SALT LAKE CITY — Deseret News reporter Gillian Friedman remembers the moment Rabbi Avrohom "Avremi" Zippel first came to her. They had worked together on a story months earlier but now he wanted to discuss something private.
"Can we speak off the record?" she said he first asked, as he began to reference a woman who had been arrested and accused of repeated sex abuse of a child. The rabbi then continued, "I don't know if it's gotten around to you yet, but the victim in that story is me."
The identity of the victim in the case was not yet public and the rabbi was wrestling with how best to proceed. He had been inspired by Olympic medalist Aly Raisman and the bravery of U.S. gymnasts in telling their stories of abuse by Larry Nassar. He sought and received an introduction to Elizabeth Smart. They met privately in a coffee shop in Park City where he confided in her, told her his story of abuse and received this important advice: Find a journalist you trust and work with that journalist to tell an accurate story. That journalist was Gillian Friedman, herself a part of the Jewish community which gave her instant understanding of just how powerful and important the Chabad rabbi's story could be.
Since its publication Tuesday, the story has reached across the nation and throughout Israel, and the outpouring of support for the rabbi and his family has been nothing short of remarkable.
The story was picked up by the Times of Israel, the Jerusalem Post and the Jewish Press, among others. Within the first days of publication, Rabbi Zippel told our reporter, more than 1,000 people had called him, his wife and his parents to express their support. He said then he was receiving about five messages an hour about the article.
The rabbi said a 19-year-old year Jewish girl from an Orthodox community in a different state reached out to say she was sexually abused when she was 7. She said she spent her whole life in shame, feeling that she had nowhere to turn and fearful that no one from the orthodox world would understand or support her. She read the article, called the rabbi, and said that for the first time she had someone from her world who could understand her.
Many victims of sexual abuse have now reached out for support. They were feeling the same shame and guilt that the rabbi had felt year after year, but fear of sharing the story also was very real. I sat down with our reporter to get her insights on the interaction between her and Rabbi Zippel and his family, seeking to understand what this means for the very conservative Jewish community.
Doug Wilks: Why do you think this story has had such an impact?
Gillian Friedman: In the Jewish community it's been really resonant because he is the first rabbi in general, I think, but especially an observant rabbi, especially an othodox rabbi, who's come forward in this way to say "I've been sexually abused."
DW: You said the rabbi had a lot of concern about how he and the family would be perceived, showing the difficulty of coming forward.
GF: I think he felt like, "OK I'm doing the right thing." And his wife told me, "I'm proud of him, I support him." So did his dad (also a rabbi) and so did his mom. They said "we support him, we think it's the right thing, but we're scared, we're nervous. We don't know what the reaction is going to be." ... He was worried that he would be seen as less of a man, he was worried he would be seen as potentially — he used the words, I think — as a "sexual deviant" because the abuse had gone on until (age) 18. ... He said the biggest motivator for him was trying to change that idea of what a sexual abuse victim can look like, that a victim first of all can be resilient, be strong and have a successful life. ... We need to allow people space to not be seen as lesser than just because they have had this path, that they can be resilient. Which I think is also Elizabeth Smart's message in many ways.
DW: Is it surprising that such a personal story reached around the world?
GF: I got a call from the head of Chabad International who was saying, you know, he'd been getting calls from around the world all day with people just talking about it. ... I think in (Rabbi Zippel's) heart of hearts he was expecting that there would be criticism, judgment, and instead there was support and praise. ... I think it's really amazing to see that and it speaks to how our times have changed.
DW: As you now reflect on the rabbi and the story, what are your impressions?
GF: I think what surprised me most was really just a chance to look at this man and get to know a man who, maybe despite all expectations of what you might think he thinks or who he is, that what was so surprising was really just kind of getting an appreciation for how brave and how alone he was in this, and how he still decided that this was the right thing to do, that he wanted to do it, even though every cultural, religious inclination would probably tell them keep this kind of private, keep it inside. Don't share this, don't go to the police. That what he's doing is remarkably brave. And I think what's important for readers to understand is that yes, the #MeToo movement has rocked the nation. Everybody's talking about sexual assault. ... But it's a very different thing for a man who was a religious orthodox rabbi to come out and say, I was sexually abused.
DW: The rabbi has really been on quite a journey.
GF: He has and I think for him, it's like ... it almost reminds me of this song in Hebrew that we sing at Passover called "Dayenu" which means, "It would have been enough." In the song you sing, "if God had just created Adam and Eve, it would have been enough. If God had given us the Torah at Mount Sinai, it would have been enough," and it goes on for verses and verses. ... The point is God keeps giving to you. It would have been enough if He freed us from slavery in Egypt. It would have been enough if God created Shabbat and so on. ... so at Passover it's this joyous song of freedom, but also of gratitude. And this is like that for the rabbi.
So things in this story reminded me of that for him. You know it would have been enough if I was able to tell my therapist. 'You know it would have been enough if I had just been able to call the police. ...And it would have been enough if they had taken my story seriously. ... so who am I not to let that happen.'
Postscript: The woman accused of sexually abusing Rabbi Zippel, his former nanny, 69-year-old Alavina Fungaihea Florreich, has not been found guilty of any crime. She was ordered to stand trial on five counts of aggravated sexual abuse of a child, a first-degree felony, and two counts of forcible sexual abuse, a second-degree felony.1 comment on this story
Elizabeth Smart, who attended the preliminary hearing that led to the trial order, told the Deseret News: "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 about what happened."
Aly Raisman, whom the rabbi has not met, offered this tweet after becoming aware of the story: "Wow, thanks for your bravery and courage Rabbi Zippel. You will inspire so many others to share their stories. Thank you for speaking your truth! I support you."