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A plea from the brother and victim of a predator

FROM THE BLOGS: The brother of Meir Pogrow -- a rabbi and teacher recently denounced as a sexual predator -- charges the Yeshiva school system with covering up widespread cases of sexual, physical and emotional abuse
Illustrative photo: Israeli orthodox child studying in his classroom (Abir Sultan/Flash 90)
Illustrative photo: Israeli orthodox child studying in his classroom (Abir Sultan/Flash 90)

Meir Pogrow, the justly-condemned sexual predator, is my older brother. He is roughly nine years my senior. I share my story because I hope to launch a movement that will raise from the ashes of this tragedy a new hope for all victims of child abuse — whether or not the specific abuse is a crime in a given jurisdiction, or whether the victim is a minor or a young adult vulnerable to abuse by a perpetrator who holds a position of authority.

I identify with my brother’s victims, because I was — perhaps — his first. He first abused me approximately 30 years ago, in my boyhood years. My brother did not attack me sexually. Rather, over a period of roughly 10 years, he subjected me to severe physical, verbal and emotional abuse. He is short, but he was strong. He would lift me above his head, my whole body parallel to the floor, just let go, and walk away as I crashed to the floor.

I was 17 the last time my brother physically abused me. I had finally grown strong enough to defend myself. He chased me and tried to hit me, but I deflected him. When I thought he had quit trying to hurt me, I dropped my guard. He then stared me in the eyes with a gruesome expression. My arms were at my sides when he punched me, breaking my nose and giving me a concussion. The next day he told me — gleefully — that he broke my nose intentionally. He also explained that I deserved it, because I did not spend enough time studying Torah during my time off from yeshiva.

In my journey of recovery from my brother’s abuses, what has been most difficult to overcome is not the impact of the physical pain — what is most enduring is the psychological trauma and manipulation that he used in order to groom me for the physical pain.

It is this psychological torment that he inflicted that makes me identify so strongly with his later victims. Numerous victims of his torment have spoken out on Facebook. I suspect that it was on me that he first exercised those psychological abuses.

My brother’s carnage is massive, and it spans multiple continents, but it is tragically far from the only carnage. Abuse by faculty in the yeshiva school system has occurred for decades; yet today there remains no system-wide enforceable plan to protect children. Far too many administrators are enablers — at a minimum due to failures to act on complaints brought to their attention — in many of the crimes committed by faculty in yeshivas across the globe.

My brother taught at YULA, a Los Angeles yeshiva, in the 1990s. On Facebook, in a comment replying to a post about my brother, one YULA alumna stated, “But I clearly remember discussing him with other staff members and no one taking us seriously.”

In a separate comment, that same alumna wrote, “I do clearly remember discussing my discomfort about him to another teacher, possibly the principal after a discussion that he instigated about masturbation.”

The YULA administration should issue a public statement to either discredit this former student’s version of events, or confirm that it dismissed Meir immediately after they verified her complaints, and that it did everything in its power to ensure my brother was never allowed in a classroom again.

After leaving YULA, Meir joined the faculty at Michlalah, a school for young women in Israel.

Numerous Michlalah alumnae I met during my time as a student at Queens College in New York told me that my brother was verbally abusive, and that he fostered a cult-like mentality. His groupies were known as “Pogs.”

The Michlalah administration should issue a public statement to confirm that it never received any complaints of abuse of any form perpetrated by my brother. If Michlalah cannot make such a statement, it should publicly provide a detailed accounting of how it acted on all complaints against my brother.

My brother was not the only perpetrator of abuses I experienced as a child. I was a victim of severe physical and emotional abuse in Yeshiva Bais Mikroh in Monsey, at the hands of Rabbi Gavriel Bodenheimer, among others. Bodenheimer and other faculty abused me — and many other children — more than two decades ago, as fellow faculty and my schoolmates looked on. Bodenheimer has since pleaded guilty to endangering the welfare of a child. He is also subject to the typical restrictions imposed on sex offenders.

How could Bodenheimer have remained principal at Bais Mikroh until 2015?

I believe that on a per-capita basis, the magnitude of the cover-ups of sexual, physical, emotional and verbal abuses in the yeshiva system is on par with that of the Catholic Church. There are many wonderful Orthodox rabbis and administrators — I have worked alongside some and proudly consider some my friends and mentors — but the Orthodox Jewish clergy as an institution has lost its credibility. Much like the Catholic priesthood, the rabbinate has its work cut out if it wants to earn back its credibility on matters of child safety.

A fundamental and systemic reform of yeshivas is necessary. Unfortunately, the rabbinate has forfeited its right to lead that reform.

Recent pronouncements by Torah Umesorah of new initiatives to expand education surrounding the issue of child abuse for parents, children, camp counselors and teachers are but a minuscule step forward. Does Torah Umesorah genuinely believe that expanded education will touch the root of the problem?

Where is the joint pronouncement from Torah Umesorah and Agudath Yisrael of America (the Agudah) laying out a concrete plan of action to root out the perpetrators and enablers currently in the system?

Where is the declaration that any teacher or administrator who in any way whatsoever prevents a claim of abuse from getting to the police will be immediately fired?

Where is the directive to every teacher and administrator to advise any complainant who comes forward that he or she (the teacher or administrator) is not equipped to determine the validity of the accuser’s claims?

Where are the instructions for teachers and administrators to immediately direct all allegations to the police?

(Teachers and administrators should, of course, offer any complainant any support they are indeed equipped to offer, including accompanying the alleged victim to the police station.)

Where is the Agudah’s pronouncement that it has reversed its opposition to pending legislation in New York State that would reform the Statute of Limitations (SOL) on child sexual abuse? Does the Agudah really want to be on the same side as the Catholic Church on this issue? Does the Agudah’s concern for the ability of its institutions to financially and reputationally withstand an onslaught of criminal and civil cases justify not doing everything in its power to prevent just one more instance of child abuse?

At the 2016 Torah Umesorah convention, Yaakov Perlow, head of the Agudah, in an attempt to explain the Agudah’s opposition to SOL reform said, “Yes, we want to protect our mosdos (organizations). We want to be able to prevent somebody who wakes up 40 years later, and he sues a yeshiva for something that happened who knows how many years ago. But at the same time, we have no sympathy for perpetrators.” Perlow also stated, “The rabbonim (rabbis) sitting here, knowing perhaps better than I do, how many hours and hours and dozens of hours throughout these last years we’ve sat and deliberated and talked about every single aspect of this problem.”

I would ask Rabbi Perlow, if you have no sympathy for perpetrators and are committed to fixing this problem, why not reverse your opposition to SOL reform and allow the judicial system to assess the validity of victims’ claims?

Is the possibility of even one additional criminal conviction of a predator still operating in a yeshiva not reason enough for the Agudah to lobby for SOL reform?

A committee of mental health professionals, law-enforcement experts, survivors, and child abuse activists should be given free rein to institute the required reforms in the Yeshiva system. This committee will solicit guidance from thoroughly-vetted rabbis and yeshiva administrators.

Further, an independent committee should be empowered to investigate all yeshivas where any claim of abuse has ever been made, with a possible exception for claims that have been previously dismissed by the police or judicial system.

To My Fellow Survivors:

We need no longer scream in silence.

We are hurting. Our lives have been forever altered by sexual, physical, verbal and emotional abuse at the hands of those we trusted implicitly. We struggle with emotional and physical intimacy because our innocence was stolen and our trust betrayed. Many of us have nightmares; sometimes we wake up screaming.

We felt so alone in our pain; no one would listen. We were told we deserved it — some of us told we were bad, some of us told we were oh-so-special. Many of us are well into our adulthood, still only beginning to understand the full scope of the damage our tormentors inflicted upon us. We live with the scars and we try to move forward, but we can no longer stand by and watch as crimes continue in a corrupt system that harbors perpetrators.

Over time we discovered that our friends who were not direct victims became victims indirectly. They tell us that when they learn that clergy they had revered committed heinous crimes against their classmates, it shakes their faith. They are so tired of having to study techniques to train their children to defend their bodies and souls against predators. Is it too much to ask, they wonder, to trust that their children will be kept safe from the time they leave for yeshiva in the morning until the school bus returns them home?

No one understands us better than we understand one another. Let’s meet each other. Let’s unburden ourselves of our pain by sharing it with one another. Let’s harness our awesome collective strength. Let’s be angry, but let’s direct our anger constructively, and as One.

Speaking out is terrifying. It has taken me 30 years to come forward.

Tragically, I believe there are thousands of us. I know — I just know it in my gut — that with the Strength of Numbers we can march together right on through the shaming collaborators may attempt, stronger — and more determined — than ever.

We have so very many good guys on our side jumping up and down for us, laying their necks on the line for us, yelling at anyone who will listen for us. They need our help. Some of them tell me the full scope of necessary reforms will not be implemented for many years, if ever. But an army of survivors speaking out publicly can bring about a sea change. And that’s where we come in.

This is a moment we must seize. The tides are turning our way. A Beit Din (religious court) just formally condemned a rabbi via media outlets worldwide as a rasha (evil man) because of his sexual abuses. I believe from a place in my heart that two weeks ago I did not know existed that we can achieve massive structural reform. I beg you. Please dig deep.

Let’s grab back from our tormentors our overwhelming collective power. We can achieve this. Let’s not stay on the sidelines another day. Let’s get this done.

Our fellow survivors who have already publicly blazed this path before us stand ready at our side.

There are organizations staffed with professionals ready and begging to help survivors. Among them are Jewish Community Watch and Magen. Please reach out to them or other organizations with similar missions.


About the Author
Yehuda Pogrow is a finance professional who lives in the New York City metropolitan area.
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