Mark “Mutty” Weiss of Highland Park will never forget the day his repressed memories of sexual abuse came flooding back.
He was 18 and in his boyhood synagogue in Chicago on Sukkot in 1984 when he went to greet the man, a prominent member of the Orthodox community, to whom his family had entrusted their troubled young son several years earlier.
“I started to walk up to him and it hit me like a ton of bricks what had happened,” recalled Weiss, who said the man had abused him. “I whipped around and ran home crying.”
Twenty-five years later, Weiss continues his efforts to bring the man to justice in the United States.
Weiss told his story before a hushed crowd of 450 at Congregation Ohr Torah in Edison during the Jan. 9 Orthodox Forum of Edison/Highland Park. The session was planned amid calls for increasing awareness of sexual abuse in Jewish religious settings, following a series of highly publicized incidents.
Joining Weiss at the program was Rabbi Yosef Blau, a spiritual adviser at Yeshiva University who has been active in fighting sexual abuse in the Orthodox community.
Blau said, “We have to change the culture” that causes some Orthodox to be leery of going to authorities, protects abusers, and leaves children so ignorant that they don’t understand what’s being done to them.”
Blau cited influential Orthodox decisors who have said it is permissible to go to higher authorities to prevent “ongoing danger.”
“We’re not going to tolerate the notion that we’re more concerned with the welfare of a predator over the welfare of those who suffer,” he said. “Our children don’t deserve our protection?”
Addressing the once taboo topic was an idea conceived by program chair Deborah Teitz and others around her Shabbat table in September, when Weiss was a guest.
“We listened to Mutty’s story of being molested as a child,” she said. “He is such a well-known advocate for child sex-abuse victims.”
The 43-year-old Weiss has been trying to get that message out for many years among the fervently Orthodox and in Modern Orthodox areas such as Highland Park and Edison.
“I can’t say what a mitzva it is to help a survivor,” the father of three said. “These people have had their humanity stripped from them.”
While public schools have had fingerprinting and background checks for all employees for some years, yeshivas and day schools have lagged behind in screening for those with prior abuse records as well as in adopting policies for handling allegations of sexual misconduct.
Weiss urged parents to demand such safeguards or put recalcitrant institutions out of business.
“You need to vote with your dollars,” he said.
Weiss recounted the story he has told in various media: He was sent as a troubled 13-year-old to spend time with the psychologist son of a prominent Chicago rabbi. Weiss described the son, Avrohom Mondrowitz, as “a charmer” who would take him out to meals and amusement parks. He said he was abused by Mondrowitz during one of their overnight trips.
Mondrowitz was eventually turned in by non-Jewish youngsters in the mixed Jewish-Italian neighborhood where he was living; he fled to Israel to avoid prosecution. “Not one single Jewish child” or family ever came forward, said Blau. Weiss kept quiet about his experiences for years; he began telling his story in 2000.
More than two years ago the U.S. Department of Justice moved to have Mondrowitz extradited to face child sexual abuse charges first handed down in Brooklyn in 1984. He is currently in an Israeli jail while the case is decided.
Weiss, an electronics integrator, said his goal is to work full-time in victim advocacy.
“It’s not a religion-based problem, it’s a people problem,” he said. “There is always going to be X number of victims and perpetrators and religion has nothing to do with it.”
For information on how to help sexual abuse victims of report abusers or if you are a victim looking for support services, contact Mark Weiss at firstname.lastname@example.org.