By Cindy Mindell ~
Phil Jacobs is a survivor. While executive editor of the Baltimore Jewish Times, his own experience led him to write a taboo-breaking series of articles on child abuse in the Jewish community that ran in the Jewish Times in 2007. Three years later, he brought the issue to film, producing with director Scott Rosenfelt “Standing Silent.” The documentary will be shown at the Hartford Jewish Film Festival on Tuesday, Mar. 20, followed by a “Reel Talk” with Jacobs, Rosenfelt, and a panel of local guest speakers.
Jacobs left the Baltimore Jewish Times in 2011 to become editor of the Washington Jewish Week. He spoke with the Ledger about how he decided to bring the controversial and hidden subject to light, and to the big screen.
Q: How did you become aware of the issue of child molestation in the Jewish community?
A: I was invited to a meeting of about 20 adults, almost all Orthodox, who were survivors of molestation. I was there in my capacity as editor of the Baltimore Jewish Times, not as a survivor myself. But I wasn’t taking any notes, I was just observing. One of the young men in the room called me a day or two after the meeting and insisted that he tell me his story and that I write about it. That’s how it started. This young man bravely came forward. After the story about the young man came out, I started receiving phone calls and emails from other survivors who had gut-wrenching stories they felt ready to share.
Q: How did the articles turn into a documentary film project?
A: Every spring for several years, I would take a trip to Florida with my friend, Bob Rosenfelt to watch spring training games. Bob’s brother, Scott Rosenfelt, often joined us on these trips. Scott is a movie director and producer. During one visit to Florida, I had set up an interview with a man who used to live in Baltimore, who was molested as a child by a rabbi. When the interview was over, the man drove me to the ballpark where I met up with Scott and Bob. For nine innings, Scott picked my brain about what I was doing with the series in the Baltimore Jewish Times. Then he said that he’d never made a documentary movie before, only feature films, but that if he could raise the money, would I permit a camera crew to follow me on and off for a couple of years? I didn’t say yes right away. I checked with both my wife and my therapist before we all decided that it would be appropriate.
I’m very much involved in the film. The screenplay was my life, and Scott did all the producing work. I didn’t write anything for “Standing Silent;” this is a documentary with no screenplay. It was and still is difficult to see and hear myself on a big screen. For survivors, there’s often a great deal of self-loathing and self-image issues, and to have yourself up there and to hear your voice, it gives a different perspective. I wasn’t prepared for that perspective. I am a survivor of sexual molestation. I was molested when I was 14-years old by a Jewish community youth advisor. And I tell that story in the film.
Q: Has any aspect of the project been surprising to you?
A: Because of the nature of this awful subject, I haven’t been surprised by anything other than the enormous numbers of people who have approached me after the screenings who have had similar experiences in their lives. I went through over 25 years of silence, thinking that it was only me. And at each screening, I meet people whose lives have been impacted because of the horrific desires of others. I am pleasantly surprised by the resilience I’ve seen in some people who have every reason to have called it quits. That’s what keeps me going. I have come through this optimistic that people can learn to thrive once again.
Q: How has this impacted your own Jewish journey?
A: I guess I just thought that when I started on my journey to become Orthodox myself, that I was entering a place where Torah values meant everyone who called themselves Orthodox honored and respected the sanctity of one another in God’s name. I never thought that someone who studied Torah all day could also be a criminal, could also be a pedophile or a spouse abuser. But I learned differently.
I wouldn’t be here today if I didn’t have an incredible life partner in my wife of 35 years, Lisa. She is my rock and is a person of infinite love. Also, my two daughters have been like angels from HaShem protecting me. So I’ve been very blessed through all of this.