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