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Saturday, July 25, 2015



The following is my own transcription of the video, "Surviving Child Abuse In The Jewish World," by Kal Holczler and Voices of Dignity. - Dannielle (Dossy) Blumenthal

KH: I grew up in a town 40 minutes north from the city called New Square. It's a Chasidic, Orthodox, as extreme-it-gets Jewish group of people.


Narrator: The people of New Square are part of a Chasidic sect that originates from a town in the Ukraine called Skver. After the Holocaust, its survivors came to America to rebuild their community, and founded the village of New Square.


KH: When you drive through the streets of New Square, you'll see signs on the right and left. On the right there's a red sign that says "Freuen," which is "women."And on the left you have a blue sign that says "Maner," which is  "men." So men and women walk on two different sides of the street.


Just for people to have a context of how different from the community that I grew up in (is) from the rest of the Western World, my grandmother has more than 200 great grandchildren. So it's a huge, huge family.


Narrator: In this insular town, Kal suffered unthinkable abuse at the hands of one of the most powerful people in the community, who he describes as the head rabbi's chief of staff. This man had keys to every public building in New Square, which enabled him to abuse countless victims after hours.


KH: We'd get in his car and he'd drive me to the parking lot of the Refuah Health Center, take me in there, late at nights, lock up the doors, set the alarm, go upstairs and take me into one of the doctor's offices. And pull my pants down.


Narrator: As the number of stories began to surface, Kal's abuser fled to Israel, and was never brought to justice. Kal ended up on the streets, addicted to drugs for most of his adolescence, ending up in a rehab facility. One day he decided he had had enough.


KH: I hit a point where either I was gonna die or my life was gonna change.


Narrator: Kal started Voices of Dignity, dedicated to ending the cycle of sexual abuse in the Orthodox community. His organization connects victims to emotional, psychological, and legal support, and provides educational training for children and adults.


KH: It was extremely disturbing and frustrating to see that kids that grew up in my community didn't have a place where they could call if they were being violated, if they were being abused, if they were previously subjugated to sexual abuse. So I started a conversation. Absolutely in the dark. Started figuring out, what is a nonprofit? How do you run an organization? You need a board. Who do you put on the board?


So I had to make a decision, am I gonna be the person who's gonna come out, share my experience, and push towards change, risking being persecuted for not being Chasidic? For not being Orthodox?


And my decision was yes, that the dynamics of the community are extremely, extremely complicated. There are mothers that knew about it and don't want to report, because of what their families are gonna look like, who they're gonna marry, how it's gonna hinder marriage, how they're gonna be shamed. The implications of someone coming forward and standing up for justice and reporting somebody is huge.


Narrator: After fundraising in Manhattan to get Voices of Dignity off the ground, it was time for Kal to create awareness and support where it really counts. So we set out for New Square, so Kal could start laying the groundwork to bring change to the community.


New Square is run by what is called the Va'ad, the committee that makes all the decisions and handles the security of the town. They take extreme measures to separate themselves from the outside world, for fear that it will endanger their traditional way of life. So it is extremely rare that cameras ever make it into the community.


KH: People are stopping and looking and trying to figure out what's going on. They soon might just call it into the radio and have us stopped and interrogated.


(To a passerby) Hey there, how are you doing? How are you? (Shakes hands) Boruch HaShem.


(To the camera) If there's one person that you don't want to see, that would be him. He's kind of the, known in the community as the snitch, or like the messenger, the one that executes some of the 'dirty work.'" We'll see what happens.


Narrator: While has been soliciting support for Voices of Dignity, he has yet to gain the support of his parents, which he needs more than anything in order to make a difference in New Square.


KH: I never had a sitdown conversation with my mother and father where we talked openly about abuse.


(To his parents) There's an incredible beauty to New Square. There's a beautiful element of the Rebbe, the traditions, the Chasidut, type of, the singing and the family life. But then there's a whole 'nother element that is not introduced to the community, because it's so sheltered.


(To his mother) What was your experience when you found out that I was sexually abused?


KH's mother: We couldn't believe that there is such a thing existed. Because we were so pure, and so innocent, and we didn't think it exists. We felt like, this is unbelievable.


KH: Like when I came back and you were like, why didn't you share it with your parents? Why didn't anyone know?Like,’ cause quite frankly I - home wasn't really a place where I felt comfortable coming home to.


(Mother shakes her head.)


(To camera) Just the thought of coming to an authority figure, not only would I not be believed, I would be the one who would be punished.


(To mother) Anything associated with sexuality is repressed. Men and women walk on different sides of the street, men can't look at women until the day they get married, this is not a culture yet where if somebody's being abused outside of the home, that they can come home and talk about it. Or if somebody's being abused at home, that they can go out and talk about it and know they're safe.


(Off camera):Think of the weight of abuse on a child. You'd be terrified to talk about it, not knowing where to place it.


(To his parents):The magnitude of the effects of sexual abuse goes beyond what you can imagine. I sit with people where like, there is not a happy moment in their existence. But for some reason there is this mentality like, if we don't talk about it, the problem doesn't exist. Because I know people inside New Square who for years abused kids, and I speak with their victims that have left, and they still walk around. They still live here. Where is the responsibility of the community?


(To camera): How can we look at the whole issue of sexual abuse and deal with it in a way where we really are changing the culture?We're changing the next generation growing up in a safer world.


Narrator: After an hour of presenting his case, Kal's mom agreed to host meetings for mothers to learn how to identify signs of sexual abuse, an opportunity that she unfortunately never had while Kal was growing up.


KH's mother: I felt very proud that I could share something that I could do for you, as my child, and for the community.


KH: That's what mothers need to know. That it's doable. That you and I, the people that have survived it, are courageous enough to come back, to end the cycle. They're literally building a new world.


Narrator: After a successful meeting with his parents, Kal wanted to show us around his hometown. To visit some of his childhood memories.


KH (with children): Sure. Yes. What is this?


Unnamed child: What's your name?


KH: My name? Holczler.


(To the camera): The funny thing is they're all looking at me and they can't even figure out that I actually grew up just like them. Just like them. Grew up in the same community, speaking the same language. (child gestures to his lapel) Oh that?That's a mic. (child says something in Yiddish)


I definitely feel like an other. I know how they view me, as different than them. So it's - there's that distance, a little bit. (waves goodbye)


Narrator: As we continue to explore New Square, we noticed a car trailing behind us.


Unnamed speaker off-camera: Are we being followed? (KH turns around)


KH: I don't think so.


Unnamed speaker off-camera (to someone in another car) We're working with Kal, he's from New Square, we're went to his mother's house and we're doing -


KH: How ya doing?


Unnamed person in other car: Oh hey, what's up Kal? How are you? (Pause) What's the pictures?


KH: Were you sent to check up on us?


Unnamed person in other car (smiles and gestures): Just checking, you know. They called, they're nervous.


KH: Who called? (person in other car gestures and drives away)


Unnamed speaker off-camera: He's on his phone right now.


KH: Yeah, they're gonna call it in.


(To the camera) Like at the moment, the Ishtahilf, the Shomrim here have been dispatched. Kind of internal cops, the Ishtahilf, the Shomrim. What I don't want to have happen is for them to see me as stirring up trouble in the community, and I definitely don't want the cameras to be broken. That could happen.


Narrator: After being followed around by the internal police, Kal was becoming more and more nervous about putting our safety in jeopardy.


KH: I think we just have people that came out of the school, with like, suspicion, and cameras. It would be a good idea, to, like, go back, and not invoke so much.


Narrator: At this point it had become blatantly obvious that our presence was not welcome. There was no way we could continue filming without escalating the situation. So we decided it was in our best interest to leave New Square as soon as possible.


One month later, we met up with Kal again.


(in car) We're now on our way to go see Gitty Holczler, who's my cousin, who suffered sexual abuse from a family member. And has lived with it ever since.


Narrator: Since Gitty left New Square, Kal is the only family member who she speaks to. And he has been a key supporter in her rehabilitation.


KH: Hello.


Gitty: Hi there.


KH: How are you?


Gitty (to camera): My uncle basically owned me, he raped me, he abused me, physically, sexually, everything you could possibly think of, and that went on from the time I was nine till 14.


Narrator:Gitty came forward with her story at age 25, to the Rockland County Sheriff's Office.


Gitty: When I started talking about it in public, he actually threatened to kill me. I know for a fact that he has a gun, not licensed. The authorities that have gone to, have not been able to do anything.


Narrator: As is the case with many victims in New Square, the statute of limitations has passed. The statute states that victims of sexual abuse have five years from the time they turn 18 to press charges, so in Gitty's case, there was nothing the legal authorities could do.


Gitty: I don't wake up in the morning without having a really bad nightmare. I would wake up screaming and going crazy.


Narrator: Gitty hasn't heard her uncle's voice in over a decade. But she has agreed to have Kal reach out to her abuser, so that she can finally have some closure.


KH: Have you ever thought of it?


Gitty: Thought of what?


KH: If you saw him. What you would want to tell him.


Gitty:If I would actually want to confront him, what I would want to tell him?


KH: Yeah.


Gitty: No, I - my mind goes crazy when I think like that. So - I have no idea.


(KH starts to dial.)


Gitty: What are you gonna say?


KH: I'm gonna ask him if he has any regret for what he has done. What do you really want to tell him?


Gitty: What I really want to get out of him is, where are the places where he took me?


KH: That will help you with your own closure?


Gitty: That would help me with my closure. I think that would also help me maybe to find proof.


KH: Cause if we have one opportunity to call him, and to keep him on the phone, and I don't know if he's gonna pick up, can we tell him I'm sitting with you?


Gitty: No.


(Voice on phone):Hello?


KH: Hey, Mendy?


“Mendy”: Yeah?


KH: How are you? This is Kalmy speaking. Your nephew. Kalmy Holczler. I wanted to ask you about the accusations, about the stories that has been coming out about you and Gitty.


“Mendy”: I’m not going to discuss anything with anybody.


KH: Would you be willing to talk about it in person?


“Mendy”:No.


KH: Do you feel that it is something that is completely made up?Or is it something that has truth to it?


“Mendy”: I'm not even going to discuss it with you.


KH: Knowing as somebody I was -


Mendy: I'm not your uncle.


KH: You're not my uncle anymore?


Mendy: I'm not your uncle anymore so that's - consider me out of the family.


KH: And your children are not my cousins?


Mendy:They don't want to be your cousins. They don't want to be part of the Holczler family.


KH: You feel like you did zero harm to her, do you?


Mendy: I'm not going to talk that way. You are not my judge. You are not my attorney.


KH: Well, thanks for having a conversation with me. (Hangs up.) Wow. Wow.


Gitty: I really feel good right now. This guy couldn't even say once that everything - like -


KH: He was able to talk about everything but discuss anything -


Gitty: Like if nothing would have happened he wouldn't have had a problem saying it.


KH: (In car, to camera)I was really impressed with her willingness to talk about it. The fact that we can talk about it, openly, is a success.


Narrator: Gitty has been seeing a therapist, and is making great progress in managing how the trauma she endured impacts her daily life. Meanwhile, Kal has been moving forward with organizing training sessions for mothers in the Orthodox community.


KH: We're inviting 10-15 mothers in the community, some of them are teachers, some of them are just mothers, that either have kids that have gone through sexual abuse, that are dealing with abuse and don't really know how to deal with it. So we started doing these trainings, we're bringing in mental health professionals and therapists to speak with these mothers. We're giving them information about abuse, signs and symptoms, where to reach out, and that is happening now.


I'm not coming out against the Orthodox world. From any point of view that you could look at it from a Jewish context, what's being done around sexual abuse is wrong. And it is the responsibility of those communities to stop that.


So hopefully with us pushing, presenting options, together with the community we can do something about it.

"So I said, 'Think of me as a professional moron,'" I told my friend.
"That's how you want to be remembered by them?" she said. "Oh, goodness."
"Well that's what I said."
"What do you mean, 'That's what I said?'  Now moron is your brand."
For a time I thought it somehow daring to insult myself. 
But then I witnessed people far, far more senior than myself doing exactly the same thing.  
  • "Tell it to me like I'm stupid."
  • "Pretend I'm simple."
  • "Imagine that you're talking to your mother."
 By reducing a senior communicator to a less intimidating level, statements like this can help a subject matter expert improve their communication.
Often, however, a dialogue about better words doesn't help anything at all.
Because in some organizations, what seems like "poor performance" - including bad communication - is exactly what's required.
Words that confuse, mislead, obfuscate, and shade the truth - to the point of outright denial of reality - can be used, are often used, as arrows in the quiver.
  • Propaganda.
  • Psyops.
  • Gaslighting.
 The list of Orwellian terms and techniques goes on and on and on.
Obviously, using tricky words is ethically and sometimes legally wrong. For example -- all jokes and criticism aside -- federal government communication is required to be clear and understandable, and propaganda is not allowed.
But even if one were to put morals aside, it's shortsighted to use words that mislead. In doing this, you sow the seeds of mistrust down the road. You confuse people within your own organization. And you destroy any long-term equity that would result from a cohesive, authentic brand.
Maybe it's not cool to suggest being simple. But I think it's the way to go.
______________________
Photo by Srikrishna K via Flickr (Creative Commons). All opinions are my own and not those of my agency or the federal government as a whole.

Friday, July 24, 2015


Today, you have to give up a lot for a career. But have we given up too much?
Workers nowadays are routinely expected to do at least these five things for the sake of a job. 
  1. Be available outside traditional working hours, often late at night, sometimes all night.
  2. Tolerate harassment, abuse, and sometimes even behavior that would clinically be described as insane. 
  3. Accept contract, part-time, on-call, temporary, or other impermanent arrangements so as not to face a loss of income.
  4. Socialize with coworkers, effectively eliminating their right to a life outside workplace scrutiny.
  5. Open their social media activities to scrutiny from their employer.
All of these things impinge on one's right to a life outside the job. They impinge on people's freedom.
Worse than that, people are expected to somehow pledge a kind of personal allegiance to the work that they do. You must "live the brand" - if you work at a Dunkin' Donuts, it's not enough to just serve donuts anymore.
This sad state of affairs does not even speak to those who must work two or three jobs to pay the bills. And who are underpaid for those jobs, or unsafe, at that.
As we head into the weekend, I want to ask out loud if we are fully aware of the situation the modern worker faces, as far as losing a personal life goes.
Our relationships need us. Our partners, our kids.
Democracy needs us. We can't participate if we do not have time to think. 
Our spiritual selves need us. Our higher calling.
Have we allowed things to go too far?
For the next 48 hours it would be nice if we could take some time to reflect about this.
Really, really think about it. 
_____
Photo of Alcatraz Prison via Wikimedia. Dunkin' Donuts photo by me. All opinions are my own and not those of my agency or the federal government as a whole. 

Thursday, July 23, 2015


"Shhh!!!" 

"Sit down, sit down!!!"

"Oh, what is that smell?"

"That's Newark, dope!!!"

It was maybe 10 a.m. and someone had opened the windows. The fumes from the chemical plants blew in, reliably.

"Good morning, girls." 

The year was 1986 and I was in eleventh grade. Our principal (a"h) was about to give us "the talk."

Woo-hoo! The room was rustling with excitement.

Maybe a little uncomfortable. 

It was hot and our skirts were too long that day. 

That kind of skirt is called a prairie skirt. It was popular back then - it was allowed.

It wasn't a revealing skirt. 

Like this. 

Skirts like this were a "no."




I would have liked to wear jeans. But we were not allowed to. 

"Do you know what comes between me and my Calvin's? Nothing."

Come to think of it I would have also liked to look like Brooke Shields.


Pants meant you were dressing like a man. 

"Does Brooke Shields look like a man to you?" I would sometimes ask.

To which my teachers would sigh. 

"Obviously, tight jeans are very untznius, you know that, Dossy. They break every rule."

Basically they didn't want the boys to be looking at us, was what it was.



"Shh, shh," we admonished one another as the principal settled into the teacher's chair in the front of our homeroom.

We were arranged before her neatly, in neat rows. Five across. Seven down.

The girls automatically took out their notebooks and pens.

Why are they taking notes? I asked myself. This is sex. They won't remember?

"Now I want everyone to rip out a sheet of paper," said the principal. She said "rip out" the way you would say "rip off your clothes."

Our principal was one of a kind. She had this kind of zest for life. When they made up the word zest, they were thinking about her.

I used to make that woman so mad.

Our principal reminded me of the principal, the den mother on The Facts of Life. 

It was a yeshiva and so our principal used to wear a wig, as was the custom of some of the more religious married women. (Nowadays, for many, it's a given.) 

It looked a little frozen to me - sort of like a helmet. It was hard to take her seriously.

"Rabbi, why do married women cover hair with hair?" I used to ask.

"Because the pasuk says clearly, 'When the woman uncovers her hair for her husband,' so we infer that married woman cover their hair."

"But covering your hair with hair is still showing hair." (Like these, from Freeda. If I ever wear a wig, it's going to be one of these.)


"The rabbis had mercy on the women. The women cried out they didn't want to be ugly."

At that point I would look at the teacher and picture a woman with an apron on, a nude or bikini-clad body on the front. Hm.


"Everybody write down a question about sex, and put it in the hat," the principal said.

Truthfully I wasn't excited about all this. My home life was not sheltered.

I had TV.

I had cable.

I had books.

In our family, "steamy romance novels" were a perfectly legitimate way to spend one's Shabbos

My mother, a nurse, told me all about sperm and eggs practically before I could talk.

So I didn't have a lot of questions about sex. In fact I probably knew more than I needed to know.

But I do remember when the principal said this:

"Once you're married you can swing from the chandeliers, girls."

I think it was the only time during my youth that any religious figure talked about sex as something positive, healthy and enjoyable.

For a short time a new student joined our class in ninth grade. 

This girl was absolutely beautiful. Stunning. And a very nice person, too.

But by January she was gone. Rumor had it she was "distracting" the boys when her bus pulled through their campus.

After I graduated, somebody told me they started to pull you out of class if your clothes were too short, too tight, or just not modest generally.

But when I was there, overall my yeshiva was a pleasant place and I didn't feel oppressed. The girls were a very nice group too. And truthfully, not brainwashed.

One girl even had a boyfriend. "Here, take a look at this," she once said. It was a crude pen-and-ink drawing of the male anatomy.

It was disgusting. "Put that away," I said. "Oh, ewww."

She started laughing hysterically. 

Some girls talked in quiet tones about "experience." 

We were taking typing in school. It wasn't illogical to imagine that sex could also involve a kind of on-the-job training.

By twelfth grade, I was completely confused. I wanted to be a good person. But I could not reconcile the mixed messages.

And they screwed me up. Of course they did! My parents, my teachers, what I read in The Jewish Press, how could it not screw me up? 

My time in Israel, at the seminary - forget it!

But looking back on it now, do you know what I feel? 

Love. 

It's why I think of myself as a yeshiva girl, in my heart.

It's why my choice of clothing is irrelevant. 

Back in high school I think my principal knew how messed-up the system was. And she wanted to help us get through it.

I cling to the memory of her face that day, of her joyful and beatific grin.

That hat she had in her hand - it symbolized her complete commitment to our happiness.

And how she wanted more than anything to love us into the world intact.

_______
Photo of curtains by Clare and Kevin via Flickr (Creative Commons). The Carol Wright prairie skirt is available for $14.99 at Amazon. Brooke Shields for Calvin Klein jeans ad screenshot via Trending Lightly by Catherine Jane. Vince long slit stretch-knit skirt $78.75 on sale at Neiman-Marcus. Photo of boy by Hamed Masoumi via Flickr (Creative Commons). Facts of Life cast screenshot via The Wrap. Wig screenshot via Freeda. Drew Carey show bikini apron via YourProps. All opinions are my own and do not represent those of my agency or the federal government as a whole.


Wednesday, July 22, 2015


Faigy,

Last week I had a dream. Is it okay if I share it with you?

In the dream my mother called me on the telephone. "Your sister killed herself," she said, and I said, "What? What? That can't be." I was in shell shock.

In the dream, I felt like screaming, "I can't believe she's gone, and what a wasted life."

Because in the real world my sister does "everything," but somehow "everything" is never enough, at least not in her mind.

It was 2:30 on Shabbos morning. I wanted to call my mother and make sure she was alive. I knew that was probably silly. But something seemed very terribly wrong.

So I stood up and went to the living room, just stood there, feeling a terrible sense of foreboding. It felt like blackness.

Less than ten days later, you did a running sprint off a rooftop bar in Manhattan. I found out about it yesterday morning, on Facebook. 

You did a 20-foot dive. 

And the people kept on drinking.

I did not know you, Faigy, not at all. But that didn't stop me from feeling like I had lost my very own sister. 

When I look at your picture on Twitter, here is what I think: She could have been.


You were a beautiful young woman, sister Faigy. Look at yourself - you were full of life. 

That you were made to depart this world is a tragedy. Maybe there are other things to think about today, the social media story of the moment. 

But the loss of you is real. The world misses you. People who knew you and people who didn't know you, alike.


Yes Faigy, I am going to call you my sister. I am formally adopting you after your death.   Your soul, wherever it is, has a place in my backpack. There sits a laptop, there a set of keys and there a couple of credit cards.

For you, there is plenty of room.

"An ex-Hasidic app developer" makes headlines, sure. 


You meant a lot, to a lot of people. On social media your presence had a lot to do with that young-techie thing, that cool crowd that's into coding for good.


But you were fine without the app.

You were alive, and your aliveness was every wonderful thing.

As a human being and as a Jew. As both. For there is no such thing as an ex-Jew, Faigy. You are always a Jew, and alive or passed, your soul is one with our people.

And despite what they are saying in the paper, I don't believe you chose your death for a second. You were suffering in ways none of us could understand, and it isn't our place to speculate on things that are rightfully private. 

One thing is for sure. No matter what problems you had, we all have problems. And you were far from insane. 

It would be easy to blame your mother and father for not supporting you. But we know the culture, you and I, right? 

You taunted them for the mitzvah tantz. The mitzvah tantz! That's core.


And you walked into treif publicly. Sausage, Faigy. Come on.


You knew that they could not shelter you. That you had crossed the Williamsburg nuclear red line.

It doesn't matter to me, though, Faigy. It really doesn't; I don't give a damn what the so-called "neighbors" think.

When I look at you closely, do you know what I see? And this is why I cry, and cry.

"Girl, Interrupted." 

A bright young candle, but the flame is pinched until it stutters out.

You were thirty years old, Faigy. Just starting your life. 

But you were torn down and tormented by a misguided approach to religion. 

Somebody told you, for reasons I do not understand, that leaving an ultra-Orthodox cult meant leaving Judaism altogether.

Did you really want that? Looking at what you left behind, I don't think that you did.

Somebody, in the name of "liberating" you, sold you a defective ideology instead.


Faigy, your loss is our tragedy. Had you been loved and supported into life you would have saved so many others.

You told us it was the library that saved you. Judy Blume books. 

It's sort of sad and funny...this entry on your Facebook could have been written by me.


My sister Faigy, you deserved to write that book you wanted to write. 

I understand the pain you felt at having others narrate your story for you.

And although they may think they were protecting the world from your apikorsus, or in their minds "mental illness," your parents were wrong to keep your photos from you.

Writing one's memoir is part of free choice. I find it unspeakably cruel that someone would withhold from you any evidence of your childhood memories.


But that is the crux of the problem, isn't it, Faigy?

In the Chasidic world, your life is not your own.

You dared to be a girl who insisted on her freedom. An unspeakably offensive act.

And for your insistence on being your own person, you ultimately lost your own life.

My sister Faigy, I am praying that people remember you. That your struggle gets engraved on their brains for good.

I will always carry your memory with me. 

May you find true peace in the Next World, may HaShem grant you solace from all your suffering.

And may your family, and the community, be consoled and come to terms. 

Whether you know it or not, or believe it or not, they will always miss you and love you.

Love, your sister in struggle,

Dossy

_____

Cover photo by Amanda Tipton via Flickr (Creative Commons). Profile photo via Faigy Mayer's Twitter account. Sausage photo via Instagram. Other photos via Facebook. All opinions are my own and not those of my agency or the federal government as a whole.