SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4 News) – A Utah rabbi may be the first of his order to come forward about experiencing childhood sexual abuse – a decision that did not come lightly for Rabbi Avrahom (Avremi) Zippel, leader at Chabad Lubavitch of Utah.
The abuse began when he was 8 years old and lasted until he was 18, Zippel – who is now 27 – told ABC4 News. Last April, his childhood nanny, 69-year-old Alavina Florreich was arrested on suspicion of at least 130 instances of child abuse. She was charged with five counts of aggravated child sex abuse and two counts of forcible sex abuse.
Charging documents claim that from approximately September 1, 1999, to July 17, 2009, Florreich sexually molested Zippel, who stated that when he was around 9 or 10, Florreich “undressed and encouraged him to touch her breasts while in the bathroom.” Probable cause statements also allege Florreich played with Zippel’s privates at that time.
Zippel also told investigators that when he was 13, he went to school out of state. When he would visit home, documents allege Florreich would still sexually touch him, masturbating him several times.
Zippel also claimed Florreich “convinced him that she was teaching him to be a good husband,” court documents show. Florreich also admitted to investigators she did touch Zippel’s penis and that she did show him her breast, according to the statement. She also excused her behavior by saying the touching was “all part of a boy’s curiosity and it was just him ‘learning.'”
Zippel said he had broken his leg when he was 20. During his down time, he says he was watching an episode of “Law and Order: Special Victims Unit,” in which a teen boy had to recount a consensual relationship with his nanny.
“It planted a seed,” said Zippel. “That seed kept nagging at him.” He realized he had been sexually abused.
Under the law, children cannot consent to sex with an adult. Zippel had lived his entire childhood thinking he had consented to the sexual relationship with his nanny. Guilt and shame overcame him during his formative years.
“‘Turmoil’ is probably a good word in the most general sense. Turmoil in the sense of – you don’t know what’s happening to you,” said Zippel, who was preparing for Sabbath when he interviewed with ABC4 News.
He always wanted to be a rabbi. He wanted the life of putting another’s spiritual needs before his own. He was a happy child, he said. He loved video games, basketball, and the Utah Jazz. He loved going to synagogue with his family.
He didn’t have an unhappy childhood, he said.
“I think I was a pretty cheerful kid,” said Zippel, who spoke confidently but with seemingly nervous fidgetiness during the interview. Coming out as a child sex abuse survivor has been a step out of his comfort zone, he said.
Zippel described the pain felt by that video-game playing, sports-loving boy all those years ago.
“It’s an intense loneliness,” he said. “Survivors of sexual abuse are probably in their own mind the loneliest people in the world. There’s a certain violation that you go through on your deepest levels that you’re convinced deeply sets you apart from every other person in the world.”
Zippel said the abuse that occurred during puberty perplexed his soul even more.
Zippel said his decision to come forward about the abuse was not to exact revenge against Florreich for what he said happened to him.
“It’s not personal,” he said. Still, he admitted that for him, coming forward was part of his personal path to healing – a path that looks different for all sexual abuse survivors, he said.
Elizabeth Smart, who survived months of child sexual abuse herself, has praised Zippel as a hero.
Zippel smiled when he spoke of his interactions with Smart.
“She says you should never ask a survivor a question that begins with the words…’why didn’t you?,'” he said. Some did ask him why he didn’t report the alleged abuse to his parents as it was happening.
He said that line of questioning can cause further damage to a soul already dead.
“As human beings we are internally wired to have a certain sanctity of self,” said Zippel. “We have kind of this core that we would like to believe remains protected at all times. And nobody can hurt that core. And for whatever reason, when one goes through sexual abuse, it’s that core that feels violated.”
“I think it’s the murder of the soul,” said Zippel. “It leads you to feel damaged and violated in the most intense way possible.”
Zippel is poised to testify in the Florreich’s trial. Her arraignment is scheduled for March 4.
He said right now, he’s focusing on the synagogue and his wife and two small sons.
He hopes to empower his sons against this type of abuse – but in a way he feels appropriate.
“The conversation that we need to be having with our kids does not require an intense amount of sexual education. I think it’s a question of safety. It’s a question of boundaries. It’s a conversation where we can tell our kids that they should feel absolutely comfortable to talk to us about everything,” he said.
His faith remains intact despite what he says happened to him as a child. He says his faith is what sustained him.
“I was continuously hoping and working to find a way to have my faith help me through this,” Zippel said. “My faith in God is really what gave me a lot of the tools to make it to where I am today.”
He urges other survivors of sex abuse to realize they are not alone. He also acknowledges that he will never be fully healed.
“Whether it’s medication or therapy … you will never be whole in that sense… you will never get back to your 8-year-old self,” said Zippel. “You can remember to seek help…you can remember to not feel alone…you can remember that the largest struggle that you will have is loneliness.”
And he’s there to help others in that struggle.