The Awareness Center, Inc., also known as the Jewish Coalition Against Sexual Abuse/Assault, was a nonprofit institution whose stated mission was to end sexual violence in the Jewish community. The Center, headquartered in Skokie, Illinois, met with both praise and criticism for maintaining a website whose policy was 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.
According to The Catalyst magazine, The Jewish Star newspaper, and others, the Center's founder and CEO made similarly unfounded accusations before incorporating the Center. They say that she was "Rachel," a pseudonymous accuser who caused an uproar by claiming on the Oprah Winfrey Show 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, incorporated in 2003, and closed in 2011. The Center's mission statement listed goals such as the development of an international data base and web page, an international speaker's bureau, and development of an educational certification program for rabbis, cantors and other Jewish community leaders.
As of December 2009, the Center claimed the support of more than 230 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, has said that the Center's website is 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".
On March 11, 2011, the Center announced that it would close one week later, citing the inability to raise the funds necessary to even maintain its website.
The organization's brochure indicated that the Center provided educational training for survivors groups, community organizations, rabbis, teachers and parents. The Center's webpage described active involvement in a movement to abolish the statute of limitations for filing civil suit against alleged and convicted sex offenders. It included documents indicating that its executive director and founder has provided testimony on the topic.
Criticism of the Center and its director
The Awareness Center drew criticism for publishing and publicizing rumors, accusations and allegations without verification. The Center routinely relied on anonymous blogs and other sources of dubious credibility to profile alleged sexual predators. Some were listed, by name, who had never been charged with any offense, or sued. Some experts accused the Center's director of anonymously posting unsubstantiated accusations on other websites, and then creating profiles referencing her own work.
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.
In 1989, before founding the Center, Polin reportedly appeared on the Oprah Winfrey Show, under a pseudonym, claiming that she was a survivor of a secret Jewish Satanic cult, in which she and her family, along with 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.
- The Awareness Center Home Page.[dead link]
- Meyer, Eugene L.; Greenberg, Richard (January 10, 2007). "Awareness Center a Clearinghouse of Concern — and Controversy". Washington Jewish Week. Jewish Telegraphic Agency. http://www.washingtonjewishweek.com/main.asp?SectionID=4&subsectionID=4&articleID=6566. 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.
- Orbach, Michael (2010-04-23). "Victims’ advocate accused of misconduct". The Jewish Star. http://www.thejewishstar.com/stories/Victims039-advocate-accused-of-misconduct,1683. Retrieved 2011-03-21.
- "Awareness Center Brochure" (PDF). http://www.theawarenesscenter.org/AwarenessCenterBrochure.pdf. Retrieved October 5, 2010.[dead link]
- "The Awareness Center Blog, "Saying goodbye to an era"". Archived from the original on November 30, 2012. http://archive.is/vF9b. Retrieved March 18, 2011.
- Polin, Vicki, As Purim Rolls in The Awareness Center Closes, The Awareness Center, Inc., 17 March 2011. Retrieved 18 March 2011.
- "Rabbis Who Publicly Support The Awareness Center’s Efforts To End Sexual Violence Towards Adults & Children in Jewish Communities Around the Globe". http://theawarenesscenter.org/The_Awareness_Center/Rabbinic_Support.html. Retrieved October 5, 2010.[dead link]
- 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."
- 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. http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G1-7258438.html. 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).