Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Interview About The History of The Awareness Center With Vicki Polin

Interview About The History of  The Awareness Center With Vicki Polin
Interview - December 15, 2004

Luke: "Tell me why you started The Awareness Center?"

Vicki: "I've been working in the sexual victimization field since 1985. I started as a volunteer, and then went back to school to get my degrees. As time has gone on, I've gotten more in touch with my Jewish identity. I started to realize that there was nothing out there for the Jewish survivors of sexual violence. For years I told other people to start something, no one did, so I ended up creating The Awareness Center. 

"It was a gradual process. In April of 1999, I started changing my private practice web page into The Awareness Center as it is now. 

"Back in the early 1990's, I was working in a rape crisis center on the South side of Chicago. I was a clinical sex abuse therapist, working with kids who were sexually abused. I was the fifth Caucasian hired and the first Jew. As I worked with the kids, I had to learn about black history, Kwanzaa, and black power. I started realizing that I knew more about their heritage than I did about my own. That's when I started learning about Judaism." 

Luke: "How did you start getting support for The Awareness Center, particularly from Orthodox rabbis?" 

Vicki: "As I was recreating the web page, I was also googling Jewish web pages finding e-mail addresses and sending notes to everyone who had an e-mail address listed -- letting them know what I was doing and asking if they were interested in joining forces. That's how I met Na'ama Yehuda, Dr. Michael J. Salamon, rabbi Yosef Blau and rabbi  Mark Dratch. I'll never forget when I got an e-mail back from rabbi Blau, I didn't know who he was. I had to ask someone who he was. My friend told me he was OK and I should contact him. I did that immediately and the rest is history." 

Vicki Polin, Na'ama Yehuda, Michael Salamon, Yosef Blau, Mark Dratch
Luke: "What have been the typical areas of conflict between you and Orthodox rabbis regarding the center?" 

Vicki: "It seems that everybody has a different perspective on halacha and the way we deal with cases. It all depends on which case we're dealing with, what the halacha seems to be." 

Luke: "Why did rabbi Dratch leave the center?" 

Vicki: "He was under a great deal of pressure with his position with the RCA (Rabbinical Council of America). It was a conflict of interest between the two organizations. You would have to ask him." 

Luke: "How is dealing with sexual abuse different in the Orthodox world than outside of it?" 

Vicki: "First of all, the Awareness Center is not an Orthodox organization. It is a Jewish organization. We have individuals calling us from all affiliations and including those from no affiliation. On our web page we have cases of alleged and convicted rabbi abuse from every affiliation.

"In the secular world, people read newspapers and watch TV. They tend to be pretty progressive in the way they see individuals who have been sexually victimized, especially children. In the Orthodox world, it is often so insulated, that I feel that I am back in the 1980s trying to educate them on the basics. Many just don't have the information available to them that they need." 

Luke: "How do you tell the truth when someone alleges sexual abuse?" 

Vicki: "One of the myths that people have is that the majority of claims individuals make of sexual violence are made up. You have to realize that it is only 1-2 percent of cases where there might be false allegations. If and when there is a case of false allegations -- it is usually a cry for help, something else is going on in the life of the individual. Either way, the individual needs help. 

"One of the things The Awareness Center does is to look for consistency in what a caller is saying. 
"The statistics of occurrences of childhood sexual abuse is the same in the Orthodox world as it is in the secular world. I even read a study some time ago saying the statistics are the same in rural China. Basically one out of three-to-five women and one out of every five-to-seven men have been sexually abused by their 18th birthday." 

Luke: "Don't you think the Jewish community is taking this more seriously than it has in the past?" 

Vicki: "It depends on which community you are talking about. I was recently talking to a rabbi from an extremely insulated community -- he basically was saying that anybody who makes these kind of allegations is crazy. It appeared that he bought into the myth that 'Jewish people don't abuse their children.' It enraged me, and made me more determined to do what ever I could to make sure our rabbinic leaders become educated." 

Luke: "What is rabbi Saul Berman's complaint with the center?" 

Vicki: "His complaint has mainly to do with our handling of the case of rabbi Mordechai Gafni (AKA: Marc Gafni). From the beginning, I've had no idea where he was coming from and why he is trying to protect an individual who confessed to statuary rape a 13-year old girl. Rabbi Gafni has never shown any signs of remorse. He has never made teshuva [repentance] to the individual he assaulted. Rabbi Berman has sent The Awareness Center several long elaborate letters of complaint. No matter what we did or said, he just wasn't satisfied. It's obvious that he is lacking the needed education so that he could have a better understanding of sex offenders and in working with survivors of sexual violence. It saddens and scares me that a man of his statute is not willing to learn." 

Luke: "Do you feel like you need to educate these rabbis?" 

Vicki: "Definitely. I'd love to do training with them. One of the long-term goals of The Awareness Center is to have some kind of certification program for rabbis. Once they are educated we would be able to use them as referral sources for survivors, their family members and those who offend." 
Luke: "How much training does a rabbi need?" 

Vicki: "When I worked as a rape victims advocate, I had to undergo a 40-hour training on some of the basics. That's what I wanted to start out with. Rabbis need to understand what the symptoms are of someone who has been sexually violated (both adults and children). They need to know about the different types of sex offenders, and how to help families members of sex offenders. They also need to know what to do when an alleged or convicted sex offender comes to their minyan. They need to know some of the basics of how to make their minyans safe for everyone." 

Luke: "What role does rabbi Blau play with the center?" 

Vicki: "He's my partner in crime. He is our halachic advisor (Jewish legal advisor regarding Jewish law), does a lot of hands on work -- doing a lot of case management. And most important, he's always explaining to me -- who's who in the Orthodox world." 

Luke: "Do you believe that God called you to be a sex abuse victims advocate?" 

Vicki: "It's hard for me to say that it comes from God. Please remember that I come from an atheist background. I'm really learning as I go along. What I feel comfortable saying is that the universe has opened its doors in this direction for me. Every time I try to walk away, it just doesn't let me."

Luke: "Have you ever been romantically or sexually involved with someone you were [counseling]?"
Vicki: "No."

Luke: "What do you think about suppressed memories, are they valid?"

Vicki: "Instead of me answering this question, I would like to refer you to a dynamic web page that discusses all of the relevant information on the topic." 

Luke: "Is the center a one woman show?"

Vicki: "The Awareness Center is a coalition of several different individuals who are dedicated to ending sexual victimization in Jewish communities around the world. We currently are all volunteers (I can't wait until the day we have the funding we need to hire staff). I may be the most visable, but we have a team effort going on. We would not be able to do the work I'm doing without Rabbi Yosef Blau, Na'ama Yehuda, Dr. Michael Salamon, Renee Cannella, San, Adam and a slew of other people.

Luke: "Are you the poster "Me"?"

Vicki: "I am NOT the individual who posted on the Protocols blog, who used the name of "ME". I wish I was as intellegent and as articulate. The "ME" poster has a vast knowledge of Hebrew and Torah. I don't."

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