By David Cheifetz
In April 2013, I spoke out publicly as a victim of childhood sexual abuse while at an Orthodox sleepaway camp in 1979. My article was published in the New York Jewish Week, and since then, I have been actively working to address the issue of sexual abuse in the Jewish community. There is a lot to say about the broad phenomenon of sexual abuse, the lifelong impact of abuse on victims, the importance of thoughtful prevention, the need for institutional policies, the culpability of both abusers and enablers, and the communal culture that has, for years, failed to address this phenomenon.
Rather than focus on those topics, though, I will attempt to offer insight into the thoughts of a victim of sexual abuse: what went on in my mind at the time, what has been on my mind in the years since the abuse, what ultimately caused me to come forward, and how I relate to the experience today. I do not claim that my experience is typical or representative, but I hope that this glimpse into my perceptions will be meaningful for some.
How the Abuse Began
Imagine being an awkward thirteen-year-old boy in an all-boys sleepaway camp. It was my second year at Camp Dora Golding. I had friends, but I lacked confidence. I was painfully shy, and in a world where sports was an important currency, I was an average athlete at best. These attributes may describe many at that age, but to predatory serial sexual abusers, this is apparently the mark of a target.
I cannot recall when the predator began speaking to me. I do not recall all of our conversations, although I remember him asking me if I “do things that thirteen-year-old boys should not be doing”—an obvious reference to masturbation—and I remember him taking me bowling on visitors’ day. I have a clear recollection of being “groomed”—being singled out and cultivated as a target—a process that involves relationship- and trust building on the part of the predator.
I do have vivid memories of the abuse itself: the long walk on the camp grounds one night, being plied with beer, being sexually abused. Every detail. I remember a part of me experiencing the moment as if I were observing another, my mind separated from my body. This experience is referred to as “dissociation,” a common response among the many victims of sexual abuse. It is a coping mechanism of the brain.
Thoughts went through my mind: “Why is he doing this to me? Do I want this? Is this my fault?” They were an intellectual and emotional jumble. Remember, I was an insecure thirteen-year-old being “mentored” by a twenty-eight-year-old rabbi, an authority figure. He was spending a lot of time with me. I felt special. But I knew that this was wrong.
I was abused by this rabbi multiple times, including in my bunk, after the others were asleep. (This may be the cause of my lifelong insomnia, common among many victims of sexual abuse.)
At some point, I confided in a friend and swore him to secrecy. I imagine that this was some subconscious cry for help on my part. Fortunately, my friend reported the situation to the camp administration. I do not recall the exact sequence of events, but I do recall one camp counselor saying that he would kill my abuser if he came anywhere near me.
I was called into the camp administration building and asked to repeat my story to the head of the camp. I was forced to confront my abuser. Then I was “encouraged” to leave camp. A senior staff member took me to a Greyhound bus to head back, by myself, to New York. The senior staff member voiced resentment that he had to pay for my bus trip. And the camp called my parents to tell them, with little explanation, that they should pick me up from New York’s Port Authority bus terminal.
Now, what thirteen-year-old would not think, under such circumstances, that he had done something wrong? What thirteen-year-old would not feel rejected and punished? The twenty-eight-year-old rabbi and his wife were not sent away; I was the pariah sent into “exile.”
This self-guilt would haunt me over the years. At some level, I blamed myself. I must have been responsible for being sexually exploited by a twenty-eight-year-old rabbi. It had to be my fault. This was my own private “mark of Cain” that I carried in my subconscious for thirty-four years.
When I arrived home, I told my parents what had happened. I probably did not share all the details, and they probably did not want to know. My parents never called the police, never pursued a lawsuit, and never sought treatment for me.
So what was on my mind? There were moments of intense guilt—in the dark of the night, lying in my bed, when the flush of embarrassment, guilt, and shame would come over me. There were also questions: Was I attracted to men?
Try to imagine normal teenage angst amplified by the impact of abusive sexual trauma. Teenage rebellion. Disrespect for authority. Why should a yeshiva boy continue to trust rabbis when rabbis were responsible for his abuse and his being shunned? When I told my ultra-Orthodox high school principal about the incident, he reassured me that “[my abuser] was not a rabbi. Rabbis would never do such a thing!”
After a year in Israel and college, I married and began a career. I told my future wife about the abuse. It was not a topic I thought about regularly, although every once in a while, the shame, guilt, and insecurity would haunt me. Over the years, the guilt faded and was replaced by anger—a generalized anger, directed occasionally at my wife and children.
As my children got older, there was a steadfast rule: no sleepaway camps. Only my youngest went to sleepaway camp, and this was only after various assurances and the knowledge that a friend of the family played a senior role at this camp.
Interestingly, I avoided dealing with the issue by tuning out the sex abuse scandals of the day. I was generally aware of the Catholic Church scandals, but paid almost no attention to the Penn State scandal. I imagine that this was also a coping mechanism.
I was very fortunate. Many abuse victims develop alcohol or substance abuse problems; I did not. Many have relationship and commitment problems; I did not. Some abandon their religious affiliation; I did not. Some have problems functioning professionally and/or academically; I did not. I went to graduate school and built a professional career. But the anger remained, as well as the guilt, shame, and insecurity.
Over the years I barely spoke of my abuse, and thought about it less and less. One time, however, in 1996, I went to see a movie called Sleepers, about four teens who were sent to a residential juvenile reform school, where they were sexually and physically brutalized by the school guards. I walked out of the theater shaking, my heart palpitating.
Jump to 2012. My father had severe dementia, and many of the key financial and health care planning decisions fell to me. My teenagers were going through normal teenage rebellion and angst. I started to see a therapist because of the stress.
Suddenly, somewhere along the way, I was “triggered.” What does that mean? It means that the long-buried past; the emotional scars from the abuse; and the guilt, shame, and anger all came to the surface. I could barely function. At work, it was difficult to concentrate. My anger turned to rage. I had a form of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). A topic I had spent more than thirty years trying to avoid had returned with a vengeance.
There were many factors that led to my being triggered, but one key factor was an essay I had read, written by a friend. The topic was vague to most readers, but to a victim of sexual abuse, it was instantly recognizable as an 4 artfully shrouded account of a girl who had been a victim of sexual abuse. This essay pushed me over the edge.
I began to address my abuse in therapy. It was not an easy journey, and external circumstances conspired to make the journey more difficult. In 2012, there was the very public trial of Nechemya Weberman, an unlicensed therapist from the Satmar community who was ultimately found guilty of raping and tormenting a young Satmar woman despite extensive efforts by the Satmar community to intimidate the plaintiff and her family. There was also the public case of Yosef Kolko, accused of sexually abusing a boy in Lakewood, New Jersey. The Lakewood community had turned against the victim and his family, and Kolko was supported by one of the foremost kashrut authorities of the Orthodox Union. Kolko ultimately pleaded guilty to the offense.
Closer to home, news coverage began about a group of former students of MTA, the high school of Yeshiva University, who were suing YU for sexual abuses that had occurred on campus in the 1970s and 1980s, carried out by the former high school principal, one of the rebbes, and a third person with access to the school premises and the student body. I live in Teaneck, New Jersey, a bedroom community to many in YU. The facts of the YU stories did not shock; most people my age were aware of them. But the most shocking thing for me, as I was beginning my own recovery, was that the rabbi of a major synagogue in Teaneck wrote a controversial blog post arguing that when there is abuse, one should call the police; however, when the abuse took place beyond the statute of limitations, it is incumbent upon the victims NOT to speak out, as the accused abuser is not in a position to defend himself. This legalistic argument demanded that victims of past sexual abuse not come forward. And here I was, a mile and a half away from this man’s synagogue, going through PTSD, barely able to function, while this rabbi was saying that I had no right to speak out. What was wrong with this picture?
Finally, a casual friend reached out to me. He had been physically abused by Baruch Lanner (who had violently attacked him and broken his nose) and had testified before the 1989 beit din that more or less exonerated Lanner. (Lanner’s behavior would later be called out in a Jewish Week exposé in 1999, and he would eventually go to prison.) The friend told me about the abuses of males and females by people in positions of religious authority. He told me about the religious establishment that looked the other way for as long as it could, because Lanner was part of a web of influence rooted in kiruv (outreach), fundraising, and monetary considerations.
For me, this was the final straw. My brain exploded.
Anger and Recovery
As I was going through recovery, my earlier anger evolved into pure rage. I began to speak openly about being abused—not to everyone I met, but to close friends. The cat was out of the bag. I have come to understand that this impulse to speak about having been abused is another common characteristic of individuals in the throes of post-abuse trauma.
At that time I actively thought about pursuing my abuser. I had a professional background check done on him and discovered his home address and telephone number, the details of his marriage, his employment record (a twenty plus-year career as a rebbe), and his arrest record, which was nonexistent. I spent time searching the web and discovered discussion threads where his name was linked to alleged abuse.
I felt compelled to call his employers and warn them that they had a sexual predator in their midst. However, according to his employment history, he was no longer employed. There was no one to call. I also felt compelled to pursue confrontation—violent or nonviolent. I had more than one friend offer to join me in providing my abuser with lifelong physical scars to match my psychological ones. Alternately, I thought about confronting him verbally.
In the end, I did neither. My rage was tempered by my rational impulse. I do not believe in vigilantism. And my therapist advised me against my second idea; she said that the aspiration for “poetic closure” often results in disappointment and dread. I followed her advice.
Instead, my rage was channeled elsewhere. As my recovery progressed, my need for some sort of action evolved—from action against my predator to action focused on the broader phenomenon. This was no longer about me and my predator; it was about a community that systematically ignored sexual abuse and consequently enabled abusers to abuse again. I could not change the past, but I could speak out about a current phenomenon, and hopefully save children from the fate I once suffered.
Furthermore, in the course of my therapy, after many months, I finally came to accept the ultimate truth: I had been a thirteen-year-old child groomed by a twenty-eight-year-old rabbi. I was plied with alcohol. I was sexually abused—multiple times. And it was not my fault.
Understanding Among Victims
Since going public, I have been in contact with many victims of sexual abuse. Some have become close friends. And I have learned that some people I have known for years were themselves victims.
There is a unique understanding among victims of sexual abuse. They include people who, like me, were sexually abused in an institutional setting, as well as the many victims who were abused in their homes. We are members of a fraternity with its own language and psychology. It is a fraternity that no one would ever volunteer to become a member of.
And the opposite is true as well: Most people who have not been abused cannot comprehend the emotional scars, try as they may. This is why some victims have relationship problems with even the most sympathetic significant others; others cannot understand the long-term damage, the strains that tug at our souls, the bottomless pit of anger. This is why parents who expect us to “get over it” do not understand: We cannot.
Many rabbis and others in the community expect victims of sexual abuse to remain silent or simply go away. Believe me, we all wish we could make the emotional scars go away, but we cannot. We carry lifelong damage to our souls.
Rule of thumb: Across populations, one of every five people has been sexually abused in some way by the age of eighteen. Until the organized Jewish community engages in serious cultural change, puts in place a systematic approach toward awareness building, prevention, policy making, and treatment of victims, this issue will not go away. And until the community recognizes that this is a scourge that cannot be swept under the carpet, we will not go away. Because we cannot.
One final note: My original article was published two and a half years ago and was widely read. Several events at which I have spoken received wide coverage. But to this day, not one person from Camp Dora Golding— either from the administration in 1979 or the current administration—has reached out to me to apologize. Since 1979, there have been thirty-five Yom Kippurs. The many Orthodox rabbis and administrators of the day, my abuser, and the many staff members who sent me away and enabled an abuser to go elsewhere and abuse again have likely gone to shul every Yom Kippur and davened with kavannah. But in mitzvot bein adam lehaveiro (mitzvot between one person and another), there can be no teshuvah without a sincere apology. They can say “Al heyt” as much as they want, but, ultimately, their words are empty.
David Cheifetz has founded a nonprofit organization focused on addressing the issues of child sexual abuse in the Jewish community, Mi Li—Who Is for Me. He has had a nineteen-year career in general management in the private sector following a six-year career working for the Israeli government in both the United States and Israel.