Victims' advocate accused of misconduct


Several groups severs ties with colleague over allegations

by Michael Orbach

Online exclusive: April 23, 2010/ 9 Iyar, 5770

In the world of Jewish advocacy against sexual abuse, a sense of solidarity exists among activists who see themselves as waging an uphill battle against communal leaders who have failed in their responsibilities. But in a rare moment on Wednesday, April 21, one activist called out another.

Vicki Polin, CEO of the Awareness Center, an organization devoted to combating sexual abuse in the Jewish community, sent an email blast to her supporters in which she warned about a charismatic new activist, Kal Holczler.

Holczler founded Voices of Dignity, an organization with goals similar to her own, but the Awareness Center, Polin wrote, would be severing all ties with Voices of Dignity. (Holczler was profiled in The Jewish Star on March 12.) She cited a number of reasons.

The first, Polin said, is Voices of Dignity's association with SOVRI, the Support Orthodox Victims of Rape and Incest Helpline, based out of Beth Israel Medical Center.

"The SOVRI Helpline is an organization whose policy is not to make hotline reports in cases where they suspect a child is at risk of harm," she wrote. "They have been justifying this by saying that since they are a volunteer based organization, they are not mandated to report."

Given the extensive cover-ups of sexual abuse that have occurred in the Jewish community, activists consider failing to report to be a grievous offense.

"They fear that no one will utilize their services if they do the right thing, and protect children when they suspect they are at risk of harm and or neglect," Polin wrote.

Polin saved her most serious allegations for last. Holczler and Voices of Dignity's managing director, Melanie Curtin, have "current and past connection" with a San Francisco-based movement called One Taste, which promotes a form of deviant sexual behavior. More importantly and more dangerously, Polin concluded, "Holczler has been allegedly coaching unsuspecting female survivors with his techniques in the guise of healing them from sexual trauma. Holczler is not a licensed mental health professional nor does he have any degrees in the field or certifications as a rape crisis counselor."

Rabbi Yosef Blau, mashgiach ruchani of Yeshiva University, and one of the leading rabbinical figures in raising sexual abuse awareness, also weighed in.

"I have been told by reliable sources," he wrote on the Frumfollies blog, "that Kal Holczler has behaved improperly with survivors of abuse whom he was 'helping.'"

Ben Hirsch, president of Survivors for Justice, another advocacy organization, told The Jewish Star that "while we have no direct knowledge of the facts here, any allegations of improper boundary crossing must be taken seriously."

"Clearly such behavior can never be tolerated," he continued. "It is incumbent upon those of us who have spent years painstakingly working on this issue to be vigilant in protecting the integrity of this effort."

Polin met Holczler at an advocacy event called Male Survivor's Conference; Polin had invited him to speak on their panel. She was taken by his charisma, she said, although she was also alarmed by Holczler's willingness to work with SOVRI. She asked Holczler to respond to her concerns but said that he never did.

Polin was not at liberty to discuss the allegations of sexual misconduct against Holczler, she said.

"There's allegations of him being inappropriate with people whom he has been counseling," she explained. "I could not write or send something out unless I had enough information."

She struck a note of compassion for Holczler's situation: "I mean, he's a survivor [of sexual abuse] and like any other survivors we have our struggles and issues. It's obvious that Kal has issues that haven't been resolved and worked through. Is his behavior criminal? That would be up to a court. Was he being sexually reactive? I don't know. He obviously needs help... My hope is he'll get help and everything will be okay. I'm scared. I don't want anyone to get hurt," Polin said.

In her letter Polin stated that Holczler and Curtin are entitled to do whatever they want, but the allegations are no less strange given Polin's own history. On May 1, 1989, Polin appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show claiming that she was a survivor of a Jewish ritual satanic cult (the clip is available on YouTube). Polin, who went by the name Rachel, spoke about how she and her family sacrificed babies to the devil.

"Does everyone else think it's a nice Jewish family?" Oprah asked? "From the outside, you appear to be a nice Jewish girl?" Polin responded that there were several other Jewish families like hers, though she added, "Not all Jewish people sacrifice babies. I mean, it's not a very typical thing."

The Anti-Defamation League criticized Oprah over the program. Since then, the video has been linked to a variety of anti-Semitic websites as 'proof' about Jewish Satanic cults.

Polin won't discuss her appearance on the Oprah show, except "with law enforcement who are investigating the case." However, she forwarded The Jewish Star information about her appearance gathered by Luke Ford, a blogger in Los Angeles. Everyone involved in The Awareness Center is aware of her appearance, she says, which took place some 20 years ago.  Several volunteers run the organization out of Polin's home in Baltimore.

"The majority of people who go into the mental health field go into it for different things that happened in their life, not necessarily sexual abuse," Polin asserted. "The same thing with people who go into law enforcement - someone touched by some kind of crime."

The Awareness Center's website functions as a morbid Who's-Who of Jewish sexual abuse offenders. Most activists regard Polin as a key player in raising awareness of sexual abuse.

"On some levels I think if it wasn't for Vicki there wouldn't be much of an advocacy program in the Jewish community," said Dr. Michael Salamon, a Hewlett-based psychologist who serves on the board of The Awareness Center and is also an occasional contributor to The Jewish Star.

"There is no doubt that Vicki has put in many years under very difficult circumstances working for people who were abused in the community and has contributed a great deal helping individuals and creating the growing awareness of the seriousness of the problem and the need for communal change," said Rabbi Blau.

Holczler said he was "shocked" by Polin's email and flatly denied having any improper relationships with other survivors.

"I'm not claiming to treat anyone, I'm not even giving an endorsement. I showed up in New York and I started listening," Holczler told The Jewish Star on Thursday.

He defended his relationship with SOVRI. " They're a professional organization. It's legitimate; it's run by certified mental health professionals," Holczler said.

Cheryl Friedman, co-coordinator of the SOVRI Helpline and a clinical social worker at the Beth Israel Medical Center in Brooklyn, where SOVRI is based, called Polin's complaints, "unfounded."

"Her bone of contention is that if there was a child abuse case we would not report it," said Friedman, said. "At our helpline, we don't have enough information. For example, we do not know how old our callers are, or where they live; we don't have Caller ID. There is no mechanism for us to have the information [that] she's referring to."

Friedman said she would have been happy to speak with Polin about the issue, "but we were not given the opportunity." She said that she believed the letter was sent out because Holczler was asked to denounce the SOVRI Hotline and declined to do so.

Friedman has been in touch with Holczler about getting grants to form a coalition of organizations in the Jewish community, she said.

Holczler said that he believes Polin's letter is a result of a difference of opinion about how to interact with the Orthodox "establishment" of institutions and organizations.

"I cannot avoid or reject the establishment where I want to see the change happen," Holczler explained. "There are people in the establishment that really want change but need to be educated and need to be held responsible. Today, it's almost common knowledge someone speaking about sexual abuse has rabbinical support."

Holczler does not deny his and Curtin's involvement in One Taste, but said that he has not been a part of the movement in a year and a half.

"I'm aware of the statistics that people who have gone through sexual abuse will have promiscuity in their history and I fall in the same category," he said. "I've made decisions to deal and heal from the abuse [I experienced] growing up in New Square."

The allegations have spooked at least one of Holczler's earlier supporters.

"Kal has the potential to play a vital role in the struggle against

complacency and cover up in  Charedi communities," said Isaac Schonfeld, a community activist. "Being from a Charedi community gives him the credibility, within those communities, that others don't have. Being himself a victim of abuse gives him an empathy and understanding that others may lack, but it also too easily leads to dangerous crossings of lines when dealing with other victims of abuse. He correctly notes that he is not a counselor or therapist and therefore most definitely should not be advising victims themselves. Kal has a 'conquer the world' youthful dynamism [that is] so important, yet in need of sober direction."

Holczler said he plans to continue his work in the abuse field.

"My claim was not that I have recovered; I have survived; I am healthy and wealthy," Holczler said. "That's not my claim. My claim is I'm still dealing with it."