What Brought a 6'9" 400 lb Footballer to Tears?

Moving scenes as US, Israeli groups team up to raise awareness of and combat sexual abuse in the Jewish community.

Yitzchak Green ,

"Big Mike" tell of sexual abuse as a child
"Big Mike" tell of sexual abuse as a child
Tamara Schoor

Leibish Gondelman is known as “Big Mike” for a reason.

His six feet, nine inch stature and athleticism landed him a number of college football scholarships and have earned him a fearsome reputation in the Israeli Football League, where he plays for the Jerusalem Kings. But with Big Mike’s voice breaking as he told the story of the sexual abuse he suffered as a child to a crowd of 400 in Jerusalem on Monday night, it was easy to picture him as the once small and vulnerable 8-year-old in his native New York.

The largely Orthodox crowd was gathered at the Yeshuren Synagogue in Jerusalem for a night of awareness and education about child sexual abuse, an event sponsored by US-based Jewish Community Watch and Israel-based Magen. The night before, a similar event was held in Ramat Beit Shemesh.

Big Mike recounted being abused by his elementary public school principle in New York. Authority figures were informed about the abuse but did not report the principle, allowing it to continue until he was 12. This left him with a deep seated feeling that “no one cared about me” and led him down a long path of drug and alcohol abuse.

It took many years for Gondelman to clean himself up, but eventually he did, moving to Israel to open the “Jerusalem Sober House” where he helps young men and women with their path towards sobriety. Gondelman told the crowd that at most times, of the 12 beds in his sober house, 10 or 11 of them are filled by young men who had been sexually abused.

Two other survivors also spoke about their abuse for the first time. Freidel Shwarzberg, a lone soldier currently serving in the IDF, expressed the pain she experienced from the abuse she suffered and about the injuries caused to her soul. “A soul injury leaves no visible scars but it is just as bad as a body injury,” said Freidel.

Meir Rubinstein, a Yeshiva student, spoke about the abuse he endured at the hands of older students for two and a half years starting when he was just 13 years old. The shame stayed with him for a long time. “For six years I suffered in silence. I couldn’t speak about it to anyone. I was scared, ashamed, and embarrassed. I thought people would doubt my sexuality, look at me as a perpetrator. I thought people wouldn’t believe me.”

The event was emceed by LA prosecutor Benny Forrer. Other speakers included Dr. Norman Goldwasser, who spoke about therapy options for abuse victims, and Karen London, a social worker at a child protection service in Israel, who alked about the process of reporting abuse in Israel.

David Moriss, the CEO of Magen, ended the evening by explaining the services that Magen provides to the community and gave the crowd hope for a brighter future, by discussing an alliance of various Jewish anti-abuse organizations into a program called the Jewish Child Protection Organizations (JCPO).

These organizations are joining together to share their ideas and resources to fight child sexual abuse in Jewish communities around the world.

Meyer Seewald, the founder of JCW spoke directly to the survivors in the audience.

“After years of silence and shame, you have a place to turn to. Contact JCW or Magen! We will listen to you, we will believe you, we will validate you, we will empower you, and we will accept you as part of our family.”

JCW will be holding one last event in Israel together with Magen this coming Sunday, May 3 at 8 pm in Zayit Ra'anan Synagogue, 34 Zayit Shemen St. (at HaKtoret St.) in Efrat. See here for details.