By Shira Kramer, Features Editor and Social Media Manager and Aaron Shaykevich, Editor-in-Chief
Many Jews seem to forget the presence of sexual abuse within the Orthodox Jewish community. Unless a person or someone they know has been personally affected by it, one might not know just how many incidents of sexual abuse have happened in the Jewish community and how prevalent it is.
To shed light on this important issue, the YU Observer recently had an exclusive interview with ZA’AKAH, an organization that works on raising awareness regarding the existence of child sexual abuse in the Jewish community. ZA’AKAH‘s mission is “to advocat[e] for survivors of child sexual abuse in the Orthodox Jewish community.”
“There really isn’t anybody in the [Orthodox Jewish community] holding anybody accountable except for [ZA’AKAH],” said ZA’AKAH director Asher Lovy.
While ZA’AKAH’s mission statement is fairly straightforward, their methods are quite unique. ZA’AKAH has a TikTok account (@zaakahny) with over 6,500 followers, 378 posts, and over 150,000 likes across all posts. One main element of the ZA’AKAH TikTok involves directly calling out those who have cases of alleged sexual abuse and yet retain public positions at influential Jewish companies and religious organizations.
“I knew what content I was going to put out, which [included] using viral sounds and putting them into scenarios that are relevant to abuse,” said ZA’AKAH’s social media manager Ariella Kay.
Working for ZA’AKAH has posed some unique and unfortunate challenges for Lovy and Kay. Because of the close proximity that these alleged sexual abusers have to the Jewish community, some people disagree with ZA’AKAH’s methods and harass them online.
“People have either threatened to sexually assault me or told me that I’m not pretty enough to be sexually assaulted,” Kay said. “Someone told me that I’m not pretty enough to be raped.”
After speaking with Lovy and Kay, we realized that not only are there many cases of sexual abuse within the Jewish community, but that there were cases which weren’t being reported even within our own neighborhoods. According to Lovy and Kay, one of the Jewish organizations with a lot of allegations of sexual abuse is our very own Yeshiva University.
“[YU] and the people that run [YU] and the successes of your school are built on the blood and backs of survivors of sexual abuse,” Kay said. “All of the success of YU is because of those survivors, some of whom are still with us in this world and some [who] are not still with us in this world.”
To add some context to this quote, in 2019, former Yeshiva University High School student Jay Goldberg filed a lawsuit against Yeshiva University for allegedly failing to protect students from sexual abuse. Goldberg was joined by 37 other former YU High School students who claim to be victims of abuse from two Rabbis at the school.
In another instance, two women sued Yeshiva University for an alleged incident that took place in the 1980s. According to the two women, Marc Gafni sexually abused them while they were participants in Yeshiva University’s Jewish Public School Youth Program (JPSY). The victims sued Yeshiva University for potentially facilitating the abuse by employing Gafni. Kay mentioned that in this case, YU seems to have “sanitize[d] the relationship between JPSY and Yeshiva University, so that it’s hard to build a liability connection between the two entities.”
While the survivors attempted to sue in 2013, the case was tossed away due to the lawsuit exceeding the New York State statute of limitations. Fortunately, in 2019, the New York Child Victims Act extended the statute of limitations to the victim’s 55th birthday. This helped both cases to commence in court. Yeshiva University has not settled these cases at this time.
Recently, in 2021, a Yeshiva University student filed a report with YU’s Title IX office, citing an act of rape from a YU basketball player at the time. Doe’s lawyer stated that YU attempted to cover up the rape and silence the student victim.
“Sexual abuse is worse than murder. With murder, the person is dead. With sexual abuse, the person is dead but technically still alive,” Lovy said. “It’s like soul murder.”
In addition to their work in raising awareness, ZA’AKAH also has a Shabbat and Yom Tov Peer Support Hotline (accessible by calling 1-888-492-2524). The hotline is approved by Rabbi Yosef Blau for use on Shabbat, and he currently works as their posek (rabbinic authority) for hilchos (laws of) Shabbat. This hotline was created during COVID-19 when many survivors of abuse had no one to turn to during Shabbat and Yom Tov. Now, the hotline is there for anyone who needs it.
“Unfortunately, there are very few organizations working within the Orthodox community that provide support for victims of abuse,” Rabbi Blau told the YU Observer, “I support [ZA’AKAH] and think it’s a worthy cause.”