In April of 2016, I wrote about my disillusionment with the country’s fascination and exuberance for Donald Trump as a presidential candidate. As an ex-Orthodox Jew, I believed the secular world and American ideals I yearned for as a child would never drown to the subterranean levels we witnessed during the 2016 campaign. But after President Trump’s remarks defending alleged pedophile and sexual predator Roy Moore to safeguard his own political agenda, my disillusionment has turned to rage. President Trump reminds me of the rabbis in the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community I grew up with who have been trying to keep their sexual abuse epidemic a dark secret for years.
When I was 16, I left the Orthodox world for public school, where I developed a passion for writing and filmmaking. Back in 2005, far fewer people were speaking publicly about sexual abuse in the Orthodox Jewish community, though Vicki Polin, founder and director of The Awareness Center (the site has since converted to a private forum) and journalists like Hella Winston who published a groundbreaking book, Unchosen: The Hidden Lives of Hasidic Rebels, Shmarya Rosenberg, and Robert Kolker were certainly shaking things up.
On February 1, 2017, Moshe Friedman pled guilty to a misdemeanor charge of “child endangerment” for the sexual assault of his 6-year-old male student. That deal allowed him to both avoid jail time and avoid registering as a sex offender. If you’re not outraged reading this, then I urge you to take a look at the police report. In 2014, Rabbi Gavriel Bodenheimer, 72, was arrested on charges that he sexually abused a boy in his office at Yeshiva of Bais Mikra in Monsey, New York. In 2015, he pleaded guilty to endangering the welfare of a child (a lesser charge). The boy’s family agreed to the plea deal so he would avoid testifying in public. Those are just two cases of many where the accused has pled to a lesser charge to avoid public shaming.
I was angry and frustrated that no one in the community wanted to address the issue of sexual abuse, so I decided I would make a film about it.
During the first semester of my freshman year at Five Towns College, I traveled back to Monsey, New York — the ultra-Orthodox enclave where I grew up — to begin filming Without A Voice; a documentary that would explore the hidden epidemic of sexual abuse in the Jewish community. Once I began interviewing people and connecting with anonymous and public bloggers, the outpouring of survivors from across the country was overwhelming. I was honored that they trusted me with their painful stories; some had left the Orthodox world but continued to struggle to reconcile the abuse they suffered at the hands of the rabbis they were taught to revere. Others had difficulty maintaining adult relationships, and a few expressed suicidal thoughts and feelings of helplessness and shame. But one thing they all had in common: they desperately wanted their voices to be heard.
I empathized with the survivors. Although I wasn’t sexually abused, I felt that I had a silent childhood. I was always afraid to express my true thoughts and feelings because of the consequences my rabbis — and apparently, God — might have in store for me if I did. So I was gratified to help others who had been silenced find their voices.
One survivor recounted the violent abuse he suffered when he was 15. He was in his rabbi’s house on the eve of Passover and his rabbi tried to touch him, but he walked away. So his rabbi grabbed him by the collar, pushed him into the dining room, and onto the couch. His rabbi hit him while he tried to break free. The rabbi ripped off his zipper then pulled his pants down and started grabbing him. The rabbi’s pants and underwear were already down and he was aroused. He kept yelling, “All I need is two minutes. Just give me two minutes and it will all be over. You know how much I love you.”
I wonder what would have happened to me if I was alone in an office with one of my rabbis. What if I was sexually abused? I also wonder if, as a society, we’ve become so desensitized to sexual abuse and assault that we don’t prosecute accordingly. Is that why the sexual assault allegations against President Trump have all but gone quiet since he won the election? It shouldn’t come as a surprise then that President Trump is defending Mr. Moore because he “totally denies” the allegations just like he totally denies the allegations against him, right?
There’s no doubt the tide is turning when it comes to sexual assault with men in power vs. women in the workplace, evidenced by the recent stories breaking from the Hollywood world. But when it comes to pedophilia and the harming of young children and teenagers, there seems to be a hush effect similar to the Orthodox Jewish community’s proclivity to sweep it under the carpet and similar to women in the workplace confronting abuse before the #MeToo movement became a force in effecting change.
I’ve been carrying a huge weight of guilt because I never finished the film or showed the trailer to anyone except for a few close friends. I’ve felt responsible for not allowing those important voices to be heard. Over the past nine years, progress has been made in Orthodox Jewish communities regarding sexual abuse cases, which has given me some solace. There have been national news stories about this epidemic, and yet when the news broke in 2014 that Rabbi Bodenheimer had been arrested and in 2017 with the egregious plea deal of Moshe Friedman, the response in the media and on social networking sites was fairly quiet. If one student is claiming sexual abuse, most likely there are others with similar claims, but whether they come forward is another issue. It’s an incredibly painful thing to do.
I apply the same logic to Roy Moore, who has multiple accusers, as well as President Trump. When President Trump defended Roy Moore, I posted on my personal Facebook page that our president has just endorsed an accused pedophile/sexual predator. Immediately, an older Orthodox Jewish male responded that Trump just doesn’t want a liberal in office and that the accusations are fake news. I hope the people of Alabama will vote with their conscience, instead of a political agenda Trump is brandishing. But 16 women weren’t enough to convince the American people that President Trump is not fit for office, so perhaps what we need is for more women to come forward and tell their stories of Moore and Trump and anyone else in power who have violated moral conduct. Maybe then, they won’t be able to deny it any longer.
Our society has been content with sweeping our sexual assault and abuse problems under the carpet. “But there’s no more room under the carpet,” as one rabbi who I interviewed for the film put it. So I want to encourage other survivors to let their voices be heard. Every story of abuse is an important one. Let’s not allow anyone’s voice to be put on hold any longer.