Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Speaking Out About Incest

Speaking Out About Incest
© (2009) by Vicki Polin
The Awareness Center's Daily Newsletter - September 30, 2009

So many incest survivors are faced with so many dilemmas when it comes to speaking out against their perpetrators.  One of the biggest reasons is because their offender(s) are members of their own families.  They carry titles such as:  mommy, daddy, sister, brother, grandma, grandpa, aunt, uncle and or cousin. 

One of the things most people forget is that every incest survivor has a relative who is a sex offender.   Going public means they will be "outing" someone they may love and care for. 

Children who are being abused in the home have to live with the fear of repeated abuse every day of their lives.  The reality is that the majority of cases of childhood sexual abuse occur in the home by relatives, and the offenders are not teachers, rabbis, coaches, scout leaders, babysitters, etc. 

Just like any other group of those who were sexually violated, incest survivors deserve to have their day in court and to have the same protections as survivors of any other form of sexual abuse.  Unfortunately, in todays society if your offender is a relative you have less civil rights and or protections then those who's offenders are not relatives. 

As many of you know, I am an incest survivor.  There were many times during my childhood I went looking for help, yet it felt as if doors were slammed in my face every time I asked to be removed from my home.  The problem was that no one wanted to believe that Jews would do such things to their own children.  The only exception to that rule seemed to be if the offending family member(s) were holocaust survivors.  I am not saying that all holocaust survivors abuse their children, yet there appeared to be a higher percentage of holocaust survivors who were abusive towards their children, then those who did not.  The reasoning appears to be that one is more inclined to the behaviors of their parents or other adult figures who had influenced their own lives.  Unfortunately, there have been too many cases in which holocaust survivors identified with their aggressors and repeat some of the abuse they endured while being kept as prisoners by the Nazi's.  

An issue that is hardly ever addressed is the fact that many incest survivors turn to drugs and alcohol to escape for their thoughts, feelings and memories of the torture they endured in childhood.  An example of someone doing this is actress, Mackenzie Phillips.  Below is a link of her sharing some of her history and the backlash she experienced.

Though I never had issues with addictions I could relate to much of what Ms. Phillips shared in her interview.  As many of you are aware over twenty years ago I was on Oprah.  I totally understand the backlash a survivor may experience for sharing childhood experiences. 

I personally believe that Incest survivors really needs to be grounded and have a great support system in place before attempting to speak out.  It's not only due to the backlash that can come from family and friends -- it's because often once you speak out you will be inundated by other survivors contacting you wanting to share their experiences with you.  Naturally, there are times the survivors will want to share every detail of what happened to them in details -- which is healthy for them, but can become extremely overwhelming to another survivor.

Survivors heal a great deal by speaking out and sharing their experiences with others.  It's a wonderful feeling to learn that you are not alone, that you are not bad and that you do NOT have to keep secrets.  For me going on Oprah many years ago was both an extremely empowering experience, yet the backlash at times felt devastating.  The losses were great, yet the ability to speak the truth was freeing.

It's important for incest survivors to understand that once you speak out you can never take your words back.  What you say can and most often be used against you by those who are protecting other sex offenders. 

It's a wonderful feeling to know other survivors will see you as a role model, yet inside you may still feel very fragile and vulnerable.  You want to be helpful, yet also NEED to be protective of your own personal needs and space.  You have a right to say no to any future interviews and you also have a right not to answer questions people may ask you.  Remember this is about you and your own life.  You have a right to do what you find as healing and empowering and to say NO to things that are not.

Please watch the following Youtube clip of Mackenzie Phillips's experience of speaking out.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Case of Ephraim Ohana

Case of Ephraim Ohana
(AKA: Efraim Ohana)
Baltimore, MD
Ephraim Ohana - Alleged Sex Offender
Student - University of Baltimore School of Law - Batlimore, MD
IT Security Manager Children's National Medical Center - Washington, DC 

Efraim Ohana was born in Casablanca, Morocco.  He is the son of Yvonne and Rabbi Samuel Ohana - Beth Midrash Mishkan Israel, Sherman Oaks, CA.  In the past Efraim went to Yeshiva Chofetz Chaim, Forest Hill, NY and Israel. He also attended the Kollel at Ner Israel, Baltimore, MD. He did NOT receive a rabbinic ordination.

On May 30, 2005, Judge Audrey Carrion found Efraim Ohana guilty of abuse, voluntarily impoverishing himself and infidelity.  On December 13, 2004, Judge Cox's finding's were that there was "clear and convincing evidence" that Ephraim Ohana committed acts of abuse and placed his wife in fear of imminent serious bodily harm.

Efraim Ohana impoverished himself so that he would not have to pay child support, yet he is currently a student at University of Baltimore School of Law. It is believed that his parents, Rabbi Shmuel (Samuel) and Yvonne Ohana are supporting Efraim's efforts of not providing his wife with a get.  They are also financially supporting their son, yet not his wife or their five grandchildren. Yvonne Ohana is the proprietor of "Fine Catering by Yvonne."

In the past Ohana has been placed under arrest for violating protective orders refraining him from going near his wife and some of their children. There are allegations that Efraim stole the family car, broken into the family home and has been refusing to give his wife a get (a Jewish divorce).

After three years of unsuccessful negotiating, the rabbinical council of Baltimore reached a unanimous decision to put Efraim Ohana in "cherem" (total exclusion of a person from the Jewish community).

On November 30, 2003, Efraim Ohana signed an arbitration agreement stating that he would go to bais din (Jewish religious court) to provide his wife with a get if she waits until after June 5, 2004. The date came and went, yet he still refused to go to bais din.

According to the customs of many orthodox Jewish communities, individuals are not allowed to go to the secular court system without permission of the bais din (Jewish religious court).

After a long wait, Rabbi Simcha Shafran of the Baltimore Bais Din granted Mrs. Ohana "permission" to proceed to obtain a civil divorce in secular court. According to Jewish law, even with a civil divorce a woman is not allowed to remarry until her husband grants her a get.

To date, Mr. Efraim Ohana has refused to go to Bais Din. Mrs. Ohana petitioned the Bais Din with over a dozen letters to send him a Hazmanah (a subpoena to appear). Efraim Ohana consistently refused to go claiming that all of the Baltimore rabbis were against him.

There are several Jewish organizations advocating for Mrs. Ohana and her children, including:

Disclaimer: Inclusion in this website does not constitute a recommendation or endorsement. Individuals must decide for themselves if the resources meet their own personal needs.

Table of Contents:

  1. Vaad HaRabbonim Rabbinical Council of Greater Baltimore  (02/17/2006)
  2. Dear Friends of CHANA and all those interested in justice  (06/14/2006)
  3. CALL TO ACTION:  Attend a peaceful demonstration is scheduled in front of the home of Efraim Ohana on Sunday, June 18th at 10:30am  (06/14/2006)
  4. A woman's plea for closure  (09/18/2006)
  5. Couple's Divorce Not Recognized In Jewish Law (09/18/2006)
  6. Orthodox Jew fights for her right to divorce  (09/18/2006)  
  7. Jewish Divorce Case Grabs Public Eye   (10/06/2006)

Vaad HaRabbonim Rabbinical Council of Greater Baltimore 
19 Shevat, 5766 - February 17, 2006
To The Members of the Baltimore Jewish Community:We are writing regarding Mr. Efraim Ohana.  Mr. Ohana has conducted himself in a mannor that is unacceptable and that will not be tolerated within our community.

As such we declare Mr. Ohana persona-non-grata within our community and instruct the community to refuse him entry into our shuls and homes until he corrects this situation.

Rabbi Yaakov Hopfer

President, Vaad HaRabbonim

Signed on behalf of Vaad HaRabbonim

 The following comes from a source at Jewish Women International
Jewish Women International - June 14, 2006

Dear Friends of CHANA and all those interested in justice,

On Sunday June 18th at 10:30am your presence is needed in support of an abused woman.

Under Jewish law, only a man can grant a divorce. When he refuses the woman lives her life as an agunah, literally chained to her past and her husband no matter how abusive or unfaithful he has been. She is not allowed to date or remarry and her children are often viewed as coming from an unhealthy situation and not a good choice for friendship or marriage.

CHANA has a client who has been in this untenable situation for quite some time. She has been granted a divorce by the state of Maryland. Several Protective Orders were granted by the District court due to abuse to her and her children by the ex-husband. The Circuit Court of Maryland found that the husband voluntarily impoverished himself (abandoned a $50,000 a year job) in order to avoid paying child support. He testified under oath that he had several sexual affairs while he was married.

Still, as a last bastion of control over this woman, he refuses to give her a get (Jewish divorce). The Vaad HaRabbonim (group of Orthodox Rabbis) of Baltimore have issued a statement that this gentleman is not complying with his obligations and until he does so, should not be welcomed into other Jewish homes, businesses or places of worship. Still the man refuses to give his ex-wife the freedom to move on with the rest of her life.


The object will be show this individual that his behavior is not acceptable and that the community wants her to be unchained from him and given the justice that everyone deserves.

The demonstration is being organized by Get Ora, an organization in New York that advocates for women in these situations. Information on the group can be found at

Please consider doing this mitzvah.


CALL TO ACTION:  Attend a peaceful demonstration is scheduled in front of the home of Efraim Ohana on Sunday, June 18th at 10:30am
Jewish Women International - June 14, 2006

The Organization for the Resolution of Agunot, Inc. - June 14, 2006

Letter from the Vaad HaRabbonim of Greater Baltimore has been issued towards Mr. Efraim Ohana of 3600 Labyrinth Road Apt. J2,Baltimore, MD which states that he should be refused entry into all shuls and homes Mr. Ohana has refused to give his wife a Get. 

A peaceful demonstration is scheduled in front of his home on Sunday, June 18th at 10:30am

With the support of
Rav Yaakov Hopfer - President, Vaad HaRabbonim

Rav Shraga Neuberger - Magid Shiur, Ner Yisroel

Rav Moshe Hauer - Rav, Congregation Bnai Jacob ShaareiZion

Rav Hershel Schachter - Rosh Yeshiva,Yeshiva University

Please do everything within your power to attend the upcoming rally!!!

We hope and pray that Mr. Ohana will give the Get in a timely manner as required of him by Jewish Law.

A woman's plea for closure
Orthodox Jewish community rallies against husband who denied a religious divorce

By Liz F. Kay, Sun reporter
Baltimore Sun - September 19, 2006
Cynthia Ohana hasn't lived with her husband for three years, and she secured a civil divorce more than a year ago. 
But under Jewish law, the Park Heights woman remains trapped - an agunah, or "anchored down" in Hebrew - because Ephraim Ohana refuses to grant her a divorce agreement recognized by Orthodox Jewish law.

Without what's known as a get, Cynthia Ohana isn't permitted to date or remarry in the Orthodox community - even though the civil court found that her husband had abused her.

But the Orthodox community is supporting her. Yesterday, the campaign to secure a religious divorce for Cynthia Ohana moved to the University of Baltimore School of Law in the form of a rare public rally, where Jews sought to pressure Ephraim, a student there.

"I'm sorry we have to go out in the streets like this. ... We take Jewish law very seriously," said Mark Hart, a neighbor who carried a "Free Her Now" sign. "We just want to make sure there's closure, so the family can resume a normal life."

Ephraim Ohana did not return phone calls yesterday, but his former wife of 19 years said she needs to complete the religious portion of the divorce as well as the civil action.

"I feel like I've done my job. I've gotten away from an abuser, I've gotten my children away from an abuser," Cynthia Ohana, 40, said. "I need closure in order to come full circle."

"It's pretty powerful, and it's wrong that he has that kind of power," she said.

The mother was granted sole custody of their five children last year. "This is the only unsolved piece of the puzzle," said her lawyer, Larry J. Feldman.

Under Orthodox Jewish law, one member of the couple approaches the bais din, or rabbinical divorce, to seek a divorce, said Rabbi Barry Freundel, an Orthodox rabbi who teaches at Baltimore Hebrew University. The husband gives her the get, a document that nullifies the marriage bond and frees her to marry someone else, Freundel said. The wife can accept it, and there are mechanisms to strongly encourage her to agree to the divorce, the rabbi said.

The termination of the marriage must be a voluntary action, said Rabbi Daniel Lerner of Beth Tfiloh Congregation .

Because her husband would not cooperate, the rabbinical council gave Cynthia Ohana permission to seek a civil divorce.

"She can't, in terms of her faith, date or be remarried and provide a home that is economically more sound and a healthy relationship for her to enjoy but also to model for the kids," said Nancy F. Aiken, director of CHANA, which helps victims of domestic violence in the Jewish community.

So over the past eight months, the community has rallied around her, applying increasing social pressure.

Since February, Ephraim Ohana has been banned from Orthodox synagogues, known as shuls, and homes by order of the Rabbinical Council of Greater Baltimore, an organization of Orthodox rabbis. About 100 people also rallied in front of Ephraim Ohana's Park Heights apartment in June, Aiken said.

"The support is very validating," said Cynthia Ohana. "The exposure is very intimidating, though ... I feel safer with everybody's support."

Baltimore attorney Bruce M. Luchansky, who led the demonstration yesterday, thanked those who had gathered "for offering your actions as a tefillah, as a prayer" before leading a chant: "Ephraim Ohana, unchain your wife."

"The tool of control, of abuse is a tool that uses religious law," Rabbi Moshe Hauer of Bnai Jacob Shaarei Zion Congregation told the group.

"The community has tried to work with him, to convince him, to cajole him, and he has refused," Hauer said in an interview. "I hope that he will do the right thing, and we will be happy to welcome him back."

Protesters said they believe that Ephraim Ohana's refusal needs to be called out in public until he relents.

"This is obviously behavior that the Jewish community and the Torah tradition frowns upon," said Ayda Rottman, 25, of Pikesville, over the shouts of demonstrators.

Aiken said she hopes that men within the community will decide they do not want things to escalate to this point, and that women in abusive relationships will realize they would receive similar support if they find themselves in difficult situations.

"It's been used really as a weapon of intimidation the entire time," Aiken said. "As [Cynthia Ohana] had secured different civil and criminal remedies, it's been held over her head. It's the one thing that is in his power and control now."

Lerner said during the rally that the legal systems in most jurisdictions - aside from the state of New York and Israel - offer little help for women in this situation.

In 1999, the Maryland legislature considered a bill that would have required people seeking a civil divorce to remove all religious barriers to remarrying. But news reports from the time say the proposal was dropped after some lawmakers expressed concern about potential intrusion on religious practice.

Couple's Divorce Not Recognized In Jewish Law
By Derek Valcourt
WJZ -TV - September 18, 2006
(video footage on this site) 

(WJZ) Baltimore, MD A personal battle between one Baltimore couple is drawing attention from the Jewish community.

Cynthia Ohana recently got a divorce from her ex-husband Ephraim but as WJZ's Derek Valcourt reports, in orthodox Jewish law, Ohana cannot get a Jewish divorce from her husband unless he agrees.

Ephraim Ohana has refused to grant his ex-wife a Jewish divorce, and now Cynthia Ohana is reaching out for help. Demonstrators gathered Monday outside the University of Baltimore School of Law to voice concerns about the bitter divorce.

Dr. Joshua Karlip of Baltimore Hebrew University says Jewish law clearly states a man must be the one to grant the woman a divorce. She cannot date, re-marry, or have children until the divorce is granted.

"In the majority of cases the man gives the woman a divorce however in rare cases the man is recalcitrant," says Karlip, adding "he uses this technicality in the law, that he has to initiate the divorce, as a way to punish the woman."

This means wives like Cynthia who want a divorce are only left with the power of public persuasion, hoping she can embarass him into granting her a Jewish divorce.

To curb the problem an increasing number of conservative and orhtodox rabbi's are requiring couples to sign a legally binding pre-nuptial agreement that mandates the man grant a woman a divorce if it is finalized in a court of law.


Orthodox Jew fights for her right to divorce
by Kelsey Volkmann, The Examiner
Baltimore Examiner - September 18, 2006

Cynthia Ohana
BALTIMORE - More than one year has passed since Cynthia Ohana divorced her husband, who was convicted of abusing her, but she still cannot date, remarry or move on with her life.

Ephraim Ohana, a student at the University of Baltimore School of Law, has refused to grant Cynthia Ohana, of Baltimore, a Jewish divorce, or a "get," which, according to Orthodox Jews, is required to terminate the marriage.

"It's a life sentence," Cynthia Ohana said in a telephone interview with The Examiner on Sunday.

"It's a continuation of abuse, the last bastion of abuse, where he's got control."

Cynthia Ohana and other Jewish community members will demonstrate today outside of the law school to call for Ephraim Ohana's consent to a Jewish divorce after 18 years of marriage.
This is the second rally within the Orthodox Jewish community, which women advocates have criticized as being too insular when dealing with abuse against women. The first rally occurred in June outside of Ephraim Ohana's Baltimore residence.

Baltimore City Circuit Judge Audrey Carrion found Ephraim Ohana guilty of abuse, voluntarily quitting his job to avoid paying child support, and infidelity in May 2005, according to the Jewish Coalition Against Sexual Abuse/Assault in Baltimore.

"One of the things that happens to someone who is an observant Orthodox woman is that until she gets a get, while he can remarry without giving it, what happens to these women is that they are held in a limbo state," said Vicki Polin, executive director of the coalition's Awareness Center.

If you go
What: Demonstration calling for a Baltimore man to grant a Jewish divorce
When: 4:30 today
Where: Maryland and Mount Royal avenues, Baltimore

Jewish Divorce Case Grabs Public Eye
Laura Berg Baltimore Jewish Times - OCTOBER 06, 2006

 Cynthia Ohana says she plans to do whatever it takes to obtain a get, the divorce document required under traditional Jewish law, from her ex-husband, Ephraim Ohana.
"I've learned to be my own best advocate," said Mrs. Ohana, who secured a civil divorce from Mr. Ohana in May 2005 after 19 years of marriage. "I'm not going away."

Mrs. Ohana, 40, has recently received a good deal of local print and broadcast media attention, and the resulting buzz, as part of a community push to free her from remaining an agunah, "anchored down" in Hebrew. Until she receives a get, Mrs. Ohana is prohibited by Jewish law from remarrying.

"I would like to be in a healthy relationship for me and for my children," said Mrs. Ohana, who has sole custody of her five children. Mr. Ohana does have visitation rights and spends time with his children, several of whom still live in the area.

On Sept. 18, a rally attended by a few dozen people was held outside the University of Baltimore School of Law, where Mr. Ohana is a student.

"It was very important to do it right before the holidays, hoping that maybe it would appeal to [Mr. Ohana's] conscience," said Mrs. Ohana.

The rally, initiated by Mrs. Ohana and sponsored by the Organization for the Resolution of Agunot Inc. (ORA) in New York City, was the community's third public attempt to pressure Mr. Ohana, 44, into granting a religious divorce.

Two other rallies were held in June and July, both outside of Mr. Ohana's home in Upper Park Heights.

The case also has gained attention in the Reform community, which does not make Jewish religious divorce decrees mandatory.

Rabbi Rex D. Perlmeter, of Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, attended one of the rallies outside of Mr. Ohana's home. He said the case cuts across denominational lines because "this is not just an Orthodox issue. This is an issue of Jewish justice."

Although Mr. Ohana gave a lengthy, detailed interview to the Baltimore Jewish Times last week regarding all accusations against him, he decided to retract his comments, per a previous agreement with the Jewish Times. Instead, he issued a statement (see sidebar). Mr. Ohana's civil divorce attorney, Roanne Handler, also declined to comment.

Mrs. Ohana disputed her husband's statement, saying that she sent 13 letters to Rabbi Simcha Shafran, secretary of the Baltimore Bais Din, to request a hearing date. She said that she received permission from Rabbi Shafran to sue in secular court when Mr. Ohana refused to come.

Mr. Ohana's father, Rabbi Samuel Ohana, of Beth Midrash Mishkan Israel in Los Angeles, and a dayan (judge) recognized by the chief rabbinate in Israel, said he is still hopeful that Mrs. Ohana will receive a get.

"I have recommended to my son that he give the get," said Rabbi Ohana. "However, I was disappointed how the Jewish community has acted in a selective way," referring to his belief that other situations were handled quietly.

"He is not an abuser and has been a good husband and a good provider," Rabbi Ohana added. "This is a man who went to work as a plumber in the winter to provide for his family."

The Counseling, Helpline & Aid Network for Abused Women (CHANA), a program of the Women's Department of the Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore became involved when Mrs. Ohana became a client in September 2003.

In a final protective order, dated Dec. 21, 2004, Baltimore City Circuit Court Judge Sylvester B. Cox found that on Dec. 13, 2004, Mr. Ohana put Mrs. Ohana "in fear of imminent serious bodily harm."

Additionally, on May 31, 2005, as part of the divorce judgment, Baltimore City Circuit Court Judge Audrey S. Carrion found Mr. Ohana "voluntarily impoverished himself." Judge Carrion ordered him to pay future monthly child support as well as outstanding child support and alimony.

Mrs. Ohana's complaint to the court for divorce included that Mr. Ohana engaged in several adulterous affairs, according to Larry Feldman, an attorney for Mrs. Ohana who said he is working pro bono on the case.

For the past eight months, the Rabbinic Council of Greater Baltimore, also known as the Vaad HaRabbonim, has banned Mr. Ohana from area synagogues and Jewish homes. In a letter posted in area synagogues dated Feb. 17, 2006, Rabbi Yaakov Hopfer, president of the Rabbinic Council, wrote, "Mr. Ohana has conducted himself in a manner that is unacceptable and that will not be tolerated within our community. As such, we declare Mr. Ohana persona-non-grata within our community."

Rabbi Moshe Hauer of B'nai Jacob Shaarei Zion, and a member of the Rabbinic Council, added, "We're trying every which way to bring across to Ephraim that granting the get is the right and appropriate thing to do. Once he does that, we look forward to welcoming him back to the community and we will offer him every opportunity to appear before a Bais Din."

Rabbi Yitzchok Breitowitz, of Woodside Synagogue in Silver Spring and a professor of law at University of Maryland Baltimore, also sympathizes with Mrs. Ohana.

"Unfortunately, there are people who use the get to victimize, and this is a very repulsive and repugnant thing to do," said Rabbi Breitowitz. "Even if there are disagreements, a get should not be used as blackmail or a bargaining chip."

But it has not just been Baltimore's religious Jewish community that is supporting Mrs. Ohana. The Awareness Center, Inc., the Jewish Coalition Against Domestic Abuse in Rockville, Jewish Women International in Washington, D.C., and CHANA are some of the agencies involved.

"At the rallies, I was surrounded by Jews, non-Jews, women working for the House of Ruth, as well as rabbis from each denomination of Judaism, because after hearing Cynthia's story, people in the community want to go out and support her," said Nancy F. Aiken, director of CHANA.

Such public pressure is often seen as a step of last resort.

Yehoshua Zev, director of ORA, said the non-profit group organizes rallies for agunot throughout the country. Over the past two years, more than 15 rallies also have been held in support of Sarah Rosenbloom, whose husband, Sam Rosenbloom of Gaithersburg, still refuses to give her a get, even though a civil divorce was finalized in 1999, Mr. Zev said.

Mrs. Ohana said she hopes her case will dissuade other husbands who refuse to grant gets to their ex-wives.

"It's validating to have the community's support," she said. "The exposure is terrifying. But I know there's another guy out there who is going to try and pull this same stunt, and I hope instead he thinks, ‘No, I don't want it be like what happened with Ohana.'"

The following statement was provided to the Baltimore Jewish Times by Ephraim Ohana:
I have not been vocal about the tragic difficulties in this divorce because I feel it is very detrimental to my children's wellbeing. While it would be too involved to address all the issues, I would like to highlight one.

A Jewish divorce is most often worked out in a Bais Din, and usually as a legally binding arbitration. Cynthia and I signed two agreements to enter into arbitration through the Baltimore Bais Din. She continuously breached these agreements and chose to address issues in other arenas, which included false allegations and malicious abuse of the judicial system.

Over the past year-and-a-half, my attorney has sent several letters to the Bais Din and met with its representatives in an effort to pressure her to abide by those agreements. She refused and the Bais Din remained silent. I have also made many attempts to offer to resolve our differences through negotiation asking only that she cease the hostilities she continues to instigate. She has refused all of these attempts. More recently, Judge Kathleen Sweeney recommended that we enter into mediation. She again refused.

There are still many outstanding issues that need resolution, including the get, and my offer to resolve them still stands


Some of the information on The Awareness Center's web pages may contain copyrighted material the use of which has not always been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. We are making such material available in our efforts to advance understanding of environmental, political, human rights, economic, democracy, scientific, and social justice issues, etc.

We believe this constitutes a 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.

For more information go to: . If you wish to use copyrighted material from this update for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

In Memory of Daniel Levin, who ended his life 14 years ago this coming Yom Kippur

The Awareness Center, Inc.
(The Jewish Coalition Against Sexual Abuse/Assault)

September 16, 2009
Dear Friends,
Each year prior to the High Holidays we send out the following CALL FOR ACTION in memory of Daniel Levin, who took his own life fourteen years ago on Yom Kippur.  Daniel was a victims of child molestation.  His alleged sexual predator was Rabbi Ephraim Bryks.  To learn about this case watch the documentary, "Unorthodox Conduct "
My hope is that this year Herzlia-Adas Yeshurun Synagogue in Winnipeg, Canada will finally take down the plaque they have honoring this alleged serial child molester.  
Due to financial restraints The Awareness Center was forced into a sabbatical, while we attempt to regroup and secure funding.  Please do not forget about us during your holiday giving.  Though we are unable to return calls or answer e-mails at this time, we still have bills that must be paid.  Our hope is that within several months we will be able to be up and running once again.
If you would like to make a donation by credit card you can do so by going to our home page and clicking on the donate button.  If you would like to send a check, make it payable to The Awareness Center and send it to the address posted above.
Vicki Polin, Founder/Director
Asking Herzlia-Adas Yeshurun Synagogue to have the plaque removed honoring Rabbi Ephraim Bryks.

Contact Information:  
 Adas Yeshurun Synagogue

Rabbi Ari Ellis
Sherman Greenberg, President
620 Brock St., Winnipeg, MB, Canada, R3N 0Z4
Phone: (204) 489-6262    Fax: (204) 489-5899

This Yom Kippur marked the 14th anniversary of the suicide of Daniel Levin an alleged victim of Rabbi Ephraim Boruch Bryks 
. It is a difficult time in particular for his family and friends as Daniel's alleged abuser has never been brought to real justice (if such a thing is even possible at this point) and continues to thrive and work with women and children, not in some small Jewish community but in the New York Orthodox Jewish community.
The Winnipeg Jewish community and Bryks' former Orthodox Union affiliated synagogue, Herzlia Adas Yeshurun (the site of Daniel's abuse), continue to refuse any acknowledgment or responsibility. No apology, no compassion. A plaque honoring Rabbi Ephraim Boruch Bryks remains on the synagogue's "Tree of Life." All Daniel has is a tombstone in a cemetery.

The Awareness Center Has A Call to Action asking everyone to contact Herzlia Adas Yeshurun and ask them to remove the plaque, and perhaps replace it with a plaque honoring the memory of Daniel Levin (see contact information above). Click here for more information regarding the Case of Rabbi Ephraim Bryks 

Vicki Polin, MA, NCC, LCPC, ATR-BC
Executive Director - The Awareness Center, Inc.

Monday, September 14, 2009

No exemptions for sex abuse - Sexual Abuse in the Orthodox World

No exemptions for sex abuse

SEPTEMBER 14, 2009

"Orthodox community deals with sex abuse," read the page 1 headline in Sunday's Asbury Park Press. But just how the Orthodox community in Lakewood deals with the problem in its midst is disturbing.
Far too often, cases of sexual abuse are handled internally through a rabbinical tribunal that routinely handles civil disputes but deals with possible cases of sexual abuse as well. The Orthodox community lacks the investigative and judicial powers to issue sentences, weed out false accusations and monitor offenders.
The most the rabbinic tribunals can accomplish is to urge therapy for the abuser. That's not justice for the victim. And it may be against the law. A therapist in Brooklyn's Orthodox community for more than eight years who has treated sex offenders referred by Lakewood religious authorities said he could not recall one instance when a rabbi referred a case to law enforcement officials.
Religious authorities say they do what is necessary to rid the community of sex offenders swiftly, but it is typically done outside the framework of secular law. The rabbinic leaders must send an unequivocal message to the Orthodox community that incidents of sexual abuse must be reported to the appropriate authorities. And that point must be reinforced by the Ocean County Prosecutor's Office.
First Amendment freedoms to practice one's faith are not absolute, particularly when it puts the most vulnerable citizens at risk for irreparable physical and emotional harm. One would think that a community dedicated to Torah law would recognize the limits of that law in dealing with criminal matters and welcome the legal means to get child sexual abusers out of their communities and into the arms of the law.
State law requires anyone with "reasonable" suspicions to report acts of child abuse to the police or the state Division of Youth and Family Services. That law runs up against a different law, the Cleric-Penitent Privilege, which requires clerics such as rabbis to keep privileged any communication made in confidence unless both he and the person who did the confiding agree to release it or the information pertains to a future criminal act.
Given the rate of recidivism among sex offenders, a single confessed incident of abuse can reasonably hint at an ongoing pattern of abuse with a widening circle of victims. This sounds remarkably similar to Catholic priest scandals, where pedophile priests were counseled and transferred without ever facing the law.
If, as Job says, it is God who "reveals the deep things of darkness and brings deep shadows into the light," then those who believe in him must do the same work of bringing light out of the shadows. Secular law has the means to do just that and the rabbinic leadership needs to encourage members of the community to speak up without fear.
If the Orthodox community believes that playing cases of sexual abuse so close to the vest is a proper response, that's beyond troubling.

Culture clash: Secular law and the Torah: Orthodox community deals with sex abuse

Asbury Press - September 12, 2009

At some point, amid battling a drug addiction and childhood memories of molestation, Shua Finkelstein wrote a letter.

Discovered on his computer after he died Feb. 28 from an overdose of pain killers, the letter admonished his Orthodox Jewish community for not doing enough to remedy alleged sex crimes.

"It is your duty as a Jew, as a human to find these people in our community and no longer let them live among us!!!" it read. On April 14, a few weeks after the letter became public online, the Finkelsteins' house was gutted by a fire while they were out of town for Passover. A police report cited arson as the likely cause. Authorities say they are still investigating.

Not until about a year ago did Shua, then 19, finally confide in his mother that, starting at age 6 and lasting for several years, he was sexually abused by an older male. When asked why she didn't go to the police, Rivkah Finkelstein said it didn't occur to her. As part of an outsider-wary religious community, she had been given every indication that such sensitive matters didn't belong in the secular world. Instead, she went to her rabbi, and eventually the alleged offender was put into therapy.

A similar approach has been used to deal with sex abuse complaints against private child care centers in the community. This year alone, rabbinical tribunals, or Batei Din, have closed at least one such play group at a home and allowed another to stay open when not enough evidence surfaced to close it. Neither was reported to authorities.

"There's no one monitoring them," said Finkelstein, whose two daughters attended a play group a decade ago that was closed down by one of the community's Batei Din, which more routinely handle civil disputes. "What's to say they don't move to another town and do the same thing?"

Critics say a problem with sex abuse reporting has pervaded this growing Orthodox hub for years. Lakewood rabbis downplay that contention but acknowledge more can be done in opening up dialogue with secular authorities.

Perpetrator recidivism and a lack of closure for victims' families are primary reasons why families, therapists and child advocates have come out against the handling of such cases through a tribunal system, long practiced in Orthodox communities. It is a system that parallels the legal process but lacks the investigative and judicial powers to issue sentences, weed out false accusations and monitor offenders. Some people say it is meant to discourage victims from going to the police. Others simply see it as a stale practice that needs reform.

In 2006, Yocheved Mauda reported to the police that her 15-year-old daughter was raped by a 35-year-old man just over the border in Howell. When her rabbis in Lakewood learned the authorities had been alerted, they were furious, she said, telling her she should have brought her complaint before a Bais Din. Now it was too late. Monmouth County prosecutors charged the offender, Levi Danziger, with kidnapping and aggravated sexual assault.

Two years later, Danziger, who lives in Monroe, was convicted of endangering the welfare of a child in a plea deal to lesser charges. He was sentenced to three years probation.

"If you go to police, they (her rabbis) make a protest against me, nobody talks to me, nobody helps me, nothing," said Mauda, an Orthodox Yemenite Jew, who had moved to Lakewood from Monroe and now lives in Monsey, N.Y.

The town's rabbinical leaders strongly deny their residents are discouraged from reporting suspicions to law enforcement as a way to avoid outside stigma. If anything, they say, there is an increased hypersensitivity toward ridding the community of offenders swiftly and openly. But because of an inherent distrust in the secular legal system, a fear of a destroyed reputation or an uncertainty of the evidence, another option is needed. Their system offers those people who are reluctant to go to authorities another channel through which to bring allegations that otherwise would never be heard, according to Rabbi Moshe Zev Weisberg, a member of Lakewood's Vaad, the council of Jewish leaders.

The Batei Din were created in Lakewood years ago as an alternative, not a substitute, to the secular courts, Weisberg acknowledged.

"The moral weight of a Bais Din can have a tremendous effect as an incentive for perpetrators to stop their activity for fear of community sanctions," he said.

Yet even many Orthodox leaders concede the internalized process can potentially enter a gray area when taking on criminal matters such as sex abuse.

Critics were less diplomatic.

"We believe there's an epidemic of sexual abuse in the Lakewood Ultra-Orthodox community," said Loni Soury, spokesman for Survivors for Justice, a support group that has dealt with hundreds of victims from the New York and New Jersey Orthodox communities. "In our experience working with victims, we have found that many are, at least initially, very reluctant to report these crimes to law enforcement. This is the case often because rabbis expressly forbid them from reporting these crimes to law enforcement."

The issue also raises legal questions, because state law requires anyone with "reasonable" suspicions to report acts of child abuse to the police or the state Division of Youth and Family Services.

"We understand and appreciate that often times people feel most comfortable confiding in their spiritual leaders who can, in turn, help guide individuals on how to report child abuse or neglect and obtain help," DYFS spokeswoman Lauren Kidd said in an e-mail. "However, the law is clear . . ."

Yet another state law, called the Cleric-Penitent Privilege, requires clerics such as rabbis to keep privileged any communication made in confidence unless both he and his confider agree to release it or the information pertains to a future criminal act.

While some people have compared the controversy to the priest molestation scandals and cover-ups that have plagued the Catholic Church in recent years, others say the dilemma is more rooted in the rabbis' adherence to religious doctrine and an over-protection of their communities against public glare and false accusations.

They point, for instance, to a speech by Matisyahu Salomon, an internationally respected rabbi and teacher at Lakewood's Beth Medrash Govoha yeshiva. The speech addressed the handling of sensitive matters such as sex crimes in the context of criticizing anonymous bloggers.

"Yes, I would say we do sweep under the carpet sometimes," Salomon said at a 2006 convention for Agudath Israel of America, a national organization of Jewish leaders. "You know what we sweep under the carpet? Not what we don't do; what we do. Do these people know how many times perpetrators have been dealt with? Do these people know to what extent one had to have the courage to stand up against public opinion in order to make sure to protect our children? The only thing is, that was swept under the carpet, because we protect human dignity . . . And sometimes if the thing is not proven 100 percent, yes, we are guided by the Torah . . . . we don't jump to conclusions but we are consequent."

In an e-mail, Salomon's secretary, Rabbi Mordechai Levi, said: "Indeed, his (Salomon's) position today is the same as it was then; that perpetrators and predators must be punished, albeit not in the limelight."

A New York parallel

Still, the issue of sex abuse in Orthodox communities has gained attention in recent years, primarily in Brooklyn. One of the first media reports to shine a harsh light on the topic was a 2006 story by New York Magazine headlined "Do the Orthodox Jews have a Catholic-priest problem?"

In May, The Jewish Week, a weekly Jewish newspaper in New York, published an article alleging that convicted child molester Stefan Colmer, 32, was ushered under the courts' radar into an offender treatment program where he was allowed to leave voluntarily before completing treatment. Afterward, in 2007, he was arrested and charged with sodomizing two teenage boys, according to Brooklyn prosecutors. He then fled to Israel where he was extradited to Brooklyn and sentenced June 30 to between 2 1/2 and 4 years in prison.

Brooklyn law enforcement and politicians have, in recent months, stepped up efforts to bridge the Orthodox-secular gap in sex abuse reporting. New York state Assemblyman Dov Hikind, who represents parts of Borough Park and Flatbush where some 150,000 or more observant Jews — many of them Orthodox — reside, plans to allot more than $1 million to improve such communication.

"It's been a tough road these eight, nine months; very depressing on many occasions listening to so much pain from so many victims," Hikind said. "But, you know, if you look at the past, it's a very shocking past, but I prefer to concentrate on the future, where hopefully we're going to make a difference."

He said more rabbis are now advising victims to go the police as well.

District Attorney Charles J. Hynes also is making changes, namely in the creation of Project Kol Tzedek, an anonymous hotline staffed by social workers, many of whom are observant Jews. The hotline is tailored to be sensitive to the religious and cultural differences that have so far boxed-out the potential for secular investigations.

"This came from the DA's concern that some of these crimes were not being properly reported," said Jerry Schmetterer, a DA spokesman.

Since its inception about three months ago, the hotline had turned some tips into active investigations, he said.

"Because of the insular nature of Orthodox Jewish communities, many victims are reluctant to report crimes to secular authorities," Hynes said in a news release. "This program will go a long way to address those impediments."

Yet in Lakewood — host to the largest yeshiva and one of the fastest-growing Orthodox populations in the country — there has been virtually no public discussion and little secular awareness of the community's sometimes unique handling of sex abuse cases. Many people involved say it is as much or more of a problem here.

Brooklyn's legal and political counterparts in Lakewood have said they see no real difference between the Orthodox community and other segments of the population regarding sex abuse reporting. However, more recently, Ocean County prosecutors and Orthodox leaders said a dialogue has begun to "bridge the gap."

"If it's dealing with children, and it's not reported, it's a criminal offense," said Robert Singer, a state senator and Lakewood's mayor. "That's a tough thing to hide."

In an interview in early June, Ron DeLigny, Ocean County's first assistant prosecutor, said he has no concrete evidence that the problems in Brooklyn exist in Lakewood.

"If someone wants to reach out to law enforcement, certainly you would think the ability is there," he said. "Now, could there be things in their culture preventing that? Possibly, but as far as making the actual contact and reaching out, you'd think that'd be able to be done."

Asher Lipner, a therapist in Brooklyn's Orthodox community for more than eight years who has treated sex offenders referred by Lakewood Batei Din, said he could not recall one instance when a rabbi referred a case to the authorities.

Another psychologist who has treated several sex abuse victims from Lakewood said he knows of people still living in Lakewood with unreported histories as sex abusers.

"They don't stop," said Michael Salomon, the psychologist. "If someone has abused once, the odds are he will continue to abuse."

Salomon is seeing a patient now who was molested by the same alleged offender of a previous patient of his. As a teenager, the previous patient had confided to someone in the community about the abuse and was told it would be handled quietly, Salomon said. Now a parent in his early 30s, the patient remains unaware of any action taken and, at this point, is not willing to go to the police.

"The same issues apply there (Lakewood) as everywhere else," Salomon said. "They are hesitant to report it, they are discouraged to report it, and when they do tell someone it's not believed."

Beyond religious courts

Though not as common, direct attempts outside tribunal channels to quiet people who want to raise awareness about a case — either through police reports, fliers or the media — have occurred, witnesses say. Yet whether they originated from an organized effort or self-interested individuals is unclear.

Fewer than five years ago, the family of a woman who went to the police to report an instance of sexual abuse soon began receiving anonymous threats from people who promised, among other things, financial ruin if the complaint was not retracted, according to a family member.

Days later, the family agreed, at the behest of their rabbi, to drop all charges and no longer cooperate with any investigation unless first approved by two rabbis.

"We were just true believers in our rabbi, and we felt we had to listen to our rabbi, and the rabbi told us you must make this agreement," said the relative, who did not want to be identified for fear of retribution. "So we agreed to this agreement, and we called the police."

But the threats persisted. They included one suggestion that their house would burn down and another promising to run them out of town if these allegations persisted.

Eventually, the family moved out of the state.

"It tremendously altered our lives," the relative said. "We almost stopped being religious because of it. That's what happens to many people. But, on purpose, I don't want that to happen to us because that will invalidate it. And so I'm determined to stay religious and fight this in every other way I can."

Dr. Carmen Otalara-Levin, a chiropractor in Lakewood, also admitted she has received numerous threats because of her attempts to help this family, as well as the Finkelsteins. One threat, she said, warned her that if "I didn't watch out, I'd get burned out of my office or house."

More recently, after Otalara-Levin put a sign in her office offering a reward for information about the Finkelstein fire, she said she was approached while getting in her car, pushed against the door and told her face would be "rearranged" if she didn't stop putting her "nose where it doesn't belong."

"One of the rabbis who was worried about me told me it's a dangerous game that I play because I'm making myself noticed, and apparently it's not a good thing for a woman to do so," Otalara-Levin said. "But my grandmother said, if you don't do anything in the face of evil it's as if you participated in it."

Suppressing such sexual abuse experiences for whatever the reason can often exacerbate any lingering trauma, advocates say. One likely link to sex abuse is the development of a drug addiction.

Donna Miller, the clinical director at the Chabad Residential Treatment Center — a Jewish drug treatment facility in Los Angeles that commonly accepts East Coast patients — said a disproportionate number of patients arrive from Lakewood, which has a smaller Orthodox population than Brooklyn.

"You'd think more would come from New York," she said.

Miller added that a "large amount" of these patients have some history of sexual abuse.

Shua Finkelstein was one of those patients. In his letter, he spoke of drugs as an "escape" from a "horrible reality." After six months at the Chabad Center, however, he returned home seemingly cured of his addiction, family members said. Then one morning his friends could not wake him up.

Yocheved Mauda's daughter, Shlomit, also displayed drastic changes in her behavior after her assault, becoming more erratic and showing signs of post traumatic stress disorder, said her psychologist at the time, Mark Seglin.

Already hit with wary stares upon moving to Lakewood because of word about her rebellious relationship with the religious authority in Monroe, Mauda believes she was cast further to the side after her daughter's allegations and the subsequent police investigation.

In an Aug. 9, 2006, letter, Bais Shaindel, a high school for girls, ended her daughter's trial enrollment, saying "Based on her performance in our school, we regret to inform you that we can no longer service her." A short time later, Mauda's husband, Gavriel Mauda, was brought to court on simple assault and harassment allegations, which a judge dismissed last year.

In December 2006, child services workers were called to investigate the parents for child neglect and abuse. The state's Division of Youth and Family Services determined that "the allegation was unfounded," according to a letter from the DYFS.

That same month, the family was told they would be evicted from their rented house, leaving the parents and eight children homeless for four months. The eviction notice stated: "You have continued to assault and threaten Menachem Steinberg. These actions have deprived this and other tenants of their right to the peaceful enjoyment of their property."

"She was shunned by segments of the community, absolutely," Seglin, the psychologist, said. "They didn't cut her much slack."

In fall 2007, the family moved to Monsey, N.Y.

The Lakewood Orthodox leadership tells a different story. A community spokesman said any abandonment of the Maudas from neighbors and schools predated Shlomit's assault. He pointed to the reputation the family brought with them from Monroe, where they were in effect told to move, and their refusal to fit in while in Lakewood as reasons why only one of the eight children could find a school and why, eventually, they were again asked to leave.

"It didn't have anything to do with her daughter; it had to do with her whole attitude," said the spokesman, who requested his name not be published. "These people were problems from the second they moved to town."

The final straw could have been when Yocheved Mauda made her daughter's assault public through a story in the Jewish Voice in August 2006.

"If something happens like this in the community, it's dealt with, the girl's put into therapy, and if the guy needs to go to jail, he will," the spokesman said. "But don't put it in the paper."

Bridging the gap

Orthodox leaders here do not deny Lakewood could face, to some degree, the same problems as Brooklyn, but stress the community's small size and tight networking make the possibility for cover-ups unlikely. During the reporting for this story, they and Ocean County Prosecutor Marlene Lynch Ford said they have started meeting to discuss ways to coordinate efforts and improve cultural understanding.

"We have a history of working hand in hand with prosecutors," said Meir Lichtenstein, a township committeeman and member of the Orthodox community. "Recently, I spoke with the Prosecutor's Office about this issue to see if we can again collaborate and bridge the gap between law enforcement and a community bound by religious differences and sensitivities. They have asked to come speak with social workers and rabbis in order to better understand the community and ways to encourage victims to feel comfortable going to secular authorities. We welcome this development."

Ford added her office is now looking to Brooklyn "to see what if anything they have learned that could teach us to have better outreach to the community in Lakewood."

More recently, on July 19, Yosef Kolko, a Lakewood camp counselor and yeshiva teacher, was arrested and charged with sexually assaulting a young boy, according to prosecutors.

Cooperation between rabbis and secular officials has yielded results in the past in Lakewood. Dents were made in a drug problem in the community, for one. And secular officials such as Singer were successful in helping erase a tendency of Orthodox families to hide the diagnosis of their special needs children for fear that the stigmatization would prevent their other children from marrying. All it took, he said, were meetings with rabbis that started at a doctor's office under the cloak of night.

"We worked with the community, and it really flipped the other way to where you were absolutely morally incorrect if you didn't help that child to the max," Singer said. "All of a sudden it took on its own life of realization."

Generally, signs of improvement in sex abuse awareness also have surfaced, notably in the waning tolerance that communities have to any hints at passivity with sex crimes, rabbis say. For example, a sizable number of Orthodox residents lambasted Agudath Israel this spring for coming out against a bill before the New York state legislature that would extend the statute of limitations for child abuse cases.

Also, more accusers are being encouraged to approach law enforcement, Orthodox leaders say. In the matter of the closed playgroup, for example, the accusers have been urged by some rabbis to take their case to a leading rabbi in Israel who will decide whether it is strong enough to take to the authorities.

An age-old practice

In the end, a deep-seated tunnel vision could be most to blame for bypassing secular authorities.

Rochel Shanik, the wife of well-known local pediatrician, Dr. Reuven Shanik, acknowledged she had brought a case before a tribunal recently. But, she said, "I can't talk about it. That's the problem."

Shanik said she did not believe the rabbis or the tribunals were attempting to cover up cases but to follow the only available recourse: Torah law. Asked why she didn't go to the police, Shanik gave a response similar to Finkelstein's: "It didn't even cross my mind, to tell you the truth."

Relying on Batei Din and rabbinical authority has been a staple in Orthodox communities for thousands of years, largely because Torah law splits from secular law on many civil issues. And it mostly works, community members say. More disputes are settled by a rabbi telling both parties to "grow up," as one rabbi put it, meaning less of a case load for the courts.

Still, the system of Batei Din and internal governing has its limits and could use reform, some rabbis say.

Asked whether such a shift would be difficult considering the often ingrained assumption that the road to justice ends with a rabbi, not a prosecutor, Rabbi Chaim Abadi, a police chaplain, replied: "There's no question that that's valid. But the reason it's valid is because it has worked for so many years. It's not going to work completely anymore."

His reason why not was simply that youth don't heed their elders like they used to.

Yet Lakewood is by no means unique. The problem exists across the world, from Baltimore and Chicago to Melbourne, Australia and San Paulo, Brazil, said Vicki Polin, founder of The Awareness Center, a Baltimore-based international Jewish coalition against sexual abuse.

"Case after case, I will hear stories of families being threatened if they go to the secular authorities, (that) their children will no longer be allowed to attend Jewish day schools or yeshivas," Polin said in an e-mail. "They are also told that their children will not be able to get a good shuddich (spouse). There have been extreme cases in which families are chased out of a community when they threaten to call child protection hotlines."

As for Rivkah Finkelstein, dwelling on possible cover-ups and conspiracies is not a primary concern. She does concede to feeling cheated out of knowing what exactly happened at her daughters' play group years ago. And she admits to having, in an emotional eruption, blamed her rabbis for not doing enough for her late son.

But all that is past. Now she just wants to know who set her house on fire. One recent afternoon, an Ocean County investigator came to Finkelstein's new home to discuss the investigation. The update he gave was far from encouraging. Before leaving, however, he offered her a piece of advice in hopes those with information about the case would come forward.

"He said, "You want to find out who did this? Start talking about molestation again,' " she said.