Nearly a decade ago, while recovering from a basketball injury, Avremi Zippel was bingeing episodes of Law & Order when a scene broke through the fourth wall. A boy on the show had a sexual relationship with his nanny and was told by the detectives investigating the case that he was a victim of sexual abuse. Laid up in bed and “doped on painkillers,” Zippel began shouting at the screen, “No, no, he wasn’t abused. Stop it!” But as Zippel, now 29 years old and an Orthodox rabbi in Utah, told Deseret, a local newspaper, “It planted a seed of doubt in my head.”
That seed gestated for several years and finally sprouted following the birth of his son in 2015. The joy and bliss of this beautiful moment was crowded out by darkness and fear. Zippel looked down at his newborn son cradled in the palm of his hand—“this hollering little baby,” as he put it, when we met for coffee one February morning at a Starbucks in Salt Lake City—and his first thought was of his own inadequacy: “Oh my God, this kid deserves a dad and that’s just not me. I am such a flawed human being that will never be good enough.” Fatherhood became, all at once, “the single greatest motivator” for him, provoking a deeper sense of personal responsibility. In the coming days and weeks, Zippel wrestled with his emotions; to those around him, he wasn’t acting like himself—something was clearly off. “Looking back on it, becoming a father really pushed me over the edge,” he told me. “It led to tremendous anxiety and depression.”
The reason Zippel felt undeserving of his beautiful son was a childhood secret he dared never utter: From the age of 8 until 18, he had been sexually abused by a nanny who groomed him in the belief that she was preparing him to be, in her words, “a good husband.” In those first moments of new fatherhood, the weight of this unresolved past trauma flooded forth.
Zippel’s wife and parents encouraged him to see a therapist. There, within the confines of a professional’s office, he unburdened himself for the first time to another person, acknowledging that he was a survivor of sexual assault. He confessed to his therapist that the only approval he sought during his preteen years “was my abuser’s and, at the same time, she was the last human being on the face of Earth that I wanted to see.” With his therapist’s help, Zippel finally opened up and began sharing his experiences with his wife and eventually with his parents.
Zippel’s personal revelations happened to coincide with broader social changes spreading across the United States in 2017. On social media, stories of pervasive sexual assault and harassment poured forth under the #MeToo hashtag, and the treatment of survivors took center stage. Hollywood’s “casting couch,” an open secret in the industry, became a symbol of misogyny and predatory behavior.
In his third decade, Zippel is still remarkably youthful; you can see the little boy beneath his growing beard. Yet he carries with him a lifetime of maturity; his nefesh is wise and humble. As an Orthodox Jew from Utah and son of a well-known Chabad rabbi, Zippel certainly doesn’t fit the stereotypical mold of a #MeToo survivor. But while watching the televised testimony of Olympic gold medalist Aly Raisman during the 2018 trial of USA Gymnastics coach Larry Nassar, he felt inspired to publicly come forward. Within days of Nassar’s sentencing in late January, Zippel placed a call to the Salt Lake City Police Department. “That decision will probably go down as the most difficult to ever make in my life,” he told me.
After all, there was good reason to be skeptical. As survivor upon survivor emerged from all corners of America—Hollywood, sports, media, Silicon Valley—a common fear among them was that they would not be believed. The public taboo was beginning to crack but skepticism remained widespread.
This was true in the Orthodox community as well. Many members were hesitant about the idea of airing so-called dirty laundry in public. Zippel remembers a conversation he had with a community member as he debated whether or not to go public. The man, who was a rabbinical figure within the Chabad community, acknowledged the ongoing problems of turning a blind eye to sexual abuse but raised concerns about what it might mean for Zippel to go public. “No one is quite sure what will happen to the first person,” Zippel recounted the man saying. “If you’re going to do it, I commend you for that, but I don’t know how you’re going to marry off your kids.” By that point, Zippel had already decided, as he put it, “that was the thing I wasn’t living with anymore”—fear of public shame be damned.
Zippel explains that there was no pressure from community members discouraging him from pursuing this matter, but more so a skepticism as to what going to the police would accomplish. A deeper mistrust of law enforcement within the community, Zippel believes, led many of his closest confidants struggling to understand how publicizing his story and pursuing legal measures would accomplish much.
Once more, the weight of fatherhood was never far from his mind. Having a child had clarified for Zippel the importance parents should place on encouraging kids, particularly boys, to speak up about sexual assault. “Society makes shame difficult for boys,” said Zippel, now a father to two young boys, ages 6 and 4. “In every arena they interact in—school, friends, home—I believe as a parent we need to encourage them to speak up instead of sweeping it under the rug.” He hopes his actions will pave the way for others to come forward and feel comfortable expressing vulnerability: “With my own son, I realize the magnitude of the work involved.”
That’s why he finally decided to call law enforcement. “When I think back to my experiences, the most justice-filled moment for me was in my very first police interview,” he recalled. “At the end of the interview the detective looked over at me and said, ‘Look, I trust you.’” This simple recognition was cathartic for Zippel, who had kept that part of his life bottled up for decades. “That’s all I wanted,” he said. “I don’t need 25 years to life. None of that. I just want [my abuser] to know that I’m not OK with what happened.”
Local police investigated the matter and ultimately brought it to trial. However, the outcome was always uncertain, as sexual assault trials have a troubling track record. According to RAINN (Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network), for every 1,000 incidents of sexual assault, only 25 perpetrators will be incarcerated. Moreover, two-thirds of victims will not ever report the crime to the police. “There comes a moment that every witness goes through,” Zippel told me. “You sit down with the prosecutor, and they say, ‘Take out all the noise, let’s take out all the factors. What do you want?’” For Zippel, the answer was simple. “What I wanted more than anything was for my abuser to stand up and say, ‘I wasn’t doing this to make you a good husband. This was my sickness, my taking out my own issues on you.’”
Zippel felt “extremely blessed” to have the support of his family as well as of a social worker as his case neared trial. Nevertheless, he wasn’t under any illusions: “It became abundantly clear in the lead-up to the trial that [the defense] were going to do whatever was in their power, come what may, to get it done.” Zippel understood then that he would have to share his intimate story publicly, and that the process would likely be extremely painful.
“I definitely dreaded it,” Zippel told me. Driving to the courthouse, he developed a habit that prepared him for the coming day’s events. “I had this one song which really described this journey; it was a very heartfelt first-person conversation between a Jew and God.” The song, “Tatty My King” by the Waterbury Mesivta, became almost a daily ritual. “I would park the car and kind of put my hand, my soul, in the hands of something larger than myself and say, ‘Look man, you know, whatever you want to see happen in there is going to happen.’”
Zippel would play the song “on the highest possible level” before entering the courthouse—and for good measure. As his witness statement testifies, at various moments throughout the trial, the defense attorneys referred to him as “the rapist,” made a reference to Adolf Hitler in front of a gallery of mostly Jewish trialgoers, and even compared Zippel to Jussie Smollet, the actor who created a hoax hate crime. The trial was emotionally taxing for Zippel, but justice ultimately prevailed. Two years after Zippel first called the police, he walked out of the courtroom following a guilty verdict for his abuser, Alavina Florreich, then broke down and cried in the hallway.
But Zippel’s story didn’t end in that courtroom in Salt Lake City. Like most survivors, he didn’t simply move on. “I still cope with the aftereffects of my experiences, and I will for the rest of my life,” he said. While the scars and wounds he carries may never disappear, Zippel has dedicated himself to advocating on behalf of sexual assault survivors.
In recent decades, Salt Lake City has become somewhat of a hub for survivor activism, of which Zippel now represents a central spoke. Elizabeth Smart, whose story of abduction and survival in the 1990s captivated a generation, is a prominent advocate in her own right and became an outspoken supporter of Zippel; she also served as a crucial sounding board for him during the trial.
Over Zoom, Smart spoke glowingly to me about Zippel, saying she was “grateful” to him for “becoming that voice so many need to hear and being that source of hope for others who contemplate speaking about their stories.” Deondra Brown, another Utah native and advocate for sexual assault survivors, who is also known for being a member of The 5 Browns (a sibling band of piano wunderkinds), had equally moving words about Zippel’s post-trial advocacy, noting that he has “continued to challenge people to be better, challenged them to do better, and challenged them to band together. He’s an incredible asset for those of us who are out there trying to lead change. He has made such a difference already.”
Zippel’s courage has inspired others to share their stories. Speaking on Brandeis University Rabbi Peretz Chein’s podcast in 2019, Zippel helped Chein share his own personal account of abuse. Their conversation, in turn, encouraged the entrepreneur and activist Eli Nash to tell his story in a TEDx Talk, “Escaping Porn Addiction,” that has over 4 million views. Zippel’s father, Rabbi Benny Zippel, who leads the Chabad congregation in Salt Lake City, believes that this terrible incident can “be transformed into a catalyst for good,” as the rabbi put it. “By my son going public, if that can enhance the life of even one person that, itself, is important.”
Zippel, who is now writing a memoir about his experience to be published by Fedd Books in mid-2023, remains strong in his conviction that his story is neither uniquely Jewish nor particularly Orthodox. “I have been accused of having too hard of a perspective on how my [Orthodox] community sees this issue,” he said. “I think it’s high time that I make this as clear as possible. This is not the Orthodox community’s issue or the Jewish community’s issue. This is a global issue.”
Zippel is indeed a living testament of the complex identities and evolving forms the story of sexual assault takes, as he stands in stark relief against the picturesque Wasatch Mountains that hug Salt Lake City’s eastern shoulder, his trim beard and black hat seemingly out of place in a progressive city nestled within a state founded as a Mormon refuge in the 19th century. Much like the refugees who preceded him, Zippel is blazing a new trail: a millennial Chabadnik in the middle of Utah, he’s expanding our understanding and empathy for survivors of sexual assault.
Ari David Blaff is a journalist based in Toronto and writer at Deseret. His writing has appeared in Quillette, National Review, and The Globe & Mail.