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Removing the Mask of Power

"The soldiers came for her at night. They took the girl to a barrack and forced her to watch a woman get raped.....The young witness was next. Five soldiers held her down and took turns....Later, her sister cleaned her up, but they didn't speak about what had happened. No one talked about such things. They didn't have to. Or maybe they couldn't." - "Silence Lifted: The Untold Stories of Rape During the Holocaust,", June 24, 2011

Shame loomed large over my family as a child. I don't know if this had to do withhushed-up child sex abuse in the Holocaust, the extent of which we will never knowbecause the boys and girls who were sexually abused, raped, gang-raped, and prostituted--either by the Nazis or their fellow Jews--kept their mouths sealed firmly shut.

After the Holocaust, the victims went on to get married and have kids. If at that point they didn't keep their mouths shut, the researchers did it for them because "why harm survivors who've suffered enough."

When I was growing up we did not talk about the Holocaust. We didn't bring it up at the dinner table, we didn't argue about it on Sabbath, we didn't scream in synagogue to the Lord above.

The adults would hold up a finger to their mouths. "Shhhhhhhh."

The taboo against speaking out, against naming oneself as a victim of trauma, against removing the protective barriers that shield one from the judgments and re-victimizations of this world, remains firmly intact.

But every day it crumbles more.

People simply cannot hold their secrets in forever, they cannot keep up a front so as to impress the rest of the world, and they are seeing others step bravely forward despite the retaliation they face for doing so.

Yesterday a well-known Jewish activist and survivor, Manny Waks, shared the following update to his Facebook page with permission to post it publicly.
"I am a successful person, I have built over 12 start-ups and I have sold 4 of them to large international companies. I have over 100 people that depend on me for their monthly income and I have lunch and dinner with government leaders around the world on a weekly basis. I am living the dream and most of my problems are most people’s dreams but.......I am a 15-16 year-old boy alone in a country far away lying in my bed in the dormitory tied to my bed being raped over and over by a man who took my innocence away. I am a grown man that closes a million-dollar contract with a government and then goes back to his hotel room and cries like a baby. I have been to 164 countries in the world and I have cried in each one of them. I am that person you look up to but at the same time I am......well what am I? How is it that almost 25 years later I still do not know what to say I am......................."
When someone is a victim of abuse, of any kind of abuse, that person needs to talk about what happened in order to heal.

Yet they face constant and tremendous social pressure, don't they?

Because their pain makes the rest of us feel bad. Let's just go on, we say. Let's do our jobs and focus on tomorrow.

But we know that attitude is just a cop-out. And when someone gains the strength to finally take off their mask, it is an unbelievable kindness to serve as a witness.

Victims deserve to be fully compensated. But the reality is they risk re-victimization by opening their mouths. They suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. And on top of all that they must keep it together so they can keep their jobs and raise kids.

I recall vividly having a discussion about this subject with an older person. Who said that people should "put it in the box," and "pretend it never happened."

But what that person did not understand, perhaps could not afford to understand, is that the box is not all that sturdy. At some point those memories come bursting out, and when they do the victim finds themselves in a crisis yet again.

Please be open and accepting and strong. This is a way to help victims heal.


All opinions my own. Photo by Andreas Leversvia Flickr (Creative Commons).

The Two Faces of Donald Trump

It is very common for abusive people to compartmentalize themselves.

Last night there was a story on Quora about "the weirdest classmate you ever had." Someone wrote about going to school with a classmate who was brutal and sadistic because his father sexually abused him. The father was discovered online to be a pedophile. Yet this same man successfully prosecuted the brutal kidnap-rape-and-murder of two little girls, and was considered a hero.

Israel has a lot of movies about the Holocaust and dealing with the difficulties of reconciliation with Germany. There is this movie "Walk on Water" where the Israeli Mossad agent falls in love with a German woman. He is supposed to kill the Nazi war criminal and I won't spoil it for you but the whole thing is his moral dilemma over what to do in the present versus how to handle justice for the past.

In America 2016 we have the difficult problem of a Donald Trump candidacy. On the one hand there are those who say he's the nicest guy ever, the best thing to happen to this country since Swiss cheese. Well maybe not Swiss cheese...okay, maybe steak and french fries with a side of salad. Whatever.

On the other hand are those who've been cheated, sexually assaulted and possibly raped (it's horrible even to have to write this), ad nauseam until you see that the "other side" of Trump is some combination of psychopath, sociopath and dictator.

For my part I can easily picture him totally losing his shit, threatening them with silence and pretending that nothing ever happened.

At the ripe old age of 45 I have learned that no human behavior should shock me - should shock us. I am learning to stop painting people in black and white terms. I am learning that there are many ways to look at a situation, not just one way, and that the "right answer" can depend very much on circumstance.

Last night as I watched the Republican National Convention I decided that the Two Sides of Trump will likely dog him, and us, throughout his entire Presidency if he is elected. I realized that the public would have to hold him accountable at every turn, to criticize the foolish things he does, his narcissism and egotism, his failure to realize how some of the offhand comments appear to the public. We will have to watch at every turn that he protects freedom of the press and does not persecute those who disagree with him.

The point is, at the end of the day any attempt to base your vote on "who the candidate is" is foolish. As somebody wrote very eloquently on Facebook, "95% of people are assholes," or something like that.

You have to look at the people behind the person. You have to look at the brand. What goes into political Brand Trump is clearly a work in progress.


All opinions my own. Photo by Alan Levine via Flickr (Creative Commons).

10 Things To Do When Crisis Occurs [FCN]

This information was good fifteen years ago, and it's still good now. Adapted from: Communicators Guide for Federal, State, Regional, and Local Communicators, Federal Communicators Network, 2000, pp. 23-27. Information is quoted, condensed and slightly rearranged for readability and flow. 


  1. Communicate. Don’t hide behind “no comment.” Even if all you can say is that you don’t know, say so, say why and when you think you will know. Reporters look favorably on people who are trying to be helpful.
  2. Put people first. Communicate your concern about the victims. Help the people most affected by the crisis. In the case of accidents, remember to deal with victims’ families before any other group. If they want you to, intercede on their behalf with the news media.
  3. Be available at all times to respond to your various publics. Take your time in explaining difficult issues to reporters. Know media deadlines and don’t rely only on news conferences. Monitor media accounts and quickly correct errors by contacting the reporter or correspondents. Follow up with the news media to keep them updated about what preventive actions were taken after the crisis ended.
  4. Prepare key points you want to make ahead of time. Make them short and to the point. Try to repeat them several times during the news conference or interview.
  5. Provide brief, precise answers to questions. Don’t ramble. Use plain language. Short answers also help alleviate nervousness.
  6. Be sensitive to legal restrictions regarding information, such as the Privacy Act and Freedom of Information Act. Know what kind of information is public and what must be withheld.
  7. Stay with the crisis throughout its duration.


  1. Never lie or speculate. Provide only factual, confirmed information.
  2. Don’t be defensive. Be prepared for aggressive questioning. You might have to answer the same question several times.
  3. Don’t attempt legal battles in the media. Express assurances that matters of litigation or potential litigation will be investigated thoroughly.
This information is adapted from the FCN Communicators' Guide as a public service. This best practice guide was produced by independent volunteers. No representation of any individual, agency or other organization is expressed or implied. Photo via Wikipedia.

Everything's Fine Until You're A Victim

You tell me it gets better, it gets better in time
You say I’ll pull myself together, pull it together, you’ll be fine
Tell me, what the hell do you know? What do you know?
Tell me how the hell could you know? How could you know?
Till it happens to you, you don’t know how it feels, how it feels
Till it happens to you, you won’t know, it won’t be real
No, it won’t be real, won’t know how it feels
You tell me hold your head up, hold your head up and be strong
’Cause when you fall you gotta get up, you gotta get up and move on
Tell me how the hell could you talk, how could you talk?
’Cause until you walk where I walk, this is no joke
Till it happens to you, you don’t know how it feels, how it feels
— Lady Gaga, “Till It Happens To You” (see music video)
Yesterday on Facebook someone asked rhetorically why anyone would cover for a child sex abuser instead of outing them.
I thought about this subject. And realized that while most people will not out-and-out support such a despicable type of person, they’re not exactly marching in the streets either.
I believe that such aversion goes back to fear. Sex abuse is a threat on the most primal level. Any type of association with it, even to combat it, feels like getting a disease.
Its victims seem contaminated, too.
That people are terrified of becoming victims themselves would explain these types of blame-statements, which of course re-victimize the abused.
  • “Everybody knows that he’s crazy.”
  • “What was she doing out so late at night, all by herself?”
  • “Why was she drinking?
  • “It was his choice to get into the car.”
  • “She was the one who wore a short skirt.”
“When are you going to bring that up?” they ask, before a girl goes out on a shidduch date. “Maybe not in the beginning.”
Maybe never?
“Pretend that you had diarrhea,” said one well-known rabbinic authority on marriage. (He has since apologized.) Meaning, not necessary to discuss it.
Of course, sexual abusers don’t want anyone to talk about what they do.
They have a need to victimize. So they insinuate themselves in careers, and relationships, that give them easy access to prey. Meaning, kids.
Abusers are the “nice guys” that young people turn to when “my parents won’t even talk to me,” when “nobody else can understand.”
They are also “the smartest people” or “the most talented” in the room — making others feel ignorant, lesser by comparison.
They take it slowly. It starts with coaching, and counseling…there is the invitation for Shabbos lunch…the discussion of sexual behaviors…the “wrestling match”…the exploitative words, seductive words, words and words and more words, until the actual moment of an attack.
And then they blame the victim for being seductive.
Within even the most fundamentalist Orthodox community, there is a warm, welcoming, loving and outstretched arm extended to any Jew who embraces true practice.
But if that Jew comes forward and accuses someone who is trusted — even revered — it is that Jew whose credibility comes under suspicion.
If someone from within the community takes up for the cause of the victims, that person had better be ready for some serious scrutiny as well.
The reader who is well-informed reads this and shakes their head.
“No, no, no. Everything you’re saying is old. It just is not that way anymore, not at all.”
They say, “Look at the success of Jewish Community Watch.” Which is a great organization, which has succeeded against incredible odds, and so on.
But to say that “the problem is solved” is to operate in denial.
Consider these ten questions:
  1. Is there a safe house in every observant community, no questions asked, where a victim of abuse can get refuge for a night or a week?
  2. Does the observant community routinely express encouragement to victims of sexual abuse to talk about what happened to them? Routinely insist that all reports of child sex abuse be reported to the police and not a rabbi first?
  3. Does the observant community routinely encourage people to talk about their experiences of abuse? Welcome, embrace, support and invite abuse victims and their families to shul honors and Shabbos meals?
  4. Does the observant community routinely chastise anyone who jokes about abuse or who insinuates that a survivor is not suitable for marriage?
  5. Does the observant community provide learning sessions that offer context around Talmudic quotes that seem to imply women are second-class citizens or a source of sin? How about religious parenting and education models that explicitly teach children respect for good authority only? (And how to recognize and get help when someone is trying to hurt them.)
  6. Does the observant community routinely permit its members to use secularly trained, licensed psychologists and social workers who aren’t beholden to the community?
  7. Does every yeshiva have a training program for teachers and students to warn them about the signs of abuse, and abusers? Does every observant synagogue hold sensitivity sessions for the community, considering the high rates of abuse within the population and the fact that Jews don’t get abused in smaller proportions? Does the synagogue offer group therapy sessions for abuse victims, to give them a support network within the larger embrace of the religious community?
  8. Does the observant community get involved in the legal system by helping victims file court papers, lobbying to extend the statute of limitations on child sex crimes, and supporting law enforcement in providing the same sentence to religious offenders as everybody else?
  9. Does every observant synagogue ban convicted child sex abusers from synagogue? Do they have committees that check on known victims to make sure they are all right during regular intervals?
  10. Does the observant community maintain a database of convicted sex offenders — people who served as rabbis, teachers, social workers, psychologists, spiritual counselors, or doctors within the religious community — and encourage all their members to bookmark and use it?
Until all these things happen, and happen regularly, I do not believe that the Orthodox Jewish community is doing all that it can to fight child sex abuse.
Maybe people are hoping that by staying out of the fray, they never will have to deal with it. I feel their fear — G-d forbid a person should be harmed by a single one of these momzers.
Unfortunately, statistics are not on their side. Sex crimes are notoriouslyunderreported. So if you look around the room, you will likely find that someone you know and love has been a victim, even if they aren’t telling you.
For the sake of the entire community, I ask the sleeping giant to wake up.
If you’ve been quiet about child sexual abuse in the observant community until now, please start vocally supporting its victims.
All opinions my own. Photo by Paula Silva via Flickr (Creative Commons)

Why Halacha Still Matters

Photo by Sharyn Morrow via Flickr (Creative Commons)

I still remember my Zayde’s (z”l) voice, how he never raised it even to the level that most of us would consider normal talking. Yet he was not a soft-spoken man either, because his words were words of steel.
Zayde understood that I was not like other children. For one thing nobody could tell me what to do. This did not stop my father from trying, and as he had a natural tendency toward control it was inevitable that my neck would stiffen in response even if he said so much as “please come to the Shabbos table.”
Family relationships are complicated. It bothered me to see how my father kept trying to win Zayde’s approval. I think if it were me I would have been very angry. But Bubbie (z”l) had been in Auschwitz and Zayde escaped from a Romanian labor camp. So my father kept his head down and diligently observed Kibud Av VaEm anyway. To a level that way surpasses anything I would consider obligatory.
Regardless of the subtle discord I loved my Zayde anyway. His love made up for the fact that my father never seemed to think much of me. Looking back it seems inevitable — dad never able to express his true feelings to his dad, holding himself to a very high level of respect, and in turn expecting the same servitude from me. Which I experienced as unacceptably controlling.
Yes, I was just a kid. But I was always overly mature for my age. Probably a combination of nature and nurture; my mother treated me as an equal, as an adult. Frankly it felt confusing to live that way. Unhesitatingly, Zayde helped balance me. Never preached, but he did not shy away from teaching me — sometimes by quoting the halacha and always by being encouraging. 
“You are a good girl,” he would say. “You are very nice.”
I remember he used to drive me crazy asking which set of grandparents I preferred more. “Here or Monticello?” and by that he meant my Grandma and Grandpa (z”l), who lived in the Catskills.
Was that him being petty? I don’t know. It sure felt painful.
Because the truth of the matter was, despite how well he treated me, I enjoyed going to Monticello more. I am ashamed to admit it: For many years, my patrilineal relatives’ Chasidish clothes and mannerisms repulsed me. As I looked at them the Holocaust came alive.
They were so kind to me. Their own families had been gunned down. I was one of the few that were left.
I could not bear to think of it, I cannot think of it now, the tears start flowing again and I feel fresh blood coming out of a wound that never seems to close over.
Monticello was a relief because I could pretend that such things could never happen again. Although my mother’s parents did not get me in the same way as my Zayde did; they were very Litvish, straightforward, not emotional and not mystically inclined whatsoever. (Grandpa, famously, once threw me out of the house for talking about G-d nonstop.)
For her part, my grandmother loved me in a way that is hard to describe. The truth is she really loved all of the children and grandchildren equally, there was no playing favorites on her side. But that did not stop me from feeling a special connection.
When we made Shabbos over there, the basics were not something we ever had to talk about. I don’t recall a single argument over tznius, a single debate over whether we could use the TV, a single piece of food that was not unquestionably kosher.
Did we debate the halacha? Sure. Oh my G-d, the adults argued endlessly, all the time. Why are Chassidim always late? What is with this feminist movement and its crazy ideas?
I remember that they always ganged up on my dad, the token Chassid. And my grandmother used to say, “Oh Alex!”
My grandmother always felt like he was hassling me. She used to say — when I would leave the dining room table and sit on the couch adjacent to it before we did the benching, and my father would tell me that I have to stay and bench first — “Please stop making such an issue!”
My father and I are at peace now. If we could have my Zayde and my Bubbie back, my Grandma and my Grandpa, I believe we would rewind the clock and erase all the stupid fighting.
I remember one time I was talking with Aunt Sari about why I had become nonreligious. This was about three years ago.
“Blame Hitler,” she said.
In the conversation I understood her words only vaguely. I sort of got what she meant, that the Holocaust had messed us all up.
“You grew up in a fucked up family,” she said.
And continued, “You didn’t see a single consistent model of halacha.”
I, the great orator, tried to get around her but failed utterly. I explained that halacha just didn’t “work” in my life.
“You just do it,” she said. “What’s the big deal?”
The world we live in is secular; “my values” and “your values” are considered relative in nature.
“We’ll leave the light on for you,” said my aunt. Because she knows that I am religious at heart.
Of course, I am not religious enough. Worse, because I espouse one thing and do another, I am a hypocrite.
But we are where we are. Getting on the scale gives us a reference point from which to begin.
In the end, some will always argue for “kilograms.” Others will only trust “pounds.”
But all of us know that body weight exists. An if we stuff our faces to the max, we will probably die from overeating.