By Phil Jacobs (City Paper)
May 14, 2014
It is a sunny, cool beautiful winter day in the suburbs of Jerusalem. Rays of light enter broad windowpanes and illuminate a group of chatty little children as they make their way from their gan (nursery school) for outside playtime.
Two teachers lead the children through the front door. Another one stays behind to prepare their lunch. Grilled cheese and cut-up apple.
Genendy Eisgrau keeps one eye on the children exiting the front door while making her adult guests feel comfortable at the same time. Her nursery school students call her “Gan-nendy.”
Before the conversation turns serious, she takes her visitors on a tour of the gan. There’s nothing cynical or negative in the nuances of her speech. From a window, one can see green and light-brown landscapes collide. It is the land of milk and honey, and no one has to question why she, her husband, or anyone else would consider making aliyah (emigrating to Israel).
Yet there is something that Eisgrau did not leave behind in Baltimore when she moved to Israel in 2005.
Genendy Eisgrau has demons. She has been sharing them privately with the Jewish community of Baltimore for years. She also shared them in the 2011 documentary film Standing Silent, which was screened at Jewish film festivals nationwide and in Israel (Feature, “Silent No More,” March 9, 2011). She alleges that she was molested by both her grandfather and her father, Rabbi Eliezer Eisgrau, the principal of the Torah Institute in Owings Mills. In the documentary film covering molestation in Baltimore’s Orthodox community, Genendy, 41, shows her artwork and talks about her pain. The artwork is that of a young soul tormented by memories of abuse.
In recent years, Genendy has shared her story on her blog The Price of Truth (genendyspeaks.blogspot.com) and the website of the Awareness Center (theawarenesscenter.blogspot.com), the international Jewish Coalition Against Sexual Abuse/Assault (JCASA), which has a page dedicated to the “Case of Rabbi Eliezer Eisgrau.”
Genendy is motivated to revisit and expand upon her story now, both here and in a 2013 story in the Jerusalem Post, because, three years after the release of Standing Silent, Rabbi Eisgrau is still the principal of Torah Institute, where he oversees the education of 650 students. She wants her father to be seen by professionals who are trained to evaluate sexual offenders. She wants her father to be deemed safe to continue his position working with young children.
And Genendy Eisgrau remains painfully estranged from her family and the tight-knit Baltimore Orthodox community she grew up in.
“My father did speak to me a couple of years ago on erev Yom Kippur,” Genendy said this month. “He would love to have a relationship with me if I would start from now and pretend nothing happened. I can’t do that.”
She is also not alone. There was at least one other complaint that was filed by the parents of a Torah Institute family through the City State’s Attorney’s Office back in 1999. But the investigation was dropped.
“We had enough . . . to place him under arrest,” says detective Richard Hardick, a deputy with the Harford County Sherriff’s Office in the domestic violence unit who still remembers the situation. “[But] no one wanted to come forward.”
Another former student describes physical abuse. “It’s not what he did, but it’s how he did it,” says the former student, now an adult, adding that he would never let his children set foot in Torah Institute. “He was sadistic.”
Another of Eisgrau’s daughters, Dina Schneider, said that the family has nothing to say about their sister. When Genendy visited Baltimore in May of 2008, she telephoned her sister and asked if she’d like to get together. The sister made it clear that as far as she and the family were concerned, Genendy hardly existed anymore unless she recanted her claims against her father.
Schneider, who called herself the family spokesperson, was asked why Genendy would be willing to state publicly that her father molested her when she was a young child. Why would it be worth her reputation, peace of mind, and the estrangement from her parents and 11 siblings to pretty much risk every connection with her family?
I called the rabbi to give him an opportunity to comment. When that call was not immediately returned, I traveled to Torah Institute.
The school, located in Owings Mills, is considered among Baltimore’s most religious Jewish schools for boys. It has a reputation of religious excellence. You walk through its halls and see photographs of gedolim, rabbis who the students look up to with complete reverence. The boys have a better chance of knowing the name and background of a rabbi deceased many years than Adam Jones or Joe Flacco.
I recall, years ago, when the school was located on Northern Parkway, 8 1/2-by-11-inch glossies of the rabbis lined the halls, staring down at me, making me feel as if their eyes were following me with disapproval. There, in the middle of the rabbis’ photos, were two photos that didn’t make any sense. One was a photo of the actor Robert Redford. The other was a photo of a woman with a rag on her head, rubber gloves, and a sign of disdain as she looked prepared to clean her oven. It was an ad for an oven-cleaning product. When I asked why these photos hung on the wall, I was told by my tour guide that they represented two prayers, “one thanking God for not making me a woman; the other thanking God for not making me a goy [Gentile].”
When I visited the Owings Mills facility, the rabbi wasn’t there, but he later returned the original telephone call. Finally, the game of telephone tag ended.
“This is Rabbi Eliezer Eisgrau returning your call.”
“Thank you, rabbi, for returning my call. I was hoping we could get together?”
“What is it you want to discuss with me?” asked the rabbi.
“I have interviewed your daughter Genendy several times,” I said. “She addressed a public audience here in Baltimore with many serious allegations about you. I am reaching out to you as best as I can to give you the fair opportunity to respond to these allegations. And as a dad, I’d like to know how all of this has impacted you.”
“What is there to discuss?” he responded. “To me, in my life, this has been all too painful that I just can’t discuss it.”
Subsequent calls to Rabbi Eisgrau have not been returned
On May 5, 2006, a group of survivors of sexual molestation gathered at Ohel Yaakov Synagogue on Glen Avenue, a short walk from the brown, shingled home where Genendy was raised. About 20 people, split equally by gender but 100 percent Orthodox, sat on chairs in a circle. There was only one door to enter and exit. The weather was warm on the outside but hot and stuffy inside the room.
Yacov Margolese, himself a survivor of sexual molestation, organized and led the group. It was done in 12-step-recovery style. Each person was given a few minutes to speak.
From each of the voices came difficult-to-hear experiences. If it wasn’t the rabbi who molested, it was the educator. If it wasn’t the camp counselor, it was the uncle. On and on it went. Each survivor told a small part of his or her story. At one point, a woman didn’t tell her “own” story, instead she publicly stated the name “Genendy” and read notes as if she, herself, was sitting among us.
The pain in the room skinned bloody the senses. Many of us were looking at that closed door, because we wanted to escape from the oxygen of pain we were all breathing.
That is until one young man said that it was all very nice to have a meeting, but that nothing would ever be done in Baltimore to help Orthodox survivors of sexual molestation. Though every unthinkable statement stuck with me, the one that got to me was the one questioning if anything would ever be done.
No more than a week passed when Tamir, one of the group’s attendees, a young Orthodox man, telephoned me. He wanted to tell me the entirety of his story. We met in June 2006. As a survivor myself, I did not revisit my notes. I was sexually molested as a 14-year-old in Pikesville by a man named Bob Weisman. He was a B’nai B’rith Youth Organization advisor. He owned a soft-serve ice cream truck and was known as “Big Bob.” I worked for him on that truck.
On my first day of work, when the customers were out of sight, he put his hand under my pants. Despite my screams and embarrassment, he continued. I didn’t begin to wake from the nightmare until I turned 40. I never told my parents, friends, or teachers. At age 40, and now a parent worried about the safety of my daughters, I told my wife, Lisa. I then told and still am telling my therapist. To this day, I don’t find entering that memory space easy to do. So when it came to Tamir’s story, I couldn’t look at the notes of his sexual torture. But Tamir persisted. He called me many times asking when the story would appear. Finally, I asked to interview him again. In February of 2007, the story “Today, Steve Is 25,” about Tamir, was published as the cover story in the Baltimore Jewish Times, where I was the executive editor at the time. This would be the first of about 10 such articles.
I was told by a close friend that if one molestation story was published, more people would come forward with their stories.
Indeed, survivors of the late Rabbi Ephraim Shapiro and, later, the now-late Rabbi Jacob Max called or emailed me almost as if I was operating a hotline. Rabbi Max was found guilty when a former employee of Sol Levinson and Brothers Funeral Home pressed charges. Rabbi Max officiated at my wedding.
I traveled to Florida in March for several years with two friends to watch the Orioles play in spring training. One of those friends, Scott Rosenfelt, is an accomplished film producer and director. Perhaps his best-known film is Home Alone. During one visit to Florida, I had to stop at a coffee shop to interview a survivor of Rabbi Shapiro. Scott met the survivor. At the game we attended that afternoon in Vero Beach, Scott asked me many questions about the stories I was writing. He asked if I would consider participating in a documentary. That conversation resulted in Standing Silent, a film about the coverup of molestation in Baltimore’s Orthodox community. Part of that film included the shunning I was experiencing in the community I still call home. People stopped wishing me a good Shabbos (Sabbath) as I walked on Saturday’s to synagogue. The blog-postings were horrific, the worst wishing that my daughters would be barren or unable to have a child.
Indeed, in the years since Genendy publicly made her accusations against Rabbi Eisgrau, Orthodox community blogs have had no shortage of chatter involving Rabbi Eisgrau, mostly in his defense. One young adult had an entirely different viewpoint than Genendy.
He said that when he was a young teen, he was in an especially vulnerable position. His father had died, and he was already looked upon as a “geeky,” “awkward” kid in his Torah Institute class. It was Rabbi Eisgrau who was his rebbe (teacher), who would make sure that he was OK. It was the rabbi who would pick him up and take him home from school some days. It was the rabbi who made sure that he had friends with other classmates. The two, said the young man, spent plenty of time alone together. Not once, said the young man, did the rabbi come close to touching him in any inappropriate manner.
I called another person closely connected to Torah Institute. He wished to remain anonymous but said that even though he had heard these rumors, he was absolutely convinced that they were only rumors, and that he and the board and the parents had total trust in their principal. Not one complaint of this nature had been registered.
When it was known that I had met with Genendy, Torah Institute’s then-president visited my office at the Baltimore Jewish Times. He insisted back then that the city police department’s investigation found nothing against Rabbi Eisgrau. He had a few disparaging things to say about Rabbi Eisgrau’s daughter Genendy, and he made it clear that he and the school felt these allegations were part of an unfounded rumor generated by a daughter seeking attention and help.
His comment raised the question: If nothing happened to her, then why was Genendy seeking help?
She is one of 12 children of Rabbi Eliezer and Mrs. Sora Eisgrau. “Even as a very young child, I knew that anyone could do anything to my body and there was nothing I could do to stop it,” Genendy said. “I knew that I was not safe anywhere. As a child I hated myself. I hated my body. I wanted to be anything but the shameful being that I believed I was. These feelings started when my father began molesting me. The abuse took place from as early as I can remember until I was 7.
“I blamed myself for the abuse,” she continues in a stream of consciousness. “Tatty [Yiddish for daddy] is good, and I am bad. He has to hurt me because I am bad. This is what happens to bad, yucky little girls. My only escape was to dissociate and pretend the abuse was not really happening. Inside I was shattered. On the outside I behaved like a normal little girl.”
She said that her father was not the only perpetrator. She has memories, she says, of being molested at her grandfather’s yeshiva by him and by some of his students. Her dad was one of those students. She said she remembers her grandfather exposing himself to her once in a yeshiva bathroom.
“I remember the guilty look that my sister gave me when we came out of the bathroom. We knew it was a secret.”
Genendy remembers being depressed from an early age. She said that her mom would often tell her that there was no reason to feel angry or sad, and that she should put a smile on her face.
“I stumbled through a painful adolescence,” she said, “Trying to survive. Trying to pretend I was all right. Trying to be the good Bais Yaakov [Baltimore’s largest girls-only Jewish school] girl that my parents wanted me to be. Until it got too hard to pretend and I gave up. As an 18-year-old, I was sent by my father to his friend, a frum (Orthodox) psychologist, for treatment. When I finally told her about my father, she told me that she didn’t want to know about it and terminated treatment very suddenly. She broke confidentiality by speaking to my family’s rabbi, to at least one of my siblings, and to [this reporter], by telling them that she did not believe that my father abused me.”
Genendy Eisgrau went to other rabbis for help. Their response was a quick “it didn’t happen.” Her hopelessness at getting any help from her family and community led to a suicide attempt, and a dissociative-disorder diagnosis led to a Sheppard Pratt hospitalization. She would live with a family who offered her support. She lived also in a home operated by nuns.
She would leave for a few years saying she could not “understand” how the Torah could be better than anything else if didn’t help people supposedly “talmidei chachamim” (Talmud scholars) be just a little more ethical, moral, and healthy. She said she was angry at God for “allowing” her to be molested by frum Jews in a yeshiva.
“Abuse and Torah are intertwined in my family,” she said. “I felt like the Torah itself had molested me. I needed time and space to pull the Torah and my family apart.”
Genendy said it was many years ago that she was cut off by her siblings, aunts, and uncles as if she were dead. To this day, she has one aunt who speaks to her, barely. There are sporadic conversations with her mother, which reach only the level of “have a good Shabbos.”
“As a mother myself, I cannot comprehend how she has given me up. I offered both of my parents the opportunity to meet their grandchildren before we made aliyah. I was in Baltimore for Shabbos and gave them the address. They never showed up. I offered her the opportunity to visit me in Israel, or in the States when we are there for the summer. She said, ‘I will see you in Eretz Yisrael [the land of Israel] when Moshiach [the messiah] comes.’”
Her three children have never met their Baltimore grandparents.
“When they ask, I tell them that maybe someday they will meet them. When they ask why they haven’t met them, I tell them that my family is upset with me because someone in my family wasn’t safe with children, and I didn’t keep it a secret like they wanted me to. They know that I’m an advocate for children’s safety, and this makes sense to them.”
She said that it was her family’s rabbi, a leader of Baltimore’s rabbinate, who advised the family that they would have to choose between their father and their sister.
“It was decided by my family based on the advice of this rabbi, my father’s psychologist friend, and others in the Baltimore Jewish community that I was not to be heard, believed, or helped but instead to be cast out as a korban [sacrifice].”
“In spite of the terror and trauma that my father put me through as a young child, I don’t see him as a monster,” she said. “My father also did many normal things with me that other fathers do. He took me places, bought me toys, and played ball with me outside when I was a teen. He cared about me in his own limited way. My father has done much good for some in the Baltimore community, and as hard as that may be to reconcile, that can’t be ignored. But he is a person who should never be around children unsupervised.
“I can understand why the leaders of the Baltimore community are desperate to believe that my father is innocent,” she said. “My father has helped many of the community leaders and rabbis with their own children. In protecting my father, they are protecting themselves. The Baltimore community is just beginning to wake up to the reality that perpetrators often hide behind respectable personas and professions, and that child molesters like my father depend on their disbelief and silence to continue abusing.”
On a visit to Baltimore in 2008, shortly after “Today, Steve Is 25” and other stories about molestation in the Orthodox community had been published, Genendy Eisgrau sat on a bench outside of a kosher ice cream stand in Owings Mills. At that point, she still had not gone public with her story. On the opposite bench were four young men, bedecked in black yarmulkes. In between slurps on chocolate custard, they said, when asked, that they were students at the nearby Ner Israel Rabbinical College.
I asked how they felt about the stories that appeared in the Jewish media covering sexual molestation in the Orthodox community.
One young man simply said, “It’s all untruths. It never happened.”
Another inferred it was a way for the company to sell more papers.
Genendy didn’t reply.
That evening she had a different audience.
In front of 23 social workers, friends, and other survivors at a Northwest Baltimore condo community clubhouse, minutes from her parents’ home, Genendy told her story. She brought along the artwork she painted, some so distressing in its symbolism that it was difficult to look at.
“The reason I am going public is because I believe that the attempts to silence, shame, and blame, survivors is what allows child sexual abuse to continue. I honestly don’t see any real change happening unless and until these stories do go public. I want to send a message to other survivors that they don’t need to hide in shame. A crime was perpetuated on them. They did nothing wrong. Child molesters are addicts who can’t stop on their own. By not being afraid to publicize who they are, we can protect future generations of children from suffering as we have.
“Another reason I am willing to go public is that I think that rabbis, especially in Baltimore, need to get the message loud and clear that advising a family to cut off a sister who remembers being molested by her father is not a functional, healthy, or compassionate response under any circumstance. My entire family is in pain. We needed—and still need—the rabbis’ help. Instead of healing, they caused more trauma and suffering. It is clear that this kind of response does not make the sister disappear or the problem go away. Losing family is a terrible thing. The shiva [mourning period] on both sides never ends because I am not really dead.”
There is power behind her words. An urgency. There is a worry on the other side. Her sister, Dina Schneider, spent an hour and a half meeting with me, talking about what she sees as her sister’s mental instability. She brought a family friend, a former University of Baltimore law school dean, as a witness to the meeting, held in a private JCC Park Heights office.
Schneider’s not the only one who thinks her sister is mentally unstable. At a meeting of Jewish leaders in Baltimore held several years ago, a psychologist and former Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore constituent agency head who worked with Genendy Eisgrau as a client when Genendy was 18 described her as “crazy.”
In a later interview with Rabbi Yosef Blau, the spiritual dean of students at Yeshiva University, who is familiar with this situation, his word association is different. It is simply, “this woman is not crazy. I have been in steady contact with Genendy for a few years and have found her normal, religious, functioning well, and credible.”
Then there is the other victim whose family filed charges, who, now an adult, said from his home in New York that when he was a child, Rabbi Eisgrau, who was his teacher as a young boy, “saw something on the crotch of my pants, reached down, and brushed it off. He smiled at me, this big smile. There was no skin-to-skin contact.
“The worst thing about being molested,” he continued, “is that you are finished, you are completely finished. He abused me for no reason in his class . . . he shouldn’t be in a classroom with children.”
Genendy told her audience that when an abused child speaks out, he or she is frequently labeled (“mostly by people who don’t know us”) as crazy, troublemaking, unbalanced, non-credible, having a vendetta . . . “anything to ensure that we will not be taken seriously.”
She said that these labels turn a need for treatment or a call for help into a stigma, one that is learned at an early age and thus prevents survivors from seeking help. She then gave the group a lesson in the words “lashon hara,” “mesira,” and “chillul Hashem.”
“Lashon hara is gossip,” she said. “I was always taught the importance of never saying anything negative about another Jew, even and especially when it’s true because of its potential to destroy lives. Just yesterday I called on one of my sisters to tell her that I was in town and to see if she wanted to get together. She told me that, until I made a commitment to stop the slander, she can’t be my sister.”
Mesira, explained Genendy, is the concept of not taking an issue outside of the community.
Chillul Hashem is the prohibition against desecrating God. “It is much more comfortable to discredit the person than to face the reality,” she said. “This inability to face truth has caused me to feel deeply betrayed by many people I know and love.
“Although the physical part of the molestation ended at about age 7, the experiences had a huge and mostly a devastating impact on my life. I still suffer symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.”
In February 2008, after the initial series of stories about molestation in the Baltimore Orthodox community, at a meeting of the local rabbinic council at B’nai Jacob Shaarei Zion Congregation attended by 500 people, noted molestation therapist Dr. David Pelcovitz said that survivors rarely make up stories of molestation.
It was at a day school and yeshiva principals meeting several years ago that the issue of molestation was first raised. The issue caused quite a stir, according to one principal in the room, especially when one of his colleagues got up and vehemently protested any such violations in the Orthodox educational arena. That protesting rabbi was Eliezer Eisgrau, according to the source.
Genendy is a founding board member of a child-protection agency in Israel. Her blog, genendyspeaks.blogspot.com, has brought her in contact with survivors from all over the world.
“My message to Baltimore is that healing is possible on an individual, family, and communal level,” she said. “The greatest obstacle to healing is denial. The closer one is [to] the alleged perpetrator and the more one identifies with him, the harder it will be to overcome denial. My father has been an integral part of the Baltimore Orthodox community for many years. He has a personal relationship with the rabbis who are the decision-makers in the community. I have written to three [prominent] rabbis about the dangers of having my father work with children. My letter has been ignored.”
Standing Silent and the stories in the Jewish Times, I want to believe, have helped the Orthodox and non-Orthodox survivors. Indeed, the Shofar Coalition, connected and funded by the Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore, has for years now sponsored a survivors speaker series and therapy groups for men and women.
In 2007, the Vaad HaRabonim, the umbrella organization of Baltimore’s Orthodox rabbinate, released a letter signed by many of its members condemning any act of abuse or molestation. Truth is, though, it’s years later, and I am still getting calls for help.