As a follow-up to my previous article highlighting the work of Jewish Community Watch (JCW), I wanted to get a more in-depth and personal account behind the founding and operations of the organization. I interviewed Meyer Seewald, who co-founded the organization in 2011, to learn more.
Sarah Casteel: Tell us a little about yourself.
Meyer Seewald: I was born in Crown Heights to a large family of 12 siblings. When I was about 11, I was molested for the first time in camp by my counselor. Then a year or so later another boy in yeshiva touched me inappropriately. Until I founded JCW, I never really talked about any of it. The sexual abuse had a big impact on me, and I struggled a lot as a teenager. Founding and running JCW has definitely redefined my life. I am now happily married and have an amazing son, and that has definitely given my work a strong added layer of purpose. I want to make sure the world is safer for him and all of our children.
SC: What is the mission of JCW?
MS: JCW’s mission is to rid our community of child sexual abuse (CSA). To that end, we provide support for survivors, educate parents and schools, and investigate and expose abusers within the Orthodox community.
SC: What inspired you and your brother to start what became JCW, and how did it come about?
MS: When I was 16, my best friend passed away in my arms. His father created a program to support “at-risk” teenagers in his son’s memory, called “Kesher Ben-Tzion” (the Bridge of Ben-Tzion). A couple years later, one of my friends told me that my late friend’s father, who I was extremely close to, had molested him. I can’t really describe how shocked I was. I started asking around, calling people who knew him from all over. I found out that he had a history of molesting children for years, and it had been covered up and he had been moved from another city. The program he had created in his son–my best friends–memory, was for him to groom and molest the vulnerable boys he was supposedly helping. I was beyond devastated and I knew I needed to do something, so my brother and I set up a blog page with his name and picture on it, warning the community that they should keep their children away from him. Kids started reaching out to me from the community, telling me about the people who had molested them, asking me to warn the community about them. That page ultimately became what is now the Wall of Shame, and that became Jewish Community Watch. I never could have imagined in a million years that in warning the community about this person, this would one day become an international movement.
SC: What hardships or roadblocks did you have in creating this movement?
MS: Every step has been a challenge. We’ve been threatened many times, called to Din Torahs, criticized online and in the media. The list goes on. But we are not going anywhere and the tide is slowly turning. Educating the community has made a big impact, people used to only think about the abusers, and how the exposure affected them and their families. I believe as people understand more and more what kind of effect CSA has on victims, their priorities change.
SC: What is your purpose with the “Wall of Shame?” In your perspective, does it accomplish those goals?
MS: The first and primary focus of the wall of shame is to warn the community about people who pose a potential risk to their children.The second focus, and the reason for the name, was to shift the burden of shame which survivors have always carried on their backs, and so often has held us back from getting help and support. Victims have absolutely nothing to be ashamed of; they are NOT the ones who did something wrong, that is all the abuser’s burden to carry.
I definitely believe the Wall of Shame accomplishes those goals. We have been contacted by parents who found out that their child was being groomed by someone on the Wall of Shame, or that they were having a guest in their house who was on the Wall. Once an abuser told me that if JCW was around years ago he would never have acted out and hurt children, out of fear of being exposed. There is no question that the wall of shame has saved lives.
SC: Is JCW still only focused on child abuse?
MS: That is our focus, yes. We do obviously get a lot of reports about abusers targeting adults, and especially young vulnerable adults. While we don’t full[y] get involved with those cases unless they involved minors, we will always do our best to support the victims in guiding them to the right address for support, and toward therapy or reporting.
SC: What methods do you use to involve the wider Jewish community in these issues?
MS: We have 10,000 people on our mailing lists and almost 20,000 followers on social media. We have produced dozens of videos which have been viewed close to a million times. We organized about 30 events which have been attended by thousands of people. Thank God we are very well known in the wider Jewish community and we have established a level of trust and credibility. We continue to make efforts to reach even more of the community, and those without internet. It is always so motivating when a survivor tells us how shocked and empowered they were to hear about us, that we exist, that they’re not alone and that there’s a place they can turn to and connect with others who have experienced some of the same struggles as them.
SC: Do you have support from many rabbis and community leaders? What do they do?
MS: There are many rabbis who support us behind the scenes, and who we have worked with on various cases. Unfortunately most rabbis are still hesitant to publicly support us, but we see that this is slowly changing as well. And thankfully, we are blessed to have Rabbi Elchonon Tauber from LA and Rabbi Yosef Blau from New York on our boards, who we consult with very regularly and are a constant support.
I believe that as more rabbanim are ready to take a stand against this epidemic in our community they will publicly stand with victims and will no longer be afraid of the backlash.
SC: What kind of pushback do you get, if any?
MS: We definitely still get pushback. Often, it is from people close to someone who has been accused of abuse, his friends and family will be very angry. We often hear the line “I am usually a big fan of your work but here, in this case…” People don’t understand that when it’s someone you know, it’s always hard to believe. That’s the reality, but that doesn’t make it any less important to believe and support the alleged victim. In fact, victims need even more support when their abuser is someone widely respected in the community!
Another new complaint we have started getting is from people who are upset that we don’t work fast enough, expose abusers fast enough. Of course we still need to follow our process when it comes to exposures, and that can be long and is very involved, but it’s great that people are demanding more.
SC: How do you deal with halacha in terms of publicly shaming people and other issues you may come up with?
MS: We consult with respected rabbis, and address these issues. But overall, the halachic advice that we have received is that warning the community is these cases is absolutely l’toeles. If someone was going around putting non-kosher food in our children’s yeshiva snacks, do you think people would wait around and ask if it is OK to warn people? How much more so with a child molester, which is a matter of pikuach nefesh.
SC: What are your future goals for JCW?
MS: We have many, thank God. We are working towards setting up satellite offices in a few locations around the world, aside from our current offices in Miami, Brooklyn, and Israel, as well as bringing on additional staff in our current locations. We’re setting up some new additional support groups, and we have some really exciting programs and initiatives in the works to help us better track offenders who move to new cities, positions and communities, and collaborations with a few organizations that we are hopeful will be important steps in protecting children in the communities.
As always, it was a pleasure to be in touch with Meyer and to learn about the incredible work he is doing to heal and protect victims of childhood sexual abuse in the Orthodox community. Yeshiva University students and other readers are encouraged to learn more about the Jewish Community Watch organization, to like its Facebook page, and to consider taking advantage of the various available volunteer opportunities. Victims of childhood sexual abuse, or those supporting such victims, are encouraged to reach out to JCW for support and resources.