Sarah Ruth Hoffman

A High Holiday Guide for Rabbinic Sex Abuse Survivors

Imagine having the guts to call out a sexual abuser in your community only to be blamed, bullied, shunned, not believed, or otherwise merely tolerated. Imagine sitting in synagogue through inspirational songs and sermons about spiritual progress, fully awake to the atrocious hypocrisy and unrepentant corruption behind the scenes. Imagine sitting with your family, cheerfully gathered around the table for a holiday meal, unable to be fully present because your conscience is wholly occupied by the unimaginable things that you have witnessed, and the trauma of it weighs you down from even speaking, as you have no words to say.

Every day for years you wake up each morning and the first thing you do is Modeh Ani followed by a check to see if maybe this time you actually woke up from the long nightmare. But it is not a nightmare, it is real, and you cannot unsee, unknow, unlearn. How do you make it through the High Holidays? How do you stand in a crowd and listen to people talk about teshuvah who know nothing of it? When the community remains silent, callous, intolerant of victims but tolerant of abusers?

Like my predecessors a couple of generations ago, I took flight to New York City where I could be safely Jewish — only this time, I was running from other Jews. 

At this time last year, I had reported my abuser to the CCAR. He was suspended just prior to Rosh Hashanah. But his appeal deadline was Yom Kippur. It just worked out that way, apparently. “Days of Awe” took on a whole other level of meaning that year. I had no ‘safe’ congregation or rabbi in my own region. Like my predecessors a couple of generations ago, I took flight to New York City where I could be safely Jewish — only this time, I was running from other Jews. Read: “Taking Back My Religion (After Rabbinic Sex Abuse)”

A lot has changed in the last year. At this time last year, there was no support group for Jewish adults abused by clergy. At this time last year, my blog and the blog of Rachel Cohen did not yet exist. Between just the two of us, there are more than 30 posts, when at this time last year there were none to speak of. We are here, and we are talking about rabbis who sexually exploit adults, and by doing this, other women are better able to heal and to make choices about how to move forward.

Now that I am through the first year, which is always the hardest, I look back and I ask myself, “What things did I wish I had at this time last year to help me through?” The number one thing that comes to mind is some kind of resource that I can keep with me during the High Holidays, so that I don’t feel alone in my pain and trauma. Something that is written by other women like me, who went through what I went through, and who are dealing with (or have dealt with) the same struggles. Real women, whose realness leaps up from the pages. It would need to be visually beautiful too, because art is healing and we are in need of healing. And it must contain guidance for dealing with PTSD symptoms in synagogue, and ideas for making the Holidays one’s own once more. And it must have something to say to combat the Christian-like forgiveness doctrine that is making its way into our synagogues — a sign that assimilation is beginning to not only alter the appearance of things, but to alter the religion itself at its very core (in my personal opinion).

After months of writing and editing, its authors have finally completed this project. The 22-page PDF booklet can be downloaded here:

Greetings from Shema Koleinu
Printable List of High Holy Days And Dates
List Of Synagogues Offering Live-Streams of Services
Tips For Dealing With Grief And Triggers
Crisis Hotlines
Common Triggers
Written Exercises (Preparing for the High Holy Days)
Erev Rosh Hashanah (Sunday 9/29/2019)
Rosh Hashanah (Monday 9/30/2019 & Tuesday 10/1/2019)
Interim Days of Awe (Wednesday 10/2/2019 – Tuesday 10/8/2019)
Erev Yom Kippur (Tuesday 10/8/2019)
Yom Kippur (Wednesday 10/9/2019)
Prayer for Victims of Clergy Sexual Abuse and their Advocates

Subheadings and additional topics include:
A Note on Forgiveness
An Immersion Into The Mikvah
Post-traumatic Growth
Whale as a vehicle for transformation
Considerations for fasting with PTSD
What if I have nowhere to go?
What if my abuser is still active in my community?
Friends and Family

This is the first attempt that I am aware of to create anything of this sort, and hopefully it will help somebody, even if that person is just me!

A lot of progress has been made in the last year to put words where there were none before — to create resources where none previously existed. It was survivors who did this work, not the institutions that were supposed to uphold the tenants of Judaism. The burden of forgiveness is on those institutions and our abusers, not on us. Until forgiveness is genuinely sought, we focus on our own healing and some of us take whatever steps are necessary to ensure that future victimization of ourselves or others is minimized or prevented.

To a good and sweet year with more unexpected and positive growth for us all. I pray for more survivor bloggers, and more useful resources and avenues for safety for survivors, and more consequences for abusers, and more understanding from community. May no one on earth ever go through what I went through again. Ever.

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About the Author
The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not represent the views of any organization that she is affiliated with. Sarah Ruth Hoffman was a doctoral student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill when an older male rabbi (now suspended by his rabbinical association) groomed, raped, and abused her. She has since completed the PhD and converted to Orthodox Judaism. She continues to write as part of her healing, and she often writes what she would have found comforting and useful to read during her lengthy exodus from the ongoing sexual violence that was inextricably linked to roles and scripts in Jewish institutions. She hopes that this blog will help the public to understand the dynamics of clergy sexual abuse, whether the victims are adults, or children. Much of what is written can apply to non-clergy relationships as well. If any one person is helped by any of what is written, then the purpose of this blog has been fulfilled.
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