SALT LAKE CITY — From behind the witness stand, Utah Rabbi Avrohom (“Avremi”) Zippel gazes out into the sea of faces and prepares to speak.
It's a dreary Tuesday morning, and normally, public speaking doesn’t intimidate the 27-year-old. Since he was a child — the precocious and prized eldest son of a prominent rabbi — he has revelled in the attention of a crowd.
But today, sitting in a courtroom in downtown Salt Lake City, the confidence that usually comes so easily evades him.
He fidgets nervously, his fingers playing with his long dark beard, adjusting his black suit and yarmulke, the traditional garb of observant Jewish men.
Time seems to slow to a stop, and all he can hear is the sound of his heart pounding in his ears. But then, one message rings clear in his head, as if from on high: you are doing the right thing.
He clears his throat, and in a voice barely above a whisper, begins to share a story that has haunted him for decades.
In a preliminary hearing Tuesday, Rabbi Zippel testified that Alavina Florreich, 69, sexually abused him for roughly 10 years — from age 8 to 18 — while she was employed as his nanny.
Florreich was arrested March 30, 2018, on suspicion of 131 counts of child abuse. She was charged in 3rd District Court in April 2018 with five counts of aggravated sex abuse of a child, a first-degree felony, and two counts of forcible sexual abuse, a second-degree felony, according to charging documents.
Florreich, in interviews taped by police, said she was teaching Rabbi Zippel to be a good husband and that it was "all part of the boy's curiosity” and it was just him "learning," according to a police report.
Florreich did not testify at the hearing Tuesday, and her attorneys did not respond to multiple requests from the Deseret News for comment on the case.
Rabbi Zippel said he was inspired to come forward by the #MeToo movement, in particular by Olympic gymnast Aly Raisman, who testified in court alongside 156 other women who said that former USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar had sexually abused them.
But he is also making history: Rabbi Zippel may be the first Orthodox Jewish rabbi to come out during the #MeToo movement as a survivor of sexual abuse — a topic he said is rarely discussed in the observant Jewish community.
“I think he’s a hero for speaking out,” said Elizabeth Smart, who was in court supporting Rabbi Zippel Tuesday, and who has advised Rabbi Zippel on the case in recent weeks.
“The amount of courage it takes to get up there — I know, I’ve done it — the amount of courage it takes to stand up in that box and talk about what happened openly, I mean it’s terrifying,” she said, “So he’s a hero, and he can become a voice for so many victims who are too scared to speak out.”
What follows is an exclusive account of the story of a man who for years grappled with shame and guilt as a result of his alleged abuse, and who, in part because of his religious beliefs, was convinced he was a "terrible sinner" who was entirely to blame. He hopes that by coming forward, he can become an example not just to his own observant Jewish community, but to other survivors of sexual abuse suffering in silence.
“If I can help one person, if I can bring some sort of healing to one person by telling my story, then it's worth it," he said.
‘The perfect child’
In 1992, when Rabbi Zippel was almost 1 year old, he moved to Utah from Brooklyn, New York, with his parents, Rabbi Benny and Sharonne Zippel.
They were among 2,000 “emissary families” sent out around the world at that time by the late Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson to strengthen Jewish communities for Chabad Lubavitch, a New York-based Orthodox Jewish Hasidic movement and the world’s largest Jewish outreach organization. Their task was to nurture and grow Utah’s small Jewish community, which was founded in 1849 but which counted just 4,000 Jews at that time, many of whom had intermarried or were not practicing.
The Zippels moved into a small brick home with a generous backyard near Foothill Drive in Salt Lake City. In many ways it was an idyllic childhood. He learned to ride his bike in the parking lot of the elementary school down the street, and used his weekly allowance of one quarter at a nearby market to buy the one kosher candy they sold: Laffy Taffy ropes.
Their home was near the synagogue, an old building next to a dilapidated house with a big electric sign on the front that read “Chabad Lubavitch of Utah.” From an early age, the boy acted as an “assistant rabbi” to his father in prayer services by helping congregants find page numbers.
His mother, now 50, described him as "the perfect child,” and recalls him being able to read both English and Hebrew by age 4. His father, 52, recalls friends and family saying he was a “chip off the old block” who would surely become a rabbi like his father one day.
The Zippels worked hard to keep their kids close to their Jewish heritage, and to protect the children from negative influences in the outside world.
Sex and sexuality were taboo topics, except in Torah study lessons, when the children learned that sexuality before marriage was sinful. According to Orthodox Jewish custom, after age 9, girls and boys are not permitted to touch one another — which meant no mixed-gender swim lessons at the local pool.
To avoid profanity or sexuality, cable television was not allowed in the home, and sports games were pre-recorded by friends, with strict instructions to not record the commercials, which might include overt sexuality. Disney movies on VHS were allowed, but when the kids watched "The Little Mermaid," their parents required them to fast forward through the kissing scene.
Because there was no Jewish school in Salt Lake City, Sharonne home-schooled the children in the mornings. In the afternoons, she watched the children with the help of a nanny, Alavina Florreich, a Tongan woman in her 40s who the family hired in 1998. She was not Jewish, but Sharonne hired her after a Jewish friend highly recommended her.
She appeared worthy of such praise, Sharonne Zippel said. “Vina,” as they called her, quickly felt like part of the family, was extremely reliable and was willing to work late nights, weekends and extra hours on Jewish holidays. The family even invited her on family trips with them, to watch the kids during vacations to visit family in Canada. She was “quirky”, Sharonne Zippel remembers, but she watched the kids closely and never got impatient or angry.
In 1999, after Florreich had been with the family almost a year, they moved to a new home in Sugar House to accommodate their growing family and to be closer to Chabad.
On Sept. 1, 1999, while watching a movie in the basement of the Zippels’ new house, Florreich sexually abused him for the first time, Rabbi Zippel said. He was 8 years old.
Tormented by shame
Rabbi Zippel alleges in court documents that Florreich continued to sexually abuse him for years, often in the downstairs bathroom, frequently while his mother was home and while his five siblings were playing in the next room. Rabbi Zippel said he would enter the bathroom, and she would follow him, or visa versa, and the encounters would last less than five minutes.
Rabbi Zippel said Florreich told him she engaged in these encounters because he was mature and special, and that it would prepare him to be a good husband when he was older, according to court documents.
Rabbi Zippel said after the alleged abuse began, he began to live a psychological double life.
On the one hand, he was still the precocious rabbi’s son. He remembers himself as a “nerdy kid” who excelled at his school work, studied Torah with his father and memorized basketball statistics for fun. At a Chabad winter camp three months after the abuse started, he gave a speech about growing up as a Orthodox kid in Salt Lake City that earned him a standing ovation, and was asked to speak at the International Conference of Chabad-Lubavitch Emissaries in front of 1,600 people the next year.
He still avidly watched Utah Jazz games, played on the Junior Jazz, a youth basketball league run by the Salt Lake City Jewish Community Center, and played the basketball video game “NBA 2K1” on his Playstation with his brothers. He skied at Brighton Ski School almost every Sunday and devoured the "Harry Potter" series.
But all the while, he said he was perpetually tormented by shame.
He said the encounters occurred over 100 times throughout his childhood. When it would happen, he said he would fixate his eyes on the “nasty wallpaper” in the downstairs bathroom, as if he could disappear simply by focusing his gaze in one spot.
“It's this moment where you really almost have an out-of-body experience. Like something is being done to you that is so so wrong, your body knows it's wrong. … Every part of you knows it's wrong. And so your mind in this desire to escape latches onto something,” he remembers. “Because you're having your core stripped away from you. It brings such shame because you feel like every other human being in the world still has their innocence, and yours has been stolen from you.”
But because he said he also sometimes experienced sexual pleasure during the encounters with Florreich and sometimes initiated their meetings, he believed the encounters were consensual and that they were his fault.
“At no point did I ever entertain the term abuse at that time. In my mind, sexual abuse was a terrible, coercive act, sexual abuse involved violence, a weapon,” he said. “It involved an adult doing something to a child, and the child needed to be protesting and screaming at the top of their lungs. That wasn’t my story, that never happened to me.”
Far from telling his parents, he said it was “the greatest fear of my life” that they would find out. Jewish law seemed black and white to him: Sexual activity before marriage is a terrible sin, and sinners were punished.
“Most of my childhood I thought I was going to die imminently. Because I was doing these terrible sins and to me, the world was simple: There's good things and there’s sins. And I was like Satan in my head. It was like Saddam Hussein and me, we were both on equal footing, we were both these terrible sinners. So I lived in this turmoil,” he said.
He said he never considered what would happen to her if their “terrible secret was out of the bag,” because he was so consumed by what he considered his own grave misdeeds.
“Who knows what would happen? Would my parents kick me out? Would I go to jail? Would a rabbinic court somewhere stone me? It was that bad, in my mind, it was evil. I was the personification of evil,” he said.
He said carrying this secret became overwhelming. Rabbi Zippel said as the encounters continued, increasing in frequency and intensity, so did his guilt. So he didn't say anything.
When Rabbi Zippel turned 13, shortly after his bar mitzvah, he left Salt Lake City to attend yeshiva (Orthodox Jewish secondary school) in Morristown, New Jersey, a common practice among Orthodox Jewish families who live in cities where pursuing a Jewish full-time education is not available.
When he would return home — as he did five times a year for Jewish holidays and summer vacation — he said Florreich would continue to abuse him, a pattern that allegedly continued until Rabbi Zippel turned 18, when his mother no longer needed help with the kids and stopped employing her.
Rabbi Zippel said he was relieved that it was over. He had sinned terribly, he believed, and it was his fault. But no one had found out, and perhaps no one ever would.
But then, when he was 20 years old, something happened that would change his life: He broke his leg playing basketball.
Bored and listless, he found an old DVD of "Law and Order: Special Victims Unit" that a friend had let him borrow (despite its sometimes graphic content, "Law & Order" was permitted by his parents because Rabbi Zippel was now older). He watched episode after episode to pass the time. But then one scene made his heart stop — a teenage boy who believed he had had a consensual sexual relationship with his nanny as a child was told by detectives that she had sexually abused him and it was not his fault.
“And I'm sitting in bed, doped up on painkillers. And I was like, 'What are you talking about?' I'm shouting at the video, like, ‘No, no, he wasn't abused. Stop it,’" he remembers. “For a few days, I sat in bed and I grappled with this: 'Was I sexually abused? If so, where does that leave me? Does that absolve me of all the wrongdoing? Am I not bad anymore?'”
“It planted a tiny seed of doubt in my head,” he continued. “If I look back, that was the very first moment where I ever thought to refer to what it happened to me as sexual abuse.”
'A mom's worst nightmare'
For four years, that kernel of knowledge remained dormant within Rabbi Zippel, unable to face the troubling implications of what he had seen that day.
In December 2013, when he was 22, he was ordained a rabbi by Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, the former chief rabbi of Israel, with a class of 75 other rabbinical students and a committee of rabbis at the Rabbinical College of America in Morristown, New Jersey.
Ten days later, in January 2014, he married his wife Sheina, a petite 21-year-old raised in Palo Alto, California, and the daughter of a Chabad rabbi herself. Rabbi Zippel met her through her brother, who was one of Rabbi Zippel’s teachers in rabbinical school.
After their first year of marriage living in Brooklyn, the couple were asked by Rabbi Zippel’s parents to join the staff at Chabad, to work with the younger demographic of the community, a lifelong dream of Rabbi Zippel’s. So they moved back to Salt Lake City to settle down and start a family.
“I had always thought getting married was going to cure me, because I would have a healthy sexual relationship. In our circles, marriage is our first sexual relationship. So I thought getting married was going to banish all the bad memories,” he said.
But he said it was the opposite. Marriage seemed only to add fuel to the fire of his guilt, shame and confusion, he said. And it began to affect his relationship with his wife. He became distant and fell into a depression, he was frequently irritable and had trouble sleeping. But he was “petrified” to tell his wife what was bothering him.
“I was worried about not being accepted if I told the truth, I was worried about falling apart,” he remembers. “I didn’t know what ‘sexual abuse’ meant in this world, in this culture. I didn’t know if it was OK, if I would be banished and divorced or worse. I had never entertained the hypothetical idea that there was such a thing as an observant Jew from a Chabad community being a survivor of sexual abuse. It was not something talked about to one’s spouse, to one’s parents. It was a non-idea.”
Noticing his odd behavior, both his wife and his parents encouraged him to see a therapist, a step that in itself frightened him, as it was unusual for a member of the Chabad community to seek mental health counseling.
“As terrified as I was that someone would find out about my sexual past, I was only a little bit less terrified that my friends and colleagues would find out I was seeing a therapist,” he said.
In his first therapy session, he said the words out loud for the first time: “I think I was sexually abused by my nanny.”
His therapist taught him about consent and helped him recognize that a minor cannot consent to sexual activity, no matter how much they believe they are to blame, and that none of what happened was his fault.
Next, he told his wife, who was taken aback, and had to reckon with her own belief that sexual abuse is something that happens to “unfortunate people who can’t get their life together.”
“And then hearing it was so close to home, it was almost like I had to rethink everything about my life,” said Sheina Zippel. “Like, wait, this could be something close to me. Not just somebody I know, but my husband. It was very hard to wrap my mind around.”
When he told his parents in February 2016, they both reacted with disbelief, Rabbi Zippel recalls.
His father, Rabbi Benny Zippel, provides spiritual support for at-risk youth in addition to the Chabad synagogue that now draws between 50 and 400 attendees for some events, and celebrated its 25th anniversary in Utah in 2018. Because of his experience working with child victims, he was especially hard on himself for missing the warning signs.
“My initial knee-jerk reaction was one of not wanting to believe it. Because for the last 27 years I have dealt with kids who have been sexually abused, physically abused, emotionally abused, but you never feel it is going to happen to your own kids,” said Rabbi Benny Zippel. “There’s obviously Jewish guilt, because you think, 'You know, where did I fail as the parent? Where could I have prevented it?'”
The closeness of their relationship also weighed heavily upon him.
“We have always been extremely close, which then again, makes you wonder, in spite of the fact that we’re so similar and we’re so close, how none of that came up,” he said.
Rabbi Zippel’s mom Sharonne Zippel, 50, also struggled to process the information. She said she had always considered herself an overprotective mother, afraid even to let her children cross the street by themselves, and feels that as his mother she should have seen what was happening.
“It felt like the wind got knocked out of me when I found out, like I couldn’t breathe,” she said, tears welling up in her eyes. “I can’t believe it actually happened in my house. It’s a mom’s worst nightmare.”
When Rabbi Zippel’s therapist suggested the possibility of going to the police in 2016, he resisted.
Sexual abuse isn’t something people talk about in the Orthodox community, he thought. He feared that people would see him as weak, as less of a man, if he told his story. He worried people would not be able to understand that as a minor he could not consent, and that they would blame him and label him as a “sexual deviant.”
Sheina Zippel had similar fears.
“I was very supportive, but there was definitely some fear, like, are we going to have a stain on our family?” she said. “Are people going to judge or look at us differently?”
But then the #MeToo movement happened, and everything shifted. Suddenly everyone was talking about sexual abuse, and everyone was taking victims and their stories seriously. And then he saw Raisman testify in the Larry Nassar trial on ESPN.
Raisman’s testimony was profoundly inspiring to him. He said many victims of sexual abuse are tormented by the feeling of control that an abuser has over them, even after the abuse ends, like a spell that prevents the victim from regaining control over his or her abuser. Raisman's testimony gave him the sense that she had somehow been able to break that spell.
"Watching a person who had gone through so much of what I had gone through break that spell, that was the first time I thought to myself, 'What if I could do that too?'" he said.
On Jan. 30, 2018 Rabbi Zippel picked up the phone and dialed the non-emergency police number.
“I am a victim of sexual abuse,” he told the detective.
“First of all,” the detective would later tell him. “Around here, we call people like you survivors.”
The Salt Lake City Police Department brought Rabbi Zippel in for an interview on Feb. 7, 2018, and told him that they would look into the case.
Then, with his permission, they set up a recorded call with Rabbi Zippel and Florreich, without her knowledge that the police were listening in. When he prompted her to discuss various sexual encounters between them, she did not deny them, according to the police report obtained by the Deseret News.
When the police brought her to the police station for an interview a day later, she told detectives she was teaching the boy to be a good husband and that it was "all part of the boy's curiosity” and it was just him "learning," according to probable cause documents. She was arrested roughly 48 hours later.
Rabbi Zippel never expected the case to go further than his initial phone call to the police, much less result in an arrest in short order. He was reeling as he suddenly realized that it could all be over — after more than two decades.
But the more he thought about that, the more he realized it wasn’t true, and the most difficult reality of all settled in the pit of his stomach.
It was never going to be over, it was never going to end. He would still struggle with the trauma he experienced every day. Being a sexual abuse victim seemed to him like a “terminal illness” — no matter how much money you had, no matter how good your doctor was, you couldn’t fix the problem.
“My life was irrevocably damaged when I was 8 years old. I’m not fixed, I never will be. I never had a chance at a normal childhood, I never had a chance to have a normal teenage experience, without my mind having been severely warped. It’s gone. It was taken from me,” he said.
He said he was deeply moved by the story of Smart, who met with him several times to advise him on his case. He was especially moved by her recounting in her book of the first time she was raped in captivity, in which she felt she was irrevocably tarnished.
Rabbi Zippel said when he goes grocery shopping, he will look at the display of apples in the produce section, and notice a bruised apple that no one wants to take home lying next to all the beautiful, bright shiny apples. “That’s the feeling of being a survivor of sexual abuse. I am blemished. I am damaged goods,” he said.
“But I’d like to think there is always hope,” he added. And that hope manifests in the possibility of helping others, he said, a feeling inspired by his faith.
He said being sexually abused has ultimately strengthened his faith in God.
"As a believing person I'd like to think there's a divine purpose to this," he said.
And Rabbi Zippel said the reason it happened to him was so he could share his story and prevent others from having to go through what he experienced. He said the only thing that can give him hope is helping others overcome their own guilt and shame about sexual abuse.
“I don't know why me. I don't think I'll ever know why me,” he said. “But I believe that God gave certain people a certain journey in life for a reason. I believe that when you are given a certain path in life, you have a spiritual responsibility, a spiritual opportunity to walk that path. It's an inescapable part of my past and now I have the opportunity to do something about it — to walk that path and to bring some good into the world as a result of it.”
Rabbi Zippel, now a father himself, said his past hasn’t made him overprotective, and he deeply trusts the nannies he and his wife employ for their two children, Menny, 3, and Menachem, 18 months. He said rather than becoming hypervigilant about protecting his kids, he has focused instead on creating a open, loving relationship with them.
“It’s given me kind of a wake-up call to provide the safest and most loving environment for my children possible, and to know that they will never be judged. That if anything happens to them, they will always have somewhere to turn,” he said.
Both he and his wife are committed to raising their children in an Orthodox household, and believe that keeping children steeped in Jewish tradition and sheltered from the hypersexuality of the outside world is a healthy and loving way to raise children. However, they say that within their tradition, there is still room to teach children to respect their own bodies and those of others.
“Sexual abuse needs to be talked about more in the Chabad community. We need to talk to our kids about bodies, about boundaries, about privacy,” Sheina Zippel said.
Rabbi Zippel said that while most of the friends, family and rabbinic mentors he has told thus far has been supportive, the most common response he has received is surprise, saying that they never expected someone so charismatic and successful — as a rabbi, a husband, a father — to be a victim of sexual abuse.23 comments on this story
By telling his story, he hopes to show the world, and especially the Orthodox community in particular, that survivors can be resilient, successful and strong. He said he would have given anything to meet himself now when he was 14, instead of waiting six years to see a "Law & Order" episode on television.
Though he is nervous at how the observant Jewish community will react to his story, he said the chance that he could help someone currently suffering gives him hope and courage to push forward.
“The only way you help people come out of the shadows is by coming out of the shadows yourself,” he said. “The only way to find hope in your own life is by helping others find hope.”