Chabad Rabbi Avrohom Zippel spoke out on Tuesday for the first time about his experience with childhood sexual abuse.
Zippel, who is stationed in Salt Lake City, Utah, appeared in court on Tuesday and testified that his childhood nanny, Alavina Florreich, sexually abused him for around 10 years. Zippel, now 27, told the Deseret News that he was inspired to speak out about his long-held secret by the #MeToo movement, and by gymnast Aly Raisman, who testified against her abuser in court last year.
After seeing a therapist, Zippel finally opened up to his family several years ago, but said he was resistant to turn to the police after keeping the pain and shame bottled up for so long. Zippel is among the first Orthodox rabbis to speak out about publicly being a survivor of sexual abuse.
“I was worried about not being accepted if I told the truth. I was worried about falling apart,” Zippel told Deseret News. “I didn’t know what ‘sexual abuse’ meant in this world, in this culture. I didn’t know if it was OK, if I would be banished and divorced or worse. I had never entertained the hypothetical idea that there was such a thing as an observant Jew from a Chabad community being a survivor of sexual abuse. It was not something talked about to one’s spouse, to one’s parents. It was a non-idea.”
But watching Raisman’s testimony, he said, gave him the strength to change his mind.
“Watching a person who had gone through so much of what I had gone through break that spell – that was the first time I thought to myself, ‘What if I could do that too?’” he told Deseret News.
And so last year – less than two weeks after Raisman appeared in court – he picked up the phone and told the Salt Lake City Police Department what happened.
Two months later, in March 2018, Florreich was arrested on suspicion of 131 counts of child abuse. She was later charged with five counts of aggravated sex abuse of a child and two counts of forcible sexual abuse. On Tuesday, the judge ruled that there was enough evidence for the case to advance.
According to police reports cited by Deseret News, Florreich told police she was teaching Zippel “to be a good husband” and that it was “all part of the boy’s curiosity.”
Zippel has met several times with Elizabeth Smart, a Salt Lake City native who was kidnapped as a child and held captive for nine months. Smart, now 31, has become an activist for child safety and missing persons.
“I think he’s a hero for speaking out,” Smart told Deseret News on Tuesday, appearing in court to support Zippel. “The amount of courage it takes to get up there – I know, I’ve done it – the amount of courage it takes to stand up in that box and talk about what happened openly, I mean, it’s terrifying. So he’s a hero, and he can become a voice for so many victims who are too scared to speak out.”
While it was a struggle for Zippel to come forward, he told the newspaper he hopes he can set an example for other survivors of sexual abuse, both in and outside the observant Jewish community.
“If I can help one person, if I can bring some sort of healing to one person by telling my story, then it’s worth it,” he said.