While Weberman is behind bars, many are still unnamed and continue to destroy the souls of young boys and girls because of a conspiracy of silence surrounding rabbinical sexual misconduct.
The case was horrific. A 17-year-old girl from the Satmar community in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn testified that she was forced by her school to attend “counseling sessions” from age 12 to 15 because she wore stockings that were too thin and asked too many questions about God. Instead of religious mentoring, three times a week she found herself behind a thrice-locked door with a bed, face to face with a fifty-ish, overweight, unlicensed “counselor,” a father of ten who forced her to watch pornographic movies and perform sexual acts.
The defendant, Nechemya Weberman, had risen from the humble post of driver for the Satmar Rebbe to the go-to expert to whom rebellious young girls were forcibly sent. According the victim’s mother, Weberman charged her $150 an hour, and demanded thousands of dollars up front.
At one point, when he insisted on taking her young daughter on a 12-hour, unchaperoned excursion upstate, the victim’s mother finally protested. His response? An angry demand for a written apology, and a threat to stop the sessions, which would have resulted in the girl’s expulsion from school.
“What could I do? I wrote it… [Now] I feel like I want to kill myself. How could I have been so blind?” she said.
Satmar in America has rallied around Weberman, holding a fund-raiser for his legal defense, and allegedly dispatching members of the community to alternately bribe and harass the victim and her family. These efforts are said to have included an offer of half a million dollars in exchange for the girl and her new husband leaving the country, throwing her nieces out of school, and revoking her husband’s restaurant hechsher (kosher certificate), putting him out of business.
With incredible bravery and tenacity, the victim refused to give up, going on to endure a grueling 15-hour, three-day cross-examination by Weberman’s high-powered legal firm, something prosecutors said they had never, ever seen done to any victim of sexual assault.
Weberman supporters say he was convicted without any DNA evidence, i.e., no Monica Lewinsky blue dress. It was his word against hers.
Obviously, however, the jury believed her, convicting him on all 59 counts, including sustained sex abuse of a child and endangering the welfare of a child. He faces a maximum of 117 years in prison.
Sadly, Weberman’s is not an isolated case. People like him are all over the religious world at every level, possessing the perfect opportunity to exploit their lofty, respected status as spiritual leaders to put themselves beyond suspicion, assured that victims will be too intimidated to come forward.
What is remarkable about the Weberman case is that the victim and her family pursued the case and that the victim received support from the religious community, mostly outside of Satmar, who held public protests against those besmirching her name.
These included Rabbi Aaron Teitelbaum himself, one of two Satmar rebbes, who was widely quoted as saying to an overflow crowd of men on a Saturday night Melave Malka: “I was in Williamsburg this Shabbat and saw an entire community saddened by what is going on. It’s a dreadful situation… A Jewish daughter has descended so low, terrible. ‘Is our sister to be like a whore?’ …When they go down, they go down to the ground.”
I was also encouraged by the statement issued about the case by the Rabbinical Council of America, which stated that the RCA “decries any invocation of Jewish law or communal interests as tools in silencing victims or witnesses from reporting abuse or from receiving therapeutic and community support and strongly condemns those members of the Jewish community who use such tactics.”
But while Weberman is behind bars, many are still unnamed and continue to destroy the souls of young boys and girls because of a conspiracy of silence surrounding rabbinical sexual misconduct even in such respected modern Orthodox institutions as Yeshiva University.
The Forward recently published a shocking exposé describing a decades-long cover-up by the YU administration of rabbinical misconduct by two rabbis (both of them now living and working in Israel). Since the article was published, 11 more victims have come forward.
Yeshiva University President Richard M. Joel, who was not at YU when the alleged abuse took place, has been vociferous in his condemnation of such a cover-up: “The actions described represent heinous and inexcusable acts that are antithetical both to Torah values and to everything that Yeshiva University stands for. They have no place here – or anywhere at all.”
The statement goes on to publish a hotline for victims, as well as his own personal phone and email contact information. I find that admirable. But the fact remains that in the past YU ignored victims’ claims and allowed the perpetrators to get off.
The trial of deeply respected rabbinical leader Mordechai Elon on sexual abuse allegations leaves many of us, myself included, conflicted. While in our hearts we would like to see Rav Elon – once one of the most beloved and respected teachers and leaders of modern Orthodoxy in Israel – completely exonerated, on the other hand, his victory would discredit the important and groundbreaking Takana panel set up to hear charges of abuse from victims of sexual assault and which acted in good faith to protect the victims by banning Elon from teaching.
Such an outcome would be a tragedy that would set back the progress made in giving victims a voice, and the community a responsibility to act quickly and resolutely to prevent such tragedies in the future.
What is undeniably a good thing over which we may all rejoice is that the entire topic of rabbinical sexual abuse has come out of the closet, much the way similar abuses by priests is no longer a dirty little secret.
I hope and pray that Weberman will sit behind bars for many, many years and that the appeal process and some highly-paid legal team (his supporters are supposedly trying to raise a million-dollar defense fund and to hire Alan Dershowitz) will not get him off. I hope his punishment will serve as an encouragement for more victims to come forward, and as a deterrent to those in the religious world who have motive, opportunity and the feeling that their pious act and high-up friends will shield them from the law if they choose to unleash their sexual desires, thereby destroying the lives and souls of the young people in their care.
I hope it will empower really pious religious leaders to strongly and publicly support victims, and convince parents and educators to listen, and act. Most of all, I hope it will help to eradicate the wall of silence that has the religious world bending to intimidation from within and from without about sexual predators in its midst.
As the brave victim of Nechemya Weberman who brought down Satmar’s veil of secrecy was quoted as saying: “I am doing this so that no other young person will suffer what I did.”
God willing, may that be true.
This was first published in the Jerusalem Post on 28 December 2012.