by Tess Cutler
Meyer Seewald, the founder of the sexual abuse watchdog Jewish Community Watch (JCW), uttered the name of a local Chabad rabbi to a packed room during a March 22 community event hosted by L.A. Congregation Shaarei Tefila.
The room fell silent. One person gasped, then another. One woman leaned into her friend, restating the rabbi’s name to make sure she heard right.
“I’m not one to name abusers at events,” the New York-based Seewald told the group, but this was a special circumstance. Last month, JCW posted the rabbi’s name and photo on its Wall of Shame, following an 18-month investigation by the organization of “his alleged sexual abuse of a number of female minors,” according to its website.
The Journal is not printing the rabbi’s name because he has not been charged with these allegations in court, (JCW addition: the rabbi’s name is Sholom Levitansky, you can see his Wall of Shame page here) but among the Los Angeles audience during Seewald’s recent visit, the rabbi’s name was well known — so it goes in the close-knit Los Angeles Orthodox community.
Sima Yarmush, now 27, gave her own testimony to the community at the event, accusing this rabbi of numerous acts of molestation. She was 14 at the time.
Yarmush began by telling her story about growing up in Chabad, her bubbe (an Auschwitz survivor), her stifling shyness as a little girl and then about that aforementioned rabbi — how he took her under his wing, charming her and the whole community before, she alleged, abusing her sexually.
When she was 18, after coming home from a year in Israel to attend seminary, she said she decided to speak out and take action. Yarmush was assigned four rabbis who conducted a beit din (rabbinical court) and, for the first time in her life, she recounted the events in explicit detail; the rabbis, separated by a mechitzah, listened to her story with clasped hands. Finally, one of the rabbis asked her, “Who did this to you?”
That incriminating question with only one answer.
Finally, she thought to herself, after four years, the moment has come. And as she opened her mouth to answer the question, a Chabad rabbi interjected, “Let’s hold off on saying the name.” Furious and voiceless — yet again — Yarmush said she disobeyed the rabbi and spoke up.
“They simply sent me off that night,” she recalled. Her alleged molester got off scot-free, was sent to therapy and relocated to a nearby Chabad community in the Los Angeles area, she said.
“And here I am,” she told the crowd with a sense of newfound courage.
Her statement was received with a standing ovation, just one of many throughout her speech.
(JCW addition: you can watch Sima’s full speech here)
“I feel like the voice for women who don’t have a voice,” Yarmush, now married, told the Journal later. “It’s empowering,” she said about speaking out. Inspired to help others like herself, Yarmush is organizing a support group for fellow victims of sexual molestation.
After she shared her story, a crowd of women gathered around Yarmush, each one confessing, wanting to be heard, to tell her they, too, have a story.
“My daughter was molested by my ex-husband,” one woman confided. Others relayed stories of a sister, a son, a brother — the cases countless and unfathomable.
“I was sexually abused,” an older woman gasped between sobs.
The night before the event, JCW’s Seewald said he slept only two hours. Insomnia has become the norm since he started JCW in 2011.
“I really don’t want to do this, but I have no choice,” Seewald, 26, told the Journal. “This is my mission.”
JCW, he said, is not composed of professional social workers, but of fellow child abuse survivors. Seewald, an abuse survivor himself, makes sure not only to go after the perpetrators, but to create a safe community of rehabilitated victims, “so that they know they’re not alone.”
The organization sends victims to therapy, connects them with other survivors and creates a safe space for open discussion. JCW regularly hosts events like the one at Congregation Shaarei Tefila, which aspire to inform the community. A feature of these meetings includes the “coming out” of a local abuse victim that JCW hopes will inspire other victims to follow suit.
To date, there are more than 100 alleged predators listed on the Wall of Shame, some convicted and some not. JCW investigates all of its accused abusers internally and requires a unanimous vote by its board before posting the name of a suspect.
Although JCW has not been sued for libel or defamation, it isn’t without flaw. In August 2012, Seewald immediately responded to an allegation made by an autistic boy, who falsely accused a Crown Heights special education teacher of sexual abuse. As a result of his entry into the JCW database, the man lost his job and was publicly shunned — before Seewald repealed the entry. But by then, the damage had been done and JCW’s integrity was compromised.
Still, Seewald has no regrets using public shaming in the battle against child molestation, a topic that has long been off limits.
“It’s so covered up, it’s not spoken about and gets swept under the rug,” he said.
Of course, Seewald’s work is not without backlash.
“Some say he’s on a witch hunt,” one speaker at the event, Eli Nash, told the congregation. At 8, Nash was a victim of sexual abuse, he said, and through the help of JCW, he confronted his abuser years later.
“Good! It’s about time!” an audience member called out, causing Nash to smile softly. “I am here today to say I’m done defending JCW,” Nash continued to a round of applause. “The Wall of Shame works, JCW works, and Meyer Seewald is a hero.”
Earlier in the night, before Yarmush shared her story publicly for the first time, Seewald took the stage to introduce her.
“I want to apologize on behalf of those leaders that turned you down,” he said, “and I want to say that if any of those leaders are in this room, I’m going to put the mic down and take a seat for 60 seconds and give you the opportunity to come up here and apologize.”
Congregants whispered to one another. As promised, he took a seat, the microphone left sitting on the nearby table.
An unbearable quiet ensued, accompanied by scattered sounds of creaking chairs, heads turning in anticipation — waiting for something to happen. Nothing did.
“This is silence!” Seewald cried from his chair.
In regards to the incident involving the special education teacher mentioned in the article, this has been addressed in our FAQs. Please see below:
Q: Is it true that someone was listed on the Wall of Shame and later removed? Wouldn’t that be a case where someone was wrongfully exposed?
A: Yes, it is true that an individual was posted on the Wall of Shame as an offender and was later removed, however, it was not a case of someone being wrongfully or mistakenly exposed.
JCW received complaints regarding the individual from community members in Crown Heights that raised red flags. Subsequently, and with no relation to any information gathered by JCW, the same individual was arrested by the NYPD, and charged with sexually abusing a child. In line with JCW’s policy of warning the community of potential danger to its children, and with Rabbinical consent, JCW exposed the person. Later, when the charges brought by the State were dismissed, JCW removed the person’s information from the site, because JCW did not have enough independent information to maintain the exposure, and it appeared from the dismissal by the State that the allegations were unsubstantiated.