A #MeToo haredi hero

Chabad Rabbi Avremi Zip­pel speaks about the sex­ual abuse he faced and how he is rising above it to em­power sur­vivors in his com­mu­nity and the world

The Jerusalem Post - The Jerusalem Post Magazine - - CONTENTS - • By ME­NACHEM SHLOMO

They seem to have noth­ing in com­mon: Mor­mon kid­nap­ping sur­vivor Elizabeth Smart, Olympic Gold Medal­ist Aly Rais­man and Utah Chabad Rabbi Avremi Zip­pel. But the three, in fact, share a pow­er­ful bond – the ex­pe­ri­ence of be­ing pow­er­fully vi­o­lated as chil­dren, sex­u­ally as­saulted when they had barely any un­der­stand­ing of what sex was and taken ad­van­tage of by adults who used their bod­ies and their in­no­cence for their own plea­sure.

Ear­lier this month, Zip­pel’s story spread across the world as the 27-year-old fa­ther of two stood in court with his kip­pah and his wispy brown beard to tes­tify that his for­mer nanny, 69-year-old Alav­ina Flor­re­ich, had sex­u­ally abused him from age eight to 18.

Smart, a vic­tim of hor­rific rape by her kid­nap­per when she was just 14, stood in the court­room in or­der to of­fer her sup­port to the rabbi. Rais­man of­fered hers via Twit­ter.

“Thanks for your brav­ery and courage Rabbi Zip­pel,” the Olympian wrote. “You will in­spire so many oth­ers to share their sto­ries. Thank you for speak­ing your truth! I sup­port you!”

Zip­pel said that he had been in­spired to come for­ward thanks to the #MeToo move­ment and af­ter see­ing the courage of Rais­man to tes­tify against Larry Nas­sar, the for­mer USA Gym­nas­tics doc­tor who had al­legedly abused hun­dreds of young girls.

Not long af­ter his pow­er­ful story spread across the ocean and around the world, Zip­pel told The Jerusalem Post Mag­a­zine that he felt in­cred­i­bly in­spired by the pos­i­tive re­sponses he re­ceived from peo­ple from within his com­mu­nity and from with­out, while also feel­ing that a huge re­spon­si­bil­ity had fallen onto his shoul­ders. A re­spon­si­bil­ity, he ex­plains, that he is more than ready to em­brace.

“Since the story came out, I feel so re­lieved to be able to talk about it and I can fi­nally move on and heal,” he says. “But at the same time, it sets a prece­dent for me and it re­in­forces the re­spon­si­bil­ity I have for oth­ers to help them come for­ward. It both felt re­ally good and like I took on a re­ally big com­mit­ment.”

DE­SPITE SEX­UAL abuse be­ing a topic not of­ten or eas­ily talked about within the haredi com­mu­nity, this rabbi stressed that he felt the need to come for­ward in or­der to spread aware­ness of the epi­demic of child sex­ual abuse and to em­power peo­ple to over­come the shame so of­ten felt by vic­tims.

Stud­ies show that child sex­ual abuse is ram­pant across all so­ci­eties and cul­tures. Re­search pub­lished by the Na­tional In­sti­tutes for Health in 2009 showed that nearly one in five girls and one in 12 boys have been sex­u­ally abused be­fore the age of 18, with ex­perts say­ing that there is lit­tle divi­sion among class, race or re­li­gion. An­other study pub­lished by the in­sti­tute in 2018 found that there was no in­di­ca­tion that sex­ual abuse was more or less preva­lent among the re­li­gious Jewish com­mu­nity. It did, how­ever, find a link be­tween ex­pe­ri­enc­ing sex­ual abuse and leav­ing the com­mu­nity. In fact, the study found that in­di­vid­u­als who were raised in the Or­tho­dox com­mu­nity and then left are more than four times as likely to have been mo­lested as chil­dren than those who stay in the com­mu­nity.

As the founder of Jewish Com­mu­nity Watch (JCW), an or­ga­ni­za­tion that works to com­bat child sex­ual abuse within the Or­tho­dox Jewish com­mu­nity, Meyer See­wald de­scribed slightly dif­fer­ent find­ings within his or­ga­ni­za­tion re­gard­ing the sta­tis­tics.

“By us, in our com­mu­nity, I have found there to be more male vic­tims than fe­males. Be­cause of the sep­a­ra­tion be­tween the sexes, male preda­tors don’t nec­es­sar­ily have as much ac­cess to fe­males un­less they are fam­ily mem­bers or close friends. But with males we see many cases of boys hav­ing been abused by their male teach­ers, rab­bis, men­tors, camp coun­selors or other chil­dren.

“Fur­ther­more, when a child is abused by some­one well-re­spected within a tight-knit com­mu­nity, there are real risks that the child faces by com­ing for­ward and telling peo­ple. The com­mu­nity may os­tra­cize him or call him a trou­ble­maker. Peo­ple of­ten can­not be­lieve that some­one they re­spect can be guilty of such a heinous crime.”

This was not ex­actly the case for Zip­pel.

“My story is dif­fer­ent from many oth­ers, es­pe­cially within the re­li­gious Jewish com­mu­nity,” Zip­pel told the Mag­a­zine. “I wasn’t abused by a Jew and I wasn’t abused by a rabbi, but a lot of the ex­pe­ri­ence of what sur­vivors go through is univer­sal.”

To in­di­cate this point, Zip­pel ex­plained the feel­ing he had as he watched Rais­man’s tes­ti­mony in court against her abuser.

“Aly’s story re­ally touched me,” he said. “It seems to me that Aly’s life would have been fine with­out com­ing for­ward. She was al­ready a gold-medal gym­nast with or with­out this. She could have lived a per­fectly happy life with­out talk­ing about this.

“But she got up there – first, be­cause she thought it would be healing to her­self and sec­ond, she came for­ward to em­power oth­ers to not feel ashamed to tell their sto­ries.

“There is a cer­tain level of lack of con­trol that sur­vivors of abuse go through be­cause you never know when you’ll en­counter your abuser. There is a cer­tain level of power that your abuser holds over you. They have this se­cret and you have this se­cret and its that power of se­crecy that they hold on you.

“To break through that cy­cle and to get that se­cret off your chest, it breaks the power. Ev­ery minute Aly talked, it felt like buckles were bust­ing and ropes were com­ing un­done; it gave me the thought that I can also do it my­self one day.”

Zip­pel had lived with the shame of the abuse for years, say­ing the fear of peo­ple find­ing out about his past haunted him. He felt that be­cause he ex­pe­ri­enced plea­sure dur­ing some of the en­coun­ters and that sex­ual ac­tiv­ity be­fore mar­riage was sin, he was a sin­ner and a bad per­son.

“Most of my child­hood I thought I was go­ing to die im­mi­nently be­cause I was do­ing these ter­ri­ble sins. To me, the world was sim­ple: there are good things and there are sins. I was like Satan in my head… so I lived in this tur­moil,” he told De­seret News.

IT IS ex­actly for this rea­son that it’s cru­cial for rab­bis like Zip­pel to come for­ward and talk about these top­ics and for there to ex­ist or­ga­ni­za­tions like Jewish Com­mu­nity Watch, which has cre­ated a space within this com­mu­nity where haredim can learn about

the ex­tent to which sex­ual abuse causes harm and to pro­vide an out­let for those who have been abused so that they can come for­ward and share their story and be­gin the jour­ney to­ward rid­ding them­selves of the shame.

JCW has cre­ated dozens of ed­u­ca­tional events in syn­a­gogues and schools within haredi com­mu­ni­ties both in Is­rael and around the world where peo­ple can hear from sur­vivors of abuse, gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials and ex­perts in the field of men­tal health. The events act as an ed­u­ca­tion for par­ents who need to know what to look out for in their chil­dren and to cre­ate a con­ver­sa­tion so that those who have been abused feel com­fort­able to come for­ward.

How­ever, while pri­vate or­ga­ni­za­tions like JCW ex­ist to help haredi sur­vivors of abuse, a rep­re­sen­ta­tive from Jewish Com­mu­nity Watch ex­plained that there is not enough be­ing done by the gov­ern­ment of Is­rael to fight this epi­demic within this sect.

The blind spot of the gov­ern­ment to­ward this is­sue be­came abun­dantly clear re­cently when the po­lice an­nounced they sus­pect that Deputy Health Min­is­ter Ya’acov Litz­man, head of the haredi United To­rah Ju­daism Party, worked with a psy­chi­a­trist to cre­ate doc­u­ments say­ing that sus­pected child mo­lester Malka Leifer was psy­cho­log­i­cally un­well and there­fore un­able to be ex­tra­dited to Aus­tralia to face a trial.

Leifer is ac­cused of hav­ing sex­u­ally abused nu­mer­ous young girls while she was prin­ci­pal of a re­li­gious Mel­bourne girls’ school.

It was, in fact, the pri­vately funded Jewish Com­mu­nity Watch that hired a pri­vate in­ves­ti­ga­tor to re­search Leifer and un­cov­ered that she had been fak­ing her psy­cho­log­i­cal di­ag­no­sis. DE­SPITE THE ef­forts to com­bat sex­ual abuse by groups like JCW, Zip­pel, a fa­ther to two young chil­dren, be­lieves that the most im­por­tant mes­sage to take from his story is one of love.

“I’ve had peo­ple re­spond to me, telling me that since they heard my story they have fired their babysit­ters and in­stalled cam­eras in their homes and schools, but I re­ally don’t think that’s the so­lu­tion. Do­ing this is al­most lulling our­selves into a false sense of se­cu­rity. It’s the nat­u­ral hu­man re­ac­tion to flail out at ev­ery­thing in arms reach, but this is not go­ing to be that sim­ple.

“To a cer­tain ex­tent, you can’t pre­vent this from hap­pen­ing. I know that sounds pes­simistic, but I be­lieve it’s true. My abuser was loved and cher­ished by my fam­ily. No­body would have con­sid­ered that she was a sex­ual preda­tor. Short of lock­ing your kids in your home, you can’t keep them in bub­ble wrap.

“What you can do is put the in­fra­struc­ture in place that the first time some­thing hap­pens to them they aren’t com­fort­able with, they can come to you and tell you. We need to in­still in our chil­dren that no mat­ter what hap­pens, noth­ing can blem­ish who you are and hurt who you can be­come. We have to show them that we love them un­con­di­tion­ally de­spite any­thing that could have been done to them or that they could have done.

“I al­ways thought abuse meant tor­ture and I couldn’t ac­cept that what I had been through was abuse be­cause as a child, it felt ‘con­sen­sual.’ We need to tell chil­dren that you never have to feel ashamed to talk about any­thing to us. You should never hide any­thing.”

See­wald also be­lieves that to a cer­tain ex­tent it is im­pos­si­ble to truly pre­vent chil­dren from be­ing abused.

“Can you ac­tu­ally pre­vent ev­ery sin­gle in­ci­dent? No, you can’t. But when there are mur­ders on the street, you hire more po­lice of­fi­cers and it slows it down. This is why JCW ex­ists. To give vic­tims the sup­port they need to bring their abuser to jus­tice – to hold abusers ac­count­able. The knowl­edge that they may run into us and be ex­posed in front of the com­mu­nity of­fers some de­ter­rence.”

But the most im­pact­ful way to help those who have been abused is to show them that it is okay to talk about what they have gone through.

“It is very im­por­tant for vic­tims of child sex­ual abuse to come out and tell their story,” says See­wald. “It is es­pe­cially heart­en­ing to see a rabbi do it. By talk­ing about his abuse, Rabbi Zip­pel is paving the way for the next per­son to come for­ward and talk about what they have been through. By bravely ex­press­ing his pain and ev­ery­thing he went through, Zip­pel is em­pow­er­ing oth­ers to use their voices and know that it is OK for them to tell their story.”

The weight of the re­spon­si­bil­ity is not lost on the rabbi. “I don’t know why me. I don’t think I’ll ever know why me,” he told De­seret News about ev­ery­thing that he had been through. “I be­lieve that God gave cer­tain peo­ple a cer­tain jour­ney in life for a rea­son. I be­lieve that when you are given a cer­tain path in life, you have a spir­i­tual re­spon­si­bil­ity, a spir­i­tual op­por­tu­nity, to walk that path. It’s an in­escapable part of my past and now I have the op­por­tu­nity to do some­thing about it – to walk that path and to bring some good into the world as a re­sult of it.”

(Pho­tos: Avremi Zip­pel)

RABBI AVREMI ZIP­PEL with wife Sheina and sons Menny and baby Me­nachem.

ZIP­PEL LIGHTS a meno­rah at age eight, the year the abuse started.

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