By Mitch Morrison
“I’m not really a teenager. I never really had a childhood.”
Sixteen and fresh-faced, Sara speaks into a microphone for the first time. Raised in a yeshivish community in New Jersey, she is accompanied by friends in the audience and 4 fellow victims of sexual molestation.
She is the latest in a growing line of victims to speak out, sharing in drawn breaths about a young girl whose Shabbos table was one of inappropriate touch and, later, rape.
“You feel dirty. You don’t feel anyone will believe you.”
The anecdotes of child sexual molestation in some of the Orthodox communities have shifted in recent years from shock to awe, denial to resignation.
Yet, on this night – less than 24 hours before the calendar’s holiest day of Yom Kippur, there is something startling about the 2 hours of testimonials from four men and one woman ranging from teens to 40s.
Congregation Ahavas Israel is in Passaic, N.J., a predominantly yeshiva community with multiple kollels and yeshivot.
Yet, it is unlike many other Orthodox communities in New York and New Jersey. It is neither Modern Orthodox nor Chassidish nor Lakewood nor Brooklyn. It is, per capita, home to one of the largest populations of baalei teshuva and is among the fastest growing religious Jewish communities in the country.
Speaking before nearly 300 men and women in black hats, knitted yarmulkes, sheitels and tichels, Ahavas Israel Rabbi Ron Yitzchak Eisenman, a maverick rabbi whose shul has become the community’s largest in recent years with around-the-clock minyanim, sets the tone for this unusual evening.
He quotes Talmudic sources and Supreme Court rulings centered on intimacy and sexual humiliation. His oscillating voice couples a preacher’s fervor with talk-show populism. He is the first, he says to hefty applause, to courageously present the voice of the victims to a community that prefers Mayberry’s fictional quiet living over confrontation, that celebrates a growing homogeneity over religious nuances.
The speakers are known and unknown. Better known in the circle of child abuse victims are Joel Engleman, Mark Weiss and Asher Lipner. Different in style and background, they stand among the most recognized advocates for change and education.
Newer to the stage are Sara and Joseph, a 29-year-old Williamsburg native who shares that he was raped while attending the mikvah as a young boy. Joseph says he changed his name 10 years ago to a non-Jewish appellation. He sports a large tattoo on his left arm and a shock of dark hair reminiscent of a younger Alice Cooper. He is the lone man among the speakers who shuns a yarmulke. On this evening, before a very religious crowd, the omission catches little attention or concern.
“This is the first time I’m validated in the Orthodox community,” he prefaces. “It feels good to see all of you out here.
“I was a happy kid,” he then begins, sharing the story of a Chassidish kid who attended mikvah daily with his father until, he said, he was raped as he began his immersion.
Life was never the same. “That confident kid went to being the scare-diest [sic] kid.”
After the program, one of the event organizers, Brochie Neugarten, was talking to panelists and audience alike, still taken by the packed social hall. “I had gotten to know some survivors of molestation, felt their pain and feeling of being alone without any community support,” she says. “I have seen the lack of awareness in the Orthodox community and have been pushing for a community-wide educational meeting for awhile.
“Likewise, I owe a great deal of hakaras hatov (appreciation) to Rabbi Eisenman for showing the courage to speak out on behalf of survivors of molestation and standing up for truth even if it hurts.”
And that hurt was reflected in the victims’ stories that elicited winces, nervous shudders and even tears from the audience.
Weiss, Engleman and Lipner shared their cases of abuse. Lipner spoke of being 3,000 miles from his home in San Francisco, when he attended Ner Yisroel in Baltimore and says he was befriended by the yeshiva’s spiritual counselor. “The rabbi made me feel good. … He made me feel special,” Lipner says. “That was the way he began to win me over.
“…As molesters do, he groomed me.” Lipner, who today is a therapist and works with many victims of child molestation, described a year-long relationship that was primarily emotional with the physical centering on hugging and kissing on the cheek.
The emotional involved preferential treatment, but also playing Lipner off his friends and even his family. “He spoke lashon harah (gossip) of my father and he did, what we call divide and conquer, with my friends.”
As for the physical, Lipner said about a year into this relationship, the rabbi “crossed the line” when, Lipner says, “he touched me inappropriately on the behind. I was shocked and upset but was embarrassed to confront the rabbi directly.”
At that point, Lipner informed his mother, who then contacted the rabbi to keep his distance, The rabbi penned what Lipner described as a love letter. “He wrote, ‘there’s a fine line between love and hate.’ I’ll never forget that line.”
[Lipner remains one of the leading advocates in favor of the proposed Child Victims Act in New York, which would open the statute of limitations for one year and expand stringent restrictions currently in use in public schools to private schools such as finger printing and mandatory reporting of suspected cases of child molestation.] Optional Graph - mitch
When the survivors finished sharing their stories, Rabbi Eisenman returned to the microphone and paused.
The battle cannot be fought alone, he said. He called on the audience to take a proactive role to raise awareness, to help introduce standards in yeshivot and other institutions to help prevent future cases of child molestation. And most importantly, open your homes to the victims – don’t ignore them or dismiss their pain.
“They are part of our Jewish family,” he says in response to a question asking the panelists what could be done to bring Judaism back to their lives. “They never left us."