SALT LAKE CITY — When he first called police to report that his childhood nanny sexually abused him over about a decade, Utah Rabbi Avrohom "Avremi" Zippel gave a fake name.
"I was terrified about this becoming a public matter," he said Tuesday in a Salt Lake courtroom as he testified publicly for the first time. He called himself Brian up until an officer persuaded him to give his real name.
In court, Rabbi Zippel pointed out his former nanny — 69-year-old Alavina Fungaihea Florreich — as his abuser. The faith leader, now 27, testified that he was 8 years old when she first moved his hand to touch her inappropriately while they watched movies with his siblings in the playroom of their Salt Lake home.
The sexual encounters continued regularly, mostly in a guest bathroom, where Florreich undressed to her underwear at first but later appeared naked, encouraging him to take off his clothes and touching him or having him touch her, he said.
She told him it was "very healthy and one day I was going to grow up to be a good husband," Rabbi Zippel testified.
After less than an hour of his testimony, 3rd District Judge James Blanch ruled there was enough evidence for the case to advance. He ordered Florreich to stand trial on five counts of aggravated sexual abuse of a child, a first-degree felony, and two counts forcible sexual abuse, a second-degree felony.
The Deseret News typically does not identify victims of sexual crimes but Rabbi Zippel agreed to be identified.
"I believe in what I'm doing," he said after the preliminary hearing. "I believe in it for myself. I believe in it for the chance to help other victims."
Elizabeth Smart, who attended the hearing in a show of support, called him a hero.
"It's not as acceptable to be a man and to speak out, because then it makes you look like you're not as tough or you're not as macho, or maybe there’s something wrong with you, or you should have been enjoying it — some sick and crazy idea in your mind that it's unacceptable for a man to speak out what happened," said Smart, who at age 14 was abducted from her Salt Lake home in 2002 and was held captive for nine months.
As the rabbi testified Tuesday, Florreich often shook her head and took notes with a pen. Wearing a red jacket with a purple flower hairpiece, she sat quietly and did not take the stand. She has not yet entered pleas to the charges against her.
In cross-examination, defense attorney Chad Steur focused on Rabbi Zippel's testimony that no one witnessed the abuse, even though his mother was mostly home, and none of his five siblings had a similar experience.
After he disclosed what happened to his parents in 2016, his mother told police she didn't believe him, Steur said. Parents of abused children often go through a period of disbelief, Rabbi Zippel replied, and his mom didn't indicate to him if she had thought he was lying.
He said at times he requested the sexual contact from Florreich, but not the first times she allegedly touched him and had him touch her.
“You never told anybody that this was happening during the entire time that you say it happened?" Steur said.
“Correct,” the rabbi replied.
At 14, when he left to pursue a Jewish education outside of Utah, the contact continued when he returned about five times a year, for a week or two at a time, he testified. The alleged abuse stopped when he was 18, he recalled. His family no longer needed a nanny and stopped employing Florreich.2 comments on this story
After the hearing, Smart, who brought her 3-month-old daughter along, said she and Rabbi Zippel have spoken intermittently but she emphasized to him that the decision on whether to speak publicly was his own.
"It is scary. You don't know how people are going to react. You don't know what's going to change in your life and you don't know how your community's going to look at you and what's going to come about, so it's extremely courageous of him," she said.
Florreich is due back in court for an arraignment on March 4.