By Chaim Levin (The Huffington Post)
June 13, 2013
Just under 10 years ago, I came forward with a secret that haunted the majority of my life. A secret that I once swore I'd never tell anyone, something so ugly, so dark and so shameful, this secret ate at the fiber of my soul every single second of every day. But then, one day, I just couldn't keep that secret anymore. I had to tell someone about the four years of sexual abuse, from when I was 6 to 10, committed against me by my cousin, Sholom Eichler. The first time I told someone, it took more than an hour of dropping hints and bouncing around the subject to "tell" him what I was trying to say. When I finally blurted out the words "Sholom did something to me," the rest of that conversation is history, my silence was broken and a dam was opened.
The betrayal that I endured after breaking my silence is still hard to believe, the people who were supposed to protect me, the ones who were supposed to have my best interests in mind, chose to ignore just how serious this actually was. Those people, starting with my school principal to some members of my biological family made a choice, they chose to feed the dangerous fire of silence that destroys the lives of so many victims of abuse. By constantly warning me of the "dangerous ramifications" that would ensue if "the community" were to find out, using tactics that fed into the shame that I was already feeling to try and convince me that what Eichler did to me didn't take precedence over the fear of "creating strife" in our families or hurting Eichler's marriage prospects, or bringing shame to my own family. The fact that I knew Eichler was and still is a potential danger to other children is one of the reasons I've taken this matter so publicly. For years, the older I got, I started wondering about the "what ifs" about Eichler, if it actually was my responsibility to prevent this pervert from hurting anyone else.
One of the elements of forgiveness that really resonate with me is that you don't forgive someone that hurt you for their sake, you do it for yourself, so that one day you can really move beyond the pain. For me, it's a daily battle that I fight with the logic in my mind and pain in my heart. How can I forgive parents and siblings who went to the wedding of my abuser years after they knew about what he did to me? How can I forgive an establishment that was so complicit in a cover-up of such a horrible crime because it was inconvenient for them? How can I forgive the tens, maybe hundreds of people who I sought help from during the first few years after revealing my secret, people who just told me to "get a life, move on, don't think about it, it's not your problem, you need to move on," without ever thinking that Eichler should have answered for his actions? Some try to justify these excuses by saying "it was a different time back then and we didn't talk about it" or "they didn't know any better" and you have to see their point of view", but the truth is that there's nothing can be said to undo those actions (or lack of thereof), and no "reason" will ever be sufficient. The only thing that can be done at this point is to change their actions which some people have, but sadly, far too many people haven't yet.
My immediate family members, my parents and most of my siblings have been more supportive over the past year; they recognize that they made a mistake, and I know that nothing will change the past; it's the here, now and future that counts the most. There are others, however, who don't really deserve the time of day, but because of their potential negative impact on others, I believe that they must be addressed.
The principal of my school and the current Dean of Oholei Torah, Rabbi Lustig, was complicit in the coverup by first refusing to tell my parents who the actual perpetrator was on the grounds that "it wasn't relevant." That was in 2004. A little over a year ago I approached him and asked him to cooperate with my lawyers and provide a statement of his involvement in the case. We asked Lustig to declare that he was the one who told my parents about the abuse and didn't reveal the actual name of my abuser. Rabbi Lustig refused to cooperate, he said that according to Jewish law he's not allowed to cooperate. This was eight years later. Rabbi Lustig is still in a position of very high authority at the same school and he has a very bad record with handling cases of sexual abuse. In one case, he allegedly allowed a teacher to continue teaching in the school despite the fact that a student made allegations of sexual abuse against this teacher. It was a year later when two more victims came forward that the school fired him. This teacher was never reported to the authorities and has never faced a day in court.
Ben Lifshitz, the owner and founder of a local Crown Heights Chabad website called crownheights.info , as well as a mutual cousin of myself and Sholom Eichler, has been attempting to defend Eichler to anyone who would listen. Lifshitz' family and my family haven't talked in more than seven years, but before our families were estranged, I told Lifshitz in detail about what Eichler had done to me, and he then claimed to believe me. Lifshitz was recently overheard telling someone that Eichler in fact wasn't arrested despite my detailed account of coming face-to-face with Eichler in a Jerusalem police station when he was in shackles and udner arrest. It's a shame that Lifshitz, despite his extremely disturbing record of biased reporting, including once referring to gay marriage as "toeavah (abomination) marriage" when writing about it's legalization in New York state, would attempt to defend a child molestor because of a personal vendetta unrelated to this case. Aside from the fact that crownheights.info, like many other websites, hardly cover stories of sexual abuse in our communities, his unrelenting attempts to villify me and members of my family, to discredit my story are indicative of the intense denial that plagues so many within religious communities. If Ben Lifshitz was really interested in the truth and ethical reporting, I invite him to publicly discuss this case on his site and present Eichler's "defense."
This victory indeed does feel like a victory, but at the end of the day, this outcome is still bittersweet. I am now the owner of a $3.5 million judgment against a monster who inflicted so much pain on my life, pain that I live with until this day. The chances of me ever seeing a dime from Eichler are slim at best, but no amount of money will ever make up for the pain and hurt that he caused. I believe every victim is entitled to as much restitution as possible, while remembering that no amount of money will change what happened, but at least with that money we can get the help that we need. One of the hardest parts in going through all those years of betrayal was not having proper access to mental health care that I so desperately needed because of the lack of financial means. This issue hits close to home for so many fellow survivors, and I hope that one day I will be able to establish a fund that will assist victims of such crimes in obtaining the help that they need in order to heal.
I will forever be grateful to my attorneys at the Zalkin Law Firm. Alex and Irwin Zalkin were the forces that reminded me that my pain did matter and that I had a full right to pursue legal recourse against Eichler. I am also thankful to the many friends who have so supportive throughout all this. It is because of your unwavering support that I'm still alive today.
To the authority figures in the Chabad community, the rabbis, the Community Counsel, to Ben Lifshitz: When will you take a real unequivocal stand against abuse? How many more lives need to be destroyed because you're "uncomfortable" doing the right thing? Or in the case of Rabbi Lustig's extremely misguided belief that cooperation with such an investigation is against halacha (Jewish law)?
Despite the personal cost of coming forward and taking a public stance against abuse, the cost of being harassed, threatened, put down and much more, I have no regrets and am proud of myself for doing what I once believed I'd never be able to do. I hope that this sets a better precedent in the future for others who are afraid to come forward that it is possible to pursue justice and you will be supported and accepted. That support and acceptance may not come from the people you expect it to come from, but it will be there for you. As my brave friend Dave Gordon wrote in his recent excellent article about being sexually abused: "Secrets don't get better with age." Dave couldn't have been more right about that.
Secrets don't get better with age. They feed off of our fear and hold us back from pursuing what is rightfully ours: justice.