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.

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March 15, 2019 12:44
A #MeToo haredi hero

RABBI AVREMI ZIPPEL with wife Sheina and sons Menny and baby Menachem.. (photo credit: Courtesy)

 
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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.”

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