By Zoë Blackler (Guardian UK)
May 16, 2012
In 2007, two worried parents sent their 12-year-old daughter for counselling with Weberman, at the insistence of her school. For three years, the girl consulted him, seeing him often several times a week. The girl had been questioning her religious teachers, and her parents hoped that Weberman, who had raised his own pious, god-fearing children, would lead her back to the right path.
Later this summer, a jury in Brooklyn – home to the largest Orthodox population outside Israel – will be asked to decide exactly what took place during those many counselling sessions. Whether Weberman repeatedly sexually abused the young girl as she alleges, or whether, as the defence claims, he is the object of misplaced revenge.
Whatever facts emerge at trial and whatever the jury decides, most in this insular community have already reached a verdict. The majority are siding with the accused. On Wednesday night, several thousand members of Weberman's Satmar Hasidic sect are expected to attend a rally on his behalf. His supporters, with the full backing of the senior rabbis, are stepping up their efforts to fight the prosecution.
That the Weberman case is going to trial at all is notable in itself. The Guardian has detailed how most sex abuse claims are handled inside the community, either brushed aside or resolved in the shadow religious courts, or by the silencing of victims through bribing or intimidation. Those cases that do reach the criminal justice system tend to end in plea deals negotiated out of public view, in line with the Brooklyn district attorney's contentious secrecy policy.
As media attention on the issue intensifies, the Weberman case has acquired a much bigger significance, beyond the question of individual guilt or innocence. It will offer a rare insight into the increasingly bitter divide inside the community – between the majority that wants to continue the cover-up and the growing number speaking up. It will also illustrate the level of anger those who make abuse complaints face from members of their own community.
Last Friday, the Yiddish paper Der Blatt ran a front page story announcing "Libel 75", Wednesday night's rally in the Continental Hall in Williamsburg. The piece called on the entire community to defend Nechemya Weberman from "a despicable, false libel" and rescue him from 75 years in jail. "The community will come out", it declared, to help raise $500,000 for Weberman's legal costs. Posters about Libel 75 have also been plastered across Williamsburg.
If Weberman, now 53, is found guilty, he is unlikely to face 75 years in prison time. The charges against him, however, are severe. The indictment, which runs to 23 pages, includes 87 counts of sexual abuse. Of the 16 felony charges, the most serious alone, course of sexual conduct against a child in the first degree, carries a mandatory prison term of five to 25 years. Although not part of the prosecution, Weberman is also tainted by his lack of qualifications as he is not a trained psychotherapist.
Weberman's defence attorney George Farkas, who is billed to appear at Wednesday's rally, says Weberman is the real victim. A year before the allegations emerged, the girl - still underage - had an older boyfriend. Her father, concerned that the pair had embarked on a sexual relationship, secretly video taped them alone and the boyfriend was brought before a judge. Farkas says that although his client advised against the scheme, the girl blames him and wants revenge. She is being manipulated, Farkas says, by "nefarious, vicious people" out to bring Weberman down.
Or as Der Blatt phrased it in more emotive terms: "As parents who have benefited from this devoted askan [community volunteer] and educator, the person we turned to first to rescue ours and others children when they started sliding [becoming non observant], we call on you: do not allow this askan to be, god forbid, sent to prison for life for his holy work rescuing Jewish children."
But Judy Genut, a friend of the girl's mother, dismisses Weberman's version of events, even though she acknowledges that most in the community support him. "They can't believe that somebody dressed according to the tradition, who acts and talks and walks like a person who has the fear of God in him, would actually do what he accused of. It's mind boggling." The girl's mother had two sisters who "went off the path", Genut says, so when the story first spread, people dismissed it as the niece being "slutty" too. "The family didn't gather sympathy because of what the aunts did."
'What's on trial is the idea that he can be protected and supported by the rabbis'
Although the Libel 75 campaign is unprecedented in scale, Weberman is not the first recipient of a rabbinic fundraising effort. In March 2009, Rabbi Israel Weingarten was convicted in Brooklyn's federal court of raping his daughter from age nine to 18. Following a reportedly bizarre and harrowing trial (in which Weingarten attempted to defend himself at one point cross-examining the daughter) the jury found him guilty on all counts. He was sentenced to 30 years in prison. This past February, the blog Failed Messiah reported that a rabbinic delegation had visited Weingarten in jail. They took with them a proclamation of innocence, signed by a bevy of senior rabbis that blamed his incarceration on a "travesty of justice" and a "sinister plot" and that pledged to raise the money needed to win back his freedom.
The instinct to rescue a fellow Jew from prison is hard wired in the Orthodox psyche, says community activist Isaac Shonfeld, an observant Jew from Brooklyn. The fundraising tradition has a name, Pidyon Shvuyim, and dates back to life in eastern Europe when Jews were frequently held to ransom on trumped-up charges by their anti-semitic governments. It isn't just that fear of jail trumps considerations of guilt or innocence, Shonfeld says. But also that many in the community, despite the evidence, still believe Weingarten over his daughter. In a strictly hierarchical, patriarchal, deeply religious society, it's unsurprising: Rabbi Weingarten is a male in late middle age, a scholar of the torah; his accuser was a young woman who is no longer Orthodox; and secular courts are regarded as inherently untrustworthy.
Nechemya Weberman's supporters have worked tirelessly to orchestrate the Libel 75 campaign and win the backing of two competing sets of rabbis, says Pearl Engelman, a Satmar Hasid from Williamsburg, whose own son Joel is an abuse survivor. "For the two factions in Satmar to unite on something like this is extremely unusual."
"What's on trial here is not just Weberman," says Engelman, who believes the girls' account. "What's on trial is the idea that a [man like] Weberman can be protected and supported by the rabbis."
According to several accounts, the girl's family is facing intimidation to prevent them testifying. Her father owns a Jewish phone directory, widely used in the community. He has been told that unless his daughter withdraws from the court case, advertising will cease and his business will collapse.
The girl's new boyfriend, Hershy Deutsch, has also been threatened. Deutsch, who owns a pizza restaurant on Lee Avenue, says he was offered $500,000 to persuade the girl to recant. When he refused, he was told his kosher licence could be at risk. He says his landlord was pressured to evict him. "Giving blood money to deny a story is not going to stop the molesters molesting children," he says. Deutsch is using Facebook to mobilise a counter demonstration. He says he worries about his girlfriend, who is suffering terribly. She can't sleep, he says, haunted by memories. Deutsch says his girlfriend also turned down a bribe. "Every time she would go to a store, she would have an image of where that money came from."
Judy Genut says she, her husband and other members of her family have also been harrassed. "A lot of people are angry that this came out because it brings us in a very bad light," she says. "Other people hear about it, and read about it and if we are the chosen ones, the moral compass of the world, then shouldn't we act morally? It's a very hard thing for us to swallow because there's so much good in our community and so many beautiful organisations.
"So there's a lot of shame. And when people are ashamed they hide. And how do you hide? By not letting other people know that something like this is happening. Because if you don't talk about it, it's not happening, right? It hurts me so much. I mean, do we actually harbour our own perverts?"
The Weberman case is a wake-up call for the community, she says, that nothing stays hidden anymore. "Children will learn there are people sticking up for them."
George Farkas is adamant a jury will exonerate his client: "Weberman has a lot of support in the community because word has got out that this is a phony claim. People realise, there but for the grace of God go I. All of the evidence pointed to the fact he didn't do it. But [the DA's office] went ahead anyway. It's reprehensible. It's un-American. It's wrong."
When Weberman was first arraigned, he pleaded not guilty, insisting his innocence. At that time, the girl and her family hoped he would take a plea deal. They would have welcomed a swift resolution. Now, the girl is determined to take the stand.
"So there's going to be a trial," says Genut. "Things are going to come out into the open and it won't be a pretty story."