Manny Waks

Raped at a mikvah, then abandoned

Joey Diangello, a former Hasidic Jew and outspoken victims advocate, is dead -- where's the outcry?

It is heartbreaking that yet another victim of child sexual abuse within the Jewish community has suffered a tragic premature death. Last weekend, 34-year old Joey Diangello (formerly Yoel Deutsch) from New York died of a drug overdose. It is somewhat irrelevant if the overdose was intentional or not, as some have been debating on blogs and social media. We will probably never know definitively. What we do know is that Joey was sexually abused within his former Hasidic community. “I think when that person raped me, he murdered my Jewish soul,” Joey told PIX11 Investigates in early 2009, when he courageously went public with his story, describing how he was raped in a Mikvah (Jewish ritual bath-house) as a child. Joey became a victim advocate and featured in numerous media articles.

It is reasonable to connect Joey’s untimely death with his abuse as a child. Statistics show that drug use among victims of child sexual abuse is higher than in the general population. Moreover, suicide was apparently on Joey’s mind, as noted in his recent Jewish New Year message to Rabbi Eisenman.

So here we have what may be described as akin to the murder of an innocent man – whose Jewish soul had already been murdered – yet the Jewish world maintains its relative silence. At the time of writing, not a single mainstream Jewish media outlet has covered this story. Moreover, I have not seen a single prominent Jewish community leader – rabbinic or otherwise – speaking out about this tragedy. The only ones who have spoken out are victims/survivors of child sexual abuse, victim advocates and those who were connected to Joey in some way. Of course some individual community members have also spoken out.

A disturbing story that has been the focus of the Jewish world and media this past week has been the allegations regarding Rabbi Barry Freundel. It is most appropriate to compare the lack of reactions to Joey’s death, as noted above, to the reactions regarding Rabbi Freundel. In the latter case, so many rabbis, community leaders and members have shared their opinion and generally expressed their disgust. And the media – both Jewish and mainstream – has provided this case significant coverage. The vast majority of those that have spoken out have very little, if anything, to do with the actual case. The most common point of connection is that Rabbi Freundel is a prominent Orthodox rabbi who is alleged to have been filming women using his Synagogue’s ritual bath. Of course those victimised by his alleged actions deserve our full support and compassion. Moreover, it is appropriate for rabbis, community leaders and members globally to condemn Rabbi Freundel’s alleged abuse, as is currently happening. Indeed, I applaud the ground-breaking changes that have ensued – impressively, within a week of these allegations surfacing.

Similarly, Joey and the many other victims of child sexual abuse within the Jewish community deserve our full support and compassion. It is also appropriate – indeed a responsibility – for rabbis, community leaders and members globally to clearly and unequivocally condemn the climate in which these abuses occur and are allowed to flourish through cover-ups and intimidation, leading to a range of tragic consequences.

Where is the broad outrage at the loss of a young human life within our community in such tragic circumstances? Where is the outrage at Joey’s abuse and abusers? Where is the outrage at his former community, who disowned Joey during his lifetime but outrageously attempted to re-claim him during his death by burying him on their terms while deliberately excluding his loved ones? Where are the ground-breaking changes by the leadership? Where are the guidelines and policies for Mikvahs (male and female) – where Joey and so many others were raped and sexually abused (male mikvahs)?

As a community, we are all responsible. For not doing enough during Joey’s lifetime. For remaining relatively silent after his passing. And if we do not change our approach, we will be responsible for countless other Joeys.

The statistics on child sexual abuse are alarming – around 1 in 3-4 girls and 1 in 5-6 boys are abused before the age of 18. The vast majority of victims suffer in silence; they never disclose the abuse they endured and fail to seek appropriate support. A minority disclose to someone close to them. Very few share their experience publicly. However, the reality is, most of us would know a victim/survivor – of course we may not be aware that they experienced abuse.

Joey’s death is an opportunity to reflect on the scourge of child sexual abuse and its profound and long-term impact. Sadly it occurs in every segment of society, including within the breadth of the global Jewish community. It is how we address it that really matters. While we have seen some progress within the community, evidently we still have a very long way to go. We need justice and accountability for past injustices. We need to have compassion for victims/survivors – indeed we need to provide adequate support to them and their families. And of course we must ensure we have appropriate preventive measures in place to minimise the risk of further abuse and cover-ups. Community leaders – political, rabbinic and lay – need to speak up and instigate long overdue changes in culture, education and policies.

It is little wonder that victims/survivors and their families, and many victim advocates and the relevant organisations, largely feel abandoned by our community and its leadership. At this stage it seems the only way to effect change is through the hard work and dedication of victim advocates and their supporters. People like Joey. People like David Gordon, who sadly was also recently found deceased. But at what cost? It should not be this way. The onus is on each and every one of us.

To the many victims out there who are suffering, know that you are not alone. There are people and organisations who will listen, support and assist you.

May Joey’s and David’s dear souls rest in peace and their memories be a blessing.

A selection of international Jewish support and advocacy organizations:

Australia: Tzedek

Israel: Israel National Council for the Child

United Kingdom: Migdal Emunah

South Africa: KidSafe

United States: Survivors for Justice

About the Author
Manny Waks is an author, consultant, advocate and public speaker. He is the founder and CEO of Kol v'Oz, an Israel-based international organisation which addresses the issue of child sexual abuse in the global Jewish community. He is also an abuse survivor in an Australian Chabad-run institution. His published memoir is titled ‘Who Gave You Permission?’.