Chaim Levin says he was sexually abused by his cousin for years, abandoned by his family and shunned by his community. He has wrestled with his identity and sexuality.
His childhood was violently ripped from him, leading to years of depression and self-doubt.
Levin, who grew up in an ultraconservative Orthodox Jewish community in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, and founded LGBTQ Chabad, a 103-member support group, says none of that will stop him from seeking justice.
“My message to my abuser is this: I will never stop until you take responsibility for what you did to me,” Levin told. “I’m not going away. I’m getting stronger and stronger.”
Levin, 27, has emerged as one of the leaders of the survivors fighting to reform New York’s statute of limitations for childhood sexual abuse, which bars victims from pursuing civil litigation or criminal charges after their 23rd birthday. He says sexual abuse is common in the Orthodox community.
“Every other person I know was abused as a kid,” he said.
Levin has helped drum up support in the Jewish community for the Child Victims Act, which would eliminate the statute of limitations and open a one-year window for past victims to file lawsuits against predators and the institutions that protect them.
The legislative session ends June 16.
“Ken Thompson should be on the front line supporting this bill,” Levin said of the Brooklyn district attorney, who was elected to the post in part because he promised to be tougher on sex abuse in the Orthodox community than his predecessor, Charles Hynes. “He should be telling the Republicans in Albany, ‘We can’t do our job without this bill.’”
Levin’s inspiring survivor story and uncompromising activism are drawing attention.
The Jewish Week community newspaper named him one of its “36 Under 36” last week, and he will be honored this week by Footsteps, an organization that provides support to those who wish to leave the Orthodox community.
“Chaim is a man of great principle,” said Footsteps executive director Lani Santo. “He can’t let injustice sit there.”
Levin says he was 6 when his cousin Sholom Eichler, then 12, began sexually abusing him. Eichler molested him dozens of times over the next four years at their synagogue, their homes and at a vacation bungalow in the Catskills, Levin said.
The abuse stopped when Levin was 10. He eventually reported the abuse to a rabbi, who told Levin to tell his parents but to withhold the identity of his abuser to prevent a family civil war.
“For the next six years, my abuser was a welcome guest in my parents’ home,” Levin recalled.
Eichler did not return requests for comment.
At age 15, Levin confided to a friend that he was sexually attracted to men, a huge taboo in the ultra-Orthodox community.
He signed up with Jews Offering New Alternatives for Healing (JONAH), a New Jersey organization that claimed it could use an intensive therapy regimen to turn gay men straight.
But the people who ran JONAH, he said, were abusive.
He quit the group and joined five other plaintiffs in a New Jersey lawsuit that claimed JONAH had violated consumer protection laws by claiming to “cure” gay people The jury ruled last year in favor of the plaintiffs, a decision that is considered a landmark in the gay rights movement. JONAH shut its doors in December.
Levin won another huge legal victory in 2013 when he was awarded a $3.5 million default judgment after he sued Eichler — before the statute of limitations expired. But he hasn’t received a dime because Eichler now lives in Israel.
“Dude, I am so broke,” he said, laughing.
Levin was ostracized by his community and abandoned by his most of his family after he filed the lawsuit.
His mother, Bella Levin, said she deeply regrets not supporting her son.
“Molestation was not something spoken about,” she said. “Nobody knew how to handle it. I did not want to deal with it.
I thought if I could take care of Chaim I did not have to upset the family. Boy, was I wrong.”
Bella Levin said her brother Eichler’s father and his family took her nephew’s side when the allegations became public and so did she, by not supporting her boy. But she now supports his efforts to make Eichler accountable.
“I don’t believe Chaim is the only child he molested,” she said. “I’m sure there are other children he has hurt.”
Levin, now a student at Kingsborough Community College, says he hopes to become a lawyer. He will use the law, he says, to fight for the rights of sexual abuse victims.
“My abuser has never had to answer for this,” Levin said. “His family tells people I’m crazy. I’m not a perfect person, but I did nothing wrong and I won’t stop until he is held accountable.”