The packed room sat silent at Moses Montefiore Anshe Emunah Congregation last weekend, as about 150 people watched a 15-minute video of several adult survivors recounting their stories of childhood sexual abuse that happened within their Orthodox Jewish communities — committed by camp counselors, rabbis and other authority figures — some of which lasted over years.
The video was produced and presented by the New York-based Jewish Community Watch, a nonprofit dedicated to combatting and exposing child sexual abuse in the Jewish community and to help its victims become survivors. One of the tactics the organization is known for is its Wall of Shame, a page on its website that identifies alleged and convicted child abusers by name, photograph and address. Some are categorized as being “exposed by JCW” without any notation of being charged, arrested or convicted.
Rivka Joseph, from Cleveland, who said she was sexually abused over 10 years from age 11 to 21 by a family member, told the audience she was able to heal and move on with her life with the support of JCW. Joseph’s family didn’t believe her claims; when confronted with the information, her rabbi, she said, asked her, “If it happened so long ago, why not just get over it? Why do you need to punish your [abuser]?”
The family member was offered counseling from JCW but refused it, she said, adding that she does not have support from her family.
“I wish I could tell you it gets better, but it doesn’t,” Joseph said. “But you will get better.”
We have a problem folks, and I’m here today to ask you to acknowledge the problem. How many cases are reported from the Jewish community? I can’t think of one. You’re not immune. … I’m asking you to help me protect your children. … That reporting system starts with you.
— Moe Greenberg, detective, Baltimore County child abuse unit
Rabbi Elie Ganz, speaking that night on behalf of JCW, said that two out of three calls JCW receives involve incest-related abuses. He added that the organization’s 11 full-time staff members, which include researchers, advocates and legal counsel, have received between 20 to 30 calls from the Baltimore area in recent months and that four cases are currently under investigation that involve Baltimore residents.
Baltimore County Police officer Moe Greenberg, a detective with the force’s child abuse unit, spoke to the prevalence of child abuse in the area at large. He said that in Baltimore County, there were 277 child sexual abuse cases investigated in 2014. That number jumped to 317 cases last year, and the number is on par in 2016 to again exceed previous years.
Greenberg said the event was the first time he was invited to speak to the Jewish community and added, “There is no socioeconomic, racial, religious, ethnic or professional group that is immune to child sexual abuse.” He said that though it’s common to teach children of “stranger danger,” most offenders know their victims and target multiple victims.
“We have a problem folks, and I’m here today to ask you to acknowledge the problem,” said Greenberg. “How many cases are reported from the Jewish community? I can’t think of one. You’re not immune. … I’m asking you to help me protect your children. … That reporting system starts with you.”
Ganz made a point of highlighting the lack of rabbinical presence in the audience and was in the middle of explaining that in other cities, a local rabbi typically speaks about the halachic issues involved in JCW’s work when an audience member gently interrupted him.
“Please don’t impugn Baltimore,” he said.
“I have not done that yet,” responded Ganz, who went on to present what he said were halachic concerns the Orthodox community might have about JCW’s methods in identifying and exposing alleged abusers.
“This is the beginning of the conversation,” Ganz said. “You take these ideas and you ask your local rabbi what they think about it.”
Ganz called out a common concern, the concept of mesirah, literally “informing,” and a moseir, “one who hands over another Jew” to the authorities. He maintained that JCW is not a witch hunt and offers abusers access to treatment. One of the organization’s members later said JCW has a monthly therapy bill that runs between $30,000 and $40,000.
“It hurts to put another Jew in jail,” said JCW’s founder and director of victim advocacy, Meyer Seewald, the final speaker of the evening. “But we have no choice. It hurts to expose another person on the Wall of Shame. Families are being destroyed, but we have no choice. … There is no excuse for abusing a child. … The days of sweeping this under the rug are over.”
His comments were met with loud applause.
Attendee Lisa, who chose to withhold her last name, agreed with those sentiments and added she was “ashamed” no leaders of the local Jewish community were in attendance. Her friend, who asked to remain anonymous, said she knows three people, one from Baltimore, who were sexually abused as children.
“It’s shocking and scary, and people need to step up,” she said.
At one point Seewald referenced a dispute between JCW and the Baltimore-based Shoresh that erupted last month about an alleged incident last year between a former Camp Shoresh employee and a camper at the organization’s Frederick facility. According to a Shoresh email, posted on JCW’s website, the Frederick County Sheriff’s Office and Child Protective Services concluded after an investigation that no charges were warranted and closed the case.
Although Seewald didn’t mention Shoresh by name at the event — he later confirmed by phone that he was talking about the Baltimore organization — Seewald charged that it didn’t go far enough in its handling of the matter, even though the organization reported the allegations to county authorities. He seemed to intimate that JCW should have been a part of the investigation.
“If at the end he is guilty, every single person will know about it,” Seewald said. “If he’s innocent, we’ll make sure everyone knows that he’s innocent.”
Shoresh considers the case closed.
“For 37 years, Shoresh has always protected children and continues to do so in this case,” said director Rabbi David Finkelstein. “We feel that the courts have taken care of this case.”
Frequently gripping the sides of the podium during his impassioned delivery, Seewald, himself a survivor of child sexual abuse, lamented that in Baltimore’s community of about 100,000 Jews, there were less than 10 Jewish names on the public sex offenders list when he checked it. He thought it should be larger, citing the prevalence of sexual abuse nationally, although he didn’t compare Baltimore’s Jewish community with other American Jewish communities.
“Incest is unfortunately the least talked about form of child sexual abuse. And in our community, unfortunately, very common,” he said. “We know about a well-known case of incest and the way it was handled in the Baltimore community … and want to apologize … on behalf of the Baltimore community … that your community tormented you, they brought you shame, they didn’t believe you, they re-victimized you.”
Seewald urged attendees to take proactive measures, pointing out a guidebook placed on each chair that detailed warning signs to heed, support for victims who come forward and ways to help spread awareness of the issue.
“We are ready to talk,” he said in a message to unnamed community leaders. “Those who wish to continue to hide our dirty little secret … we’ll catch up with you. How do you want to look in that spotlight, centered on you, on your home, on your community, on your town and on your village?”