One by one the victims stood and described their alleged molesters: the Torah teacher, the rabbi, the ice cream truck driver, the man at the mikvah.
That meeting, held nearly six years ago in a small room in a synagogue in Pikesville, just outside Baltimore, went on for four hours. Seated in a circle with the other victims was Phil Jacobs, a Baltimore Jewish Times journalist. He was not there as a reporter. He was there because he, too, had experienced sexual abuse.
But after the meeting, a young man who knew Jacobs was a journalist approached and asked to be interviewed, to have his story told. That was the beginning of Jacobs’s effort to document sexual abuse in Baltimore’s Orthodox Jewish community, bringing the harrowing experiences shared by the 18 victims in that room out into the open.
The first of his stories, “Today, Steve is 25” was published in February 2007, 10 months after the Pikesville meeting.
That process of reporting and writing has been made into a documentary film, “Standing Silent,” directed by Scott Rosenfelt and now being shown at film festivals across the country. Partially funded by a Sundance Institute grant, it details how Jacobs, an Orthodox Jew himself, has been credited with — and criticized for — uncovering a painful secret in Baltimore’s Orthodox community.
“I saw a narrative character that was in great conflict between protecting his faith and his community and protecting children and humanity,” says Rosenfelt, who is an established producer (“Home Alone,” “Mystic Pizza”) as well as a family friend of Jacobs. “To me it was bigger than an action film. Phil’s journey is a classic hero’s journey — it has all the makings of a great movie.”
“Standing Silent” was filmed between 2007 and 2010, with a three-person crew that traveled with Jacobs through Baltimore’s suburbs and to Israel, eventually recording more than 125 hours of video, much of it interviews with victims and alleged perpetrators.
The story took over Jacobs’s career in a way that surprised him. Tall and lanky with a softspoken manner, Jacobs, 58, still lives in Baltimore and is still married to his high school sweetheart. The Baltimore native and University of Maryland alumnus had worked for the Jewish Times company for 30 years, and while he “never wanted to cover Bubbie and Zaidy at the Gefilte Fish Ball,” he says from his new Rockville office at Washington Jewish Week, where he became editor in chief last summer, “I also didn’t expect this.”
“Standing Silent” depicts a community struggling to come to terms with a problem that, Jacobs says, has remained underreported for years and seems only recently to have attracted the attention of advocates and lawmakers.
There are no hard numbers to document the extent of the problem, but Elaine Witman, director of the Shofar Coalition, a nonprofit agency that provides services for victims of sexual and other abuse in the Baltimore area’s Jewish community, says the center is seeing an increase in the number of Jews coming forward to report abuse. In 2010, 67 people requested help for childhood sexual abuse from the coalition. That number nearly doubled in 2011, to 132 people, said Witman, who attributes the increase to Jacobs’s articles and the coalition’s efforts toreduce the shame that has kept the issue quiet for so long.
Jacobs says he was haunted by the abuse he says he suffered as a child but that ”it was 1967 and no one talked about things like that, and I didn’t have the words to describe it.”
There are also cultural reasons for silence, stemming at least in part from a Jewish law known as “mesirah,” which forbids informing on a fellow Jew to secular authorities. The law is integral to a culture of self-protection rooted in centuries of anti-Semitism, according to Rabbi Yosef Blau, spiritual adviser of Yeshiva University in New York.
Reporting sexual abuse first to a rabbi is the recommended protocol of Agudath Israel of America, a national Orthodox umbrella group with an affiliated synagogue in Pikesville. The organization — whose influence in some Orthodox communities is similar to that of the Vatican among some Catholics, Blau says — issues opinions on policy matters.
Blau, whose efforts to hold the community accountable for sexual abuse are highlighted in the documentary, says the protocol endangers children. He draws a parallel with the Roman Catholic Church, where a pervasive culture of silence and denial made clergy unlikely to pass abuse accusations along to police.
“Why go to a rabbi? Are these rabbis qualified? Do you call the police if you want to find out if food is kosher?” said Blau. “The problem is the community doesn’t want to bring a shame on Orthodox Judaism if these crimes get reported. But I would argue that we have an obligation to protect our children first.”