Trial Exposes Shadowy Chasidic 'Modesty Committees'

Young woman's testimony reveals tactics of freelance ‘purity’ guardians in Satmar community.

12/06/12
Special To The Jewish Week
Photo Galleria: 

For more than a week, spectators and members of the press have been packing the Brooklyn courtroom where a prominent chasidic man is on trial for sexually abusing a girl from the Satmar community who was sent to him for counseling. The case is noteworthy for a number of reasons, chief among them the fact that the young woman pressed charges in the first place.

Indeed, ever since she reported the abuse, the alleged victim of Nechemya Weberman — an unlicensed “therapist” to whom, testimony has indicated, Satmar schools referred “wayward” girls for “help” — has been subjected to intense pressure to withdraw her claim, including intimidation, harassment, social ostracism of her family and even a reported $500,000 bribe. Last spring, members of the Satmar community held a lavish fundraiser for Weberman’s defense. Not long after, four men were arrested and charged with witness tampering in connection with the case. And last Thursday, four chasidic men were arrested for taking the young woman’s picture — which was then posted online — as she testified in the courtroom.

The case is also significant for the amount of public support the alleged victim has received, if not necessarily from mainstream members of her community then from her family, close friends and advocates, many of whom have used social media to spread the word about the trial and appeared in court. After all, it was only three years ago that the late judge Gustin Reichbach issued a stinging critique of the religious community from the bench, noting at his sentencing of a bar mitzvah tutor convicted of molesting two of his students “a communal attitude that seems to impose greater opprobrium on the victims than the perpetrator.”

However, many people with ties to the chasidic community believe there is something even more important about the Weberman case — namely, what it exposes about the larger communal role played by chasidic “modesty committees” in communities like Williamsburg, Borough Park and Kiryas Joel. These groups — to which, sources say, Weberman was connected — originated years ago to guard the “purity” of the community by enforcing strict dress and behavior codes that characterize the insular chasidic lifestyle. But, insiders say, the tactics of these self-appointed, freelance modesty patrols have evolved from public shaming to extortion and threats.

The narrative to emerge from the trial testimony so far is that a chasidic girl, perceived as “acting out” by the standards of her chasidic school and family — defying the community’s dress code, communicating with boys, asking questions about the existence of God — was sent to Weberman for therapy. She was 12 at the time, and the move apparently came at her school’s insistence and under threat of expulsion.

Both the girl’s mother and a principal at the school, Benzion Feuerwerger, testified that the school, United Talmudical Academy at one point required the family to pay $12,800 in advance for Weberman’s “therapeutic” services before they would accept her into their summer camp and back into the school the following year. According to her testimony, the mother challenged the propriety of Weberman taking the girl, alone, on a long drive in his car, a clear violation of the chasidic prohibition against a man and a woman who are not married to each other being alone. The mother claimed that Weberman demanded an apology from her and that the school ordered the family to go along with it, according to the mother’s testimony. 

The young woman, now 17, alleges that Weberman, who often “treated” her in a locked room with a bed, began touching her sexually during their sessions, which also came to include forced oral sex. The alleged abuse went on for years and was reported to the authorities only after the young woman disclosed it to a counselor at a new school she was attending.

For its part, the defense has argued that the young woman fabricated the abuse allegations in order to exact revenge on Weberman, who, they say she believed, breached her confidence and told her parents about a relationship she had had with a boy.  Weberman’s attorneys have also argued that the young woman’s family had a business dispute with Weberman, which may have been an additional motivation for her allegations.

However, community members and observers believe that Weberman’s connection to the modesty committee (or Vaad HaTznius; tznius is Hebrew for modesty,) and his ties to the Satmar schools make this case about more than one woman’s allegations of sexual abuse against a man ostensibly charged with helping her.

Many observers believe that the relationship between Weberman, the Vaad and the school is something the leaders of Satmar do not want explored in any depth; they speculate that this likely accounts for UTA’s apparent reluctance this summer to respond to subpoenas for records on Weberman. That reluctance, it was reported, may have prompted Justice Ruth Shillingford to consider slapping the school with contempt charges (no such charges were brought and presumably UTA ultimately responded to the subpoena).

It also may explain why Feuerwerger, when questioned on the stand on Tuesday, denied knowing about the existence of the Vaad HaTznuis, a statement that drew laughter from observers in the courtroom. It also drew incredulous comments from current and former community members.

Ari Mandel, the founder of Zaakah, a grassroots group that has been organizing demonstrations in support of the alleged victim and other abuse survivors, told The Jewish Week he was “stunned” that Feuerwerger would make such a claim under oath. “Any 4-year-old in that community, a Shabbos goy in that community, knows what the Vaad HaTznuis is. Every chasidic community has [one].” (The Jewish Week has a copy of a document written on the letterhead of the Williamsburg Vaad.)

These sentiments were shared by Joel Engelman, himself a survivor of abuse in the Satmar community and an advocate.

Engelmann first became privy to the Vaad’s workings through his job, in 2004-2005, as a driver and personal assistant for a man named Yakov Yagen, another unlicensed, self-styled therapist who, along with members of the Vaad, told Engelman he was working for them. (Yagen initially told Engelman he was a surgeon; that wasn’t true).

“Weberman was at the helm of [a group within the Vaad] and together with the others worked with Yagen on a daily basis,” Engelman said. “I was present at many occasions when they were discussing the workings of the Vaad, whether it was informal meetings, or formal discussions on the speaker phone, which I was privy to when I was driving him.” Engelman also remembers driving Yagen either to or from two meetings of the Vaad in Williamsburg.

Yagen did not reply to e-mail and phone messages seeking comment.

According to Engelman, one of the roles of the Vaad — which comprises various “divisions” and whose members’ names are not publicized — is to conduct surveillance on those who are thought to be transgressing. Examples include local businesses that may be featuring immodest window displays or creating an atmosphere conducive to mixed-sex socializing. Young people who are spending time with members of the opposite sex or leaving the community to attend movies or go to bars or clubs are also targets, as are those who are having affairs.

Armed with their “evidence,” Vaad members then approach their subjects and, according to Engelman, attempt to persuade them to pay for therapy — with “therapists” they select — or risk public exposure. Wayward spouses are also given the option of paying members of the Vaad to fund “therapy” for their wronged mates.

Engelman recalls one situation where he was present in which a community member, a man who was not from America, was told he had to put his “at risk” daughter in therapy with Yagen or face her expulsion from school.

“The father barely spoke English or Yiddish and they were saying, ‘This is what you need to do’ and he was crying. ‘How am I going to get $225?’” And they said basically, ‘This is the situation, sorry, can’t help you, this is what you need to do.’”

In what could be seen as an extension of its role in addressing transgression, the Vaad also deals with alleged child molesters. However, it does so, insiders say, without involving the authorities and often through extortion. 

Engelman experienced this personally when he tried unsuccessfully to have a teacher he alleges molested him, Rabbi Avrohom Reichman, removed from his position at UTA (Engelman’s story was featured in The Jewish Week in 2008). According to Joel’s mother, Pearl Engelman, when the family first brought these allegations to the attention of Satmar officials in April 2008, two members of the modesty committee, Meshulem Jacobowitz and Zalmen Leib Leitner, acting on behalf of UTA, reached out to her son for a meeting. They claimed, according to Pearl Engelman, that they had already arranged for Reichman to leave UTA and the teaching field altogether when he “suddenly decided to deny the molestation.”

The committee ultimately ordered Reichman to take a lie detector test, which he apparently failed. Although he was then fired from the school, he was — despite assurances from Leitner and Jacobowitz — rehired as a teacher at the Satmar bungalow colony that July and returned to his teaching position in the fall. Further, despite the fact other people came forward with similar allegations about Reichman (in one case to Brooklyn Assemblyman Dov Hikind), nobody ever pressed criminal charges and he continues to teach young boys at UTA.

Of the ordeal — and her repeated attempts to persuade prominent members of the community and the modesty committee to remove Reichman from working with children once and for all — Pearl Engelman told The Jewish Week, “I felt like Bar Kamtzu in Megilas Eicha [from the Book of Lamentations] when he was evicted from a party [and] said ‘there were many prominent people sitting there and they did nothing, most probably it was OK with them’ and because of this the Bais Hamikdash [First Temple] was destroyed.”

Rarely, according to community members, the Vaad will take more public action regarding a molester. For example, in the spring of 2008, what can be translated from the original Hebrew as the “Vaad Guarding the Holiness of the Holy Community and Holy Torah and Education Institutions of Williamsburg” issued warning in print in Hebrew about a man in the community who was “defiling young Jewish children” by “sodomy-type acts” in “cellars, in bathrooms and in mikvahs.” The warning, which identified the man as Moshe Zecharia Rosenbaum and also contained his photo, noted that Rosenbaum had already been told to stop a number of times by the committee but “remains defiant.”

The document was distributed to all of the men’s mikvehs in the community and it instructed those overseeing the ritual baths to forbid Rosenbaum from entering, noting that if he failed to comply, the warning would be posted in the synagogue.

“[From] now on responsibility rests on your shoulders,” the warning concluded.

Despite these allegations, nobody on the Vaad — nor anyone else in the community, including any of Rosenbaum’s alleged victims — reported him to the authorities at the time. In fact, the authorities only learned of his actions after his ex-wife committed suicide and her mother went to court to seek custody of their child (no abuse was alleged in that case). The lawyer representing the late mother’s parents, who is not a member of the community, reported Rosenbaum to Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes.

According to court documents obtained by The Jewish Week, several members of the Vaad — specifically, Yidel Schlesinger, Zalman Leib Feldman and Abraham Jacobowitz — were subpoenaed to provide information about what they knew to the family court. In addition, one victim who is still within the statute of limitations had also prepared a signed statement for the family court, given to The Jewish Week, attesting to abuse at the hands of Rosenbaum and noting that Rosenbaum’s father had paid for his therapy, presumably at the insistence of the Vaad.

While Schlesinger, Feldman and Jacobowitz could not be reached for comment, a source familiar with the case told The Jewish Week that the reason these men, angry at Rosenbaum for his defiance, were willing to testify in family court was because they knew that without a victim willing to press criminal charges, their testimony would not result in his arrest and prosecution.

While a spokesman for Hynes told The Jewish Week that the case is under investigation, neither Rosenbaum nor anyone who failed to report him has been charged with a crime. In the meantime, according to the source, Rosenbaum was “shipped off to Israel” by his parents at the insistence of the Vaad.

Last Update:

12/15/2012 - 18:59

Comment Guidelines

The Jewish Week feels comments create a valuable conversation and wants to feature your thoughts on our website. To make everyone feel welcome, we won't publish comments that are profane, irrelevant, promotional or make personal attacks.

If this community refuses to go to the authorities for serious crimes (and let's remember that they are NOT above the law as much as they try to be), are they not then morally obligated to 'police' the situation for themselves? This Jewish community prides themselves for their ethics, religion and purity of lifestyle. This proves that they are no better than the Catholic priests and other religious men who have abused their position. Why do these 'men of God' in all religions perpetrate such heinous acts? And why does the community protect them and not the victims. Sweeping it under the rug will eventually cause a huge lump which cannot be hidden. I'm thinking that lump has now become visible boil on their posterior ends. Please, let's pop it.

Yesterday I commented on the conviction of this sexual predator,but had not read this article or it's readers comments. These defenders of child abuse make me feel so ashamed that I am embarrassed before the gentile world. They lie before G-d under oath sworn on the Holy Bible, they bribe, bare false witness,and yet they accuse your publication of being anti- haredim. Now that is chutzpah! Th

ey think they are pure but pure what. I think I know but it is one of those censored words you cannot say on TV. I have a great deal of contact with Orthodox world and have never experienced the heinous conduct shown by these Satmarim. We wonder why there are Jew haters, but these people give plenty of fodder for attitudes.

Engelman mom & son know and speak the truth! their facts are absolute & wholesome.
voy, voy, for the predators on their day of judgement!

About time for the Verdict, how many years has this SICK CULTbeen hiding the TRUTH!
This pig belongs in jail for the rest of his life, maybe they want to hold another fund raiser for this PIG.
Can't wait for the next CULT trial from BROOKLYN. Many more to come.

http://nechemyaweberman.com/

THs guy sounds like an anmal and shuld be locked up.

I have read anout the "yellow journalism" of the late 19th century. I see that it is alive and well.

Despicable. This is not religion. Anyone and everyone involved in hurting these children ruins the name of Torah and G-d. May G-d burn their souls through eternity. And where is the modesty of these disgusting, ugly Chassidic who men would release the picture of a rape victim to the media? According to them, women shouldn't be seen at all. A woman who is a tzadakis cannot have her picture printed in a religious Jewish paper but this is fine by them. This girl is so brave and I applaud her and her family for speaking the truth out loud, in order to help others. Kol ha K'vod. And thank you Jewish Press for covering this story.

The Satmar models itself after the Goyim. It dresses like they dressed and it behaves like it has always behaved. Ignore the victims and protect the predators.

http://daattorah.blogspot.com/2012/12/weberman-case-calling-police-for-abuse.html

The next scandal is going to be against g-d for doing the moon smaller

This week, I attended a program by a new organization called Magenu (Magenu.org) which is training all the schools in Brooklyn (Parents/ teachers/kids) about safety.
It was so wonderful and educational.
The children at the yeshivas who are implementing their program will 100% be much safer from these terrible people.

I wish this article would have addressed the allegations that other families have made against Weberman that their children had similar stories to what the victim is claiming and how they were threatened if they came forward.

I also think that it should be pointed out that publicly identifying a person that has violated their standards and causing them damage is not consistent with torah laws and therefore their actions are no different that Organized Crime that extorts money.

From 1to 10 everybody is scandlised a scandal dosent mean nothing these days ecsept for the meida

Where is DA Hynes? This is worse than the Wild West. The criminals terrorize the population while the sheriff sits slurring his words on the Zev Brenner Show.

Its aint gona help you, Satmer stays Satmer, Power + $ + PR + 20,000 ppl !!!
Please move on with your life, enjoy it , Its a waist of time trying to bring down this 20,000-pound gorilla.

What business do men have breaking into some young lady's room in the middle of the night? And they call themselves the Vad Hatznius? Is that Tznius? Shame on all those Amharatzim!!! Anyone truly concerned with tznius would be a true gaon, probably a dayan who can pasken shaylos, who would then call a Rebetzin if the issue involved a female to go speak to the perpetrator and "explain" the halachos involved. That would be the proper way to handle tznius issues. Not leave it to a bunch of hooligans who get off on entering a female's bedroom to maybe catch her in a compromising state of undress! yuck disgusting phony Jews!

amharatzim???You are the am haretz.It is amei haretz not amharaztzim

and this is called a jewish website. my gosh !
arent we innocent till provuen guilty... on witch world are we living in ??

I have to agree with that.In the United States there is a presumption of innocence .Publications like the Jewish Week have always had it in for Orthodox people .The New York Post,The Jewish Week and the Forward have created much fodder for anti-Semites .This bs artist Rosenblatt says he is doing it for the children .This man will be convicted no matter what.People hate Jews and the more Jewish you look the more they hate you.Let the police and courts handle this.If it were up to Gary Rosenblatt every,Satmar,Agudist and Lakewood man would be arrested for just being Orthodox .His hatred is boundless.

Presumed innocent until proven guilty, yes. That does not mean the press should not do its job and investigate these allegations, bringing the evidence to light. It is disingenuous to say "leave it to the police and the courts" when elements of the community are actively suppressing evidence and intimidating witnesses. I applaud the courage of The Jewish Week in writing about this.

One in which you need to learn basic grammar to be taken seriously.

WOW ! ! !

At least we're just 15 more days from 12-21-2012.

I just had a Vision of the Earth opening up in Williamsburg and swallowing the likes of Satmar, UTA, the Vaad HaTznius; tznius and Charles Hynes.

***And the Sun began to Shine in Brooklyn Again ! ! !*** : )

You sound like one of those on the liberal left, who reflexively espouse self-hatred.NOTHING HAS BEEN PROVEN,
this girl was known in the community for her promiscuous lifestyle.Her case says more about HER and her wayward
and illicit lifestyle than it says about Weberman.
If he was such a "bad person" why did she wait so many years to bring it out in the open? Sounds pretty shaky to me.

So, "nothing has been proven" with regard to the allegations against the counselor, but her alleged "promiscuous lifestyle" is "known." Would you care to back that up? Do you know that you sound like the morality police in a Muslim theocracy? This isn't about hatred of Jews, this is about a community that seems sometimes a crazy and insular as Jonestown. They could be Christians, Sikhs, Hindus, Jains or Zoroastrians for all I care, it's the actions people like this "counselor" and the people who support him have taken.

With all due respect, you obviously know nothing about the psychology of an abused child. To use the argument that she took three years to bring this out in the open is just plain STUPID and ASININE. PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE do some research and learn about this before you make such offensive and ridiculous statements.

This article is a great read.

If you would only understand who these "Vaad" people are, you would cry and laugh at the same time. These are such non-qualified, uneducated people that have their own baggage, and they are simply doing this, while they are getting off themselves on these stories.

Ask around in Williamsburg who , for example, Feldman is, you wont get a single praise on him and they will tellyou what a bum he is.

the point here is, not only does this organization exsist, but they do it for all the wrong reasons.

I will admit, i was once summonsed by these people for not being modest enough, and i was given a penalty as a punishment. I have also recently met with the DA's office on Jay street and told them all about it and they are investigating some of the members. The DA also informed me at the time ( 3 months ago) that there are "multiple" complaints on "multiple' indviduals.

So i am assuming that we have just seen the begining of the crackdown, and hopefully people will be more willing to come forward and dismantle the ENTIRE iranin regime in Williamsburg, Monroe and all other areas.

Add comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
By submitting this form, you accept the Mollom privacy policy.