Orthodox Jews who are sex abuse survivors say people in their community have been silent on the issue for too long. As a high-profile abuse trial approaches, officials in Brooklyn have started a new campaign, urging victims to reach out for help. Gus Rosendale reports.
The abuse went on for nearly three years before the schoolgirl told anyone that her spiritual adviser was molesting her while he was supposed to be mentoring her about her religion, authorities said.
But in Brooklyn's ultra-orthodox Jewish community, 53-year-old Nechemya Weberman has been embraced and defended as wrongly accused. The girl has been called a slut and a troublemaker, her family threatened and spat at on the street.
The rallying around Weberman, who goes on trial this month, and ostracizing of his accuser and her family reflects long-held beliefs in this insular community that problems should be dealt with from within and that elders have far more authority than the young. It also brought to light allegations that the district attorney was too cozy with powerful rabbis, a charge he vehemently denies.
"There are other people that claim misconduct and they can't come out because they're going to be re-victimized and ostracized by the community," said Judy Genut, a friend of the accuser's family who counsels troubled girls.
Brooklyn is home to about 250,000 ultra-orthodox Jews, the largest community outside of Israel. Step onto a Williamsburg street and tall guys in skinny jeans and tattoos are mingling with a flush of men in dark coats and hats carrying prayer books and speaking Yiddish. The Hasidic Jews appear to outsiders as though they come from another time; embracing centuries-old traditions, they wear black clothes, tall hats, long beards and earlocks. Women wear long skirts and cover their heads after they marry.
They have their own ambulances and schools, called yeshivas, their own civilian police and rabbinical courts. Members are encouraged to first speak to a rabbi before going to secular authorities — and as a result, cases rarely make it to outside law enforcement.
The topic has been studied and reported in the Jewish media for years and has recently made headlines in New York papers.
"They think that anyone who turns over anyone to the outside authorities is committing a transgression to the community at large," said Samuel Heilman, a professor of Jewish studies at Queens College.
The girl, now 17, was sent to Weberman at age 12 because she'd been asking theological questions and he had a reputation for helping people back on the spiritual path. He often counseled people, though he had no formal training. But during sessions, authorities say, he forced the girl to perform sex acts.
The girl started dressing immodestly, was deemed a troublemaker and removed from her school — one Weberman was affiliated with — and sent to another, family friends said. The allegations surfaced in 2011 when she told a guidance counselor there she'd been molested.
Weberman has pleaded not guilty, and articles in Hasidic newspapers have proclaimed his innocence and begged the community for support. More than 1,000 men showed up for a fundraiser aiming to raise $500,000 for his legal fees and, if he's convicted and jailed, money for his family.
"It's very hard for the town to believe the things that he's being accused of because he has a reputation of doing good and being good," Genut said.
George Farkas, Weberman's lawyer, said his client isn't guilty but is damned regardless because the allegations will taint his reputation.
The family has said they would've preferred to handle the allegations within the community. But when accusations are managed from the inside, victims are rarely believed and abusers aren't punished — in part because the word of an elder is respected over the word of a child, victims and advocates say.
Joel Engelman said he tried to work with yeshiva officials, finally confronting them at age 22 about a rabbi who abused him as a child. Engelman was given a lie detector test and encouraged to keep quiet about the allegations, and the rabbi was temporarily removed — long enough for Engelman to turn 23, making him too old under state law to file a complaint.
"It's that they don't want to believe that the rabbis that they've been raised to respect could be so cruel and could be so criminal," said Engelman, now 26.
His mother, Pearl, herself an activist, said the community is overwhelmingly good and believes people must be educated about the crime to start standing up for the victims.
"I'm not an anarchist, I'm not a rebel," said the 64-year-old mother of seven. "I love this community, and I want to change it for the better and make it safer for children."
Outside law enforcement has also had a difficult time. Before 2009, only a handful of sex abuse cases were reported within the ultra-orthodox community. Then, District Attorney Charles Hynes created a program called Kol Tzedek (Voice of Justice) aimed at helping more victims come forward about abuse, an underreported crime everywhere.
Part of the deal, along with a designated hotline and counseling, is that prosecutors don't actively publicize the names of accused abusers. The cases are still tried in open court, where the names are public.
Before Kol Tzedek, Hynes said, he struggled to mount a successful prosecution. "As soon as we would give the name of a defendant ... (rabbis and others) would engage this community in a relentless search for the victims," he said. "And they're very, very good at identifying the victims. And then the victims would be intimidated and threatened, and the case would fall apart."
Since then, 100 of the total 5,389 cases in the borough have come from the ultra-orthodox community, the district attorney's office said. Hynes also started a taskforce to combat intimidation attempts — and has said rabbis have a duty to come forward if they have been told of abuse.
But victims' rights advocates say Hynes has purposefully ignored some cases and hasn't pushed as strongly for full prosecutions of others — bowing to powerful rabbis in exchange for political support, a charge he strongly denies.
"He doesn't take care of victims," said Nuchem Rosenberg, a rabbi who says he was ostracized for speaking out about abuse. "He takes care of those in power, so they can all keep power."
Genut said the accuser is ready to testify. Her family, though, is looking for a higher judgment than criminal court.
"They believe that God's going to take revenge on him," she said. "They're suffering a lot and they say one nice day God's going to show us that he did stick up for us."
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