The Awareness Center
Founder and CEO
|Website||The Awareness Center website|
The Awareness Center, Inc., also known as the international Jewish Coalition Against Sexual Abuse/Assault, is a nonprofit institution whose stated mission is to end sexual violence in the Jewish community. The Center, headquartered in Skokie, Illinois, has been both praised and criticized for maintaining a website whose policy is to identify Jewish clergy and officials as alleged sexual predators, by name, whether or not they had been charged or sued. Critics say the Center made unfounded and unsubstantiated accusations.
The Center's founder and CEO made similarly unfounded accusations before incorporating the Center. Appearing on The Oprah Winfrey Show under a pseudonym, she claimed to have been raised in a secret, Satanic Jewish sect that practiced both child sexual abuse and human sacrifice. Video from this interview has been used by anti-Semitic groups to perpetuate the myth that Judaism countenances such practices.
History, goals and leadership
The Awareness Center was founded by Vicki Polin, a licensed clinical professional counselor, in 2001 and incorporated in 2003. It closed for a time in 2011, but has resumed operations. The Center's mission statement lists goals such as the development of an international data base and web page, an international speaker's bureau and an educational certification program for rabbis, cantors and other Jewish communal leaders.
In December 2010, the Center claimed the support of more than 260 rabbis from around the world. Rabbi Yosef Blau, a religious adviser at Yeshiva University and an advocate for survivors of sexual abuse and other misconduct by clergy, described the Center's website as very valuable. "Since you can't get people arrested and there are no court cases, you have to use a standard that's reasonable and [disclosure] works in that context."
The organization's brochure indicates that the Center provides educational training for survivors groups, community organizations, rabbis, teachers and parents. The Center's webpage describes active involvement in a movement to abolish the statute of limitations for filing civil suit against alleged and convicted sex offenders. It includes documents indicating that its executive director and founder has provided testimony on the topic. It included similar documents on a prior iteration of its web page.
Criticism of the Center and its director
The Awareness Center has drawn criticism for publishing and publicizing rumors, accusations and allegations without verification. The Center has routinely relied on anonymous blogs and other sources of dubious credibility to profile alleged sexual predators. Some who have been listed by name have never been sued or charged with any offense.
Rabbi Mark Dratch, chair of the Rabbinical Council of America's Task Force on Rabbinic Improprieties and founder of the organization JSafe, which addresses domestic violence and child abuse in the Jewish community, withdrew his support from the Center because its use of unreliable sources was victimizing the falsely accused. "I wasn't satisfied with the threshold of verification. There are people who've been victimized and others who've been subject to false reports also being victimized."
Rabbi Avi Shafran, spokesman for the Orthodox Agudath Israel of America group, also criticized the Center for using material from anonymous blogs. "The blogorai, as I call it, is the new way of making irresponsible accusations," he said. "Using a blog is a very easy and effective way of casting aspersions on people." Despite his words of general support for the Center, Rabbi Blau agreed, saying "since they are anonymous, they can say almost anything."
Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, executive vice president of the Orthodox Union and a trained psychologist, said that while the Awareness Center and the blogs "have served the purpose of keeping this in the public spotlight and keeping the pressure on established institutions to police their constituencies," nonetheless "I read everything with a grain of salt."
Jeff Bell, writing in the July 2008 issue of Catalyst magazine, went further, accusing the center's director of misusing the organization as a tool for defamation:
She now claims to be a victim’s advocate; but her advocacy seems to have taken all the aspects of vigilante misanthrope, and the power of the blog is her weapon. Polin has a singular focus to not only expose, but to destroy the life and reputation of whatever person that falls into her sights, regardless of facts. Any Google search on her name serves up a fairly even return of Polin's attacks on rabbinical leaders, and pages written by victims of Polin's tactics.
Appearance on The Oprah Winfrey Show
In 1989, before founding the Center, Polin was a guest on The Oprah Winfrey Show. Appearing under a pseudonym, she claimed that she was a survivor of a secret, Jewish Satanic cult, in which she, her family and others had sacrificed babies to the devil.
The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and a host of other Jewish organizations sharply criticized Winfrey for publicizing an obviously false blood libel and thereby helping to perpetuate anti-Semitism. Rabbi David Saperstein of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism criticized Winfrey in the New York Times for "insensitive manipulation" of someone who was "clearly mentally ill." He said the result "can only inflame the basest prejudices of ignorant people." Footage of the video has been posted to YouTube and used by anti-Semitic websites to "prove" the existence of Jewish Satanic cults.
In 2009, Polin addressed the controversy directly, in The Awareness Center's then-daily newsletter. Her words remain posted on the Center's blogspot web page
I have never made it a secret that I am a survivor of child sexual abuse, nor have I hidden the fact that I appeared on several television and talk radio shows back in the 1980's sharing my story in hopes of reaching out to other survivors and educating the general public about the issues and ramifications child abuse plays on its victims.
Back on May 1, 1989, I appeared on the Oprah Show. I shared the fact that I am a survivor of ritual abuse. The truth is that Oprah originally agreed not to mention that I was Jewish, yet it slipped out. What outraged me the most was not the mistake Oprah made, yet the reaction from the Jewish world that I would speak my truth -- that I would share the fact that Jews also abuse their children at the same rate as those who are non-Jewish.
She concluded, "I am sick and tired of the games being played by those in the Jewish orthodox world who are attempting to discredit myself and The Awareness Center. Their hope is to continue to silence those who deserve to have their voices heard. It's important for us all to become educated consumers, and for the truth to be made public so we can learn, heal and grow.
The Awareness Center, Inc."
- The Awareness Center Home Page. Retrieved 29 April 2013
- The Awareness Center's Mission Statement. Retrieved 29 April 2013.
- Meyer, Eugene L.; Greenberg, Richard (January 10, 2007). "Awareness Center a Clearinghouse of Concern — and Controversy". Washington Jewish Week. Jewish Telegraphic Agency. Retrieved October 5, 2010."Some of them have been convicted of crimes; some have not even been charged or sued."
- Clergy Abuse, Washington Jewish Week (2007-01-17): "The center has been both criticized and praised for its policy of identifying rabbis and other sexual predators on its Web site, whether or not they have been tried in court."
- Reining in Abuse, Cleveland Jewish News (2007-01-25).
- Trial by Internet: An archetypal spiritual drama, by Jeff Bell, Catalyst magazine, July 2008.
- Rosenbluth, Susan, "Dov Hikind’s Challenge: Who Should Sit — and Who Should Not — on Taskforce Dealing with Sex Abuse in the Frum Community", The Jewish Voice and Opinion, November 2008. Retrieved 13 November 2010.
- Orbach, Michael (2010-04-23). "Victims’ advocate accused of misconduct". The Jewish Star. Retrieved 2011-03-21.
- Polin, Vicki, Susan Rosenbluth - Harassment, Bulling, Extortion: Attempts at Silencing Survivors The Awareness Center's Daily Newsletter, 20 April 2009. Retrieved 28 April 2013.
- Polin, Vicki, As Purim Rolls in The Awareness Center Closes, The Awareness Center, Inc., 17 March 2011. Retrieved 18 March 2011.
- "The Awareness Center Blog, "Saying goodbye to an era"". Retrieved March 18, 2011.
- "Rabbis who Publicly Support the Efforts of The Awareness Center To End Sexual Violence in Jewish Communities Around The World". Retrieved 29 April 2013.
- Spence, Rebecca, Rabbi Challenges Right to Anonymity on Internet, The Forward (2006-07-14): "'One of the things most healing to any victim of a serious crime is to talk about it,' said Vicki Polin, founder of The Awareness Center Inc., a volunteer organization that maintains a Web site on sexual abuse in the Jewish community. 'When people start blogging, they realize they’re not alone,' she said."
- About The Awareness Center. 12 February 2013. Retrieved 29 April 2013.
- "Awareness Center Brochure" (PDF). Retrieved October 5, 2010.[dead link]
- Vicki Polin on Statute of Limitation Bills Across the United States. 7 July 2012. Retrieved 29 April 2013.
- Former NFL player Al Chesley sharing his story of child molestation on WJZ News. 30 April 2009. Retrieved 29 April 2013.
- Polin, Vicki, "An Incest Survivor Supports SB238: Child Sexual Abuse - Statute of Limitations" (2009-02-05).[dead link]
- Polin, Vicki. "When You're an Incest Survivor" (2007-09-25).[dead link]
- "Oprah Winfrey meets with Jewish leaders on Satanic controversy. (Anti Defamation League of B'nai B'rith)". PR Newswire. Retrieved 2010-05-13.
- Kelley, Kitty (2010). Oprah: A Biography. New York: Crown Archetype. p. 202.
- Gerard, Jeremy, Winfrey Show Evokes Protests, New York Times, (1989-05-06).