by Zoe Blackler (Guardian UK)
May 17, 2012
"The community will come," Brooklyn's Yiddish press had declared. And on Wednesday night, the community answered the call.
On the street outside the Continental catering hall in Williamsburg, they filled the sidewalk, at times spilling onto the road to be pushed back by police. Inside the packed room, men of all ages dressed in the traditional garb of the Satmar Hasidic sect – long black coats, round hats and side curls – listened to their community elders speak out in support of a man they claim has been wrongly accused.
With the issue of child sexual abuse in the ultra-Orthodox community gaining ever greater press attention, the approaching trial of Nechemya Weberman has become a touch paper, igniting passions on both sides of the growing divide in this community – between those who claim most alleged child sex crimes are hushed up and those who refute the charge.
Weberman stands accused of the repeated sexual abuse of a teenage girl he was counselling. But in the minds of many who joined last night's rally, he has already been condemned by a mainstream media hostile to their community.
Few in the crowd on Wednesday evening would speak to the press. Female reporters were banned from entering the hall. But a few of the younger men gathered outside did reluctantly explain their presence, though none would give their names.
"People are here because the community thinks that he's innocent," said one man, who was watching from a distance. "If the community knows him and they think he's innocent, then he deserves to clear his name."
"To support a guy who is not guilty," another said. "We're here to support him financially. He should be able to cover his legal fees."
"To support the Jewish people," said a third.
Across the street, a group of around 100 advocates, abuse survivors and supporters of the alleged victim had set up a counter-demonstration, carrying placards that read "protect victims, not abusers" and chanting "denial enables abuse".
At the start of the evening, there was a brief clash and an arrest as one of the rally-goers crossed the street to confront protesters. The media was also out in force, and included NBC and New York 1, the New York Times and the Daily News. Live broadcast trucks were parked along the street.
Outside the hall, another young Hasidic man, who said he was a father himself and concerned about child molestation, was more outspoken than the others. He wanted not just to answer questions but to debate.
"Why is it that the news media is so interested in this story?" he demanded to know. "There are lots of accused child rapists and none of them make the news." People from outside the community are pushing an agenda, he said referring to the advocates gathered on the opposite sidewalk. "That's why you're here."
"Are you part of the community? Can't you see who the community is and who the outcasts are? Those people are the bottom of the barrel, and they are concerned about our community? Is there anything more ironic than that one?"
He said he worshipped in synagogue with Weberman and knew he was innocent. "This guy is the most lovely person. Anybody needs help, he's there. How would you react if your father was found guilty with the same charges as this guy? That is how I want that you should understand my side."
When any of the men did agree to talk, soon a growing crowd gathered around to listen in. Some observers took photographs with their cell phones, to signal their disapproval. Several men shouted at those answering questions, condemning their conduct as against tznius, the ultra-Orthodox Jewish modesty code that dictates contact between men and women. "You can't stand around over here," one middle-aged man leaving the hall told me. "Respect our religion. Go across the street."
"People came out tonight to support the American ideal of innocent till proven guilty," said Yossi Gestetner, a Satmar Hasid who was appointed official press contact by the rally's organisers the day before the event when news of it reached the media. "Many people in the community are fed up that this whole case gets tried in the court of public opinion not the court of law. People feel under siege."
Gestetner, whose card describes his business as "outreach services", added: "Based on the coverage here tonight, you'd think that everything in New York is beautiful, everything in Brooklyn worked out great, and the only problem is that some Orthodox Jew was arrested a while ago and everyone comes to attack. This is how people look at it."
In which case, with the community feeling unfairly targeted by the media, perhaps a fundraising rally guaranteed to attract broad public interest might not have been the best strategy?
"You can make this argument," Gestetner conceded. "I wasn't at the decision table to say if such an event would take place or not."
The organisers are now counting the contributions raised on Wednesday – the checks signed inside the hall and the bills dropped off in cardboard boxes at the exit.
Gestetner said the target figure of $500,000 quoted in the Yiddish press was a fantasy. He expected something closer to the five figure mark. But however successful the event may have turned out to be as a fundraising effort, as an attempt to push back at the media's coverage of this community, it had quite the opposite effect.