To the outside observer, and even to friends who knew him well, Pinny seemed like an upstanding, frum guy with a great life. He had a beautiful wife, three wonderful children, a good job and a secure place as a respected member of his Orthodox Jewish community in the Boro Park section of Brooklyn. He had all those things, and he cherished them. But he also had a secret.
At age 15, Pinny was raped repeatedly and violently over the course of several months by a teacher at his yeshiva. When he told a rabbi about the abuse, his molester threatened to kill him unless he recanted. When he tried to tell him again, he was labeled a liar.
He stayed quiet for almost two decades, stuffing the pain deep within himself. He got a job, got married, had kids and went through the motions at synagogue with a smile on his face. But every step of the way, he carried with him the broken 15-year-old boy who was betrayed by his mentor. Eventually, that boy’s pain became too much to bear.
“I did not die in peace; please help me rest in peace,” Pinny’s suicide email began. Without going into detail about his own story, Pinny tried to break through the denial that pervaded his community and make people understand the devastation that child sexual abuse causes: “A victim from a sex crime cannot tell it to anyone, is afraid to mention it, for fear he will get shamed out of the community as it happens over and over again… I am in so much pain writing this, gevalt, so many victims between us going around silently crazy with deep pain and suffering.”
He did not believe in suicide, but in his mind he had no other choice. He hit “send,” then washed down 10 oxycodone pills with vodka. He started to feel lightheaded, like he was floating. Soon people would know the truth. Soon all the pain would be gone.
Pinny survived that night, but part of him did die — the part that had kept him silent for so many years. To live, he realized, he had to talk about what had happened to him and try to keep it from happening to anyone else. When approached by the Forward after speaking at a forum in Manhattan on sexual abuse, Pinny agreed to tell his story. But speaking to activists, academics and policy makers at a limited forum in Manhattan, a universe away from Boro Park, is different from agreeing to have your full name published in a newspaper sold in Brooklyn. Because of the potential that he and his family may be shamed and shunned in his close-knit community, he is not yet ready to use his full name in this article. The Forward has checked Pinny’s account with other sources, including his therapist, friends and a school official who have been able to confirm key aspects of his story.
The teacher who Pinny alleges sexually abused him has not been charged with any crime, and is now beyond New York State’s statute of limitation for either criminal charges or a civil suit by Pinny. This paper does not, therefore, identify him by name.
Then Pinny begins to tell the story of how he was molested, he starts with his mother’s death.
She died of cancer five weeks before his bar mitzvah, leaving a huge hole in Pinny’s life. Perhaps, he thinks, a motherless child looked like a target to predators. By the time he was 15, Pinny was beginning to bridle against the authority of his father, a strict Hasid. At his school, Yeshiva Tiferes Shulem D’Nadvorna in Boro Park, he caught the eye of a young teacher — not a rabbi, but one of the popular teachers to whom everyone looked for guidance.
This teacher singled out Pinny for attention and soon became his mentor. Pinny confided in him about his fights with his father, and the teacher took Pinny’s side, subtly using every bit of information he got to drive a bigger wedge between the teenager and his family. Before long, Pinny was convinced that his father and sisters hated him.
“Basically, I lost everyone around me,” Pinny recalled. “As far as adults, someone to look up to, he was the only person.”
Pinny’s mentor was a 15-year-old boy’s dream: The older man bought Pinny cigarettes, let him skip class and let him play on his home computer.
One afternoon, while Pinny was visiting his home, the teacher grabbed him and threw him onto the living room couch. The teacher punched, choked and molested the teenager. “Just give me two minutes,” Pinny remembers his mentor saying over and over, as he violated him.
Afterward, Pinny ran from the house, vowing never to return. Telling his father wasn’t an option; he barely could put what happened into words. “I had no vocabulary for it,” Pinny said, “and I was very naive.”
A few days later, his abuser called him into his office at school and apologized profusely, promising it would never happen again. Pinny wanted to believe him. After all, the teacher was his best friend. But it did happen again, repeatedly over the course of the next six months. Pinny stopped going to class and davening at his synagogue. Anyone else would have been expelled from yeshiva, but his abuser made excuses for Pinny — and somehow, all the other adults in Pinny’s life bought these excuses and ignored the giant red flags.
Finally, at camp that summer, Pinny broke down and told a rabbi his secret. Sympathetic and understanding, the rabbi promised him that he would put an end to the abuse. The next night, his abuser, who also taught at the camp, took Pinny for a ride in his new car. Turning into an abandoned driveway, his abuser pulled him out of the car and into the woods, and threatened to kill Pinny unless he recanted.
Pinny returned to the rabbi, crying, and took back his story. He’d never seen such fury as what he experienced that night. He was a liar, the rabbi thundered. How dare he make up such stories and try to ruin a good man’s reputation. He remembered the next 24 hours as worse than the day his mother died. He felt completely shattered and alone. Finally, tormented, he returned to the rabbi in charge of the camp and told him the truth — that he had been abused, that the first story he told was true.
If possible, the yelling was even worse this time. Stop with your lies, the rabbi shouted at him, describing in great detail the punishments that Hashem rains down upon false accusers. Pinny gave up and accepted the verbal abuse. He realized no one would believe him now.
Most children who have been sexually abused take years to process their experience and longer to be able to tell someone, says Asher Lipner, a psychotherapist and respected authority on sexual abuse in Orthodox communities. Previous studies have found that it takes, on average, seven years for a sexual abuse victim to tell anyone what happened.
All sexual abuse victims go through trauma, and they fear the stigma that comes with speaking out, Lipner says. It’s especially hard when their stories are met with denial, either because people are protecting powerful abusers or because these people just don’t want to admit to themselves that something so horrible has happened to a child.
In Orthodox communities, it’s even harder to speak out. Some rabbis use Halacha — misinterpreting it, Lipner and others say — to prohibit Jews from informing authorities of the misdeeds of fellow Jews, or even speaking ill of another Jew. But the real barrier to an open discussion and battle against sexual abuse, Lipner says, is simply the close-knit nature of Orthodox communities. “Orthodox Jews feel such a connection with each other,” he explained. That connection can be wonderful, such as when everyone pitches in to help someone who has fallen on hard times. But it also leads to strong resistance to the notion that a community member could be capable of something as awful as molesting a child.
“People don’t want to talk about it,” Lipner said. “For one Orthodox person to blow the whistle on another, it’s almost like he’s part of the family.”
And abuse victims rightly fear what will happen to them if they do gather the courage to tell the truth. Their molesters might physically hurt them, or, perhaps worse, authorities might punish them. Lipner knows many people who were expelled from yeshiva for the crime of being sexually abused. “It’s not hard to scare the hell out of a little kid,” he said.
After camp ended, Pinny went to a yeshiva in Israel. It was an escape from his abuser. But Pinny’s attitude toward schooling didn’t improve, as he’d lost all respect for authority. When he returned to New York, he registered for yeshiva but never showed up for classes. By the time he was 17, he’d dropped out of school.
About a year after Pinny first tried to tell of the abuse, his mentor abruptly left Yeshiva Tiferes Shulem D’Nadvorna. He was hired by another school in Boro Park, only to be let go about a year later. The pattern repeated twice more. Pinny followed his abuser’s career with a sick feeling in his stomach. He was sure the same thing that happened to him was happening to other kids; he heard whispered stories about this teacher, but nothing ever came of it.
“It was unreal. I felt like it was another rape for me, because of the guilt. If only I could stand up,” Pinny said.
In a phone interview, Rabbi Avrum Leifer, the head of Yeshiva Tiferes Shulem D’Nadvorna, recalled the teacher that Pinny identified, and confirmed that he’d taught at the school during the 1990s. But the head rabbi said the teacher left because he got a better offer for more money to teach elsewhere, not because he’d been forced out.
“He was excellent. The boys liked him very much,” the head rabbi said of the accused teacher. “I’m very surprised to hear this.”
At 18, Pinny got a job and started educating himself, reading all the history books he’d missed out on in high school. He reconciled with his father and grew close with his siblings again. He married and had children. He was a happy guy, the kind of mensch who would try to make others smile and who would go out of his way to help people. But at night, in the dark, the memories would close in. The flashbacks and nightmares would visit, and sometimes he would wake up screaming.
When Pinny was in his 30s, a respected member of his community with a good job as a property manager, he tried talking to several rabbis about child sexual abuse. They all nodded and said yes, of course it’s a problem, but is it really that big a deal? Talk to us about it, Pinny, they said. Let it out, and you’ll feel better.
Pinny didn’t want to feel better. He wanted change.
What drove him to attempt suicide, though, weren’t the memories of his own pain, but his fears for his son. As his son began to approach the age Pinny had been when he was first molested, Pinny couldn’t escape the realization that if his son were to be abused, no one would pay attention to his pain, no one would protect him. In his confused, panicked state of mind, he could think of only one thing that would stir people to action: a letter from a dead man.
So he started writing, and he started thinking about suicide. When people discovered his letter excoriating the community for its doubting, tepid response to child sexual abuse allegations, then, he thought, people would sit up and take notice. Then his children would be protected, even if he wouldn’t be around to see it.
That Friday in November, he sat in synagogue, trying to hold his tears inside. The silence he’d lived with for 19 years suddenly felt like a 1,000-pound weight on his shoulders. After midnight, he started downing pills and vodka.
Just as his arms and legs started to tingle, he thought of how he wanted to see his children and hug them one last time. He tried to stand up, but couldn’t. The finality of what he was doing hit him. He called a childhood friend who was a paramedic, and that friend came to his home and took him to the hospital.
His paramedic friend remembers that night well. He got a call at around 1:30 a.m. Saturday; he observes the Sabbath, but because of his work he is allowed to take emergency calls. He’d noticed that Pinny had been acting withdrawn, but he had no idea why.
“He was isolated, building a gate around himself and not allowing anyone to speak to him,” said the friend, who also asked not to be named. Pinny, he said, was silent because he didn’t want to burden anyone: “He’s a darling little guy, with such a good heart. He didn’t want to bother anyone. He was trying to save others the pain.”
Pinny and his friend still speak several times a week. Though the friend doesn’t want to hear the details of Pinny’s abuse or get involved in his crusade, he said he doesn’t doubt Pinny’s story for a minute.
“He wouldn’t tell stories. He’s not trying to be a hero,” the friend said. “I don’t think I ever, ever caught him in a lie.”
The stigma around sexual abuse persists in both the secular and the Orthodox communities, says Lipner, the psychotherapist.
“Society’s lack of interest is what really makes it impossible to deal with,” he said. “People reaching out and wanting to hear their stories makes all the difference in the world.”
It’s something Lipner has confronted both as a therapist and personally. Last winter, he disclosed that a rabbi had molested him when he attended yeshiva as a child. Lipner says that when he decided to speak publicly about his own abuse, his supervisor at the social service agency where he works asked if he was sure he wanted to risk his professional and personal reputation. Others warned that people would think of him as damaged goods.
But nothing so dramatic happened. And he hopes his example will inspire others, just as previous outspoken abuse survivors inspired him. While he hopes that rabbis and other community leaders will step up and work to end sexual abuse, he puts more faith in the power of fellow abuse survivors’ voices to effect change.
“People can’t say anymore that it doesn’t happen,” Lipner said. “The victims have the biggest power, because they know the truth. And when you speak the truth enough times, even to people who don’t want to hear it, eventually they have to hear it.”
Speaking truth to power is Pinny’s mission now. He emerged from the hospital a changed man, and realized he no longer could live with the silence.
He went to a therapist who helped him a lot, and he started speaking out. He talked to friends about his experiences so they would know that sexual abuse was a real threat in their community. He contacted Survivors for Justice, a group formed last year to support sexual abuse survivors in Orthodox communities. He talked to Dov Hikind, the Brooklyn assemblyman who has taken on the cause of child sexual abuse. And he kept talking to rabbis, even if they were reluctant to listen, trying to persuade them to do more to protect children.
Sometimes, his friends and his wife worry that he has become obsessed. They say he should just relax and work on his own healing. His friends warn him not to speak out too loudly, for fear that he will anger powerful people.
“I’m sorry, I can’t go back to normal life until there is a change,” he tells them. When he sees rabbis and the community taking the problem seriously, then maybe he’ll get another hobby.
He doesn’t want to leave the Hasidic community where he was raised, he says. Despite its problems, there’s so much that he loves about it. But one thing has changed for him, perhaps unalterably: His faith is gone. He still believes in God, but the religious teachings he dutifully hands down to his children feel hollow to him now.
“I’m yearning to come back,” Pinny said. “I never left the Torah, the Torah left me.”
Contact Rebecca Dube at firstname.lastname@example.org.