Last month, American Jewish gymnast Aly Raisman stopped by Temple Beth Avodah in Newton to converse with her rabbi, Keith Stern. Raisman, a Needham native who grew up at the temple and became a bat mitzvah there, engaged in a wide-ranging conversation with Stern that focused on her gymnastics career and her activism on behalf of survivors of sexual abuse.
A two-time Olympic gold medalist, Raisman became the first American woman in Olympic history to win a gold medal for the floor exercise. It was a triumphant moment for Jews across the globe when she performed her routine to the traditional melody of “Hava Nagila.”
That was during the 2012 Summer Olympics in London. However, while world Jewry was kvelling, Raisman had been harboring a dark secret. For years Larry Nassar, the USA Gymnastics team doctor, had sexually abused Raisman and many of her teammates. Raisman would go on to win another gold medal for a team event in the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio before she finally spoke to the FBI about her trauma with Nassar. In November 2017, in the wake of the #MeToo movement and the exposure of sexual predators in Hollywood and beyond, Raisman went public with her story.
Stern gently asked Raisman, “What moved you to speak out?” Raisman forthrightly replied: “There is a misconception surrounding the #MeToo movement. No one comes forward for attention or money. People are so quick to say why didn’t you speak up then. But we weren’t listened to or believed. The first complaint about Nassar was in 1997. I spoke up in court in January last year. The abuse of girls and women is at the bottom of the list [of priorities] for law enforcement and in general for people to care.”
By the time Raisman had her day in court, more than 150 girls and women, including Raisman, gave victim impact statements. Raisman boldly confronted Nassar, who is serving a life sentence on child pornography charges. “I am here to face you, Larry, so you can see I have regained my strength, that I am no longer a victim,” she said. “I am a survivor.”
Raisman spoke for 13 minutes in court, during which The Forward reported that she addressed Nassar as a “monster [who]…perpetrated the worst epidemic of sexual abuse in the history of sports.” She also assailed USA Gymnastics who she said “were very quick to capitalize and celebrate my success. But did they reach out when I came forward? No. So at this point, talk is worthless to me.”
Throughout her nightmare, Raisman told her audience at Beth Avodah that her grandmother’s Jewish values were a beacon of hope for her. “My Bubby instilled in me the value of kindness,” she said. “If something weren’t right, you would know, and I had to speak out if something wasn’t right. She also said I had to be supportive of the people around me. The Jewish community embodies my Bubby’s kindness, her caring and her goal of looking out for each other.”
Raisman, however, did not just speak out against sexual abuse. She went on to launch an entire movement that began with the 2017 publication of her best-selling book “Fierce: How Competing for Myself Changed Everything.” Although written for young adults, Raisman wrote about very adult subjects, including the “weird” and uncomfortable treatments she received from Nassar for her back pain.
As part of her campaign to support victims of sexual abuse, Raisman became involved with the non-profit organization Darkness to Light, which offers an online and in-person course that educates adults about the sexual abuse of children. Raisman described Darkness to Light as a “leader in child abuse prevention. I take my responsibility to speak for other survivors seriously. It’s an adult’s responsibility to protect children.”
Raisman noted that one in four girls and one in six boys will be molested before the age of 18. She emphasized that children, as well as adults, need to know the warning signs of sexual abuse. “Listen to children if they are uncomfortable,” Raisman said. “Your experience with someone can be totally different from that of a child’s. If someone is obsessed with a child by taking photos, asking for alone time with a child or giving them gifts, that’s a red flag. Taking the course makes adults more alert to what is happening around children. I don’t like thinking like this, but I recognize how common it is.”
Raisman said she would continue to use her celebrity to get out the message that sexual abuse is still too prevalent in society. “There is a lack of education,” she said. “The media covers Olympians and actresses. We need to do a better job of covering everyone’s story. Everyone’s story is equally important.”
To reclaim her body and her spirit, Raisman modeled for American Eagle’s Aerie lingerie collection. The company has pledged not to use supermodels in its advertising or digitally retouch women’s bodies. In another act of resistance, Raisman posed nude for Sports Illustrated. She bravely had the phrases “Trust Yourself” and “Abuse Is Never Okay” written on her body. Raisman said she is not ashamed of what happened to her and she is no longer afraid to talk about it.
Her Bubby would be proud.