David Menachem Gordon was a lone soldier in the Israel Defense Forces during 2014’s Operation Protective Edge when he went missing one day in mid-August. Two days later, he was found dead, with his rifle beside him.
Gordon, who served in the Givati Brigade, lived for a time in White Oak with his family before making aliyah. He was a student at Hillel Academy of Pittsburgh from 2008 to 2010, and his parents, Ruth and Jacob Gordon, were members of the Orthodox Gemilas Chesed Synagogue.
But it was Gordon’s childhood in Detroit — where he was sexually abused from within the Orthodox community when he was 9 to 11 years old — that arguably had the greatest impact on the trajectory of his life.
David’s mother recounted his story to a packed auditorium at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh Sunday night as part of a program sponsored by Jewish Community Watch, a nonprofit founded in 2011 to combat child sexual abuse (CSA) in the Jewish community, and to help victims. JCW is based in New York.
Ruth Gordon has addressed other communities around the country on the subject of CSA since her son’s death, but this was the first time she has opened up to Pittsburgh.
“I suspected tonight would be difficult for me,” Gordon began, acknowledging the “hometown crowd.”
“This is very humbling,” she said. “I hope we can learn something together here tonight that will help us all, especially our children.”
Gordon’s objective, she said, was to “dispel the notion that [CSA] can’t happen here or ‘in my family.’ It could, and it does.”
While none of the abuse her son suffered occurred while the Gordons were living in the Pittsburgh area, she stressed that it is plausible that other children nonetheless could be affected here.
David Gordon was sexually abused in Detroit by four older teenage boys “from upstanding religious homes,” Gordon said. All the abuse occurred in places deemed to be safe by both adults and children: the JCC, on day school grounds, at the Kollel.
David kept the abuse secret, his mother said, until his 16th birthday. The revelation came as a shock to his family.
“I’m a social worker,” Gordon said. “All the training I had could never have prepared me for what my son and my whole family endured.”
Compounding the family’s pain was its rejection by the Orthodox community once David went public with his secret.
“We were shunned and embarrassed by the very leaders we were to trust,” she said. “We as a family felt very isolated and abandoned.”
The Gordons were forced to go outside their Jewish community for help and sought support from the local police.
Gordon condemned those in the Jewish community who prioritize shielding an abuser and his family from embarrassment above the welfare of victims.
“Anyone protecting a perp,” she said, “is bringing that very shame and embarrassment to the victim and his family.”
David ultimately turned to drugs and then found support at a church that hosted Narcotics Anonymous meetings, Gordon said, but added that there were some leaders of the Jewish community of Pittsburgh who came to his aid as well.
“I have tremendous gratitude to the teachers and rabbinim who did connect with David and offer love and support,” she said. “Some are in this room tonight.”
With that support, David began to heal. It was no surprise to his family, Gordon said, when David said he wanted to make aliyah and join the IDF. Once in Israel, he joined an organization similar to JCW and began to help other victims of abuse, writing blogs that were read by thousands of people all over the world.
The Gordon family eventually began receiving letters and phone calls from David’s former teachers “asking forgiveness” for failing to provide support.
“Nobody accused him of making it up,” Gordon said. “Nobody accused him of lying.”
Other speakers at the three-hour event included Rabbi Yossef Blau, the mashgiach ruchani of Yeshiva University; Det. Bryan Sellers of the Sex Assault Family Crisis Unit of the Pittsburgh Police; and CSA survivors Meyer Seewald, founder of JCW, and Eli Nash.
The overriding messages were that it is imperative to make protecting children a priority and that no community is immune from child sexual abuse.
“Sexual abuse is a problem everywhere, and it’s certainly a problem in our community,” said Blau, who has been involved with exposing sexual abuse in the Jewish community and helping victims for three decades.
Halachically, Blau said, a person is required to protect an individual whose life is at stake, and such is the case with victims of CSA, as the effects are long-lasting and devastating.
“We have a responsibility to protect that individual,” he said, “and an extra responsibility to protect children who are incapable often of even expressing what happened to them and coping with adults who have abused them.”
Within the Jewish community, Blau said, “there is a tremendous reluctance to turn to the secular authorities. But all acknowledge that if a person is a danger to the community and the community cannot handle it, he has to go to the [secular] authorities. The rabbinic courts do not have the training or the expertise to deal with this or the ability to carry out consequences.”
Abusers, he said, remain constant threats.
“Abusers don’t just abuse one child,” he said. “Even when they become 60, 70, 80 years old, that doesn’t stop them.
“Instead of trying to cover this up,” Blau continued, “we should be acting in favor of the victims, supporting them and working together with the police.”
Supporting a victim of CSA is halachically equivalent to saving a life, according to Rabbi Daniel Wasserman, spiritual leader of Shaare Torah Congregation. Protecting the victim, he said in an interview, takes priority over shielding the abuser and his family from shame.
Wasserman was in attendance at the JCW event.
“Once you understand that it is a matter of saving lives, any collateral damage [such as embarrassment to his family] is the fault of the abuser,” Wasserman said. “Now that’s not carte blanche to do everything and anything. But it is certainly required to go to the police and report it and do what you need to.
“This issue is a very difficult one and a very important one,” he said. “People who abuse children, especially people in authority who are abusing trust, are killing them, and we have a responsibility to take steps to stop it.”
No community is immune from CSA, Seewald said, including Pittsburgh.
While JCW is not investigating any allegation of current abuse in the Jewish community here, it is looking into claims that victims were abused in Pittsburgh about 20 years ago, Seewald said in an interview.
“Multiple victims have reached out for help from Pittsburgh,” he said. “Nothing is recent, but people usually come forward in their late 20s or 30s. One [alleged] perpetrator is no longer in the community.”
Gordon offered advice to other parents based on her own experiences.
“Please pay attention to your children,” she said. “If you see changes in your kids or see the red flag waving, act on your feelings. Watch your children. Know where they are and whom they are with. Children need to be supervised and this means at shul. And talk to your children, even if it’s uncomfortable. They may fear they will not be heard, or fear they will not be believed, or fear they will be shut out of their community.
“It is my fervent prayer that we as a community will not keep this hidden,” she said.
Quoting her son, she ended with his words: “At the end of the day, we all have to blush for a few minutes so others don’t have to bleed.”
For more information, go to jewishcommunitywatch.org.
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.