SYDNEY, Australia — On his Instagram page, there is a photo of Ari Hershkowitz wearing a virtual reality headset. It pretty much sums up his story: an escape from one world to another.
Hershkowitz met with The Times of Israel outside the Sydney Jewish Museum, a few days after he presented at Yom Limmud in Sydney. It is a wintry day Down Under and he is wearing black jeans and a red T-shirt. He doesn’t like to wear long sleeved shirts, he later says — it reminds him of his previous life. His American drawl makes it hard to imagine that for most of his life he could not speak English.
Hershkowitz cuts a hipster figure as he “vapes” on his electric cigarette. He winds his way to the museum’s café upstairs while snapping photographs of the exhibits on his smartphone. He plans to visit the museum again, he says.
Sitting down, he fidgets, looks sideways and checks his phone. He has a Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter account and appears to be on call. Every now and again he needs to be reminded where he left off in the conversation. He clearly finds it hard to focus — but focus is necessary to tell this 21-year-old’s story.
His name is now Ari. During another phase it was Alex, the name he took on when he escaped to Florida for six months.
“I wanted to run away from Judaism as far as I possibly could. I then took on the identity of Alex, who was never a Hasidic Jew,” Hershkowitz says.
In his childhood, he went by the name Arye.
“I don’t remember much of my early life,” Hershkowitz says. “From the age of 14 to 20 I was on the wrong medication. I don’t know whether that ruined my memories from before, combined with the fact that I wanted to forget everything, especially aged 8 to 12.”
He begins with the basics.
Hershkowitz’s formative years are set in the heart of the ultra-Orthodox Hasidic Satmar community in Williamsburg, New York. He is the second of nine children. The Satmar dynasty is one of the largest in the world. It is characterized by strict religious observance, rejection of modern culture, and fierce anti-Zionism. In a podcast interview, he describes this brand of Judaism as “Judaism on steroids.”
Yiddish was the only language he spoke. At school they studied Jewish texts. They did also learn English, he adds, but that was only from the ages of 8 to 12, and it was relegated to the last lesson of the day, taught by teachers who could barely speak the language themselves.
“We studied gemara, mishnah and chumash,” Hershkowitz says, referring to various texts of the ancient oral law and Bible.
“Initially, I was a very good student. I had a folder for ‘best in class,’” he says with a hint of irony.
It is this subpar education which, he claims, has caused the community to be crippled by poverty, beset with ignorance and reliant on government funding for virtually all aspects of life.
But it’s what he calls its skewed values and the importance accorded to trivial things which he remembers most vividly.
“What our eyeglasses were made of was very important. Metal is bad; plastic is good. What counts is the color of your socks, which shoe you tie first in the morning. Wearing a watch is discouraged before bar mitzvah; after that it is completely banned. Being a good person was never a priority,” he says.
The period he finds hard to recollect is not incidental. “I never talked about it. I choked it for so long,” he says.
At the age of 8, Hershkowitz says he was sexually assaulted in a synagogue by an older man. After a pause and some hesitation, he recounts the incident bit by bit.
“The man made up some story about my belt. He shouted, ‘You hit my son, you hit my son with your belt,’ and then he grabs me and takes me downstairs to the basement, takes away my belt and then… whatever… I had no idea about sex or anything. The abuse was violent. I still have the scars,” he says.
The “punishment,” he says, continued for a number of weeks, in the basement of the synagogue.
“One day, when we walked up the stairs from the basement my dad saw me. I guess by the look on my face he realized what had happened and he started yelling at this guy in front of everyone,” Hershkowitz says.
The abuser never returned to the synagogue.
“I told my father from my little understanding what had happened, but I am sure as a grown, smart adult he got the picture. He still told me that I must be thinking that… looking back, I am sure he knew. He never said that he was sorry it happened to me. He couldn’t, because that would mean he’d have to report it to the police — something he would never do. Satmar never calls the police. No matter what happens. Never. Which is wrong because in some cases they should,” Hershkowitz says.
Hershkowitz’s behavior became erratic, or, as he puts it: “I was a very wild kid and always getting into trouble.”
Two years later, during a summer camp in Napanoch, a small hamlet in Ulster County, New York, he says he was assaulted again. This time three people were involved.
“They held me down to a bed, I managed to get free. I grabbed the fire extinguisher and tried to fight back with that. They grabbed me and pulled me back into the bunk. I am not sure how long it lasted. It seemed like five hours before my private tutor came to look for me. Then they left. I was tied up and my tutor saw me,” says Hershkowitz.
He repeats, “He definitely saw me tied up.”
The perpetrators, says Hershkowitz, continued working at the camp. He is skeptical about pressing charges or filing a formal complaint with police.
“All the people who witnessed it… none of them would ever testify. It’s my word against theirs. In fact, some of them specifically told me that if they had to testify they would say that it never actually happened. So, realistically, there is nothing I can now do about it,” he says.
Like many others who have survived sexual abuse, the experience triggered a deep crisis.