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Will New Jewish Effort Force New York To Change Sex Abuse Laws at Last?

Sara Kabakov had never done this before. Never driven three hours from her home in Ithaca, N.Y., to the state capitol in Albany nearly 200 miles away, never tried to enter the mosh pit of lobbying lawmakers, never thought of herself as a political activist.

But there she was yesterday at the capitol, seeking an audience with her state senator, meeting with other legislators, learning from other advocates, all in service of persuading them to protect victims of child sexual abuse.

She was moved to do this by a simple act of bravery: Last January, Kabakov shared her own story of sexual abuse at the hands of Marc Gafni, the former rabbi and spiritual guru. “I am the woman Gafni molested when she was 13 years old,” she wrote in an exclusive essay for the Forward. “This is the first time I am telling my story in my own name.”

Gafni was a Yeshiva University rabbinical student five or six years her senior, who regularly molested her at night in her bed when he would stay at the Kabakov family home for Shabbat. The abuse continued for months; the pain and confusion lasted for many years, exacerbated by the refusal of an array of Jewish leaders to take Kabakov’s story seriously. By the time she was able to fully address what happened, she was 38 years old.

And in New York State, that was 15 years too late.

Working Together: Sara Kabakov with Rep. Margaret Markey, the champion of the Child Victims Act. Image by Courtesy of Sara Kabakov

That’s because New York has one of the most cruel, reactionary laws in the nation, ranking right down there with Mississippi, Michigan and Alabama as states that advocates say are the worst for victims and the best for predators. Victims of sexual abuse in New York have only until the age of 23 to bring either criminal charges or file a civil lawsuit against their alleged abusers, one of the shortest windows in the country.

While other states have reformed their laws — Georgia did so last year — legislators in Albany have rebuffed repeated attempts by the indefatigable Queens assemblywoman Margaret Markey. Since 2006, she has championed the Child Victims Act, which in its current iteration eliminates the civil statute of limitations in the future and creates a one-year window when older abuse victims can bring their claims. A companion bill would eliminate the SOL in criminal cases in the future.

The measures have passed the state House and have been left to die in the state Senate, while Gov. Andrew Cuomo has stayed uncharacteristically silent.

Sensing a growing national disgust with this kind of harmful politics, Markey and State senator Brad Hoylman from Manhattan, both Demcorats, organized a two-day lobbying blitz continuing today. The lawmakers and their supporters are veritable Davids battling the Goliath of the Catholic Church on this, and the church’s compatriot in blocking real reform, Agudath Israel of America, which represents ultra-Orthodox Jews.

But rabbis and other Jewish leaders are beginning to fight back. Just last week, Rabbi Ari Hart of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale was the first to sign a petition he organized with the group Kol v’Oz supporting the Child Victims Act; now there are 161 names below his, representing all denominations.

Hart was in Albany yesterday, too. He considers this advocacy part of his rabbinate — not only because of his pastoral obligation to hear and heal the pain of fellow Jews, but out of the shameful recognition that too many Jewish leaders have denied the seriousness of child abuse for too long.

“Early on in my rabbinate, I sat in a room of survivors who shared stories of abuse, and heard how rabbis and Jewish institutions had failed these survivors over and over again,” he told me. “I feel like it has to change. Religious institutions should be places of healing, places of hope and protection for people — not the other way around.”

This urge to protect institutions from allegations of abuse that may have happened long ago is rooted in ignorance and fear. There’s no need for either anymore. We know from research and countless human examples that it may take an abuse victim decades to be able to even verbalize the experience, especially when the abuser was a person held in high esteem, like a rabbi or teacher.

“It can take a lifetime to learn how to speak up to Jewish authority,” Kabakov told me as she drove home from Albany. “It can silence people. It silenced me.”

Besides ignorance, there is fear that opening a window to claims from the past will unleash a torrent of frivolous lawsuits that will bankrupt churches, yeshivas and other institutions. But none of that has happened in the states where the SOL has been reformed or eliminated.

And then there’s a deeper fear that Kabakov names, one that especially afflicts Jews and other minorities — fear of bringing shame onto one’s own. “That’s probably one of the biggest barriers to changing the paradigm of silence,” she said. “Everyone is afraid of persecution, of stigma, and we don’t want to add to it.”

We simply have to get over it, if for no other reason than suppression of abuse inevitably leads to more harm and more communal shame. The Jewish advocates in Albany yesterday, along with their coalition partners from other faiths, are not disrespecting their communities and traditions by lobbying on behalf of child victims. They are acting out of love made desperate by denial and suffering.

Do the right thing, New York. Allow the victims their voices. Let their stories be heard.

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