When Leah Sokolovsky was 15, she spent many Friday nights sleeping over at the home of the 20-year-old assistant head counselor of her ultra-Orthodox summer camp.
The two had not been particularly close at camp. But during the school year that followed, the counselor, an ultra-Orthodox woman named Gittie Sheinkopf, cultivated Sokolovsky. Sokolovsky says Sheinkopf was nice to her and made her feel special. She began inviting her to sleep over for the Sabbath.
Within a few months, Sokolovsky says, Sheinkopf began molesting her. It went on for over a year.
Eight years later, Sokolovsky decided she needed an apology.
Sokolovsky tried calling Sheinkopf. Sheinkopf denied everything. Sokolovsky tried taking her to rabbinical court. Sheinkopf didn’t show up.
In the end, Sokolovsky turned to YouTube, posting a video in which she alleged repeated sexual and emotional abuse.
“The first time she penetrated me I felt like I was dying from pain,” Sokolovsky says through tears. “It was the most traumatic thing. I had nobody to tell this to.”
The video, posted in late May, went viral in Orthodox Jewish circles. It was an extraordinarily rare thing: A young woman speaking publicly about alleged sexual abuse in the Orthodox community, and not only naming her alleged abuser, but explaining how the dynamics of the Orthodox community forced her to be quiet for so long.
In the days since she posted the video, Sokolovsky, who goes by Leah but whose given name is Dorina, has been attacked in the WhatsApp groups that serve as a digital public square for ultra-Orthodox Jews. In voice messages, she was called a liar, jealous, and even accused of blackmail. In response, Sokolovsky filed a defamation suit in a Brooklyn court on June 4 against a WhatsApp user named Yanky Sofer, whose voice messages she alleges were circulated widely in Orthodox circles.
In the meantime, the video, and a follow-up question-and-answer video posted days later, have racked up tens of thousands of views on YouTube. Sokolovsky’s story not only raises the specter of sexual abuse in the Orthodox community, but also the particular vulnerability of young so-called baalei tshuva; non-religious Jews who seek to live a frum, or observant, lifestyle.
The video comes amidst a #MeToo movement that has largely skipped over the Orthodox community. While a string of scandals over the past decade has repeatedly raised the issue of child sexual abuse in Orthodox institutions, the current reckoning around harassment and abuse of women that has uncovered buried secrets in institutions across the country has yet to make a dent in the Orthodox world.
“If I would tell this to people they probably wouldn’t believe me because I was so young,” Sokolovsky said in her video. “And that’s why I kept my mouth shut for all those years. My family was the baal tshuva. My family was kiruv. She… grew up in a frum, religious environment.”
In a phone call recorded by Sokolovsky and included in the video, Sheinkopf claimed she did not know what Sokolovsky was talking about when Sokolovsky asked for an apology. Sheinkopf did not respond to multiple attempts by the Forward to contact her, including phone calls, social media messages, text messages, a letter, and messages sent to relatives.
A Role Model
Leah Forster, 35, is an Orthodox-world social media celebrity who once worked as a popular women’s-only comedian in the Orthodox community. She met Sokolovsky three years ago through a mutual friend when Sokolovsky was in college, and the two became close. Forster, who in 2010 released a comedy album called “Balabusted!”, says that though Sokolovsky seemed well adjusted and well spoken, she saw signs that her new friend was struggling with something.
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Sokolovsky called Forster once from her car, saying she was having a panic attack and asking Forster to talk her through it. She was afraid of riding in elevators. She had persistent nightmares.
Eventually Sokolovsky confided in her: During 10th and 11th grade, when she was 15 and 16, a woman who had been a staff member at her sleep away camp repeatedly sexually abused her.
The details of the allegations are now spelled out in the lawsuit Sokolovsky filed June 4. Beginning in the summer of 2010, Sokolovsky attended The Zone, an ultra-Orthodox sleep away camp for non-Orthodox kids. The camp is designed to help Jews become more observant; an effort called kiruv. It is run by Oorah, a Lakewood, New Jersey organization that is affiliated with and funded by Kars4Kids, the controversial car donation organization with the famously annoying advertisements.
Staffers at The Zone, who are from ultra-Orthodox backgrounds, serve as mentors for their non-Orthodox charges. Sokolovsky, whose parents were not ultra-Orthodox, said she formed a close relationship with one staffer at the camp, Gittie Sheinkopf, then known as Gittie Kohn. The following school year, Sokolovsky began spending Friday nights at Sheinkopf’s house. She told the Forward that her family lived at the time in Staten Island, but that she wanted to spend the Sabbath in Brooklyn, where Sheinkopf lived, in order to be around friends and to observe the Sabbath in the ultra-Orthodox style.
“I was really dying to keep Shabbos, and I didn’t have anybody else I could go keep Shabbos by,” Sokolovsky said in one of the videos. “To me she was a role model, to me she was somebody I was able to look up to because she was more religious and she was older.”
In a statement, Oorah said that it finds the allegations “deeply disturbing,” and that it trains staff in “healthy staff-camper relationships with appropriate boundaries.”
“While we don’t know all the facts, we unconditionally support victims of abuse and their need for a safe space and listening ear,” Oorah’s statement said.
The sexual abuse, Sokolovsky said, began partway through her 10th grade year. According to the lawsuit, the abuse occurred on Friday evenings in 2010 or 2011.
Sokolovsky says in the video that Sheinkopf would physically force her to engage in sexual activity. According to the lawsuit, Sheinkopf would force Sokolovsky’s hand into Sheinkopf’s underwear, and “punish her by hurting with her nails” if she tried to withdraw it.
According to the lawsuit, Sheinkopf escalated her abuse over time, eventually “digitally penetrating Ms. Sokolovsky’s vagina” in a manner that Sokolovsky contends was “intended to cause her extra pain.”
In the mornings after the abuse, according to the lawsuit, Sokolovsky would confront Sheinkopf about what had occurred. Sheinkopf would deny that anything had happened, claiming she was a “deep sleeper,” according to the lawsuit.
Sokolovsky told almost no one about the abuse. She kept it even from her mother, she says, because she thought if she told, she wouldn’t be allowed to go back to camp. According to the lawsuit, Sokolovsky worried that if she told anyone about the abuse, they would believe her abuser, and not her, because her abuser was observant and older, and she was “not yet a full fledged member of the Orthodox community.”
In addition to the sexual abuse, Sokolovsky said that Sheinkopf was controlling and manipulative. “When I tried to make plans to be with other friends, she made me feel horribly guilty,” Sokolovsky said in the second video she and Forster posted. “She made me feel so bad if I didn’t stay by her. Because she would say, ‘I do this for you, I do that for you.’ And she just guilt tripped me into it.”
Sokolovsky saved emails and letters from Sheinkopf, which are included as exhibits in the lawsuit. As Sokolovsky first pulled out old emails and letters to show Forster, Forster said she was shocked.
One October 2010 email includes the subject line: “UR THE PRETTIEST ONE OF ALLL…TOT CNT TAKE MY EYES OFFFF OF U!!!!!” A lengthy undated handwritten letter, in which the Sheinkopf says she worries about Sokolovsky being at camp without her, ends: “You BETTER get your phone every night and go to the lake and call/txt me.”
Emails from 2011 appear to show Sheinkopf demanding that Sokolovsky end another relationship. “Trying to fig out how you’d fEel if I’d drop dead now,” Sheinkopf wrote in a February 2011 email. “Then you could spend your life wit [another name] in peace.”
In another email from 2011, also included as an exhibit in the lawsuit, Sheinkopf wrote to Sokolovsky’s mother, who had become suspicious of the friendship. “I can promise you that the only goal of this friendship is for your daughter to benefit and if you ever feel otherwise please let us know,” Sheinkopf wrote.
“As I’m reading [the letters], I’m mind-blown because it’s so manipulative, so abusive,” Forster said. “I’m like, ‘Leah, what?’… ‘Leah kept making excuses, and this was after years of therapy.”
“I knew what happened to me,” Sokolovsky said. “But it took me a while to process that that I could actually do something about it.”
‘We’re Calling Her Right Now’
Forster said that when Sokolovsky first told her about the abuse, they didn’t consider making the alleged incident public, or filing a lawsuit.
“Because we’re so afraid of scandals and because we’re so afraid of talking, you don’t think along the terms of ever exposing,” Forster said of women, like herself and Sokolovsky, who were shaped by ultra-Orthodox environments. “Automatically you’re delayed. Everything in our community is delayed. It takes time to become comfortable in your own skin, in your own religion, in your own sexuality.”
Forster said that one day, when they were driving together to the gym, she decided something had to be done. Sokolovsky hadn’t slept and was falling apart.
“I said, ‘That’s it, you have her number?’” Forster said. “I’m like, ‘We’re calling her right now.’”
Sokolovsky called Sheinkopf. A recording of the phone call is included in Sokolovsky’s video, and Sokolovsky and Forster shared a longer recording with The Forward. In the call, Sokolovsky asked Sheinkopf to acknowledge that she had abused her, and to apologize.
“I honest to God have no idea what you’re talking about,” Sheinkopf said. “I’m not getting back into this with you, Leah. I am past the stage of life of having any pathetic, immature, childish relationships. If you need me to say I’m sorry, I will apologize for anything that you did or think I’ve done. But I spoke to my husband before I even gave you my home number, he said, ‘Hear her out, don’t get into any discussions.’ So I’m not going to. I have a husband backing me.”
Sokolovsky again asked Sheinkopf, over and over, to apologize. “My mother has a lot to say against you, and sweetie I’m sorry to tell you this, but if you have anything to say to me I have a lot of people who, unfortunately, could back me,” Sheinkopf said. She listed a number of names that are unintelligible in the recording, then said: “Anyone related to Oorah could back me, okay?”
“I felt terrible when she didn’t apologize,” Sokolovsky told the Forward. “You damaged a person for years, for the rest of their lives. And the least you could do is, just, even if we can’t take you to court, the least you can do is be like, ‘I did not realize what I did, I did not realize the effect it had on you.’”
Shortly after the call, Sokolovsky and Forster told the story over dinner to a friend who works as an attorney. The friend told them about New York’s statute of limitations, which gives child victims of sexual abuse until the age of 23 to bring any civil suits against their alleged abusers. Sokolovsky, who had just turned 23, had never heard of the rule.
“We’re two stupid people that don’t know anything about law,” Forster said.
They learned, however, that they had another option: A rabbinical court, of the type that is frequently used in ultra-Orthodox communities to resolve a range of disputes, could potentially force the alleged abuser to issue an apology. Sokolovsky brought charges against Sheinkopf in January at a rabbinical court in Borough Park, Brooklyn. The hearing was scheduled for February 7. Sheinkopf did not appear.
Forster said that, as time passed after the failed rabbinical court hearing, Sokolovsky was feeling worse. “Now that she actually wanted justice, it was like spit in her face,” Forster said.
Rabbinical courts have no official recourse if a defendant declines to appear. The courts can issue a document called a siruv, a public notice that an individual is in contempt of a rabbinical court. But the plaintiff needs to pay a fee to have the siruv distributed, and Sokolovsky declined to do so.
Instead, together with a female former classmate of Sokolovsky’s from her ultra-Orthodox high school, they began working on a video, using the old emails and letters that Sokolovsky had gathered along with some footage that Forster had recorded. Once it was set to go, Forster says they made two more efforts to arrange a mediation session with Sheinkopf, but received no response.
Sokolovsky isn’t a regular user of Instagram or Facebook. She says she’s “not a social media person at all.”
“I’m always staying on the down low,” she said.
In conversations with the Forward, she preferred to have Forster do most of the talking. In the follow-up question and answer video, Sokolovsky sits away from the camera, with Forster leaning forward.
The video campaign she and Forster created, however, has the social media savvy of a professional operation. The first video is heavily produced, with background music and some scenes of Sokolovsky walking moodily in cold weather. The most striking segments, though, are when Sokolovsky speaks directly to camera, tearfully describing her abuse and how it changed her life.
“I can’t get the apology that I need,” Sokolovsky says in the video. “But at least I can put my story out there.”
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Days after the first video, the two went live on Facebook to answer questions about themselves and the allegations, speaking for fifty minutes in measured tones. They address questions about the abuse, about Sokolovsky’s religious observance, and about her current lifestyle.
Throughout, the two emphasize that at this point, their interest is in warning others in the Jewish community about abuse in summer camp settings. Sokolovsky warns parents sending their kids to camp to be aware of unusual relationships between their children and camp staff.
Sokolovsky said that she doesn’t blame the camp. But she and Forster both say that the place of young baal teshuva women in Orthodox society leaves them particularly vulnerable.
The idea of Oorah’s camp, Forster said, is to “show them a fun frum experience. A lot of her friends got that experience. But unfortunately, Leah got the experience where somebody took advantage of her vulnerability and her second-class citizenship.”
Sokolovsky said that the reactions she’s received since the video went up have been mostly positive.
But some in the Orthodox community appear to have taken it upon themselves to push back. According to the lawsuit Sokolovsky filed on June 4 in New York State Supreme Court in Brooklyn, a man named Yanky Sofer published a series of voice recordings in late May to a WhatsApp group he administered called “The Real Chosen Ones.”
The recordings bash Sokolovsky. “She’s jealous because [Sheinkopf] is married,” Sofer said, according to a translation of his Yiddish and English comments included in the lawsuit. “It’s bullshit. She had no one. Cause she didn’t grow up religious… this is revenge. Anyone who believes her is crazy. She’s a bitch. Such a bitch. She should be hung and burnt. She should be coated with honey and stung.”
Later, Sofer allegedly accused Sokolovsky of attempting blackmail, called her depressed, accused her of lying, and attacked her physical appearance, according to the lawsuit.
“Such a bitch must be hung and burned similar to what was done in Sodom,” Sofer said in another message, according to the lawsuit.
Sofer’s WhatsApp group only included 260 members, but according to the lawsuit the messages were circulated widely. Sokolovsky’s suit accuses Sofer of defamation. The suit asserts that the statements in her YouTube video and the documents she presented are true, that she did not attempt to blackmail anyone, that she is not a liar, and that she has not been diagnosed with depression.
Sofer did not respond to requests for comment.
Today, Sokolovsky works in a nursing home. She just got licensed as an emergency medical technician, and is looking for EMT work while she prepares to apply to graduate school to become a physician’s assistant.
“I’m not a victim,” she said. “I’m definitely not a victim. And I’m not a survivor. I’m a thriver.”
Sokolovsky is not as religious as she was as a teenager, though she maintains some religious observances. Still, Sokolovsky said that she wanted to keep her story within the Jewish community. Forster said that they had turned down interview requests from non-Jewish media outlets.
“Leah has no interest in pursuing it to the non-Jewish world,” Forster said in the second video. “We are focused on this community and we care about this community, that’s the community we were raised in and we’re a part of.”
Despite the attacks, Forster and Sokolovsky think they have done something important.
“There are things going on that need to be discussed,” Forster told the Forward. “We all know that positive things happen when things are brought into the light.”
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Josh Nathan-Kazis is a staff writer for the Forward. He covers charities and politics, and writes investigations and longform.