With 21 months left on the registry, life was going great and I was on a high! There was light at the end of the tunnel. Unfortunately, that light was an out of control train heading straight toward me.
Picture this: Yom Kippur is our holiest day of the year. We learn about repentance, forgiveness and fresh starts. On Yom Kippur, we fast from sundown to sundown. At the end, we eat a meal that we so cleverly call “Break the Fast.” At the Temple, we offer a community-wide meal for people who want to stay.
As the President of the Temple, here’s how I spent the holiday:
- 7:00 PM Arrive at Temple for 7:30 service.
- Make sure the security guard is there
- Greet people as they arrive.
- Check in on people with honors
- Make sure to greet special guests and Temple donors
- 7:30 PM – 9:00 PM Sit on the bimah (our altar) stay alert, awake and look engaged
- 9:30 AM (Next Day) – Arrive / security / greet/ Check with Break the fast crew
- 10:00 AM Sit on bimah during service. Assist anyone who comes up for an honor
- 12:30 PM After service, lead effort to set up the Temple for the break the fast
- Set up tables and chairs
- 1:30 PM Attend the Family Service led by our Cantor for families with younger children
- This was a small group setting with parents and children together. Mostly singing.
- 2:30 PM Go back to the kitchen and cut bagels, peel eggs, and help get ready for break the fast (Unfortunately, I missed the afternoon study session because my help was needed in the kitchen)
- 4:30 PM-7:30 PM Attend afternoon and concluding services
- 7:30 PM Blow the shofar to mark the end of the holiday (not typical of most presidents but I’ve been doing it for over 20 years)
- 7:45 PM Eat bagel & lox and rest of dinner. Socialize and clean up.
- 9:00 PM lock the doors and go home
The next morning, I received a phone call from a Temple member who is a friend. That phone call was reminiscent of my arrest in 2008 and was another pivotal moment in my life.
Here’s what I learned from the call: while I was helping at the Temple, one of our female congregants was at a private break the fast dinner. She shared with the host and guests that I am on the sex offense registry in Connecticut. She pulled out her phone, went to the registry website and proved it. She texted the information to others. She expressed how uncomfortable she was that I would be around children. I found out later that she had spent the day, our day of atonement, spreading the “news” to anyone who would listen.
So, there was quite a bit of a stir on Yom Kippur, a holiday where we basically encourage second chances. Our religion stresses that gossip Is evil (even when it’s true.) And although I committed a crime ten years prior and had done nothing but positive actions for the community since then, I was once again in the spotlight as an offender. But not just your everyday, run of the mill offender – the monster of our time – the Sex Offender!
Now please stay with me because this story quickly escalates from frustrating to horrific.
Honestly, my first reaction was concern for the woman who was upset. She’s not one of the regulars at the Temple and I had only recently started to get to know her husband. He had volunteered to work on negotiating a leasing deal with the YMCA where they would use or building for an after-school care program. But my very existence made her frightened for her children.
I was then told by another board member that some of the Temple parents who just learned about my status on the registry had some concerns. (Gosh, wonder where they learned ??) The board member who oversaw the religious school asked me to speak with the parents who had concerns that Sunday. In my attempt to make things better, I agreed to go.
I was nervous but had my fiancé at my side. I knew we could get through this situation and come out stronger by being straight and up-front with people. I thought I would be speaking with a few parents who knew and had concerns. That wasn’t the case.
The Board member passed the communication task to one of the lead teachers and told her to send out an email. She, not quite knowing how to handle the situation didn’t bother to ask for help. Instead she sent out an open, school-wide invitation to speak with the Temple President. Parents thought they were coming in to speak with the President of the Temple about the Temple and religious school in general. As I launched into my background, it became clear that I was in a nightmarish scenario for everyone involved. The meeting quickly dissolved into a major blunder, triggering many in attendance. The Board member who called the meeting sat there, doing nothing to gain control, help those who were triggered or bring a sense of reason to the meeting. My fiance and I felt that we should do something to arrange for counseling for the people who attended who became visibly shaken and shared some of the past trauma from their lives, but we were in position to do anything at that point.
We left the meeting and went to a regional volunteer event to sort the food donations that the area synagogues had collected over the holiday. While we were there, a few board members who were still at the Temple decided to take matters further into their own hands. They met and hatched their plan. I would learn the outcome the next day.
Monday morning, I was on the way to work when I received a call from a member of the self-appointed “fix-it” team who I refer to as the vigilante board. That individual insisted that I take a call after work with him and a handful of others—another ambush. He was dictating what time the call would be and who would be on it. I told him that I’d prefer to wait a few days until the Rabbi returned from a family trip, but he persisted. That evening I was presented with a proposal. Essentially, they wanted me to continue all of the “good work” I was doing, only I should do it in the shadows from now on. They didn’t want me to be visible. I was to agree to not being in the building during any youth events. Second, they wanted me to be paraded in front of additional parents who didn’t have the opportunity to publicly shame me in the first botched go-around. And third, they wanted me to immediately inform the YMCA of my past.
On the call, I gave the vigilante board no answer other than to say I would be speaking with the Rabbi when he returned. They weren’t satisfied with that answer and wanted to know when I would provide a response. I just reiterated I would be speaking with the Rabbi who was expected home the next day.
In the meantime, because there was so much talk about the YMCA, I decided that I would inform them of my criminal record. There are so many reasons why my past was irrelevant. For starters, I was an unpaid volunteer of the Temple who works during the day in another town while the program would be running. I wouldn’t have anything to do with the day to day operations. Moreover, although I committed an internet-based offense over a decade ago, I am not a risk to children.
I contacted the YMCA and spoke with the senior person in charge of the daycare programming. She agreed that since it was a YMCA program not run by the Temple. I’d have nothing to do with their staff of customers, there was no issue. That was Tuesday.
On Friday, a parent called the YMCA to inform them of my status. As soon as they received that “tip” from one of our congregants, the YMCA pulled out of the deal. I called the President of the local YMCA and tried logic. I even offered to resign my position on the board. He angrily said “no.” A major part of the problem was that the YMCA had signed up children without Temple knowledge prior to our settling on the contract. After his angry and unprofessional phone exchange, the YMCA notified the parents that there was a safety concern. They took no responsibility. Although they didn’t provide my name, they might as well have. The publication of my name paired with the label of sex -offender wouldn’t be too far off.
I’m getting a little ahead of myself. Between Tuesday and Friday, there was some light. I reached out to the national organization where our congregation is affiliated. I spoke with the head of our religious movement who treated me with dignity and compassion. With help from him and a few others, I drafted a letter to the entire congregation “outing” myself and asking for community support to continue leading. The support I received personally was overwhelming. At that moment, I had hope that I’d be able to continue the good work I was doing for the community. The amazing support while much appreciated was all directed at me by individuals. No one was looking for ways for the entire Temple to support and back me. There were no efforts to put the onus back on the YMCA where it belonged. I was left on my own.
Once word spread that the YMCA pulled out, there were a few individuals who were all too eager to share that the safety issue was me. The news that the President of the Jewish religious organization in town was just too good for the gossipers. But, for some, it got even better!
We were still in October and the midterm elections were approaching quickly. In addition to being Rabbi, our Rabbi was also an elected member of the Town Council. He’s known about my past since the day after my arrest in 2008 and I credit him with bringing me back to life. He was also trying to help our town solve the aftercare issue. It was a Win-Win situation.
Members of one of the major political parties in town (Party A) started emailing each other. Their goal was to figure out how to best use this situation for political advantage. Would they work to just get the Rabbi to resign from the Town Council or would they look to embarrass all of the opposing party (Party B)? Maybe if played right, they could do damage on a state level. Would they act immediately or save their virtual grenade to do more damage later?
And they didn’t just leave it at emails. They took to social media. People started weighing in. Many people who have never met me had unkind words to say about me. One woman expressed outrage that her child had taken an SAT Preparation class at the Temple. Oh, the horror! We were now entering full panic mode.
The Town Council held their open meeting that Monday night. I watched on my computer as it was broadcast from the town’s website. When the YMCA came up on the agenda, each council member from Party A expressed outrage at what had happened. Rather than correcting the record, members from Party B piled on.
A few residents stood up and demanded that the Rabbi step down from his position on the council. They talked about the shocking revelations and how they were so glad that my background became known because they almost put their children into the program. One parent, who was friendly with the husband of the wife who started the gossip-train rolling, delivered a very dramatic performance. Her outrage at the microphone was only slightly overshadowed by her glee when she returned to her seat. She would eventually be rewarded by assuming the Rabbi’s seat on the Town Council.
During the meeting, the local television news stations had their cameras rolling.
And then the most disappointing thing of all happened. The Mayor made a statement. The Mayor who called me personally the day before to tell me it would all be all right. The Mayor who I had supported in various ways. The Mayor who is a good personal friend of the Rabbi’s. The Mayor simply said, “I have kids too and I would be concerned,” as he posed for the television cameras. (Side note: when I eventually confronted him on his comment weeks later, he told me that he feared for anti-Semitism in the town and he was doing it to calm the situation. He may believe that, but I call bullshit).
The next few days brought an onslaught of media attention. Multiple local newspapers and television news outlets couldn’t get enough. It was media gold with Jews behaving badly, a Rabbi, a Sex Offender, devastated parents, and young children at risk of association with Predators. The major regional paper even resurrected parts of the story they ran following my arrest 10 years early, mistakes and all. The way they worded it, they made it sound like I was deviously trying to get a program running where I would have access to children, and they implied that I would have been running the program.
The Associated Press picked up the story and, as a result, my story was in national publications and in regional news around the world. I begged a national Jewish publication not to print my picture. I had a choice of providing a picture or they would publish my photo from the registry.
At this point, I was still President of the Temple. A handful of outraged and angry congregants sent emails wanting to know what we were going to do to stop the press. The Rabbi had spoken with a few reporters in an attempt to bring back reason, but the media chose to make it seem like the Rabbi was involved in a cover-up.
In the middle of the week, the Rabbi called. He had been pressured to resign from his Town duties: as Town Council member as well as clergy for the Fire and Police Departments. He was advised that if I was ever going to resign it should be on the same day so that we only go through one more news cycle. So, I drafted and submitted my resignation as President of the Board.
I had also been on Facebook. The State of Connecticut didn’t care but Facebook Terms prohibit anyone who has ever committed a sexual offense. I had been using Facebook as an administrator of the Temple’s page, an extended family page, a college alumni page and to keep in touch with family and friends. Someone who had seen all of the media reported me to Facebook and “poof* my account was gone.
At the Temple
The moral panic was in full swing. The Rabbi decided he would invite clergy from another faith to come and speak that Friday night for our weekly Shabbat service.
The sanctuary was packed. The majority of people came out to support me, but a few came because they viewed this situation as a way to embarrass and hurt our Rabbi. The supporters came over and hugged me.
The Rabbi invited the guest minister to speak. We’re a liberal synagogue with many interfaith couples. The guest speaker starts talking about Jesus as the Savior. I really wanted to hear what he had to say, but a few congregants started heckling him. They didn’t like that he was talking about Jesus. One congregant yelled out, “I didn’t come here on Shabbat to hear this.” It was disrespectful and horrifying to sit there in a fractured community that wasn’t living up to our values where we like to quote the prophet Isaiah by saying that “Our House Shall be Called a House of Prayer for All Peoples.” I wasn’t embarrassed for trying to help the community or for turning my life around, but I was deeply ashamed that my fellow congregants were behaving so inhospitable. Unfortunately, I was still in shock from the political and media hatchet job that I sat there and didn’t say anything.
The Rabbi cut the Minister’s talk short and thanked him. One of our prior Presidents stopped the Minister to give him a gift and then sent him on his way. Very awkward.
The Mayor jumped up to save the day. The same Mayor who didn’t stand up for me or for his close friend, the Rabbi. Now, on our Shabbat, he addressed the congregation. Here’s what I heard, “blah, blah, blah, blah, blah……,” followed by “even though I am a Muslim, I tell people that your Rabbi is my Rabbi and this is my Temple. I want you to know that I’ve got your back.” He looked at me when he said “I’ve got your back.” He flashed the thumbs up and his best camera smile. I felt sick.
We finally began the service. During our prayer of healing, we mention the names of people who are ill. Someone mentioned mine and my supporters seemed ready to punch the guy. When the Rabbi gave his sermon, he apologized for bringing in the minister. He talked about his years of service with fire and police department and he made it clear that when there was a conflict between politics and being a Rabbi, he chose to be a Rabbi. He didn’t mention how gossip is one of the biggest evils and how our own community had acted poorly. And while he was very supportive of me since my arrest and recently with the press, at that moment, I felt great disappointment.
After ten years of turning my life around and giving back a tremendous amount to the community, I couldn’t have written a better redemption story. But that wasn’t enough. The media and politicians had their own agendas and wanted to stick with their pre-determined mindsets. Congregants and members of the town simply reacted based on their own fears that have been stoked by media and the politicians. Who I am never mattered. Perhaps one day it will.
-End of Part 1 –
Stay tuned for Part 2 Advocacy
and Part 3 The Beginning