Phil Jacobs - Someone you should know!Phil Jacobs: A Year Like No Other
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By Phil Jacobs, Executive Editor
Baltimore Jewish Times
SEPTEMBER 07, 2007
Usually, when it comes to Rosh Hashanah, I have through my years here at the Baltimore Jewish Times thought in terms of columns we call "Year in Review."
With the encouragement of Editor Neil Rubin, I’ve chosen to look at this year in review in another way.
This year, 5767, has been the most journalistically significant year of my almost 25 years here at the Jewish Times.
It started with a sexual molestation survivor named "Steve," a young man of 25, who told me his wrenching story over three hours of coffee at the Pikesville Barnes & Noble. This wasn’t my first meeting, however, with Steve. That came six months earlier and resulted in no story.
Let me flash back further.
It’s May 7, 2006. About 20 of us are crowded into a study hall-type room at the Ohel Yaakov synagogue on Glen Avenue in Upper Park Heights.
It was the day of the Rabbi Herman Neuberger Memorial Dinner in New York, so most of the community’s Orthodox rabbis were there.
Seated among a room equally divided between men and women were Ohel Yaakov’s Rabbi Peretz Dinowitz, Suburban Orthodox Toras Chaim’s Rabbi Shmuel Silber and Beth Tfiloh Community School educational director Zipora Schorr. They didn’t come to talk; they came to listen.
One by one, men and women began to tell their stories. Some in barely audible whispers, others in angry, tear-filled boldness. Most in the room were affiliated with Orthodoxy. They told their stories of molestation. It was the rabbi, the father, the camp counselor, Jewish singer for Orthodox children, the older brother, the boy down the street, the yeshiva teacher who would impact their lives forever.
There was only one door, located in the corner of the room, but many of us wanted to run and run and run as far away as possible. The wounds were deep, penetrating open sores.
Some of the people were frum from birth, others were newly Orthodox.
Looking around, I saw many familiar faces, some fellow congregants. One young man was the son of my close friends.
Another man said that he didn’t know what difference any of this talking would make, that no one would do anything anyway to fix the problem.
After the last speaker was done, and the door was reopened, I bolted for my car. I picked up my wife and asked her just to get in and drive with me. We drove for two hours, past Hunt Valley into Pennsylvania.
I wanted to get clean somehow.
Steve had called about a week after the meeting. He was then a 24-year-old college student who had been molested by three different people. He was a yeshiva product no longer practicing religion. Against his will, "religious" people had unzipped his fly and molested his genitals.
That’s how he saw it.
I interviewed him, but never wrote the story. I couldn’t do it ... at the time.
I’d see Steve as the months wore on. He’d always ask the same question: "How’s the story going?"
It wasn’t until early February of 2007 that Steve and I met again. I asked to re-interview him from scratch.
On Feb. 23, the story "Steve is 25" appeared in the Jewish Times. It was really how my year started. That’s because soon after this article, I was introduced to the numerous survivors of the late Rabbi Ephraim Shapiro.
Do I print the name of Rabbi Ephraim Shapiro, the deceased Talmudical Academy principal and spiritual leader of the former Agudas Achim?
I was asked not to by rabbis whom I love. I was told that the damage would be done to his surviving generations. I was also told that there was no way he could possibly defend himself since he was dead.
I could not run his name? There were so many people who were impacted by this man, so many people whose lives still involve shelling out cash for therapy, who can’t have normal relations with other people, who are afraid of their own shadow.
Then came the tipping point.
A rabbi, a good man with whom I have spent years studying Talmud, and I met for our regularly scheduled Sunday morning learning session. That was two days after the story on Ephraim Shapiro appeared. That meeting can never be forgotten.
We never opened a Gemarah. We had been studying the laws of Shabbos.
Instead, the rabbi started by telling me that as far as he could tell only two people in his entire kehillah had even read the article on Rabbi Shapiro. It was as if that was supposed to convince me that the story’s impact was iffy.
He even said that it was the kind of story that the old-time Jews would read. He described "old-time" Jews as the people with "plaid pants and white socks on." He said that I should write a letter of explanation for my actions to Rabbi Sheftel Neuberger of Ner Israel Rabbinical College or to Rabbi Avi Shafran of the Agudath Israel organization. My infraction: I didn’t ask a sheilah, or question, of any rabbis about Ephraim Shapiro’s name appearing.
The magnifying glass was now on me. Yet, I never molested anyone.
Meanwhile, the Vaad HaRabonim (the Rabbinical Council of Greater Baltimore) mailed a letter to its community members condemning abuse in our community. The Jewish Times article was published on April 13. This letter came out on April 11.
In the letter, which was signed by 22 rabbis, including the one who became my tipping point, is this line: "Publicizing his status as an abuser — while causing enormous damage to his own family — may be the only way to truly protect the community from him."
The difference here: Rabbi Shapiro was dead. As one of the signers of the declaration said to me, "He’s lucky he’s dead."
Arrogance, not authenticity, has contributed to this problem of molestation. That any man, any rabbi, should feel that the truth should be buried at the expense of procedure is too difficult to bear.
My study partner was angry at me for not asking a question of whether it was proper or not to run the name of a deceased child molester.
Yet, we Jewish people have worked hard to preserve the names of the Nazis who killed millions of our dear ones. Indeed, we are thrilled when a Nazi, no matter how old or frail, is still apprehended and deported.
Yet another person calling himself "rabbi" posted a letter in his synagogue banning this publication from congregants’ homes and questioning if we were even a Jewish newspaper or not.
Of course, he did not bother to call and discuss the matter with me.
Wow, now that’s leadership!
In yet another meeting, a Vaad member told me that he felt that while my intentions were honorable, I was doing more harm than good. The reason: Older rabbis felt that the community was in a panic mode, almost afraid of its own shadow or who we would expose next.
So what have I learned in the year 5767?
That there are many hurting people in the Baltimore Jewish community who are connected to child sexual molestation? Yes.
That there are people who dress the part and talk the talk, but won’t walk the walk when it comes to protecting the safety of our children? Yes.
That there are some truly wonderful, brave people, some rabbis, some lay leaders, some survivors, who are not afraid of this issue? Yes.
I have learned a great deal this year. Has it been a sweet year, a healthy year? In many ways, yes.
We have a great deal to look forward to as we approach the High Holidays. It is the perfect time for our perpetrators to truly ask for forgiveness. It is a good time for our survivors to seek the beginning of a healing.
One lesson I learned over all other lessons this year: There are a ton of great, loving, courageous people here in Baltimore. I think the conversation of molestation can turn a corner now and get into areas of prevention and education. Our rabbis can learn from our survivors and our therapists.
And I think more and more of them are getting that.
May your year be filled with authenticity, not arrogance.
May you feel safe.
And may you prosper in the year 5768.