Thursday, November 27, 2014

Techias Hamesim at a Levaya ( Resurrection at a Funeral)

Knowing how quickly funerals take place in Israel, I assumed my cousin's burial would happen the same day, that his body was found in the Jerusalem forest.
 He had been missing for a week and was the focus of a national man hunt.

 The war in Gaza had just ended.  Three of our boys had been abducted and murdered by Hamas a few weeks earlier.  I was asked by a cousin through marriage to help raise political awareness of the possibility of an abduction of our mutual cousin.  I wondered if our missing cousin could have been abducted by Hamas, and what that would mean for my family.

 I was in a mild state of shock when I saw my aunt, who I hadn't seen or spoken to in more than twenty years, pleading for her child's life on TV, and on the internet.  The media is an exposure to the outside world my family shies away from.  Seeing my aunt on my Facebook news feed was as bizarre as it was heartbreaking.

 I grew up with my mother's younger brothers and sisters.  My aunts and uncles had helped care for us when we were little, and when I was old enough I was sent to help them out when their children were born.

This particular aunt took care of me when I was a young child.   Not having a mother, (my grandmother died when my mother was only fifteen)  My aunts and uncles were close with my mother.  She was very involved in their marriages, and in the births of their oldest children.  I was at this aunt's wedding. 
But that was all a very long time ago.

 Would it would mean anything to my aunt to know that my husband had gone out to search for her son? To know how much we cared, to know that I begged Hashem (Godfor her son's life?  Our family has seen so much trauma, so much pain.
 "This time Hashem," I prayed, "teach us through joy, and not through pain.  Let this young man be found alive and well." 

 I wasn't planning to go to my cousin's funeral.  I had only met him once, at his bris.  I had no illusions of anyone in my family wanting me to be at the levaya.

Then, I heard that the funeral was to take place not ten minutes from my home.  That somehow changed things.  Was I actually supposed to be there? Would it add to my aunt and uncle's pain if they saw me?
They had been through so much. The last thing I wanted to do was add to their suffering.

I felt torn. Confused. I cried for my aunt who had suffered such a huge loss. I hadn't tried to contact her in the last twenty years.  The reason was self protective.  I had needed her support and validation, and I knew it wasn't there for me.  I had not been invited to any of her children's weddings.  Nor had I been invited to my own siblings' weddings.

A wedding is different than a funeral.

One does not need an invitation to a funeral.

  I decided I would go to the levaya and stay far away from my relatives.  I did not need them to know I was there. I would go and daven (prayfor healing for myself and my family, and then leave.  Given the number of people who had been involved in the search I assumed it would be easy to remain anonymous in the crowd.

Time had stopped for me when my family cut me off.  I married, had children, and  lived my life, yet when it came to my family, I was frozen in the past.  I had been shocked to hear of my youngest brother's engagement.  How could he be engaged?  Wasn't he just eight years old?
That was the age he was when I saw him last.

Now, at the funeral, I saw a familiar face in the distance.  One of my mother's brothers.  He looked at me for a moment.  I have no idea if he recognized me.

  My mind went back in time to a strange memory.  This uncle had once asked me to help him kidnap  cousins from another uncle believed to be abusive.  I was seventeen at the time, and in school in Bnei Brak . It all sounded very exciting but I didn't really want to be involved.  One of the reasons I left home was to get away from the chaos around my aunt and her five children who lived with us.  It was a disturbing, ongoing saga of accusations of child abuse, mental illness, and divorce.  I asked my great uncle who I was living with at the time, what the right thing to do was.  He told me I should go and help out my family.
 In retrospect, I should not have gone.

 I will never forget that strange day.  My uncle dressed me in a tichel (kerchiefand sunglasses and took me to spy on the house where he believed the children were hiding.  We watched the front door through binoculars, planning to snatch the children when they came out to go to school.  When they didn't emerge, we went to the children's schools to try to find them there. 
It turned out, that they did not go to school that day, and we didn't find them.
 I am relieved that these innocent children were saved from the trauma of a kidnapping.

But that was all over twenty years ago.

 Now I sat on a bench outside my cousin's funeral remembering and watching relatives pass by.  I knew they must be my relatives, because they looked so much like me.

Where were the crowds I expected?  I was told there had been crowds in Jerusalem but being that it was Friday afternoon, not many people were at the actual burial.  A woman approached me and asked me who I was. I told her I was a niece.  She went inside and came back out again a few minutes later."Your aunt said you should come in."

What had I gotten myself into?
I followed her through a side door, and was taken aback to suddenly be standing right in front of my aunt, in between her and my cousin's body.  My aunt looked at me and I reached out and hugged her.  Her eyes were glazed with pain, but she knew who I was,
 "Genendy, you came!  How did you know?"

Did she really ask me how I knew?
The whole world knew.

I hugged her.  "I'm so sorry.  "I'm so, so sorry!"  Was all I could manage to gasp through my tears.  My body shook.  I felt one step away from my mother who I hadn't seen in many, many years. 

It was hard to believe I was really alive and this was really my aunt, who I loved, at her child's funeral.   This man with the white beard was really my uncle.  The tall man with a red beard and receding hair line was my cousin, who I remembered as a four-year-old screaming so hard his lips would turn blue and he would pass out.
Now he is married with children of his own.

 I was in a time warp.  I was Rip Van Winkle, waking after twenty years to find that time had passed and the world had gone on without me.  It was an out of body sensation. It was surreal.  I was a fly on the wall, watching myself and my relatives from a distance.

I was the only female relative in attendance from my aunt's side of the family.  The other nine or so women there were from her husbands side.  The seat next to my aunt was empty.  Someone motioned for me to sit.  "Do you want me to sit next to you?" I asked.
"Yes. Sit here."
 I sat.
"No one came in from the States?"  I asked.
My aunt shook her head.  "No.  There was no time..."  I took her hand.
 Her voice shook with pain."...He was a very special boy...We don't ask questions."
"I was at his bris."  I told her.

I looked at the body of my young cousin lying a few feet in front of me wrapped in white.
I had been there for his bris, and now I was present again for his burial.

I sat next to my aunt, reminding myself to breathe, trying not to pass out,  listening to young cousins I had never met, eulogize their older brother long distance. I grasped the handle of an umbrella to steady myself.  This was a time of intense loss for my family.

 And I, who had lost so many of them myself, was incredulous to find myself there, alive and well.

A week after the levaya I spoke with another aunt, the only one who had stayed in touch with me over the years. 
"I went to the levaya."  I told her.
"I know. There was a live hookup.  We all saw you."
They had all seen me.
I was real.
I existed.
Baruch Atah... Mechayeh Hamesim. (Blessed are you... who restores life to the dead.)


Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Message to the Vaad Harabonim of Baltimore and the Frum Community of Baltimore

To the Vaad Harabonim of Baltimore, and The Baltimore Frum Community: 

 Over twenty  years ago, when I disclosed that my father molested me, I was given the message that I would be better off dead than speaking my truth. 

 Back then, I believed the message that the rabbonim and my family gave me, and at the age of twenty two I survived a serious suicide attempt.   A few years later, I was told by Rabbi Hopfer, through my family, that unless I agreed to keep quiet about my experiences I would receive the worst punishment in the Torah; Kares

 I could not survive and keep silent, and so I lost everyone I loved.  

On April 11, 2007, The Vaad Harabonim of Baltimore issued a letter to the community where you claimed to know some things about child sexual abuse. (I am quoting directly from that letter) 

"The greatest allies of the abuser are ignorance and silence. The abuser thrives in an environment where he is confident that his victims will not report what they have experienced, or where their reports of abuse will not be taken seriously."  

The Vaad Harabonnim of Baltimore have effectively created an environment where my father is confident that any victim of his who dares to come forward, (and not many will dare, after the example you made of me) will not be believed or taken seriously.  

You claimed in this letter that survivors are:
 "so richly deserving of your compassion and support."   

Yet, you abandoned me, and continue to abandon me.  

You wrote that a single abuser will often have many victims. 

Yet, you continue to allow my father to be in a position of power and authority over innocent children.  You write in your letter:  

"The damage that abuse can cause is devastating and potentially life altering;  it commonly ruins an individuals sense of self, their ability to trust others, and their ability to engage in a healthy intimate relationship."  

These things are all true. 

 I am, to this day, still dealing with the after effects of the abuse that I endured.   You say that your own poskim pasken that an abuser is a "Rodef"  That he is incapable of Teshuva, that publicizing his status as an abuser, while causing enormous damage to his own family, may be the only way to truly protect the community from him. 

You claim in your letter to believe that abusers must be stopped, and that you have made terrible mistakes and that they haunt you.  I am one of the mistakes that will haunt you.  I have nothing to hide.  I offered to speak with you, as well as to allow you to speak with my therapist, and you ignored me.

Everything you wrote in this seven year old letter is true...and yet, you have not been capable of applying it in a situation where you know and trust the perpetrator.  

Dr. David Pelcovitz, a community expert on this topic, often says that the closer you are to the perpetrator, the more you can identify with him, the less likely you will be to see the truth, and the stronger will be your denial.  You all know and trust my father.  Many of you knew my grandfather.  None of you know me, as an adult, nor have you tried to know me.  You are all allies of an abuser.  You are all still failing to protect your children from abuse. 

 Some of you may not be aware that I was not always considered crazy.  I was actually, according to my bosses at the time, Rabbi Velvel Rosen and Sara Itskowitz, one of the best pre-school teachers in T.I.  That is, until I spoke my truth and tried to get help. 
  In Israel for the past nine years, I ran a progressive and very successful early childhood program: www.ganulpan.org

When I heard about Eliyahu Goode's death, I felt his neshama crying out to me and I thought it was because he, like I, was also an abandoned victim of child sexual abuse from our community.  It was only afterward that I realized that Eliyahu had been a student of mine, when he was five, and I was twenty, and teaching pre-1-A at Torah Institute.  Eliyahu was a sweet boy, and a good boy.  He too needed and deserved your support.  

 I know, Hashem knows, and Eliyahu knows, that I am doing everything I can to express what he and what so many other victims of child sexual abuse in the Torah community can not say, because we have been silenced and shamed by you, the rabbonim.

I think it is a mistake for rabbonim, or anyone else, to think that they can judge between me or my father, or evaluate my mental status.  

The fact that my father has more than one serious allegation against him, raises doubt about his safety around children.  Attacking an alleged victim's mental health to prove non credibility, is as ridiculous as using a broken bone to prove that someone could not have been in a car accident. 

 It is a fact that, that in many cases, child sexual abuse and incest cause mental health issues, just as car accidents in many cases cause broken bones.  In my case, and all cases of alleged child sexual abuse, assessing risk is appropriate. Judgement is not.  

  Hashem is unconditional love and truth.  Torah is truth and love.  Truth and love are stronger and far more enduring than power and control.

   Abusing your power and authority to silence victims of child sexual abuse, as you have in my case, has nothing to do with Torah, and should not, and will not, last. 


Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Daven for the Safe Return of Aaron Sofer

My cousin Aaron Sofer is missing.  More than one person has suggested to me that if my family would do teshuva and reach out to me- the excommunicated and rejected daughter, niece and cousin- then their missing son, nephew, and cousin will be returned to them. 

 Although it is an understandable human reaction, I don't think it's responsible to extrapolate why it's happened, especially suggesting they deserve it. Nobody knows why and asking why won't help find him,  nor will using tragedy to hunt for someone or something to blame,
 

I don't think Aaron is missing  because of my family's excommunication of me.  

I do not agree with blaming the victim, and I do not make a connection between my excommunication and my  missing cousin. 

I do not pretend to know why Hashem in His love and wisdom allows painful things to happen to people.  I do know that there is almost nothing more painful than being blamed for a difficult and painful situation that one finds oneself in and did not cause.  This is a pain I live with daily, and I could never wish it on anyone else.   

  No one deserves the pain of losing family. 

It is a terrifying and heartbreaking concept to contemplate, let alone experience.  I know that my cousins and the rest of my family are doing the best they can; and have always been doing the best they can in dealing with my allegations of child sexual abuse against those they love.  

My family did not give me my situation, Hashem did.
  I forgive my family completely for any pain I feel due to their behavior, and I only want my cousin returned safe and sound to his family.  

 I am saying tehillim for my cousin's safe return.  My husband is in Jerusalem, as I write this, searching for a cousin he never met, for a family who rejects him.

   We are doing these things because we know that only love, and not revenge, can heal pain.

 We also know that our cousin's current situation is one that can happen to any of us.  This could easily be my  child, or your child who is missing.   Aaron Sofer is OUR child, OUR brother, no matter who he is related to.  


By  working on our issues  within the community, and by performing acts of baseless love, within the community, we can facilitate healing and mercy. 

Please daven for the safe return of Aaron Ben Chulda.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Inside, Outside, Past, Present

Last week I sent my parents and siblings announcements of my son's recent Bar Mitzvah.  I included a family photo. I don't expect much in response.  I fantasize about a connection with someone in my family in the future.
Someone.
 Anyone, who is willing to allow me to exist.
 Perhaps, it is as hopeless as the Palestinians admitting that we Israelis have a right to exist.  I sure hope not.  Yet, my family treats me similarly to the way the Palestinians view Israel.  I am the aggressor in their minds, although I know they are the ones who hurt me.  They deny my right to exist.  They want to silence me because I speak a truth they can not, and do not want to hear. 

 My family's view of me is that I am fake.  A liar. A figment of my own imagination.  To my family, either my inside world, my outside world, my past, or my present has to be made up.  In their minds, something has to be fake about me.
Until now, I accepted this as truth.
 Nothing matched. Nothing made sense to me.  Something about me must be made up if my family said it was, and I had only to understand what it was...The past?  The present?  My feelings?  My memories?

 The truth, as it turns out, is that nothing about me is fake.
 The only thing fake is my family's bizarre and inaccurate view of me.  There view of me is a lie.  A figment of their imagination.  The only thing that doesn't match who I know I am, is their treatment of me.  I was always a child who wanted to be good and to be loved.

My inside world, my outside world, my past and my present are all real.  I recognize the truth of this statement, and I'm still processing this as a new awareness.   I never made the connection in quite this way before. Intellectual knowledge of my constant reality and existence is finally turning into emotional acceptance.

I was not allowed to know I was sexually abused. I was not allowed to try to defend myself as a child, or to heal myself as an adult.  I coped in the only way I could.  I separated the feelings and the knowledge of the sexual abuse into dissociated parts.  I separated real parts of myself that were, and still are, unacceptable to my parents in order to try to gain there love and acceptance.

That is how badly I, and every child, needs our parents' love and acceptance.

Badly enough to participate in our own destruction, if it will only earn our parent's love.
I pretended, like they do, that very real, very hurt parts of me, were neither real nor hurt.  I called them different names, and agreed with my family that I made them up.

Because I did make them up.

  I made them up in order to try to distance them, hoping they would indeed become fake, so my parents would love me, accept me, and take care of me unconditionally.

Whatever it takes, Mommy and Tatty.  Please just love me.  Please just take care of me.

 But as hard as I tried,  it didn't work.
In the end I was forced to choose between life and death.

My parents and siblings continue to hurt me by ignoring my existence.  It's still hard for me to come to terms with the cruelty of their behavior.  Not one of them called to wish me mazal tov on my son's bar mitzvah.  Not one of them calls to check on my safety as rockets are aimed at my home, and my children, their grandchildren, nieces and nephews.  As air raid sirens blare, and we hurry to find shelter in our safe room.   Not one of them can care about me, and love and accept me as the sister and daughter I am.
 I am alive.
I am very real.
 I am willing to love and accept my family in spite of their limitations.

I felt my grandfather, Grosspapa's,  presence very strongly on Shabbos at my son's bar mitzvah. I cried together with Grosspapa.  The tears, for both of us, were tears, not of sadness, but of joy, of gratitude and relief.  We both felt relieved and grateful that in spite of what he and my father did to me as a child, I was really in a a shul, really celebrating my sons bar mitzvah.

Considering some of the other places I could be, and some of the places I have been, finding myself in a shul celebrating my son's bar mitzvah is indeed a miracle.

  I felt wonder at the situation, wonder at the love of my husband's family, and close friends, my family of choice, surrounding me.  Love at the greatness of God, who allowed me to heal to the point where I could watch my son read from the Torah proudly, with tears streaming down my cheeks, in spite of having been molested in a yeshiva by my father and grandfather, and having almost died as a result.

The rebbe looked up and caught my eye.  He nodded, and made a throwing motion.  It was time to throw candy at my son.
It was time for a miracle.
This is a time for miracles.
There is a God in this world and He is good.
 God will continue to protect my right to exist as a person, to heal and to thrive, just as He protects our right to exist as a nation, to heal and to thrive, in spite of those who want to destroy us.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

I Spoke at My Son's Bar Mitzvah


Around the age of Bar, and Bat Mitzvah , many of us begin to wonder about the meaning of life, and to question the point of our existence.  I don't think it is a coincidence that at the very age that we begin to question, we are provided with the answer.  The answer to the puzzle of life IS in becoming a Bar Mitzvah, and in living a life of meaning and connection.  The mitzvot are a gift.  They have an amazing power to connect us to Hashem, to each other, to our families, our communities, and to ourselves.

Just a a few months ago I told my son that I believe that everyone is born with a secret mission that only he or she can carry out. The tricky part is that no one tells us what our particular mission is.  We have to find that out for ourselves.  This finding out, is one of the hardest tasks we face in life, and one that begins right at the age of Bar Mitzvah.

Adolescence  is an important and challenging time.  We can not always choose what happens to us in life, and things can at times seem out of control.  But we can always control how we respond to what life throws our way.   In fact, the ONLY three things we can consistently control are our thoughts, our speech, and our actions.

The key to success at discovering and carrying out your unique life's mission is to know yourself and your talents well.  The next ten or so years of your life will be spent, largely, finding out who you are, what you are good at, and consequently,what your personal mission is in this world. 
 We already have a few hints.  The volunteer work that you do rehabilitating dogs at the animal shelter is one hint.  Your creativity, your love of books and of knowledge, is another.

Before you were born I was in a book store and I bought you a book. I didn't know yet if you were a boy or a girl, but I knew I wanted you to have this book, because It expresses a vision of what I most want to give to you, to your brother, and to your sister.

I saved the book for your Bar Mitzvah, because I wanted you to have it at a time when you would also have the maturity to appreciate it.  It is called, The Twelve Gifts of Birth, and describes twelve gifts that every human being is born with.

They are:  Strength, Beauty, Courage, Compassion, Hope, Joy, Talent, Imagination, Reverence, Wisdom, Love, Faith. And, I added a thirteenth, Humility.

I believe that by internalizing these thirteen gifts you will have everything you will ever need, in order to fulfill what you were put on this earth to accomplish.

The day you were born, 12 years 369 days ago, on the secular calendar I inscribed a letter to you in the book:  With your permission I would like to read it.

To my dear son, on the day of your birth: 6/21/01
My hope is that you will always treat yourself and others with respect and love, and that you will easily discover the beauty and joy in yourself and in your life.  I loved you before you were born and I will love you forever.

I wrote the following much more recently:

My oldest,
You amazed me with your existence from the moment you were born.
You are strong, independent.
and expressive
Your knowledge about the world is greater than most your age.
 My, risk taker, lover of learning
You are protective,
 A loyal, and true soul.
You made me a mother
and teach me every day how to parent.
It is a gift to know and to love you.

I'm so proud of you.
Mazal Tov on your Bar Mitzvah!

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

SPEAK NO EVIL from citypaper.com

SPEAK NO EVIL

Secrecy, denial shield an alleged child molester in a prominent Orthodox Jewish school

Photo: Kate Haberer, License: N/A
KATE HABERER
Photo: Genendy Eisgrau, License: N/A
GENENDY EISGRAU
Genendy Eisgraud posts artwork on her blog (genendyspeaks.blogspot.com). This piece appeared in a post titled “The Pain of Oral Rape.”
Photo: Screenshot from standing silent, License: N/A
SCREENSHOT FROM STANDING SILENT
Genendy Eisgrau in a still from the 2011 documentaryStanding Silent
Photo: Genendy Eisgrau, License: N/A
GENENDY EISGRAU
Eisgrau posted this piece to her website in July, 2013.
Photo: Screenshot from standing silent, License: N/A
SCREENSHOT FROM STANDING SILENT
Phil Jacobs, then executive editor of the Baltimore Jewish Times, in a scene from the 2011 documentary Standing Silent
Photo: theawarenesscenter.blogspot.com, License: N/A
THEAWARENESSCENTER.BLOGSPOT.COM
Rabbi Eliezer Eisgrau is the Principal of Torah Institute, an Orthodox Jewish school for boys in Owings Mills with more than 650 students.
Photo: Genendy Eisgrau, License: N/A
GENENDY EISGRAU
“This is a very old piece that I did in art therapy,” Eisgrau wrote in the caption for this piece on her blog “I never plan my art. It starts on the inside as a feeling and just comes out.”
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 theJerusalem 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 onerev 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 ofgedolim, 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 theBaltimore 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] whenMoshiach [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.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

How Do I Survive Without My Family?

Part Six of "Ten Things I Needed To Learn In Order To Heal."

It's hard living without my family.  Without roots.  Especially when holidays roll around.  
It's so hard to come to terms with the truth of what my family wants.  It is unspoken, yet the deadly message is communicated so clearly. They don't allow me into their lives. My reality is not real to them. My history is not shared by them. I do not exist to them, as I know myself to exist. My pain is not real to them. Neither are my memories.

If I were dead, they would have the last word in this world. Obviously, I was disturbed. Unstable. An anomaly. Not like the rest of the family.

They ask me questions that they don't want to know the answers to. Why are you the only one who remembers this? Why didn't we see anything? Why didn't you tell anyone? Why did your story change? It is unlikely that they ever will be able to consider all of the possible answers to their rhetorical questions.  What I must do in order to survive and live my life, is precisely what they must avoid in order survive and live theirs.

I believed that I had to kill myself to protect my family. A part of me believed that If I was a good loyal daughter, granddaughter, and sister, I would sacrifice my life for the family. For the kavod of my grandfather.  For Hashem and the Torah.  I prefer to live, but there was, and still is, no way for me to live without letting light shine on this dark dank moldy secret. The more that they try to keep the incest in the dark unremembered parts of our collective past, the more light I need to shine in order to see the truth of what is really there. 

I realize that I had no choice but to choose between myself and my family. Every day that I live, I choose again. Every day that I choose to live and to exist without my family is painful. At times the grief can feel as raw as twenty years ago. Every day that I choose life I lose them again and I cry. I always want them back. I miss my older sisters the most. At the same time, I understand so well their need to deny. I am one of them. I grew up thinking just as they do. Like we were all taught to think. At times, I join them in the familiar comfort of denial to calm the painful empty longing, and feel a part of them again. "Nothing happened to me. Incest could not have possibly happened in our family. In other families, yes, of course, but not ours.  I am bad, insane, or at best mistaken. My family is right to excommunicate me. I am the family shame.  If they get rid of me the family will be fine.  They must love me from a distance lest I destroy them."

I hope that someday they will be able to accept my need for truth. I hope some day they will accept my choice to live and to heal. As painful as it is to them. As hurtful as it is to our family history and kavod.  I live.  I speak.  I shine a brilliant light.  It glitters and hurts the eyes and the heart.  It cries for what I needed to be and never was. I needed a family that could hear my pain.

 But the truth is, it was harder living with their constant denial and rejection than managing on my own.   I am fortunate to have a loving husband, children, in laws, and some amazing close friends.  My family by choice replaces my family of origin.  One (among many) good things about making Aliyah, is that lots of others are here without close family. I don't get alot of questions about my family like I would in the States.