Ultra-Orthodox group looks to banish stigma from community’s sex abuse victims
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'Victims, and not their abusers, must be our first priority'

Ultra-Orthodox group looks to banish stigma from community’s sex abuse victims

Citing a virtual absence of resources available to young Jews, Amudim has set out to break taboos affecting survivors and drug addicts

Yaakov Schwartz is The Times of Israel's deputy Jewish World editor.

  • Amudim staff educate about and distribute free Naloxone, which can be used to help block the effect of opioids, and is especially useful in the case of overdose. (Courtesy Amudim)
    Amudim staff educate about and distribute free Naloxone, which can be used to help block the effect of opioids, and is especially useful in the case of overdose. (Courtesy Amudim)
  • Amudim co-founder Mendy Klein. (Courtesy Amudim)
    Amudim co-founder Mendy Klein. (Courtesy Amudim)
  • Mendy Klein provides strategic direction and motivation during an Amudim meeting. (Courtesy, Amudim)
    Mendy Klein provides strategic direction and motivation during an Amudim meeting. (Courtesy, Amudim)
  • Rabbi Zvi Gluck, co-founder of Amudim, which deals with addiction and sexual abuse within the Jewish community. (Courtesy Amudim)
    Rabbi Zvi Gluck, co-founder of Amudim, which deals with addiction and sexual abuse within the Jewish community. (Courtesy Amudim)
  • Women listen at an Amudim awareness event about the risks of sexual abuse and addiction. (Courtesy Amudim)
    Women listen at an Amudim awareness event about the risks of sexual abuse and addiction. (Courtesy Amudim)

There are two people who Rabbi Zvi Gluck credits with helping him bring the topic of sexual abuse into the ultra-Orthodox mainstream: His father, and the late Jewish philanthropist Mendy Klein.

Gluck is the co-founder and director of Amudim, which means “Pillars” in English. It is an organization dedicated to educating, preventing, and helping victims cope with addiction and sexual abuse in the Jewish community – subjects long ignored — intentionally — as taboo.

Since its inception in 2014, Amudim has taken on nearly 5,000 cases, by its own count, providing clients with therapy, rehabilitation, and support in dealing with family and community from its staff of certified clinicians. The organization’s main headquarters are in New York, and they recently opened offices in Israel. On a daily basis, Amudim fields calls from around the world.

Gluck got his start at a young age, volunteering with teenage drug users and addicts within his childhood community in the New York City area. He quickly found that a disturbing number of substance abusers suffered from darker, deeper-rooted issues.

“I realized that a lot of the people I was dealing with were victims of childhood sexual abuse, and there was really not enough being done to help them,” Gluck said.

“I gave my first public speech on the subject, which generated a lot of noise within the Jewish community, in October of 2010,” he said.

The “noise” Gluck generated was not all good. His efforts, he said, would not have lasted long, had he not been the son of Rabbi Edgar Gluck, now chief rabbi of Galicia.

“It was a very interesting situation, because my father being as influential as he is, the haters couldn’t come out against me publicly,” said Gluck. “I was sort of in a weird spot where they’d see me on the street and they’d say, ‘You know, you shouldn’t talk about these topics, it’s not right,’ but they couldn’t do anything to me — as opposed to a lot of the other advocates that have dealt with sexual abuse and were chased out of town, or got bleach thrown at them, or other things that have occurred.”

Speaking animatedly, Gluck dropped a laundry list of big names in the Orthodox community during a telephone conversation with The Times of Israel, as he described how Amudim got its start.

He said that Klein — a philanthropist from Cleveland, Ohio with plenty of clout — was instrumental in causing the ultra-Orthodox world to reexamine its policy of dealing with sexual abuse internally, in order to protect the reputations of individuals and families. Klein also forced the education system to begin addressing the issue in schools.

“The main variable was Mendy Klein,” said Gluck. “He put his money where his mouth is — literally and figuratively. He was on the board of all these major organizations, he felt sex abuse needed to be addressed. He went to the Haredi leadership and said, ‘We’re doing a topic on sexual abuse.’ He went into Torah Umesorah [a national body serving 700 Orthodox day schools in the United States] and said, ‘We’re doing sexual abuse.’ They couldn’t say no to him.”

In February 2015, Amudim hosted a conference on sexual abuse that the organization said was the first of its kind for the Orthodox community. It was attended by more than 400 people, and, Gluck said, “put us on the map overnight.”

That April, Gluck was a keynote speaker at the Agudath Israel of America convention, speaking on sexual abuse — a move he said was also unprecedented. And in May, he spoke to Torah Umesorah about the need for education on sexual abuse in Orthodox schools.

Amudim co-founder Mendy Klein. (Courtesy, Amudim)

Family matters

Though the organization has been making inroads within the Orthodox community, recent cases highlight the need for nuanced care when it comes to both victims and families where sexual abuse has occurred.

In one case, a young woman who was struggling with pedophilic urges she had not yet acted upon was referred to Amudim. She had initially been shown strong support from her family — especially after admitting to her therapist that she had been sexually abused herself as a child.

However, after revealing that her abuser was in fact her own older brother, now married with children of his own, her family shunned her, afraid that the story would destroy his life and the family’s reputation in their tight-knit community.

“I thought I was on my own and that there was no one left to help me, but Amudim took over. They became my parents, my only family, my support system,” the woman said.

Being torn between victim and abuser is a dilemma most families are unequipped to deal with, and they often choose the more comfortable route.

Rabbi Zvi Gluck, co-founder of Amudim, which deals with addiction and sexual abuse within the Jewish community. (Courtesy Amudim)

“We need to stop spending so much time worrying about how reports of abuse will affect the abuser’s family and instead spend more time thinking about how we can help the person whose life has been irrevocably and horribly altered,” said Gluck.

“Protecting sexual abuse victims, and not their abusers, must be our first priority so we can help this young woman and so many others like her get the help they need and the support they deserve,” he continued.

Evolving to meet the needs

Gluck observed that the organization’s annual budget skyrocketed from $380,000 at its formation in 2014, to $3.9 million in 2017.

As the organization grew, Gluck was able to pinpoint the victims’ needs more precisely, he said. The board decided to focus on three main components: crisis intervention and case management; education and awareness; and prevention.

Gluck pointed out that all the organization’s case managers are clinicians with a minimum master’s level social work degree, and guide the client through the process from A-Z. This includes finding them a therapist, getting them into addiction rehabilitation facilities if necessary, getting their family to come to terms with the situation, as well as communicating their needs to community rabbis or schools.

Gluck said Amudim has had 2,166 cases in 2018 to date, and the organization fields 40 to 50 new cases each week.

Currently, there are 1,263 active cases, meaning that clients receive assistance on a minimum of a weekly basis. Of the active cases, 799 relate to sexual abuse, and 464 are for substance addiction — though Gluck says that patients are often dual-diagnosis and receive treatment for both. However, even if the diagnoses overlap, each case is only counted once.

Mendy Klein provides strategic direction and motivation during an Amudim meeting. (Courtesy, Amudim)

Gluck said Amudim’s new offices in Israel are focused on the Anglo community: young women in seminary programs, men in yeshivas, and college students studying in Israel, who were never able to get help they needed.

“A lot of people couldn’t get married, or were getting divorced early on, and then came to us for help because they were sexually abused,” explained Gluck. “We came together and said, ‘What are we going to do to prevent this? I guess the first step is to get them before they get married. Well how do you do that? You get them in Israel.’”

The upside of being in such a small community is that word spreads quickly, and the program has been remarkably effective.

“We field about 200 calls a day, and we don’t do real advertising,” said Gluck. “Somehow people figure it out. In Israel right now, most of the calls are actually coming from the schools and seminaries themselves, and through word of mouth. We also have a large enough social media presence that people already know about us.”

Women listen at an Amudim awareness event about the risks of sexual abuse and addiction. (Courtesy Amudim)

However, the client base is far from homogeneous.

“More than 35 or 40 percent of our clients are not observant,” maintained Gluck. “We’re working now with two secular programs in Israel. It’s more Jewish than religious, I’d say.”

Tragedy strikes

Amudim’s co-founder Klein died suddenly May 3 of a heart attack at age 65. He was known for his philanthropic contributions and work for the Jewish community and Israel.

He was also essential in helping keep the organization afloat financially.

“We do get some government grants, some foundation grants,” said Gluck. “But most of our budget comes from our core donors.”

Gluck was quick to admit that funds had been set up for the organization before — though they were always rapidly depleted. It is inevitable, he said, as the organization will not turn away victims who cannot afford treatment.

On July 31, Amudim will host a live-streaming fundraiser in Klein’s honor through the Charidy platform. They hope to secure funds to keep the organization going through their next big projects involving sexual abuse prevention and education in schools.

Amudim staff educate about and distribute free Naloxone, which can be used to help block the effect of opioids, and is especially useful in the case of overdose. (Courtesy Amudim)

Project Lishmor is a subdivision of Torah Umesorah, and is designed to ensure that every Jewish school has safety prevention sexual abuse programs available — and a curriculum on sexual abuse is being developed by Amudim, with an eye to deploying it in Orthodox schools during the the 2019 school year.

The curriculum will be aimed at students in grades 5-12, and will focus on a holistic approach to emotional well-being, “including, but not limited to sexual abuse and addiction, bullying, friendships and healthy relationships,” said Gluck.

“We feel that is going to be the only absolute way that we can try to put ourselves out of business,” he commented. “Because what we’re doing now, while we’re saving lives, our numbers are so through the roof that if we don’t come up with something soon, we’ll collapse from the case load.”

Still, Gluck was optimistic that the message is getting through.

“The mere fact that I can do a public service video as graphic as we’ve done, and not have stones thrown at me, is amazing,” he said. “The fact that the Agudah and Torah Umesorah are endorsing what Amudim does, and are supporting our efforts, is something to be amazed by. At the end of the day, they’re accepting this as a real problem, and saying ‘We all need to work together to help this.’”

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