Yehudis Goldsobel struggles to answer when I ask how she follows Judaism these days. The mother-of-one suffered sexual abuse at the hands of Menachem Mendel Levy, who was sentenced to three years in prison in 2013.
Her story — and willingness to speak out — made national news. But during the conviction, she realised she could no longer trust the ultra-Orthodox community of which she was a part. Stamford Hill-born Yehudis recalled: “The sentencing was quite an eye opener. They produced this book of character references for him, which I had no idea about.
“People who I thought were my friends and colleagues had written glowing character references about him, saying that he shouldn’t go to prison. “I felt like the floor had fallen out from under me. It’s one thing to stand there quietly, but another to do that.” But the worst was still to come for the youngest of seven children, as Rabbi Chaim Rapoport took the witness stand.
Rabbi Rapoport called Levy the “embodiment of repentance”, despite the fact that he had pleaded not guilty and was appealing against both his jail sentence and his conviction. When the rabbi was asked what Levy was repenting, he said it was the breach of trust, and added that in Jewish law, “the ages 15, 16, 16.5 would be seen as somewhat arbitrary”. Yehudis added: “He also said that I didn’t matter according to Jewish law, as I was over batmitzvah age at the time. “The only apology he had to give was to his wife. There was an audible gasp in the court and the judge was surprised.
“I was embarrassed and had to explain to police officers next to me that this wasn’t true. “They just wanted to make sure he didn’t get prison time. Nobody had apologised to me.” She continued: “It was quite a monumental day for me. I felt more alone on that day than I had ever done, but more so than before, as I did not know who to trust.”
And this, nearly four years later, still impacts upon her Judaism. Going back to my question about how she follows her religion today, she admits to finding it more difficult talking about that than what happened in the past. She said: “It’s confusing and I don’t know how to explain it, especially coming up to Rosh Hashana. “I’m so conflicted because I want to go to shul and I want to daven, but then I’m confused about davening to a God whom I davened to for so many years, but never helped me. “Do I want to be a part of a community? What does community even mean? “Does it mean they will be there when someone dies in my family, but not when I’ve been sexually abused or raped? Do I feel the same way towards Rosh Hashana as I used to? No.” She added: “I will probably go to shul and it will go over my head as I don’t want to read the English about how we’re all going to be judged and whether we will die by fire or water, because I find it all a bit ludicrous now.
“But I do believe there is a God to some extent because there is a force greater than us humans.” She did point out, however, that it wasn’t all negative, especially looking back before what happened. Yehudis said: “You mourn for the things that you’re used to and the familiarity of it, but you can’t ever go back. “The atmosphere and blissful unawareness of anything as children and young people is lovely. “Is it ideal? No. Would I do that for my children? No. Looking back, it is full of fond memories because it wasn’t tainted then.” Yehudis has, however, turned an incredibly negative experience into a force for good.
After her story came out, she received phone calls and messages from both males and females who had gone through similar experiences. She received a call from an 85-year-old female, who said that she was a victim of sexual abuse, too, and wanted to share her story before she died.
“I asked the men and women that, if I hired a therapist, would they sit together in a room and form a support group? “The women said yes, the men said no. The members realised that they were not alone and they had other members they could share with. “They could work together on issues they related to. “They’ve created friendships beyond the group because they all get each other without being judged in a safe and professional space. It worked and it was amazing.”
She has had to fight another battle when, after approaching communal organisations to take the support groups on, all declined, as it did not fit their remit. But not to be deterred, she set up a charity called Migdal Emunah which aims to provide practical and emotional support in a variety of ways for victims and those affected by the trauma of sexual abuse. And she is taking it to Manchester. She explained: “We are starting a new ladies support group at a Prestwich location in October.
“I’ve had lots of people contacting me who have been through what I’ve been through and they are ready to start and willing to go for it. “We are also launching a helpline that will answer enquiries from anyone and everyone in the community. “We are training a couple of volunteers who will answer the phone, along with myself.” Yehudis comes across as a very determined individual. And it’s that determination that means she will keep going for as long as she has funding.
But can she ever escape what happened to her, or is her life now tied to her experience, essentially defining her future? “I’ve escaped the abuse,” she replied. “Sadly, our community and our society have a stigma around those who were abused. “People imagine the worst and we need to start believing people more — we are strong and have survived something horrific. “That does not mean we are necessarily capable of living a life. “I think I will forever be involved in the sector of sexual violence because I have a massive insight, that many people don’t have, as a victim and a survivor. “I’ve reported it and it has successfully managed to get to trial twice and got a conviction, which is a massive deal in the sector across the country.”
Returning to the subject of her abuser, I asked Yehudis what she would say to him if she were to meet him again. She recalled how she wrote to him pre-Rosh Hashana/Yom Kippur before reporting him to the police, to ask him to apologise to her and her parents, in front of a rabbi, to make good on himself, get therapy and create something for victims and survivors — using what happened to create change and a power for good. She received no reply. “I wouldn’t say anything to him now,” Yehudis continued. “It’s not worth it. “I’ve no idea if he’s even aware of the work I’m doing and I don’t care.”