My life changed upon hearing the traumatic news that Sheldon Mitchell, a man I considered an icon in the Jewish community, was reported to be a sexual predator. Sheldon died several decades ago, but his role as founding director of Camp Arazim and his involvement in youth activities in Northern California put him in contact with many children.
While I do not know where these acts took place, and Sheldon died when I was still young, places where I developed deep Jewish connections are now connected to a man who caused terrible pain. I attended Camp Arazim, was active in the youth movements of Conservative Judaism — Kadima and USY — and grew up in Sacramento, where the Mitchell family lived.
I am writing this because this revelation so many years after the fact has left me reeling; the pain is fresh. I hope my perspective can be a part of the healing that is necessary.
My sadness and anger pale in the face of those who say they were violated. Sheldon’s son, Tom, shared the impact of his experience in a Facebook post that he recently wrote after suffering years of silence. He described the paralyzing shame; issues with esteem, intimacy and body image; problems with focus and paying attention (dissociation); relationship issues; drug/alcohol addictions. In Tom’s words, “Children who are molested are scarred for life.”
As a rabbi in the community and as someone who was closely connected to the people and the organizations involved, I am speaking up and reaching out. Hineni — “Here I am.”
If you have been a victim of sexual abuse — past or present — or are in any way affected by this shocking revelation, please be aware that many are here to help you. We will be present with compassion and understanding.
One of the reasons Tom decided it was time to share his story was his knowledge of how difficult it is to step forward. He hopes that sharing his pain allows others to break the silence and receive support.
In our Bay Area Jewish community, there are numerous organizations that stand with us in offering support: Jewish Family and Children’s Services, Bay Area Jewish Healing Center, Shalom Bayit. All of these organizations are here for you. Call them. Call me if you want a listening ear.
As a Jewish community, we must lift the curtain of silence and shame connected with sexual abuse. Sexual abuse happens everywhere. The more we educate and communicate, the more we can respond thoughtfully.
We have learned that predators will use positions of power to manipulate and act upon their compulsion. They can be clever in disguise, and kind and charismatic in their affect. Through the bravery of those who have come forward, organizational response and community conversation, we have become better able to prevent these violations. Much has been done, and much more remains to be accomplished.
Our shock and pain need to translate to action, responsibility and accountability.
As parents, educators and leaders, we need to teach our children how to find their voice and respond if someone crosses a line and acts inappropriately. We need to teach people not to stand idly by if there is suspicion, or if something is witnessed. We also need to be careful in leveling accusations and investigating claims.
I hope that this revelation does not cause people to hesitate to send their children to Jewish summer camps and youth groups. These experiences change life in so many positive ways, from forming strong Jewish identity to making dear friends.
The knowledge we now possess about how to prevent and respond to abuse is far greater than what existed in the past. Local camps and youth organizations are vigilant in hiring, educating and responding. I am confident that our children are protected and safe. In fact, the more we break the silence around these issues, the safer our children will be.
At moments like this we turn to our tradition for guidance. The commandments to bring healing to those in distress, to not stand idly by, and to bring light to places of darkness guide us. May this be a time of healing.
May it also be a time when people say “Hineni, here I am” to those in need. We find holiness in this painful moment based upon our response. n
Rabbi Nathaniel Ezray is the spiritual leader at Congregation Beth Jacob in Redwood City.
Need someone to talk to?
Contact Rabbi Nathaniel Ezray at (650) 366-8481 or firstname.lastname@example.org; Nancy Masters of S.F.-based Jewish Family and Children’s Services at (415) 449-1200; Rikki Sudikoff of Jewish Family and Children’s Services of the East Bay at (510) 704-7475; the Bay Area Jewish Healing Center at (415) 750-4197; and Shalom Bayit at (866) 742-5667.