Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Jewish Survivors of Sexual Violence Speak Out - Baltimore

Photograph by Vicki Polin

Throughout the month of April, 2007 there has been a heightened awareness of child sexual abuse in the Baltimore Jewish Community.

On April 11th the Vaad Harabbonim's (Rabbinical Council of Greater Baltimore) published a letter that was sent to homes of many community members. Next came the Baltimore Jewish Times article exposing Rabbi Ephraim Shapiro's alleged past of being a serial child molester. Almost immediately after the publishing of the article, Rabbi Moshe Heinemann reacted by posting a sign in his synagogue banning the newspaper. The Awareness Center believes that The Baltimore Jewish Times is the only Jewish newspaper in Baltimore that has the courage to allow survivors of sex crimes an avenue to have their voices heard. The paper is helping to prevent any more children from being harmed.

Rabbi Moshe Heinemann
With everything that has been happening in Baltimore, we cannot overlook the effect this is having on individuals who live in the community. The entire Jewish community of Baltimore has been put through a whirlwind of emotions.

I know for myself when a friend handed me a copy of the letter from the Vaad, my mood was immediately elated. I thought to myself, finally, the rabbonim of Baltimore are "getting it." I personally felt validated for the work I've been doing along with everyone connected with The Awareness Center for the last six years.

I went to bed that night with a smile on my face, but when I woke up the next morning with my joy turned to sorrow. I couldn't stop thinking of the survivors I know who have been sexually victimized. The number of years of pain and suffering they have been enduring by the lack of education and awareness in our community or any other community in the world.

Rabbi Ephraim Shapiro
I am not unlike other survivors, I felt like someone had died. I started wondering if the letter was just some sort of public relations stunt to show the world that our rabbis cared. I knew the article regarding Rabbi Ephraim Shapiro was coming out that week in the Baltimore Jewish Times. I also knew the rabbis knew it was going to be published. I hate being cynical, yet after working in the field for as long as I have -- it made sense not to trust the letter.

My reaction was to call all of the rabbis who signed the letter from the Vaad Harabbonim. I wanted to personally thank them for having the courage to sign and publish the letter. I wanted to meet with each one personally. I started leaving messages.

The first rabbi I made an appointment with was Rabbi Moshe Heinemann. The night before the meeting is when I learned of his letter, banning the Baltimore Jewish Times. When we met, I made it a point to discuss his letter along with many other issues. After the meeting I realized how much more education was needed in the community. This was just the beginning. At least the community finally admitted that there was a problem. That was a giant step in the right direction.

The most important issue we all seem to be neglecting is healing the community from the heightened awareness that there are individuals in our community that molest our children.

With the exposure of sexual abuse in the Baltimore community -- goes a loss of the innocence and a reality many of us wanted to hold on to. This is a major loss for everyone. The entire Jewish community of Baltimore is going through a period of mourning. The entire community has been traumatized. Many community members are in a state of shock.

Community members are now faced with the fact that there have been several community leaders they trusted who molested children. Many community members are also shocked to learn that many of their friends are survivors of criminal sex offenses.

The community is forced to be aware that many community leaders they loved and trusted helped to cover up these serious crimes. The community is also being forced to deal with the fact that some of the criminals may end up in prison, and could also end up on the national sex offender registry. All of this is a great deal to process in less then a month.

I've received phone calls and various community members have been stopping me on the street wanting to talk. I've been trying to explain that the reactions of the community is very similar to those who were hit by hurricane Katrina. Everyone is in a state of shock. It's almost as if a bomb went off and everyone is afraid that there may be another one. Many community members are experiencing what I like to call the "deer in headlights syndrome".

Many individuals in Baltimore have been telling me they are having difficulties sleeping at night or waking up from nightmares. Some are saying they are having difficulties concentrating, having difficulties making decisions, not being able to eat, etc.

When individuals or communities are traumatized it is vitally important for there to be an open dialog going on. It's important for each person to talk about what they are experiencing and to express their thoughts and feelings with those they trust. Everyone may have to do this many times over and over again for the next several months. The community is basically experiencing vicarious victimization (secondary Post Traumatic Stress Disorder).

I am suggesting that community members in Baltimore have gatherings in their homes with friends and talk about what they are experiencing. The Awareness Center is more then willing to help in anyway we can. Please feel free to call us: 443-857-5560.

Remember talking about it is Healing!

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