My Experience with Advocacy

By Asher Lowy (Our Voices blog)
January 15, 2013

Advocate. Noun. As defined by Oxford: A person who puts a case on someone else’s behalf. There is a legal concept in monetary halacha called Zachin l’adam shelo b’fanav, that you can acquire something for a person without his knowledge or presence, and that something will legally be in his possession. This only applies, however, if the acquisition is for the benefit of the intended recipient; if, however, the acquisition does not benefit the intended recipient, or harms him, then the acquisition is invalid and it is not his. As I understand advocacy, the intended functions are similar. You are acting on behalf of a survivor who either cannot or will not, due to situation, circumstance, or lack of means, in their best interests, whether that means arranging therapy, or doctor visits, securing legal representation, helping them navigate the labyrinthine justice system, or just being there for them when they have no one else. At least that’s how I understood it.

I first got involved in the (pardon the term) “abuse community” following my own abuse. After publishing an article in Ami magazine about my story, I decided I had to get more involved. I begun by writing the manuscript for a book I’ve since shelved, but that wasn’t enough. So I started volunteering at Our Place, a drop-in center for at-risk kids. Mind you, “at-risk” in this context does not mean at risk of going “off the derech;” at-risk means at risk of dying from drug overdoses, drive by shootings from angry drug dealers, winding up in prison for theft, assault, or even murder. I started my work there with a head full of idealistic notions of kiruv and self-improvement. I was going to help kids with the benefit of my experience and solid grounding in hashkafah. I was going to help kids with the backing of a community that must care enough about their kids, a community that if asked for help would surely respond enthusiastically.

I remember the first time I was painfully disillusioned of my notions of community and support from our leaders. I was talking to the owner of Our Place, asking him if perhaps we could get a few gedolim to support us, help us raise much needed funds. He laughed at the idea and told me that he had approached many rabbonim and had gotten responses varying from “I’m sorry, I can’t” to “Get out, your organization is terrible.” When I started telling people that I worked for Our Place I got mixed responses, too. Some people commended me for my selflessness and desire to work with such difficult people; others told me that we were encouraging the problem; that we were helping kids go off the derech, helping them get addicted to drugs; that we were not doing enough to ensure that otherwise good kids weren’t negatively influenced and sucked into street life. Despite my best arguments, they would not hear reason. I gave up on them.

Slowly I began to give up on more and more of my community. First I lost faith in the leaders, and then in the administrators, and then in the people themselves. Here were kids, most of whom were victims of some kind of abuse, kids who had begged for help but were thrown out of yeshivos for their efforts, kids, some of whom, whose lives are so bad, and homes so abusive, that they would prefer to sleep in homeless shelters rather than go home--or a park bench if a shelter wouldn't have them. Kids whose situations were created, exacerbated, and maintained by a community I had believed in. Kids who had been abandoned and driven from the community. And we were their last haven. We were the only people willing to give them help. The funny thing is, that the community welcomes back our success stories with open arms (providing they wear black hats and sit in kolel for the requisite amount of time).

So I got used to the idea that I was alone (barring one small oasis) in a community that would never accept me. No one would ever accept me for who I am with my history of abuse and what it did to change me. And then I stumbled across a forum for Jewish survivors of abuse. Given my history, I joined. At first when I joined I didn’t really think I needed a support group; as far as I was concerned I was healed. I joined in a support capacity, figuring that I could do for them what I had done for Our Place. I later realized just how much help I really needed and they’ve really helped me along in my healing process. About two months after I joined, I started getting more involved in people’s lives on the forum. If there was a problem someone needed help with, I made myself available to do what I could.

As I started getting involved in more and more of these cases, I started to explore the world of advocates, advocacy, and awareness. It seemed incredible at first--a world of people who openly acknowledged their pasts, who owned their pasts, people who were passionate about helping survivors, and put their livelihoods and reputations on the line to do what they can for another human being, frum or not. There were websites listing names, photos, and information on known sex abusers, and offering support to their victims. Organizations that held events for survivors where they could meet and have fun and find acceptance among similar people. People who were willing to tell their stories publicly, to go on TV despite all the communal pressure to stay silent, to protest outside a DA’s office or internet asifah, or fundraiser in Williamsburg. People who didn’t care about the pressures of shidduchim, or kibbudim in shul, or what Chatzkel would tell Yankel in the mikvah about him. Heroes.

My world went from a place consisting of everyone else and Our Place Island, the only place I would be safe, to an ever expanding utopia of survivors and advocates, all living harmoniously, all there to help one another. If we ever had a problem, the advocates were only a call or email away, ready with all the help we could need. But there was a pin for that over-inflated bubble. The pop came when I heard a certain advocate make a rude comment about a female survivor’s ass and what he would like to do with it. Another came when another advocate encouraged a very impressionable survivor to extort her abuser, despite the statute of limitations being up. Had she gone ahead with his plan, her abuser could very well have gone into his local police precinct, told them that he had sexually abused her twenty years prior and that she was now extorting him by threatening to out him, have her arrested, and gone home scott-free.

When confronted about his advice, he declined to comment. Instead, a friend of his, another advocate, responded for him. She accused us of going after a good man whose only concern was for that girl’s wellbeing. When we told her what he had done, she denied it. He finally joined the conversation and denied it as well. When we brought proof that he had indeed told her that, he claimed she was lying, that she was mentally disturbed, that everyone knows she’s a slut who couldn’t be trusted, and then he revealed personal information about her that he had no business telling us about. When I told him that he should be keeping confidentiality, he said he saw no need and was under no ethical requirement to do so. He clearly did not understand that being an advocate means he is supposed to work for a survivor’s best interests, among which is confidentiality.

When I told him that, his friend joined back in the conversation and asked me who the hell I was. I told her I was a twenty year old survivor who was concerned about the way the duo was advocating for him, she basically told me to shut up, that I was a nobody who had no right to talk to her that way after all she had done for the cause, and that I was a little kid who couldn’t possibly know enough to be qualified to open his mouth on the subject. I then told her that regardless of my age, she and her friend called themselves advocates, and by definition they exist to serve my best interests. If I feel my best interests are not being served, or are being hurt by your actions, I told her, then you are, in fact, by definition, not advocates. I earned the title pompous ass for my troubles.

A while later, I found out about a sexual harassment case that had been brought against a very prominent advocate back in 2002, that had been quashed. Someone had posted about it on a well-known advocacy site, and it confirmed what I had already suspected about that advocate’s character. When I checked back a few days later, the posting had been removed. After looking into it I was told that the owner of the site had been pressured into removing it. I asked around a little about it through some of my other contacts, and they all said they had seen it, but because they didn’t want to cause a fight they kept silent about it. Starting to feel a little like deja vu all over again.

The people I spoke to about my concerns all told me that I had no choice but to take the bad with the good, that they do good work, and that despite the harm they cause to survivors, those advocates mean well. A while back I wrote a piece about the flaws I saw in the advocates and the way they conduct themselves, but a friend convinced me not to publish it. The problems have not gone away, though. In fact, some of them have only gotten worse. I’ve seen survivors intimidated and bullied by advocates who pressure them into going public with their stories before they are actually ready to, or before they’ve started really healing. While it is a terrible thing to pressure someone to stay silent, pressuring someone to come forward before they are ready can be nearly as devastating emotionally.

I’m putting this piece up on the STS blog because I know that none of the other abuse blogs will ever publish something this inflammatory. Sound familiar? I’m reminded of the days when I was shopping around for frum publications willing to publish my articles on abuse, only now the situation is reversed. It’s becoming more and more apparent lately, that we have more in common with our enemy than we would care to admit. The advocates we have, for the most part, are self-proclaimed and uncredentialed. What defines an advocate in the Jewish world is anyone who decides that they are an advocate. Had an interview with the news once? Congratulations, you are now an advocate. Wrote an article? You’re an advocate. I can almost hear Jeff Foxworthy building a routine around this. There is no accountability at all among the advocates, and no one ever hears about the damage some of them cause. No one will, because we’re so scared of losing the little we have that we’re too afraid to speak up when the people who claim to protect us lose sight of our needs.

An advocate works in the best interests of someone else, in this case, survivors. Anything else is not advocacy, it is self-service. There is no place for ego, or self-promotion, or one-upmanship, or selfishness in advocacy. The survivor’s best interests must always come forward. TV interviews and articles are lovely, but what ultimately matters is how many children you protect, and how many survivors you support. If a survivor tells you that something you’re doing is not in their best interests, then you lose the title “advocate” until that’s rectified. There are many good advocates out there who are attuned to the needs of survivors and do listen when we ask them to change. Interestingly enough, though, those people cringe when people call them “advocate.”