CROWN HEIGHTS, NEW YORK — On a bone-chilling Thursday evening, Utah Rabbi Avrohom ("Avremi") Zippel, fresh off a flight from Salt Lake City, knocks on the door of an elegant limestone townhouse in Brooklyn's Crown Heights district.
Rabbi Zippel visits this neighborhood — the global headquarters of Chabad-Lubavitch, the world's largest Jewish outreach movement — about five times a year. It's where he finished rabbinical school and the place where he met his wife, Sheina Zippel.
But this time everything feels different. A nervous excitement courses through him, making his heart pound.
It’s just weeks after Rabbi Zippel told the world his story of childhood sexual abuse for the first time in the Deseret News. And nowhere was the impact felt more profoundly than here in Crown Heights, the place where the house of the revered Rebbe, the late Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson still stands, the man who sent thousands of observant Jewish emissaries out into the farthest reaches of the globe with the mission of fostering Jewish faith and community.
Rabbi Zippel's parents Rabbi Benny and Sharonne Zippel were the first Utah Chabad emissaries, and now Rabbi Avremi and Sheina Zippel are among them.
Already, Rabbi Zippel has felt the stares and heard the whispers of residents who see him on the street or in one of the neighborhood's kosher restaurants, recognizing him as the first rabbi to ever come forward publicly about being sexually abused.
His story has sparked conversations in Chabad households and schools throughout the Jewish world, setting off a #MeToo movement inside this insular religious community. During his trip to Crown Heights that weekend, he was approached by approximately 20 people who said they are survivors of sexual abuse — women and men, old and young, alone and with their families. They came to him on the streets, during prayer services, and in line at the bakery, all stopping to thank him, or congratulate him, to tell him their own stories, or just to simply cry.
But tonight at the townhouse, Rabbi Zippel is here to visit one fellow Chabad rabbi in particular, Rabbi Peretz Chein, the co-founder of the Chabad House at Brandeis University.
In addition to the black hat traditionally worn by observant Jewish men, Rabbi Chein wears another hat as well, as the host of a popular podcast with listeners in 40 American states and 19 countries across the globe.
The podcast, which he hosts with his wife, Chanie, is called “A New Conversation with Chanie and Peretz” and seeks to engage in “authentic conversations on a variety of topics which in turn empower listeners, especially students and young adults, to think critically and thoughtfully, and grow to become better people,” according to the podcast’s website.
Rabbi Chein contacted Rabbi Zippel, whom he had not met before, immediately after the story was published, asking him if he would be willing to be interviewed on his podcast. When Rabbi Zippel told Rabbi Chein he would be visiting Crown Heights for a Chabad conference, Rabbi Chein offered to travel from Boston to New York City to meet him and use the living room in Rabbi Chein’s aunt’s house in Crown Heights as a makeshift recording studio.
Rabbi Chein comes to the door and greets the rabbi, grasping his hand warmly. They sit down at the table with his recording equipment, pour small crystal glasses full of whiskey, and say “L’Chaim!” (“To Life!”) as they knock them back — a customary way of bonding and creating an environment for open and authentic conversation in the Chabad tradition.
For more than an hour and a half, the two rabbis explore the nuances of Rabbi Zippel’s sexual abuse and how he related to that experience in the context of his faith and his identity as a learned student of Torah and of Chabad philosophy and culture.
Then, all of a sudden Rabbi Chein falls silent. For several minutes, all that can be heard is the soft hiss of his breathing as he toys with his beard, seemingly lost in reflection.
“I want to do something I’ve never done before,” he said, his voice wavering. “When I was 11 years old I was sexually abused in a very serious way. ... And the reason I’m sharing this publicly now is because the power that it has to inspire others to be able to overcome it, by being able to face it straight on, is important. You’ve inspired me to do that ... I’m sharing it because it's something that there shouldn't be shame associated with it, and shame, and guilt, is more devastating than the act itself, because you carry it with you ... it dominates you, all the time.”
A growing #MeToo movement
The story of Rabbi Zippel’s alleged sexual abuse by his childhood nanny, as told for the first time in the Deseret News in early February, was read by hundreds of thousands of people everywhere from Utah to New York to Tel Aviv, and picked up by the local, national and international press, including The Jerusalem Post, The Times of Israel and The Jewish Press.
The Deseret News has followed Rabbi Zippel across the country in the weeks following the publication of the story, to Crown Heights, New York, and most recently Washington, D.C., to document what many are calling a #MeToo movement within the observant Jewish world, catalyzed by Rabbi Zippel's story.
“I think every day the (Chabad) community is more and more ready to have this conversation. Any community that said it doesn’t happen here, it doesn’t happen to us, it’s not our problem... I wouldn’t call them ignorant, I just think they are just waiting for reality to hit,” said Rabbi Zippel.
“I don’t think the problem is worse in the observant community than for every other group of people in the nation. But now, through the article, by showing that it did happen to one of us, we’ve forced people to talk about this. We have given people a place to talk about sexual abuse.”
But while Rabbi Zippel has heard from many other sexual abuse survivors in the weeks following the article’s publication, he said Rabbi Chein’s revelation of his own history of sexual abuse caught him completely off guard, and was particularly meaningful given his position as a fellow Chabad rabbi and his willingness to tell his own story in such a public venue as a podcast.
“He found within him the inner strength to talk about it, and make a difference in the lives of others, and it’s pretty amazing and it’s pretty validating and it brings me comfort that my journey has been able to have that effect on people,” Rabbi Zippel said. “It was very special.”
Rabbi Chein told the Deseret News he was sexually abused on different occasions by different individuals when he was between the ages of 11 and 13. He said he wasn’t planning on sharing his own experience of sexual abuse in advance of the podcast recording session, but felt inspired to do so in the moment, particularly after Rabbi Zippel said that his motivation for sharing his story was to help others feel safe sharing their own stories.
He said that perhaps, without being conscious of it at the time, it was his own history of sexual abuse that motivated him to reach out to Rabbi Zippel in the first place.
“Perhaps I wanted to speak to him so that I could draw from, get under the hood of someone who came out with it, and in a certain sense, possibly, draw the courage to do so myself if ever necessary, if ever I could see a benefit for it,” said Rabbi Chein.
“And those two happened in that conversation. In other words, first I looked into the soul of somebody ... who did it in a far more intense, severe way than myself, in a far more vulnerable position in his life. That in a certain sense gave me the tools to do it myself. And then my conversation with him showed me this may be a way to contribute to (helping others) in my own way.”
A society of survivors
On an overcast morning in Washington, D.C., three weeks after his trip to Crown Heights, Rabbi Zippel sits in the back of an Uber in a crisp gray suit, checking his Apple Watch nervously, worried that he’s going to be late.
It is the rabbi's first time visiting the nation's capital, but he doesn’t even glance at the White House or the Capitol building as the car whizzes by. Instead, he’s lost in thought, his mind carefully reviewing his mental notes before his upcoming meeting.
At this point, it has been nearly two months since the story broke, and while overwhelming at first, Rabbi Zippel has become used to the nearly constant stream of calls, texts, WhatsApp and Facebook messages, and emails from all over the world that come in at all hours of the day, expressing thanks and support.
But there are messages that still leave him feeling troubled and unprepared to adequately respond: the ones from other survivors of sexual abuse and their families in the Chabad community, and ones from worried parents, fearful for their children’s safety in the hands of nannies, teachers and camp counselors.
Their words are often poignant, not just describing the pain and trauma associated with abuse, but the deep wounds caused by years of silence, and the anxiety associated with not knowing what to do next and how to prevent such abuse from happening in the first place.
It is his desire to help these individuals that has brought him to Washington for a meeting with the National Children’s Alliance, the national association and accrediting body for Children’s Advocacy Centers, with facilities located in every state in the country bringing law enforcement, child protection services, mental health experts and victim advocates together to investigate child abuse, help children heal, and hold offenders accountable.
“The meeting is momentous, it’s the first opportunity for concrete change since the article came out,” Rabbi Zippel told the Deseret News. “All the admiration and warm wishes and nice thoughts are great, but here is a chance to really do something, to make an impact within the observant community. The profoundness of this moment is not lost on me. There is a real chance here.”
The idea for the meeting started weeks before, when Rabbi Zippel was contacted by Tracey Tabet, administrator for the Utah Children’s Justice Center Program at the Utah Attorney General’s Office, which is one of the Children’s Advocacy Centers under the umbrella of the National Children’s Alliance.
Tabet told him she had read the story and wanted to talk about how the Utah Children’s Justice Center could be of help to other children in Rabbi Zippel's position. When Rabbi Zippel explained that this was a problem affecting not just Utahns but Chabad communities across the nation, she suggested a meeting in Washington with the National Children’s Alliance.
When Rabbi Zippel said he would be in Washington, D.C. in a few short weeks in order to attend the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s annual policy conference, Tabet set up the meeting.
The National Children’s Alliance headquarters is a modest yellow building converted from an old house. Here the rabbi is ushered down the stairs to a conference room, where he is greeted warmly by Teresa Huizar, executive director of the Alliance.
Deondra Brown, a sexual abuse survivor, advocate and a member of The 5 Browns musical group, who was introduced to Rabbi Zippel through Tabet, is also in attendance, as well as Tabet herself, who attends the meeting via video call from Salt Lake City.
“Deondra is a tremendous inspiration to me because she is a very visible public advocate for survivors in their families, in addition to the fact that she had a similar path to me, in that she was somewhat well-known before she disclosed her abuse and felt like she wanted to do something about it,” said Rabbi Zippel. “She went to the police, let justice take its course, then decided to fight for it on behalf of others. She’s a tireless advocate and supporter of survivors and their families. She has made it her life’s mission.”
Above all, the purpose is to remind Chabad families who endure this kind of situation that they are not alone. – Rabbi Avrohom (“Avremi”) Zippel
Rabbi Zippel is given the floor, and proceeds to lay out his vision for a potential partnership between the National Children’s Alliance and a group of Chabad rabbis who reached out to him about creating a network for families in their communities who have experienced sexual abuse.
He explains his hope for creating a streamlined process for the prevention of sexual abuse in the Chabad world, and a protocol for ensuring that instances of abuse are handled appropriately and rapidly, by looping in law enforcement as well as directing victims and their families to mental health services.
“Above all, the purpose is to remind Chabad families who endure this kind of situation that they are not alone,” said Rabbi Zippel.
For nearly two hours, Huizar, a petite woman with a commanding presence, carefully listens to the rabbi. Every so often, she interrupts his thoughts with questions about how such a partnership would actually be able to function, given what she describes as the specific and unusual challenges of working with an insular religious community that is highly private and often closed off from and resistant to intervention from the outside world.
“What I think I have a lot of appreciation for is that first of all, a survivor being brave enough not only to come forward and tell their story, but to be a link back and a bridge really between their community and the Children’s Advocacy Center,” Huizar told the Deseret News after the meeting.
“I feel very encouraged by the conversation because I think that the Children’s Advocacy Centers want to serve every single child that needs them, and that if we can make the connection between this faith community and Children’s Advocacy Centers it’s going to have a huge impact on children and families.”
Rabbi Zippel also walked away feeling optimistic and excited about the positive impact such a partnership could have on his own community.
Here we are, different members of this clandestine group, all introducing ourselves to each other and realizing how many of us there really are. – Rabbi Avrohom (“Avremi”) Zippel
He said he looks forward to the possibility of telling survivors, their families, and fearful parents not just that he understands their fear and their pain — but that he would be able to direct them to a professional resource specifically designed to respond to their needs, one that is catered toward understanding and respecting the intricacies that come with being a member of the observant Jewish faith community, so that people can use the resource without fear of judgment or alienation.
“It’s remarkable to think about how much has happened in less than two months, from going from a place where this was something where I was scared to death for anyone to know about it, to something that has inspired people to come forward, be brave and tell their stories, and find acceptance,” Rabbi Zippel said.
The most meaningful part, he said, is watching as other survivors have found the strength to share their own stories.
“It feels honestly like we started up a little secret society,” said Rabbi Zippel. “Here we are, different members of this clandestine group, all introducing ourselves to each other and realizing how many of us there really are.”