But after the meeting, a young man who knew Jacobs was a journalist approached and asked to be interviewed, to have his story told. That was the beginning of Jacobs’s effort to document sexual abuse in Baltimore’s Orthodox Jewish community, bringing the harrowing experiences shared by the 18 victims in that room out into the open.
The first of his stories, “Today, Steve is 25”
was published in February 2007, 10 months after the Pikesville meeting.
That process of reporting and writing has been made into a documentary film, “Standing Silent,” directed by Scott Rosenfelt and now being shown at film festivals across the country. Partially funded by a Sundance Institute grant, it details how Jacobs, an Orthodox Jew himself, has been credited with — and criticized for — uncovering a painful secret in Baltimore’s Orthodox community.
“I saw a narrative character that was in great conflict between protecting his faith and his community and protecting children and humanity,” says Rosenfelt, who is an established producer (“Home Alone,” “Mystic Pizza”) as well as a family friend of Jacobs. “To me it was bigger than an action film. Phil’s journey is a classic hero’s journey — it has all the makings of a great movie.”
“Standing Silent” was filmed between 2007 and 2010, with a three-person crew that traveled with Jacobs through Baltimore’s suburbs and to Israel, eventually recording more than 125 hours of video, much of it interviews with victims and alleged perpetrators.
The story took over Jacobs’s career in a way that surprised him. Tall and lanky with a softspoken manner, Jacobs, 58, still lives in Baltimore and is still married to his high school sweetheart. The Baltimore native and University of Maryland alumnus had worked for the Jewish Times company for 30 years, and while he “never wanted to cover Bubbie and Zaidy at the Gefilte Fish Ball,” he says from his new Rockville office at Washington Jewish Week, where he became editor in chief last summer, “I also didn’t expect this.”
“Standing Silent” depicts a community struggling to come to terms with a problem that, Jacobs says, has remained underreported for years and seems only recently to have attracted the attention of advocates and lawmakers.
There are no hard numbers to document the extent of the problem, but Elaine Witman, director of the Shofar Coalition, a nonprofit agency that provides services for victims of sexual and other abuse in the Baltimore area’s Jewish community, says the center is seeing an increase in the number of Jews coming forward to report abuse. In 2010, 67 people requested help for childhood sexual abuse from the coalition. That number nearly doubled in 2011, to 132 people, said Witman, who attributes the increase to Jacobs’s articles and the coalition’s efforts toreduce the shame that has kept the issue quiet for so long.