Q & A With Times Reporters About Abuse in Ultra-Orthodox Jewish Communities

By The New York Times
May 11, 2012

Ultra-Orthodox Jews in the New York region have been grappling with how to address child-sex abuse in the community. On Thursday, The Times published an article describing how ultra-Orthodox Jews who come forward with allegations of abuse often encounter intense intimidation from their neighbors and from rabbinical authorities, aimed at pressuring them to drop their cases. On Friday, a second article examined the record of the Brooklyn district attorney, Charles J. Hynes, in prosecuting these cases. Mr. Hynes has adopted a policy of not publicizing accusations of child-sex abuse involving the ultra-Orthodox in Brooklyn.

The reporters of The Times articles, Sharon Otterman and Ray Rivera, answered a selection of reader questions about the series.


Q. How did this story originally come to your attention? How did you find contacts in the community who were willing to talk to an outsider, even semi-anonymously?

— Posted by Jonquil, Utopia

A. Shortly after I started on the religion beat last November, I read a fascinating article in The Jewish Daily Forward that reported that the Brooklyn district attorney's office said a new program had led to more than 80 arrests of ultra-Orthodox child molesters. But the district attorney would not release the names of those arrested, and there was skepticism about the numbers. Ray Rivera, my colleague, and I started examining the broader issue of how the community addresses allegations of child-sexual abuse.

We first reached out to the small group of outspoken victims' advocates. They include bloggers, psychologists and survivors of abuse themselves. Here are some related blogs and Web sites: Survivors for Justice, Failed Messiah, Jewish Community Watch and Adkan. As you will see, some of them publish photos of people accused as molesters. This is a risky move legally, but they say they feel it is justified by the need to warn the community, particularly given that the Brooklyn district attorney's office has a policy of not publicizing arrests or indictments in these cases.

— Sharon Otterman

Q. Has D.A. Hynes been pressing the rabbis to change their policy of protecting the sexual abuser?

— Posted by Bennett Fisch

A. One of the goals of his office's Kol Tzedek program is to encourage community leaders, including rabbis, to end their resistance to allowing abuse allegations to be reported to the district attorney or police. At the same time, as we report in the article, the Brooklyn district attorney, Mr. Hynes, has not publicly opposed the position of a leading ultra-Orthodox advocacy group: that followers, including yeshiva teachers, must obtain permission from a rabbi before reporting abuse further. As we reported, this position potentially flouts a state law that requires teachers, social workers and others to report allegations of sexual abuse immediately to the authorities.

— Ray Rivera

Q. Who is the watchdog of the Brooklyn D.A. office? What agency can investigate wrongdoing?

— Posted by GF Newton, Charleston, S.C.

A. Voters are the ultimate watchdog. The district attorney is elected. But the federal Justice Department could presumably look into allegations of unequal treatment if constitutional questions were raised.

— Ray Rivera

Q. In the article you write: "experts said the rate of sexual abuse in these communities was believed to occur at the same rate as in society over all." How would those experts know, if much of the abuse goes unreported? Wouldn't it be reasonable to assume that in a community with an attitude of shielding the perpetrators and blaming victims, the rates of abuse are, in fact, HIGHER than in the rest of the country?

— Posted by pryrodnyy, Brooklyn, NY

A. Experts we spoke with did not believe abuse rates were any higher in the ultra-Orthodox community than in other communities. But you're right in the sense that there is a dearth of academic research examining sexual abuse in the community. The one academic study that we know of on the prevalence of sexual abuse in the community focused on women, and suggested an abuse rate only slightly higher than that for the general population, but we did not find broader data. The high number of cases being reported now may simply reflect the fact that for years, victims did not come forward.

— Ray Rivera

Q. The article made several references to the rabbinical courts. What types of penalties do those courts hand down for sex offenses?

— Posted by Lucas, Washington, D.C.

A. The secular world gets only occasional glimpses at how ultra-Orthodox rabbis and rabbinical courts handle these matters, often when there is subsequent civil or criminal litigation, or when a victim decides to speak out.

Generally, religious courts, or battei din, in Hebrew, handle civil, not criminal matters, including divorce, marriage, custody and property disputes. (Here is a look at one such court.)

It is my understanding that in molestation cases, religious courts are often convened on an ad hoc basis to adjudicate on a narrow question — like whether someone accused of molesting is fit to continue working at a school, or whether compensation should be made to a person making accusations. The judges tend to take actions like switching an accused person's job, monitoring him or her, ordering therapy or ordering compensation for a victim.

Sometimes religious courts do not fully accept the testimony of children or women, making proving molestation claims very difficult. They also have no formal power to punish, subpoena or collect evidence.

— Sharon Otterman

Q. Could you talk about Avrohom Mondrowitz and why you think Hynes hasn't tried to extradite him?

— Posted by Scott, NYC

A. A little background: Avrohom Mondrowitz was indicted through Mr. Hynes's predecessor as Brooklyn district attorney, Elizabeth Holtzman, in the 1980s on eight counts of child abuse and five counts of sodomy involving boys ages 9 to 15. He fled to Israel before he could be arrested. Victims' rights groups say Mr. Mondrowitz has many more victims, perhaps in the hundreds. Michael Lesher, a New Jersey lawyer representing some of the reported victims, uncovered federal documents that Mr. Lesher contended showed that Mr. Hynes's office approved a decision in 1993 to drop efforts to extradite Mr. Mondrowitz. Mr. Hynes's office has long denied dropping those efforts, and in 2007 made a new push to bring Mr. Mondrowitz back, but Israel's Supreme Court ultimately ruled against extradition. Mr. Hynes's aides say if Mr. Mondrowitz ever returns to the United States, he will be arrested and tried.

— Ray Rivera


Additional Comments:

In my reading of the article, it appears that Hynes is taking these actions for political reasons, not religious reasons. He clearly needs the voting bloc of Orthodox Jews and that seems to be more important than justice for victims. It is a pity because Hynes has really been such a wonderful advocate in the domestic violence field. He knows what is right -- he just needs to forget about politics and do it.
- myrna, New York, New York

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I don't have a question, just a comment. This is investigative reporting at its very best. The Pulitzer Prize people will surely notice. Many thanks.

- gedel0, NYC

 

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Does the tradition of letting the rabbi decide whether to go to the police for Jew-on-Jew crimes apply only to those with a sexual element, or does it hold for theft, non-sexual assault, fraud, etc., as well?

I'm honestly shocked, because I was not aware that there is a religious exemption to laws against obsctruction of justice.

- Doctor Science, NJ

 

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And the difference between a Muslim Court practicing Sharia Law and this Ultra Orthodox Kangaroo court is ???
If you wish to be a Citizen,you need to abide by the rules that apply to all.

- JSW, San Antonio

 

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The reason many ultra-Orthodox are reluctant to be tried in court is because of the latent or overt anti-semitism lurking at many of these courts.

A current example which never appears in the major media:
The Rubashkin case where a white collar Jewish executive was sentenced to 27 years (virtually a life sentence since he is 52 years old). The judge was in collusion on raiding the premises and should have recused herself from the case.

Dozens of citizens and major lawyers and law firms have registered their complaints to no avail. This case may end up in the Supreme court.

- Michael Antebi, New York NY

 

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By this logic, the African-American community has much greater justification not to participate in the criminal justice system, because of the well-documented persistent racial bias of the courts.

Either we are a nation of laws or we aren't.

- pryrodnyy, Brooklyn, NY

 

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Great point Mouse Woman. Please don't think we are all like that. I was raised to appreciate the efforts of millions of young american servicemen who risked life and limb to save the remnants of the jewish nation from the nazi inferno. Which is why i'm an american patriot first and a supporter of Israel second. I spend vacation time imbuing my children with the love of this great free land that opened its doors and given us a respite from near permanent persecution in Europe and the middle east.

- SirVivor, NY

 

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As a Ultra-Orthodox member of the NY jewish community I would like to point out an inherent misconception in many inquiries here. As u can see @ this link: http://onthemainline.blogspot.com/2010/07/bet-din-1920s-style.html
they have a copy of the Illustrated London Times dating back to August 14 1926. In the bottom right hand corner is a picture and directly over it is a statement reading "No cases of a criminal nature are dealt with - But referred to the police court by the usher."
It has been the general rule since the jewish exile from Israel at the time of the temples distruction, not to hear criminal cases due to the inability to EFFECTIVELY enforce any form of punishment. Most cases of a criminal nature that were/are judged stem from a rabbi's misguided and at times dangerous attemt at doing the right thing. These issues are clearly above and beyond any rabbis expertise no matter the good intentions.

- SirVivor, NY

 

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In the article you write: "experts said the rate of sexual abuse in these communities was believed to occur at the same rate as in society over all". How would those experts know, if much of the abuse goes unreported? Wouldn't it be reasonable to assume that in a community with an attitude of shielding the perpetrators and blaming victims, the rates of abuse are, in fact, HIGHER, than in the rest of the country?
- pryrodnyy, Brooklyn, NY

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I concur and have first hand evidence to debunk the idiotic defense that "we are no worse than everybody else". The largest ultra-orthodox city in Israel has been scientificaly proven to be the capital of child rape and insist in that country. It is my hope that the sunlight of jurnalistic exposure will serve to disenfect this deadly infection consuming my community. Depressing situation indeed.

- SirVivor, NY

 

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Two questions:

1) How does a rabbinical court investigate criminal offenses? Do they investigate it themselves (evidence gathering, etc.) or do they depend on the police to do the leg work and the rabbinical court is judge and jury?

2) If a rabbinical court finds somebody guilty of a particularly egragious offense who metes out the punishment? Does the community have their own prisons or do they hand them over to the DA?

- M. Klein, NY

 

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A well known rabbi wrote and essay on this subject. One excerpt:

"Batei Din in our times are not effective in dealing with criminal behavior. Lacking the investigative arm of the police and having restrictive standards of testimony they can not establish guilt. When the culprit is charismatic, he can often get protégés who feel indebted to him to lie to the Beis Din. It takes years before those who have been abused as youngsters to openly face their abuser."

I recommend reading the full text, which can be found at:

http://tzedek-tzedek.blogspot.com/2009/09/rabbis-dealing-with-abuse.html

- dman, Chicago, IL

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"Halakhic standards of proof are essentially impossible to achieve, as the victims are children and women who are ineligible to be witnesses."

Wow. So I guess that's our answer? The community asks the DA to let them deal with abuse themselves. Meanwhile, they don't let women and children to serve as witnesses, so the only one whose testimony counts is the adult male - the abuser. This is really 17th century in the middle of 21 century New York City.

- pryrodnyy, Brooklyn, NY

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As a Jew originally from Brooklyn, I am sickened by this report. I am curious if there are data showing the religious are more apt to molest than the general public.

Also, I am pretty sure the Torah, Talmud, Maimonides, etc. have severe penalties for this behavior. I am guessing the offenders are not subject to those penalties while they are to the protection the communities think they deserve.

Lastly, the DA is walking a very difficult line between catching more offenders and offering special treatment. Tying his work to votes is most likely coincidental to him doing his job effectively. In addition, it's not very different from what governments have been doing for centuries - giving comparatively more lenient treatment to a group in order to apprehend the more people committing the more egregious crimes.

- Robert Miraglia, Dellwood, MN

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I'd be interested in other facets of equal enforcement of the laws with regard to this community: for example, do the landlords among them follow non-discrimination in renting apartments in the areas where this community has especially high density? I find it hard to see how they could achieve such density without discriminating, but perhaps there's an explanation.

Please continue digging!

-Mateo, Bed Stuy

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Who is the watchdog of the Brooklyn DA office? What agency can investigate wrong doing?

- GF Newton, Charleston, SC

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Other state governmental bodies beholden to the jewish vote to different degrees. Don't criticize me for being anti-semitic. I'm one of them ultra orthodox hassidim, but with an inherrant fault. I have trouble keeping myself from calling things the way it is. In my opinion should we choose to purge ourselves from molesters by reporting to the authoritie and demanding justice we will be portraying to the world how civilized and rightuous we are. Sadly our policies now (read the policies of some rabbis and supposed do-gooders) project a very poor portrayed of all us religious jews. I'm so sad and frustrated.

- SirVivor, NY

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What, if anything, is the theological, cultural, or basis for keeping a distance from both "strangers" and the trappings of government rule?

I understand that separateness may be the natural state of affairs for religious mysticism and orthodoxy by minority groups. But, I hesitate to suggest separateness is a primarily a legacy of 19th and 20th century pogroms and the Holocaust, as Hasidism predates both pogroms and the Nazis by a few hundred years.

On the other hand, the historical anti-Semitism of Europe was a pervasive problem which one was wise to avoid... even though mysticism and arcane religious practices may be the very kind of religious practice which animated hatred by the strangers who did not understand Orthodox Judaism.

All of that seems so far from Williamsburg and Borough Park, nowadays.

- alan wright, NJ

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The damage done by the Holocaust, the pogroms, the Khmelnytsky massacres, the Crusades, etc., is permanent. All gentiles are seen as inherently, irredeemably anti-Jewish. So are all gentile institutions, including, but not necessarily limited to, government rule, civil and criminal law, secular education, and, for some, conventional medicine.

- Rebecca, NJ

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Fair points, Rebecca, but I think the "permanence" lasts only in some minds, and is distinct from the concept of "never again."

For one, pogroms and the Holocaust have not turned millions of reformed, modern orthodox, conservative, and reconstructionist Ashkenazi Jews against institutions of government forever and ever. Most have assimilated and embraced American, Canadian, British, Australian, and South African culture and government... and rightly seek government protection against bias and discrimination.

I suspect most in those Jewish-American, Jewish-Canadian, etc, subgroups would also reject the notion that there are "gentile institutions" because they participate in government n one form or another, work in government, practice a trade which is subject to government regulation, etc.

Also, many Orthodox and Hasidic Jews reject some of the institutions of the Israeli government, particularly with regard to settlements. Those are certainly not "gentile institutions" either, they're Israeli institutions.

The idea that a particular ethno-religious subgroup would reject the validity of government institutions is not new. Christians, Muslims, and Jews all have minority factions which do so.

- alan wright, NJ

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"All gentiles are seen as inherently, irredeemably anti-Jewish."

Including gentiles who fought and died in WWII in Europe? Including French and other civilians who risked their lives to shelter Jews? Really?

- Mouse Woman, Northwest Coast

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although the reporting has been good, I can't help but understand why, if you know how important privacy is in these neighborhoods, do you feel the need to write such a huge article on such a sensitive subject? If this article was written in a Jewish Paper that was read in those communities...then you might actually inspire more folks to speak out against these crimes...but in the Times...feels like gotcha journalism. " Hey look, you see those "religious jews" - not everything is as it seems..."

- brad evans, brooklyn, ny

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The reality is that The New York Times has political and social influence it can bring to bear. Do the small papers you're referring to have any influence on the Orthodox community? Or are they - like Charles Hynes - so indebted to and dependent upon the rabbis for support and access that they're unwilling to rock the boat?

Why should community privacy on a sensitive subject (or any subject) take precedence over anything, including the rule of law and the pursuit of justice? Especially, as I believe is the case here, because privacy, secrecy, and victim-shaming have allowed the abuse to continue.

If you wouldn't trust the Mormon circular, the Branch Davidian newsletter or the Boston Catholic bulletin to root out abuse, then it would be bonkers to trust the local Brooklyn Orthodox paper to do so.

- alan wright, NJ

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Some Jewish papers have previously written about this issue (see the Baruch Lanner case). It has increased some awareness and probably helped some victims, but the comments on that coverage indicate that it's a deep-seated problem. And this particular aspect of the case is about a public official who is seemingly delivering differential justice based on political considerations. That aspect of it, along with the significant, real, and continuing harm to victims as a result of continued internal and external protections offered to the perpetrators, seriously trumps the importance of privacy to the community.

- Ellen, New England

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Has D.A. Hynes been pressing the Rabbi's to change their policy of protedting the sexual abuser?

If so, I would not criticize Hynes for getting what he can. Sometimes you must be careful not to drive out the good while seeking the best response.

- Bennett Fisch, Bow, NH

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The article made several references to the rabbinical courts. What types of penalties do those courts hand down for sex offenses?

- Lucas, Washington, DC

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Could you talk about Avrohom Mondrowitz and why you think Hynes hasn't tried to extradite him?

- Scott, NYC