touching another child.
This person was twelve years old at the time. A year earlier his parents were unsupportive when he was punched by a rebbe. So what support could he have expected if he had told his parents that he was sexually abused by a prominent rabbi? What could he have expected to happen if, as a twelve year old, he had called the Brooklyn police about the abuser? The current district attorney of Brooklyn has begun to revisit the files of the previous district attorney, who, over the course of twenty five years, is believed to have enabled myriad coverups of sexual abuse and other crimes in the Jewish Community.
So I am standing here not as David Cheifetz, but as one nameless, faceless victim who has chosen to share his name and show his face. I stand here and look out at this audience of 200 or so, and I know that I am not speaking only for myself, but for the twenty percent of people in our community, including numerous people in this room right now, who were sexually abused as children.
Like most people here, as a child I went to sleep away camp. In my last year of sleep away camp, an Orthodox all boys camp that still exists today and that several members of Rinat send their children to, I was befriended by a rabbi, let’s call him Rabbi David. Rabbi David talked to me, paid attention to me, and when my parents did not come on visiting day, took me bowling. In reality, what seemed like a nice giving gesture was really the process known as “grooming”, cultivating a victim for sexual abuse.
One night, I believe it was a Saturday night, Rabbi David took me for a walk, gave me beer, and sexually abused me. He subsequently sexually abused me on several other occasions.
At some point I shared this information with a friend in my bunk, Stuart Welkovitch, swearing him to secrecy. Luckily, Stu told the counselor, who told the then head of the camp. I was forced to confront Rabbi David, and there were never any doubts raised by the camp administration about Rabbi David’s guilt or my victimization.
And then, the camp administration snapped into action: They sent me home on a Greyhound bus without telling my parents why I was being sent home; they were just told to pick me up from the Port Authority. I didn’t even have time to pack all of my belongings. Alan Simanowitz, a former member of this Shul who now lives in Israel, remembers bringing my Tefillin home to me days later.
Rabbi David was not sent away as dramatically. Out of what I guess was Rachmunus for him and his young wife, who I believe was pregnant at the time, he was quietly let go at the end of the summer, but no civil authorities were called. Rabbi David went on to a thirty year career as a Rebbe in an all-boys school. God only knows how many children were sexually abused because of the inaction of the camp administration.
My own parents did nothing. They had no idea what to do, and probably did not want to deal with the “shame” of having an abuse victim in the house. And all was forgotten…
But that is not how the story ends.
Sexual abuse leaves its fingerprints on victims. Not all victims react alike–either in terms of type of reaction or timing of reaction.
Sexual abuse victims are prone to one or more of the following:
Deep feelings of guilt and shame
Depression and anxiety
Alcohol and substance abuse
Body image issues
Poor Job Performance and career impact
Other forms of psychological damage and social dysfunction
And even suicidal tendencies
And, it should be noted by us here gathered in a Synagogue, being sexually abused by a religious figure, and then having that abuse covered up by a “religious” institution, can also have tremendous impact on a person’s religious faith and practice.
So for many years, while I remembered what happened to me as a 13-year-old, I was not aware of the impact on me. I have suffered from sleeping disorders my entire life. I cannot sleep without medication. I have had to manage depression and anxiety.
But this was my life, and I was thankfully able to get through high school and college and graduate school, build a career, and raise a family. When various sex abuse scandals broke in the broader society–in the Catholic Church, at Penn State, at Abu Greib–I did not give it much thought. I imagine that my brain was trying to protect me from my own demons.
But then something happened about two years ago. It is not 100% clear why, and it probably does not matter. But I was “triggered”–that is the term used–and I went into PTSD–Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
I went into a deep depression and a deep state of anger. I had trouble concentrating. My work was affected. My relationships were affected. A few of my friends here remember me in that state and were highly supportive. It is a debt I can never repay.
I sought treatment. Recovery was a long road, with many retriggers along the way. Sadly, there have been many sex abuse scandals in all sectors of the Jewish community in the last two years, be they in the Satmar community, in Lakewood, in the UK, in Australia, in Israel, and even in the Modern Orthodox community.
And so, at some point, as I passed through my own PTSD, and progressed through my own recovery, my emotional focus shifted–from what was done to me by Rabbi David–to how I can contribute to addressing this plague in the broader Jewish community.
I will share that I had a professional background check done on Rabbi David, discovered his work history, and could not find where he works today, if at all, so I had no one to report him to, to warn. There was nothing to do legally due to the statute of limitations.
Last year, when I wrote an article about my abuse that was published by The Jewish Week, I never received an apology, or even an acknowledgement, from the camp.
So, standing here in a Shul, I cannot help but wonder if in heaven there is a statute of limitations. Because, apparently, the file on what happened to me as a child is closed on this earth.
But to be perfectly honest, my thoughts are not on the punishment of abusers. They are on the safety of children and the treatment of victims.
In my opinion, the following is what needs to take place to help victims:
1) We need to change our culture that seeks to downplay or deny sexual abuse in our community, the Jewish Community. It is real. It has real impact which is life-long. Events such as this evening’s forum, and many other informational and educational efforts, are needed in order to shift societal attitudes away from the topic being taboo, from victims being rejected, and from abuse and abusers being ignored and enabled.
2) There must be adequate support for current victims. Victims and their families are lost. There are indeed some organizations doing good work. And there are others with good intentions that often find themselves facing an inherent conflict of interest. In my opinion, the current organizational map is not anywhere near the scale that is needed to address this plague.
3) We need a mechanism to provide ongoing support to the many victims in our community, the walking wounded. Support groups for victims and survivors of all ages. This is a huge population of many people who need support and the acknowledgement that they are not alone. That we are not alone.
I would like to conclude my comments with a personal story. A year and a half ago, when I was in the midst of my PTSD, I was in California for work. One evening I was in a rooftop bar with some colleagues, and my brain was far from the conversation. I took a walk to smoke a cigarette, as I had restarted smoking because of my PTSD and because my father was dying.
A good friend, a woman, came over to me and asked me what was wrong. I told her that I was a victim of childhood sexual abuse, and was reliving the trauma. She put her arms around me, hugged me, and whispered in my ear, “David, there are many of us…”
So I stand here as a member of a not so exclusive fraternity that no one would ever want to join. But we understand each other in ways that most other people cannot appreciate. We have seen the face of the devil.
The most important takeaway from my own recovery, the key for me, was dealing with my own sense of guilt and my own fear. And I say to you today that:
I was a victim of a terrible crime.
It was not my fault.
And I am no longer afraid.
We as a community cannot be afraid to address this terrible demon. We must face it head on.
By David Cheifetz