FOX POINT — She spoke to Jewish Milwaukee, hundreds of us, on the day of the release of her book in paperback, “Fierce,” and she was that exactly.
Aly Raisman sat at the head of the Congregation Shalom sanctuary, steps away from the ark, on Tuesday, Nov. 13. The “sold out” free event, organized by Milwaukee Jewish Federation, was to raise awareness for the Federation’s new “SHOFAR” initiative.
Raisman spoke not as a professional, nor an academic, but as a real-world 24-year-old, with mixed feelings about the power of social media, talk of friends and challenges, and a commitment to see sexual abuse taken more seriously in America.
Interviewing before Raisman spoke, as Congregation Shalom’s Fox Point sanctuary filled to capacity, therapist Anne David of Jewish Family Services was hard-pressed to come up with other occasions when 900 people gathered to hear from a sexual assault survivor.
Seeing someone like Raisman speak publicly about her abuse can help others find their courage to come forward, according to experts. “It’s hugely impactful,” said David, who is director of clinical services for Jewish Family Services. “Survivors are trapped in a cycle of isolation and when one person comes forward they make it possible for others to come forward,” agreed Carmen Pitre, president and CEO of Sojourner Family Peace Center, in a separate interview.
The Federation is launching its “SHOFAR” initiative in partnership with Sojourner Family Peace Center, Jewish Family Services and Shalva of Chicago. As part of the partnership, three Jewish Family Services therapists were on hand to meet with any survivors in off-to-the-side “quiet rooms.” Discussion of assault or abuse can be triggering for survivors and Olympic gold medalist Raisman has not been shy to discuss Olympic gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar’s alleged abuse of hundreds of girls and women. Nassar has been sentenced to federal and state prison.
Seated across from moderator and SHOFAR co-chair Debra Katz, Raisman recalled how she and her teammates weren’t comfortable with Nassar like their parents were.
“I just didn’t realize that a doctor could betray your trust,” she said, adding that the adults around her would talk about him positively.
Raisman peppered her discussion with advice for other survivors and the adults in their lives, including: “I think it’s important to recognize you might have a good experience with someone but someone else might not.”
She counseled people to be mindful of red flags, like when an adult is taking many pictures of children, as she said Nassar did. He would send some of the pictures to parents. “Our parents thought he was being nice,” Raisman remembered. She later learned the practice is a tip-off of a possible predator, according to authorities.
Before Raisman spoke, Moshe Katz, chair of the Federation board of directors, noted the pursuit of justice is an important part of Jewish values.
Federation CEO and President Hannah Rosenthal has championed the SHOFAR effort, which stands for Safeguarding Healthy Families and Relationships. Raisman’s visit kicked off the two-year SHOFAR initiative, aimed at fighting abuse, harassment and violence within the Jewish community.
Components will include training for clergy and other professionals in the community, plus fliers and posters in local Jewish institutions, offering free and confidential help. It will also include programs for youth-group teens on healthy dating and relationships and Shabbat dinners focused on awareness and inclusion, among other efforts.
But most important may be simply getting the word out.
“As therapists we talk about this all the time behind closed doors,” said David, of Jewish Family Services. “What SHOFAR is doing is talking publicly about this.”
There are some who think abuse does not happen within the Jewish community, but that’s simply not true, said Rosenthal.
Raisman said she’s proudly Jewish.
“I feel like recently its just been just awful, so much anti-Semitism,” said Raisman, who once chose to perform to Hava Nagila as a teenager. “It almost seems like our country is going backwards.”
“People just post things that are so nasty and so mean …. I definitely think about that a lot lately.”
Raisman’s book, “Fierce: How Competing for Myself Changed Everything,” is aimed at readers 12-17. The book is about her road to success, through hard work and positive thinking, but it grapples with Nassar in chapter 22. Titled “The Survivors,” this is where she discusses how Nassar “groomed” her.
Discussing it all is draining, she said, yet her fierceness was apparent as she seemed perfectly comfortable with the discussion on stage. She repeatedly took aim at USA Gymnastics, saying there are still people there who need to be held accountable and that there still needs to be an independent investigation.
She said she speaks out because she feels a responsibility, never mind the emotional drain.
“I think it’s really important to take care of yourself,” Raisman said. She said she’d go back to her hotel at the end of the night and read something relaxing.
She ended with a message for other survivors: “Know it’s not your fault. As hard as it is to talk about it… there really are people out there who will support you.”
The Sojourner 24-hour Domestic Violence Hotline is 414-933-2722. More resources at MilwaukeeJewish.org/Shofar or text SHOFAR to 51555.