Early this past July, I filed a lawsuit against Sholom Eichler, a first cousin who sexually abused me for four years starting when I was 6. From the day the abuse began until last year, I hadn’t felt confident, strong or ready to attempt to pursue justice and hold Eichler accountable for what he did to me. I was afraid. The people I counted on to protect and help me when I was young only fed that fear, allowing it to grow. I had confided in my school principal, Rabbi Lustig of Oholei Torah, when I was 14 and the years of secret pain were too much to bear alone. Rabbi Lustig advised my parents not to create “a family fight” by confronting Eichler or his parents and strongly urged them not to say anything. Consequently, Eichler remained a welcome presence in my parents’ home for the rest of my youth, and my family celebrated his wedding despite knowing that he brutally abused and molested me for four years of my childhood — four years that I’ll never get back, four years that I live with everyday of my life.
It’s been difficult. And, forgiving my family and the caregivers who betrayed me is no easy thing. Yet, I am grateful to most of my immediate family members for their support that, although it came late, did still come.I have been lucky to have the unwavering support of my parents and siblings throughout the journey the past few years has taken me on. My parents stand proudly behind me and support me in the work that I do — the cause I believe in and live for. They accept me completely as I am; my orientation is just another inherent aspect little different from the color of my eyes or my skin tone. Everyday, I hear from people whose families reject them, sometimes even disowning them, just because they’re gay. I had truly believed and feared that my family would never come around, but I was wrong. They have arrived, and I couldn’t be more proud to call them my family, my blood. They have been there for me as I have tried to pursue justice.
Before filing a lawsuit against Eichler, I attempted to envision the different scenarios that might result, but I was not prepared for what ensued. Many people sympathized with Eichler and recast the traumatic abuse as just “two kids fooling around,” others called the lawsuit a ploy for attention, and some even had the audacity simply to feed into the denial all too commonly surrounding abuse, dismissing what had happened to me with assertion that Eichler is “family man” incapable of the horrific crimes he committed against me, my body and my mind. It had taken years for me to regain some sort of wholeness with which I could try to move forward, and the negative reactions to the lawsuit challenged that.
And, I lost hope. I had to take a step back. I had lost my way. I have spent the last few months trying to figure out my place, where I belong and what I want to do in the future. I have also done as much I can to begin to heal from the childhood trauma that I endured. I had lost the confidence that was so hard to build. I lost my drive. I was disappointed and angry with many people; it was truly horrifying for me to hear anyone try defending the likes of Eichler despite what was known. So many people were focused on “Jewish gay activist sues cousin for sexual abuse” that the story was lost. It was a headline that told them all that they thought they needed to know. It was a headline that allowed them to conclude that the abuse I experienced at the hands of Eichler must have been consensual despite his being six years older because I proudly identify as a gay man and had not told anyone while the abuse occurred. It was a headline that allowed people to continue to ignore abuse and to blame and dismiss survivors. The misguided conclusions people made about me and what had happened to me were far from reality; still, they were a source of pain.
While I don’t feel the need to defend my choice in taking actions against someone that hurt me, I do think it’s important to address some matters before other abuse survivors’ motives are questioned and they are harmed in the process. Eichler may have been a minor at the time of the abuse, but I was a child; I couldn’t consent, and I didn’t have a choice. Eichler exploited my vulnerability in feeling different and inferior, which made me a perfect target for a predator. He once told me that he had to be mean to me in public so that no one caught on to “our” secret. Eichler sexually, physically and mentally abused me. He devised elaborate strategies to isolate and intimidate me and to lure me away to commit unspeakable acts. Even after Eichler sodomized me with a pen when he became frustrated with my small, unaccommodating, fragile, eight year old anatomy, I was still too afraid to tell anyone. Like many other survivors, I was afraid and ashamed. That was why I kept it a secret for as long as I did, but when I was more able to understand what had happened I reached out for help.
My principal, family and community’s reaction are examples of what fed and continues to feed the pernicious silence that creates an environment conducive to abuse and that revictimizes survivors. I reached out again to my former principal upon retaining my lawyers, but he refused to cooperate, claiming that it was against Jewish law for him to get involved in any capacity. Rabbi Lustig knew what was at stake when he refused to cooperate less than a year ago, when abuse was no longer taboo and most rabbis called for everyone to help survivors achieve justice. Given Rabbi Lustig’s past and the history with running Oholei Torah for which he has not been held accountable, I cannot be too shocked by the way he continues to handle matters. My family, on the other hand, were there for me when I needed them this time, and it means so much to me. It’s been a long and painful road in finding some middle ground with my family. Instead of ignoring it and pretending like nothing happened as they had for too long, they were ready and willing to do whatever it took to bring justice and closure for me in any capacity necessary.
Justice and closure have been hard coming. Eichler and his family refuse to face the limelight. Neither he nor his family have publicly commented on the charges. There were those who thought he deserved his day in court; well, he got it, but he chose to not to use it. Eichler did not even file a response to the complaint against him, and a default judgment has been requested. And, it appears that his response to the default judgement against him will be immigrating to Israel.
I used to wish I could just escape from the past.Today, I think differently. Today, I want to move forward. I know that if I had missed the opportunity to pursue some justice as I decided after my 23rd birthday this past May, it would have been all the more difficult to move forward with my life, still burdened with a conflicted conscious and consuming secret. Now the secret is out, Eichler is exposed, and other children may be safer and other survivors find it easier to come forward. I am unapologetically proud of my choice to file a suit against Eichler for the damage he caused me. Now, I stand prouder and stronger, ready to move forward with my future while being mindful of the evils of the past. While they might be in my past, they continue to be a source of struggle for me and are a present reality for far too many people. The case was brought to court, but that does not mean it’s over; sadly, these battles are never over. Nonetheless, I am relieved to be in a better place in my life to do the things I hope and plan on doing; these include continuing to be an outspoken, unashamed survivor and an unapologetic critic of those who continue to feed toxic and dangerous environments in which abuse is covered up, and, most importantly, to put an end to the deafening silence that has handicapped so many of us.