Friday, February 23, 2007

Today, Steve Is 25

Today, Steve Is 25. By Phil Jacobs Baltimore Jewish Times - February 23, 2007

The teacher's son.    Steve was 11. (Case of Shmuel Juravel)  

The yeshiva administrator.   Steve was 13. (Case of Yosef Meystel) 
The attorney.  Steve was 15.  (Case of Brad Hames)

Today, Steve is 25. He graduated recently from Towson University with a degree in science. He is awaiting response to graduate school applications.

Steve is from an Orthodox family of eight children. He is no longer observant. Still, he remains close to his parents and siblings. He was a student at a Baltimore-area yeshiva and then a yeshiva high school in the Midwest.

But along the way, everything went so very wrong.

Steve still makes his home in the Orthodox community here in Baltimore. He was one of the disenfranchised teens who hung out over on the corner of Strathmore and Park Heights avenues. People grouped him and the others as "reject" kids. They had, the community said, "Fallen off the derech," fallen off the righteous path.

"I was probably taking more trips to the principal's office than most kids, because I liked to joke around," he remembered.

His fifth-grade rabbi held a summer camp for the boys. The highlight of the summer was an overnight camping trip to Glyndon. Steve remembers a barbecue, baseball and swimming. It was an experience that was supposed to be fun. It should have been memorable. Instead, it started a process that Steve wishes he could forget.

That night, Steve and the friends in his tent just couldn't fall asleep and were talking. This is what children do when there's the excitement of camping, sleeping outside in tents on a summer night.

The cackling and giggling of the children drew attention, not from the rabbi but from his teenage son, who was acting as a chaperone on the trip. He told the boys to stop the noise. Finally, he told them to come to his tent.

"Shmuel Zev called us to his tent," said Steve. "He told us to lay down, and he started telling us stories. I noticed a hand where it shouldn't have been. It was weird."

Shmuel Zev Juravel, the rabbi's son, was fondling Steve.

"I knew something wasn't right, and I reacted, but he told me to be quiet or 'My father will hear you.' But I remember that one of the other kids started to laugh. Shmuel Zev was switching off between the four of us underneath the blankets."

Shmuel Zev apparently was known for this sort of behavior. Steve learned from others that he wasn't the first, nor would he be the last.

It wouldn't be the last experience for Steve, as well.

Shmuel Zev, now 30, is in federal prison, serving 21 years after he pleaded guilty to traveling to Alabama to have sex with two young boys. Juravel, an insurance salesman in Savannah, Ga., admitted to three counts of traveling to have sex with a child and the use of the Internet to entice a child to engage in illegal sexual acts.

He was arrested by the FBI and U.S. Postal Inspection Service agents about a year ago at a Birmingham, Ala., hotel after he arranged to have sex with people he believed were to be 11- and 12-year-old boys. Juravel admitted using the Internet "to attempt to persuade, induce and entice boys to meet him for sex."

Juravel gained the attention of federal agents when he responded to an online advertisement for "rare and hard-to-find escort services," according to the U.S. District Court in Savannah. The ad was posted on the Internet by an undercover agent. Juravel requested 11- to 14-year-old boys for sex and child pornography DVDs, according to a government affidavit. According to newspaper accounts, Juravel mailed cash to a post office box in Birmingham and specified the child he wanted, along with another boy "on standby."

He arrived in Birmingham on Feb. 21, 2006, to find federal agents waiting for him.

News of his arrest didn't take long to spread, but it took Steve by surprise. He wasn't sure exactly how he would or could handle it.

"When I first heard he was caught, it put a fire underneath of me," said Steve. "When his story came out, it gave me a weird feeling. I felt as if I could have done more to prevent him from molesting other children. You know, the human mind is amazing, that someone could take this sort of action out on a child."

Shmuel Zev was, as Steve described it, "only the beginning of his experiences with people like this."

Like many Baltimore yeshiva boys, Steve went out of town to a high school yeshiva. His parents sent him to a major school in the central part of the country.

It would be good for him to get a fresh start and meet new faces. Plus, Steve describes himself as extremely neat and meticulous. It was important that the housing offered by any school be neat and not cluttered. And most importantly, it had to be a school that took secular courses seriously. His science, math, English and history courses had to mean something. He wanted to go to college one day.

His first weeks there, Steve described himself as being homesick. Nothing strange, especially for a 13-year-old who had never really been away from home before. He had a need to call home. There was a phone in a corridor, but that was way too public. He was embarrassed to let any of his classmates see the tears associated with homesickness. The only privacy he could have to speak to his parents on the telephone was located in the yeshiva administrator's room.

"He started befriending me," said Steve. "He allowed me use of the phone in his room, which was located next to the beis midrash [study hall] dorm. Once, I was using the phone in his room to call home. He pulled out a porno magazine. It was shocking, it didn't seem real."

The "price" to use the telephone privately was his administrator's obsession with these magazines.

"This went on," Steve continued. "I needed to use the phone to call my parents, and he'd be in the room with these porno magazines. He then asked me if I would masturbate in front of him. It was too much."

Steve kept silent about the incidents, about the request. He did feel harassed and coerced and confused. When he returned to the yeshiva in 10th grade, the same administrator kept offering him the explicit magazines.

Steve was a consistent A and B student, but now his grades started to drop. The administrator, he said, was now offering him money to masturbate in front of him. When Steve refused, the administrator grabbed him by the neck.

He would go on to finally tell a friend who would tell his father. Steve was told by the school's administration to keep the incident quiet. The administration received the complaint about its employee three days before parents' visiting day.

Three days later, the administrator was fired. And Steve started to take personal steps backward from his Orthodox lifestyle.

"I was told by the rabbis that I was using this as an excuse to not be as religious as I should be," he said.

When Steve learned that the administrator was engaged to be married, he had his mother telephone the bride's family to warn them. He was then called back into the office of the rosh yeshiva, or dean, where he was screamed at for "threatening the sanctity of marriage." Steve's yeshiva experience ended with expletives directed at the rosh yeshiva and screamed so loudly that his classmates heard them come from behind the rosh yeshiva's closed door.

The administrator ended up on the staff of a Chicago-area nursing home. Its management was under question by state authorities for a number of reasons, including alleged sexual abuse charges in 2005.

The Chicago Sun Times reported that something like 10 sex offenders were living at the nursing center. Illinois also cited incidents in which residents were trading sex for cigarettes, passing out from drinking, and wandering off and setting fires inside the facility. Steve would come back to his parents' home in Baltimore after the yeshiva experience. At first, he'd spend 18 hours a day just sleeping. He contemplated suicide. On one occasion, what kept him alive was simply hearing the happy voice of a younger little sister. He did not want to hurt her or miss her growing up.

But then came "the attorney." He was a ba'al teshuva, a returnee to observance, who became involved in the community, a guest of frum families in town for Shabbat lunches. By now, Steve was 15 and still in a despondent state of mind. He and his family were introduced to the bright, vivacious young man. Steve said the attorney could sense there were issues, depression even. He would talk with the attorney, make light conversation at the Shabbos table.

The affable attorney invited Steve to go rent a movie with him and then head out to a "sister's" apartment in Columbia. The attorney rented the movie "Fargo." But when the movie was over, he put a porno movie in the VCR. There was, by the way, no sister in Columbia, Steve would later learn.

"I just started screaming," recalled Steve. "I asked to be taken home. He freaked out, and told me he'd take me right home, and he asked me not to tell anyone.

"You think you're climbing up a hill and you're about to emerge from it, and then there's a mudslide."

Steve kept silent, but then while in the neighborhood, he and a friend passed the attorney walking along Cross Country Boulevard on a Shabbat afternoon. Steve's friend volunteered, "There goes the child molester."

"He told me that the guy did stuff to him. The guy was a guest in his house, like, every Shabbos."

Steve and his friend did go to the rabbis, and the attorney has since left the Baltimore area. There were never any charges or disciplinary actions taken against the attorney.

In a meeting with a rabbinic official, Steve was told he should work hard in own personal life to be close to the "kisse ha coved" (the throne of glory). Instead, Steve wanted to kill the attorney who abused him. And for months, he and a friend would trash his car or stand outside of his Cross Country Manor apartment and yell expletives at his window.

"I thought sometimes that I had written on my forehead the words, 'Molest me.'"

There is a way Steve describes these incidents. He talked about how in a science class, he learned that a cheetah can sprint swiftly at short distances, but could never keep up with entire herds of gazelles, who can run at a quick rate for miles.

"But the cheetah," he said, "watches for hours until he can pick out the gazelle who is lame, or the young who can't find its mother. That's when it strikes."

What also started to "strike" Steve was the availability of drugs. He contends that an overwhelming number of his friends or acquaintances who were victimized by sexual predators would begin to self-medicate, be it with alcohol, marijuana, prescription drugs, cocaine or even heroin.

At 12-step meetings, he was overwhelmed by the number of sexual molestation incidents he would hear as part of the lives of those Jews in recovery. He was also, in a sense, relieved that he wasn't the only Jewish person victimized.

Steve smoked pot, but he said his priority was getting an education. He would go on to attend the Community College of Baltimore, earning his degree, and then attend Towson. He wants to work in the sciences.

"There's a lot of sick people out there," he said of sexual predators. "These people are in all of this for themselves. They do not care about anybody, about you or your mental state when they violate you. It's so rampant. It's like the AIDS virus, it's gone wildfire. For guys like me, there used to be a sanctity about Judaism that prevented these things from happening. That sanctity is gone. When it comes to religion, I might talk the talk, but I'll walk my own walk."

It "sickens" Steve to even walk into a synagogue these days. He called the yeshiva system a "breeding ground for sexual molestation."

He said the best "therapy" he's had has been to talk to other victims, or "survivors," as he calls them. There's an anger, tears are in his eyes as he gets ready to say his next comment, which simply is, "Nobody is ever going to hurt me again."

He spends his days working as the office manager of a medical facility. Many nights are spent in the gym, where the strenuous exercise he puts himself through is often the best therapy. He hopes to get his post-graduate education, and eventually find the woman of his dreams and raise a family. And he wants to continue doing what he can to make the issue of sexual molestation a bigger part of the social conversation.

"A lot of people overlook this thing, especially in the religious community," he said. "God forbid, we should talk about it," he said in a mimicking way. "But these predators are among us, and they are a danger to our children."

What of now, what of the future? Steve said he doesn't live through a day when he doesn't think about his abuse. He added that in his life, he has met a lot of "good people" who are also survivors.

Does he believe in God any longer? He quickly answers yes, it's the system that he said lets him and other survivors down.

In his discussion, he'll insert a word of Torah, an expression of Hebrew here and there. It's the neshamah (soul) of this young man speaking. He sees many Jews in terms of the biblical description erev rav, or mixed multitudes.

"These are the people who gave us the story of the egel, the golden calf," he said. "These are people who say they are Jewish, dress like they are Jewish, but then go ahead and hide from the reality of sexual abuse. It's like they think it will just go away, or it would never happen in the Jewish community."

If there is a hero in his life, he quickly points to his grandmother, who survived the Holocaust.

"When I think I've been through some bad times, I try to pick up the phone and talk to her. She's in her 80s, and I know if she's OK, then I know I'll be OK."

His answer for the future is to educate the public.

"This is a big deal. It's like if you throw a pebble in the water, it creates a ripple effect, that's how we have to educate people about what we've been through."

Steve's eyes are intense and he's staring off to the side.

"Considering what I have been through," he said. "I'm going to be OK."

Steve's Dad "It's affected my wife and the entire family, and it's been going on through years." Steve's dad is the child of Holocaust survivors. Israeli born, he's survived two wars. Yet, he's never seen such a struggle as the one his abused son has lived through. "This isn't like a medical problem, you treat it and it's over," he said. "This is a lifetime problem, and it takes a long time to recover from sexual abuse."

The family did approach an attorney and Steve's yeshiva was questioned. But key evidence, said his dad, was destroyed by the yeshiva administration, evidence that might have resulted in charges against the former administrator. When reached on his cell phone, the person at the Center of Steve's nightmare admitted that he was the former administrator of the Midwest yeshiva. But when given details of the former student's allegations against him, he responded by saying, "I have no idea what you are talking about." He hung up the phone. By press time, a call to the yeshiva president, himself, was not returned.

The yeshiva authorities, Steve's dad said, ended up victimizing the victims of their administrator. And both he and his wife suspect that their son hasn't told them everything, that the abuse was much worse.

"I would never suspect something of this nature existing in the religious community," said the dad. "I would expect that the yeshivas would address these issues as soon as they discover them. It appears that the people who abused my son were both known to have these tendencies, yet they were kept in their positions. But because I didn't suspect anything, I never exposed my kids to these possibilities of abuse. Before kids go to yeshiva, I feel parents should educate them about sex offenders.

"We read news accounts of Palestinian terrorists who disguise themselves in the clothing of Orthodox Jews and then they blow themselves up as suicide bombers," continued the dad. "A person who wears the clothing of an Orthodox Jew and molests another person is the same as that suicide bomber, only he's killing the soul of a child."

Why Is This A Big Deal? So Steve was touched on his penis, asked to masturbate in front of another man, and pressured to watch a porno movie.

There are those who might scoff at the notion that these acts constitute sexual molestation. They might also ask why Steve simply can't "get over it" and move on with his life. After all, the sexual molestation could have been a great deal worse. Why is all of this such a big deal? Yet for Steve and survivors of sexual molestation, these actions of abuse, no matter how major or minor, impact them every day of their lives.

Lisa Ferentz, a clinical social worker based in Pikesville, and the creator of a certificate program in Advanced Trauma Treatment, has spent years working with survivors of sexual abuse. Ms. Ferentz believes that "we should never minimize acts of sexual molestation because the experience profoundly affects a child's fundamental sense of trust and safety in the world. Regardless of what is attempted or done to a victim, it can lead to a deep sense of loss. There is the loss of safety, innocence, appropriate boundaries, protection, trust, physical and emotional safety. Having to keep the abuse a secret exacerbates a sense of rage, shame and despair. This can lead to a multitude of inevitable symptoms and problems as the survivor develops. When the pain is overwhelming, many survivors attempt to self-medicate with drugs and alcohol. The experience can be truly life-altering." In addition, she said it is not unusual for a person to be repeatedly victimized, often by multiple perpetrators.

"When children are abused and threatened into silence, they often exude a vulnerability, helplessness and despair that resonates for perpetrators, making them potentially easy targets. Pedophiles look for kids who are lacking in self-esteem, despondent or passive. They tend to stay away from kids who appear to be confident, happy and strong. They want to make sure their victim will not put up a fight, and won't tell anyone afterward. Sadly, survivors are left asking themselves, 'What am I doing to attract these people?' Although abuse is never the victim's fault, this questioning begins a spiral of self-blame, guilt and shame. And it decreases the survivor's ability to advocate for safety in the future." Ms. Ferentz suggests that victims or survivors start their journey toward healing by "finding someone they can trust to disclose to: someone they know will absolutely believe them. Therapy is an important tool toward recovery. With the proper support and guidance, victims can truly survive and transcend their abuse."

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