Sunday, March 24, 2013

Chasing the Devil - Sholom Eichler in Shackles

Sholom Eichler was arrested on March 21st near Kfar Chabad for sexually abusing me as a child. I had already filed a civil lawsuit against him in New York and he ignored the lawsuit and fled to Israel with his family. The result of that lawsuit is still pending, I was awarded a default judgment against him and will hopefully know the amount of that judgment by this coming Monday, March 25th.

As I’ve written previously on my Facebook page and have told many people as well, the last place that Sholom Eichler molested me was when our families were visiting Israel together on a family trip while we were staying at the [then Hilton] David Citadel hotel. The details of that incident, along with many of the other incidents remain clear as day in my mind; I even remember the room number that he abused me in while we were in Jerusalem.

After ignoring the civil lawsuit against him in New York Sholom Eichler and his family fled to Israel because of the default judgment that I was granted against him. Unfortunately for Eichler, the criminal statute of limitations are much broader and severe in Israel, and so I spent the past few months researching my options before deciding to press criminal charges against him. It pains me greatly to know that there are so many sex offenders out there whose victims have the ability to bring them to justice but are too afraid to do so because of community or family pressure, or because they don’t feel strong enough. For 7 seven years I was frightened by the prospect of forcing Sholom Eichler into a courtroom or even confronting him, and it is thanks to the support of many great survivors, advocates, friends and family who showed me that it’s possible to pursue justice despite the staggering intimidation that many victims face once reporting their crime and/or going public especially when coming from more religious communities.

The Israeli justice system operates quite differently than what I was familiar with in regards to how sexual abuse cases are handled in the US. After I received confirmation on Thursday morning that Eichler was arrested, the police requested that I be on “standby” for when they would call me. I thought they would ask me to ID Eichler or something, but what came next was very unexpected. I was brought into a fairly small room with three police interrogators, one of them a translator, and was directed to sit in a seat right across from Sholom Eichler where he was sitting with shackles on his feet.

The main interrogator read Eichler his right to remain silent and warned him that anything he said would be used against him. I was still absorbing the fact that I was sitting right in front of the monster who took so much away from me, the monster that caused so much damage that no amount of therapy will ever undo, but within two minutes I was able to gain my bearings. According to legal experts in Israel, this process is called “eimut” (confrontation) and is used by interrogators to observe the body language between the victim and the accused. I was instructed to look at Eichler and tell him what he did to me, they were adamant that I describe every incident in detail and not hold back on anything. It was at that moment that I looked at the monster in the eyes and told him exactly what he did to me, where he did it and the painful and sensitive details of the times he abused me.

This “confrontation” was sort of like a court proceeding, after I gave my opening statement Eichler was given a chance to respond to what I said, and without an ounce of shame or remorse he attempted to deny everything that I claimed he had done to me. With every word he spoke, with every lie he told I felt my blood boiling to the point where I thought I was going to explode, but although he was lying, his body language was telling a very different story. He was completely unhinged and was shaking non stop, he sounded like he was on the brink of tears and his attempts to discredit what I was saying were clearly not working. One of the things I confronted him about was about a meeting that he and I had five years ago before he got married in which he apologized to me for what he had done to me. I looked at him and said “how dare you sit right in front of me and call me a liar? How do you live with yourself knowing what you did despite the fact that not only did you apologize to me but also admitted your crimes against me to my older brother and my mother as well?”. Eichler admitted to meeting me five years ago, (something he denied until now) and said “I didn’t apologize for what I did to you, I apologized for how you were feeling”.

I pressed further and recounted in vivid detail how Eichler used to wait on his parents’ porch that was just across the street of my school for when I would be walking home from school so that he can lure me inside to commit those unspeakable acts. I also recounted the times that he abused me in the synagogue that our families attended, in my parents’ house, upstate at the bungalow colony that our families both attended during the summer, and of course, one of the most brutal incidents, the last time, in that hotel in Jerusalem on the fifth floor. Eichler had the audacity to attempt and accuse my older brothers of actually abusing me; and when asked by the interrogators why I would make such claims against him he said that he was the “perfect target”. I responded to that by saying that if i was looking for a “perfect target” I would have gone after one of his older brothers which would have ensured that one of them would be sitting in American prison today because they would’ve been well within the criminal statute of limitations within the American justice system.

Those twenty minutes felt like hours and most of the exact details are quite blurred in my head at this point, but luckily it was all on the record and will surely be used to prove his guilt in criminal court. What I remember was the feeling of empowerment I felt when I looked at this evil excuse for a man in the eye and told him exactly what he had done to me and the look on his face, the expression of guilt and shame, feelings that I felt for far too long because of what he had done to me; the tables had finally turned and for the first time in thirteen years Sholom Eichler finally had to answer for his heinous crimes. After leaving that room, I felt nothing but strength and a certain of closure. As painful and emotional as that confrontation was for me, it reminded me that pursuing justice is one of the most important things that a person could do in his or her life.

Eichler was released on bail the next day, the exact amount is still unknown to me but I hope to find out soon, and it is my sincere hope that he will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. I hope that others will learn by example that while at certain points the prospect of facing their abuser might seem impossible but the truth is that with the right amount of support, therapy, and healing facing one’s abuser IS possible and the power that abusers enjoy over their victims (the way Eichler had power over me) diminish over time.

Aside from knowing that it was my obligation to make sure that Eichler answer for his crimes and that I exercise every single legal option that was available to me in order to do so, I hope that by pressing criminal and civil charges against my abuser a better precedent will be set in the future for those struggling with the decision of if and how they should take action against those who stole part of their innocence, part of their soul. I know that by being so public about my past and about what was done to me is giving a voice to so many who feel like theirs was taken from them, something I once felt all the time. I’ve been publicly shamed on more than one occasion; anonymous emails and tweets from people who don’t even have the courage to use their real names remind me the importance of this journey and only empower me even more to pursue justice. Those voices of hate and negativity fade and the voices of my family, friends and every single person who supported me and encouraged me echo loudly for me and for the world to hear, to you all, I am thankful, I wouldn’t be here without you.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Hebrew Theological School Apologizes to Sexual Abuse Survivor Put on Notice

Last Thursday, Kaylie* (a pseudonym) was placed on notice for misconduct at Hebrew Theological College for disclosing on Facebook that she is a survivor of sexual abuse. She had felt that she must stand against the attitude that survivors are defective. Ironically, her dean declared very coldly as result that Kaylie* thus appeared “less than human”, “besmirching” her peers and school, and ordered Kaylie’s* silence under the threat of expulsion. After an outcry against her insensitive, outrageous remarks to and action against Kaylie*, Dean Esther Shkop of Hebrew Theological College’s Torani L’Banot school offered an apology yesterday, as well as hope that things will be different in the future:



Dear Kaylie*,

Over the last number of difficult days, regret and a stirring sadness have overtaken me because of the insensitive and harsh email I recently sent you.  I ask for your mechila [forgiveness] and extend you my deepest apology.

Inasmuch as [Torani L'Banot] has always endeavored to provide all of our students with full academic, emotional, and spiritual support - taking into account the variety of life experiences - it has become clear to me that we must do a better job in creating both the appropriate environment and the systems necessary to support our students in their greatest hour of need.  I do maintain our position that it is not in keeping with the standards of Tznius [modesty] and fundamentally unsafe to post intimate information about oneself and others on social media.  [Torani L'Banot], therefore, provides a private and safe forum for support and guidance.

We know that the Almighty places tests before us not only to draw closer to the Creator of the World, but to bolster our capabilities in improving the lives of His children, particularly those that are in great pain and in need of our help and support.  We will be assembling the expertise needed to make recommendations to the Board and to me on the resources and support systems we must improve to serve our cherished students to the fullest extent of our capability.

We as Jewish educators of young adults are on the front-line of life’s many challenges.  Tragically, the scourge of sexual abuse and misconduct has not spared the Orthodox community and its precious children.  We, therefore, must continue to be an institution that sets the standard in helping and supporting our students as they demonstrate the bravery and fortitude required for the healing process.  This is the test the Ribbono Shel O’lam [Lord of the Universe] has clearly put before me in the wake of my private email to you.

Sincerely,

Dr. Esther M. Shkop

Dr Shkop’s largely impersonal, boilerplate email may be lacking clarification of policy, unequivocal rescission of disciplinary action and, more importantly, complete disavowal of the suggestion that being sexually abused or talking about it reflects negatively on the survivor and is somehow indecency. However, it does offer a personal apology and the promise of better resources and support for students in general. Dr Shkop has recognized the damaging power of her earlier words, attitudes and actions and undertaken that she and the school will respond appropriately in the future. It takes courage to recognize wrongdoing and great conviction to avoid it in the future.

Dr Shkop’s courage and conviction here is a fitting and inspiring response to Kaylie’s* own. Despite negative comments and insults hurled her way, first by her dean, then by commentators who had read nothing more than that she dared admit that she had been sexually abused, Kaylie* has remained strong and steadfast, delivering a very important message: we cannot and will not be silent about sexual abuse or our communities’ reactions to the topic and survivors.

Kaylie* will continue to take a stand against sexual abuse and mistreatment of survivors, both on facebook and her new blog, kaylieofthewhistleblowers.blogspot.com. She is relieved that her academic career is no longer threatened. On this experience, Kaylie* reflects:

I’ve been told to keep quiet for as long as I can remember. My rapist told me not to tell. I could not, but I needed to. That night, I stood in front of my father and tried to tell him what had happened — tried to find some way to explain what went on while he and my mother weren’t home. I had no way to explain what my rapist had done. I could not put terms to the body parts, and no one ever warned me that what had happened was wrong. I only knew that my rapist had tried to manipulate me into stripping for him by telling me he would give me eight dollars and that, after he raped me, he did not pay up. I told my father that I was owed eight dollars… but I could not explain why. I was 7, and these were things that were not talked about.

That silence, that tugging feeling of anguish in my throat with no words to set it free, has stayed with me for years. I was told to not tell my parents. When I finally started speaking about any of the pain within me, I was told to not talk about it to others.

Over the years, I have made a tremendous amount of progress with my therapist. There are many organizations that can help survivors, but they can only help the ones they know about. What about the ones they do not know about? Who will help them? They can only be helped once they reached out... and they can only reach out when they know it is possible to. I came out because I had been one of the girls which were under the radar. They had no way of knowing about me. They have no way about knowing about so many. That's why I came out.

Silence is overrated. There's nothing golden about it when it's hiding the worst pain.

I was shocked because of the underlying message of the first email — that we, as survivors, are somehow the bad ones. That was the very same attitude I had taken a stand against in coming out as a survivor; it breeds silence and allows the attitude to fester from the silent anguish inside victims. This pain and the fear of being expelled from college was what drove me to contact Chaim Levin.

By bringing public attention to what was happening at school, I hoped that this attitude might be reexamined and that I would be able to remain in a school which I had come to truly love. HTC is a wonderful place — the faculty is professional while retaining a level of friendliness towards the students, and every single professor is genuinely interested in the welfare and the progress of the students, as is Dr. Shkop.

The choice Dr. Shkop made when she emailed me her beautiful apology was a wise one — she put her institution at the forefront of schools taking steps to protect and support survivors of sexual abuse. I greatly admire her strength in admitting to her mistakes, and I am very happy we were able to reach a détente. The compromises we both made were not necessarily enormous, but the ripple effect of her actions will, God willing, make an effect which is more than enormous. Pain and darkness can only be fought with a passion for the light, and that passion is something Dr. Shkop exudes in abundance. The darkness every survivor has lived in can only last so long, and, with every step forward, another bit of pain is alchemized into something truly precious — hope.


**update***

Hebrew Theological College released this statement on their website this afternoon.

Tragically and painfully, sexual abuse and misconduct is a plague in our world and our Orthodox community has not been spared. Throughout its history, Hebrew Theological College has always provided caring support and guidance for its students. We are proud of this tradition and are committed to continue to actively demonstrate the highest ideals of Torah and Chesed. Regrettably, in a recent communication with a student who enrolled in our school with a past history of being a victim of sexual abuse, we failed to exercise appropriate sensitivity. As a consequence, we regard this as a catalyst for immediate action, growth and institutional improvement.

Our Board and Executive Leadership are now in the process of identifying a cross section of experts to present recommendations to us that will enable us to develop the resources and support systems needed so that we are positioned to the fullest extent possible to help our students through the healing process.