Rachael Denhollander
Rachael Denhollander

Temple Israel, We Need to Talk, and Jewish Family Service present program on sexual abuse with gymnast who was a victim of Larry Nassar.

Rachael Denhollander, the first woman to publicly accuse former USA Gymnastics’ team doctor Larry Nassar of sexual abuse in 2016, which eventually led to his 2018 conviction to serve life in prison, will be speaking at a free event 7-9 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 9, at Temple Israel in West Bloomfield. Titled “What is a Child Worth?”, the program is in partnership with We Need to Talk and Jewish Family Service of Metro Detroit.

This event, for teens and up, is intended to bring attention to abuse in the general community. It will examine the link between abuse and mental health challenges and encourage people to seek help and support, if needed.

Echoing the same messages found in her 2019 autobiography, What is a Girl Worth? Denhollander, the child gymnast turned attorney and advocate for survivors of child sexual abuse, will begin the evening suggesting the teens and adults in the audience to consider two key questions:

• How do we understand our own value and the value of others?

• What can motivate us to choose a harder right path, such as coming forward and speaking out against abuse, rather than an easier wrong path, such as keeping silent and allowing a culture of abuse to persist in athletic, academic or even religious institutions?

“All of us are faced with making even small decisions in such situations,” said Denhollander, 37, whose courage to speak out about the abuse she endured by Nassar encouraged more than 300 current and former gymnasts — some Olympic medalists — to do the same, resulting in his life sentence in a Michigan prison.

“Most of the time these decisions can feel like small ones, but they put us on a trajectory of who we will become. When it comes to big decisions, like standing up to an abuser or a corrupt institution where abuse is taking place, this will prove to be the biggest test of how proactive we can be to protect our community.”

Denhollander, now a mother of four and a practicing attorney in Kentucky, explained that sexual and child abuse crosses every social, economic and geographic demographic. But in high-stakes environments such as competitive sports, the situation can become more precarious.

“There are some consistent dynamics going on in high-performance environments such as gymnastics and the performing arts,” Denhollander said. “(Parents) entrust their children to mentors who say they will take their career to high places. And, in gymnastics, it is a high-touch environment where coaches are spotting you and touching you to correct your positioning, which can create a breeding ground to desensitize children to certain touches. The important lesson to teach children is the difference between acceptable and unacceptable forms of touch.”

Denhollander’s Story

A latecomer to gymnastics, Denhollander began her training at age 11 in a Kalamazoo gym. From the beginning, her parents asserted to her and her sister, who was a competitive synchronized ice skater, that no program, no matter how prestigious, was worth their health or safety. She said they only selected programs held in facilities where parents could fully observe what was going on at practices and turned down any programs where parents were discouraged from watching practice or traveling with their athlete children during competition meets.

“I came from a very healthy attitude toward sports and athletics, and my parents established with me all the necessary safeguards and open communication,” Denhollander said. “My encounters with Nassar (to treat back pain in 2000 when I was 15), were separate from my gym environment.

“There was nothing that I or my parents could have done differently from being abused by Nassar. However, it was because I had that foundation of open communication with my parents that I knew they would believe me, that was the huge redemptive part of my story. I think I am in the place where I am now because of that foundation.”

Julia Cohen
Julia Cohen

Julia Cohen, JFS teen mental health coordinator, said she first learned of Denhollander’s advocacy and educational work through a Netflix documentary Athlete A, which highlighted Denhollander and other athletes instrumental in bringing Nassar to justice.

Around the same time, the Union for Reform Judaism in February 2022 released an investigative report chronicling sexual misconduct in the movement’s 14 U.S. youth camps and other youth programs over the past 50 years.

“I couldn’t help but notice the similarities between these stories, both highlighting the grave consequences of not responding appropriately to reports of sexual abuse,” Cohen said. “It felt important and timely to bring Rachael to speak with our community. It is important as a community that we listen to and believe survivors and respond appropriately. “

Rabbi Jennifer Lader
Rabbi Jennifer Lader

Temple Israel’s Rabbi Jennifer Lader said that Jewish institutions, fully committed to the emotional and physical health, safety and security of children, are in a unique position to fight against complicity when it comes to abuse.

“Rachael Denhollander has truly changed the world,” Lader said. “Inviting her to speak here will give children and their parents the knowledge and information to not only protect themselves and others but will also help them reach their full emotional and spiritual potential. As Jewish educators and clergy, our goal is to serve as active allies, shining light in dark places in order to best serve our families and make our community a safer place.”

To register for the event, visit https://www.jfsdetroit.org/events/what-is-a-child-worth/.

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Stacy Gittleman is an award-winning journalist and has been a contributing writer for the Detroit Jewish News for the last five years. Prior to moving to Metro Detroit in 2013, she was a columnist and feature writer for Gannett's Democrat & Chronicle in Rochester, NY. She also manages social media pages for other local non-profit organizations including the Interfaith Leadership Council of Metropolitan Detroit. Contact her with breaking news and feature story ideas that impact Detroit's Jewish community at stacy.gittleman@yahoo.com