by Allison Yarrow (The Daily Beast)
December 3, 2012
“He watched me when I was young. He always waited for me and said he knew I was going to come to him and he couldn’t wait for the day,” the pretty blonde 17-year-old testifies.
She remembers playing with neighborhood kids outside Nechemya Weberman’s house from the time she was a little girl. It was when she was in sixth grade, in 2007, that she says she began to struggle with the strict rules of the ultra-religious Satmar community of Hasidic Jews she was raised in. She says teachers chastised her for questioning God’s existence and for inquiring about the world beyond the enclave’s Williamsburg, Brooklyn, streets—seemingly centuries apart from the hipsters just blocks away.
Weberman, now 54 and a pillar of the community and onetime business partner of her father’s, seemed a natural choice to advise the floundering girl. Counseling of teens deemed troubled is common in the predominantly Yiddish-speaking neighborhood that is lined with Yeshiva schools, synagogues, and kosher shops.
Now the unlicensed therapist is charged with 88 counts of sexual assault of a minor, the girl who turns 18 this week, and whom he counseled for about three years beginning when she was 12. “He was a God” within the community, the teen said of Weberman while testifying against him last week, while she was “a piece of dirt.” The abuse, she alleges, began in 2007, when she was in the sixth grade, and lasted through 2010.
Weberman has pleaded not guilty and emphatically denied the charges. His defense council maintains that the allegations have hindered his ability to earn a living, and that he deserves the full benefit of the judicial process.
"This is a case that is going to be tried in that courtroom. There will be no holds barred. Everything is going to come out,” his defense attorney George Farkas told CBS News.
Perhaps what stands out most about this trial at the downtown Brooklyn courthouses is that most of the Jews attending are there to support the accuser, not the accused—a surprising shift in what’s been a community suspicious of outside authority. Still, another Orthodox sex-abuse trial—the prosecution of principal Emanuel Yegutkin, accused of violating boys—three floors below had only a handful of spectators during summation, and little news coverage—suggesting that the Weberman case may be more exception than rule.
The teen—as an alleged victim of sexual assault, she has not been publicly identified—accuses Weberman of sexually abusing her in a spare room with a triple-locked door, one lock only accessible from the inside. He kissed and groped her body, she says on the stand, forced her to perform oral sex on him, showed her pornographic films, and made her copy the acts. Sometimes, she says, his children played on the other side of the door, or Weberman’s wife might call before entering to use the very computer on which she said the community pillar forced her to watch and mimic sex. She recounts skipping sessions after Passover in 2009, but said Weberman visited her family home and entered her room while she was in bed and abused her there.
Friends at the trial to support her describe the alleged victim as “strong” and “sweet” and a thin “slip of a girl.” While she had excelled academically in her middle-school years at the rigid United Talmudical Academy, tensions grew at school as well as at home, as teachers called her the Yiddish word for “heretic” by teachers for wearing too-short skirts, too-sheer tights, and sweaters not buttoned all the way to her throat. “I always tried to please them, but it was never enough,” she says. “I felt like I didn’t belong there.”
In the spring of 2009, the teen met Jeremy Solomon, a young man a few years older than her who worked behind a counter at a neighborhood shop where she stopped to buy her lunch. Dating is forbidden in Satmar culture, and women aren’t supposed to learn about sex until just before their wedding day, when a community-sanctioned authority schools them. Still, the two forged a romantic bond. She says she even confided in Weberman her feelings for Solomon during their sessions. “It wasn’t just touching,” she says of the sessions with Weberman. “We did discuss other things.”
In April 2010 Solomon was arrested. The teen says she learned this when she sent him a Facebook message, and his attorney replied. She testifies that she blames her father for hiding a camera in her bedroom, taping her and the young man having sex, and then reporting her boyfriend to the authorities—leading to his arrest for statutory rape. Prosecutors have said that they have seen the tape, and while the charges against the boyfriend filed after her father, accompanied by Weberman, visited the Brooklyn district attorney’s office, were eventually dropped, the young couple was forcibly separated for months. It wasn’t until later—after Weberman drove her to the attorney’s office to see Solomon—that she says she came to believe that her family friend and counselor had been involved in the making of the film and Solomon’s arrest.
At some point after the arrest, the couple split up—she was vague about the details on the stand—and she began seeing Hershey, the man she married this October.
In February, 2011 the teen entered Bnot Chaya Academy, an alternative school for girls, and it was there where in March she told a teacher that she had suffered prolonged abuse at Weberman’s hand (ending about a year earlier), filed a police report, and stopped seeing him for good.
“All the girls at BCA have a history of something,” said faculty member Chani Segall, who said Weberman brought the teen there himself. “He realized he was losing her. She was out of every school. He had to prove to the world he could take care of a girl. For that we’re thankful to him, if I can drum up one thing for which we’re thankful.”
“People in the community think this is revenge” by the accuser on Weberman for his alleged role in the tape and her boyfriend’s arrest, said Judy Genut, who runs a support organization for troubled girls. “She decided to get her own boyfriend, and he couldn’t stand the competition,” according to the community theory, which Genut—who grew up playing with Weberman and whose family went to the same synagogue as Weberman—dismisses as malarkey.
It’s a theory that father and son defense attorneys George and Michael Farkas have tried to advance in the courtroom, working to paint a picture of a recalcitrant, unhappy girl with a fallible character and a taste for revenge.
In his opening statement, George Farkas painted the teen as a “free spirit” who read forbidden magazines, like Cosmo, and after finding a confidante in Weberman felt betrayed by his role in having her boyfriend arrested. She wanted “to bring down the entire community,” he said, with “great vengeance and furious anger ... [for] vengeance and revenge against Nechemya Weberman, and through this, to bring down the entire community that either supported him, or of which he was a part.”
The defense brought up the tape and its role in the teen’s then-boyfriend’s arrest repeatedly during its opening statement and again during her cross-examination—though they were not allowed to describe its contents at all to the jury—and Michael Farkas repeatedly asked the teen if she faulted Weberman for Solomon’s arrest. “I blame my father,” was her refrain.
“You’re not going to settle for your voice not being heard,” he tells her in a brutal cross-examination that spanned four days. She admits to being “bad with dates,” and Farkas grilled her on them, pushing to encourage doubt in the members of the jury, none of whom appear to be religious Jews.
Though there is little evidence that sex abuse is more frequent in the Orthodox world than in the secular one, many prominent ultra-Orthodox leaders—like Rabbi Israel Hager of Monsey, N.Y., and Rabbi David Niederman of Williamsburg—have demanded that rabbinic authorities, rather than secular police and courts, address such crimes. Young women are required to dress and act modestly to maintain their marriageability. This combined with the grave prohibition of lashon hora, or speaking ill of others, can make sex crimes—which, because of victims’ reluctance to testify, are already difficult to prosecute—even more challenging, according to the Brooklyn district attorney’s office.
D.A. Charles Hynes’s office has been thrashed by the media for an apparent reluctance to pursue cases and for concealing alleged perpetrators’ identities, some even after they were convicted—which was perceived as preferential treatment for an often closed community that’s become a formidable voting bloc, one that’s supported Hynes.
Advocates say sex-abuse awareness and efforts to report such crimes to secular authorities through hotlines and cold calls have increased within the Orthodox community, but that pedophiles can still hide easily hide in the community—where a person who reports crimes to secular authorities is often frowned upon as a moser, or snitch. Before the case opened, Hynes compared prosecutions in the community with organized-crime cases, but said they were sometimes even more difficult, since witness protection isn’t an option for victims who remain within the community.
Among Satmars, public expression has been predominantly behind Weberman. After the teen reported the counselor to the police, many supporters rallied around him and pilloried the girl in advertisements for a May fundraiser to subsidize Weberman’s legal fees that drew nearly 1,000 people. (A smaller counterprotest outside the fundraiser was led by the teen’s then-boyfriend and now husband, Hershey.)
A month later, four Satmar men were arrested and charged with witness intimidation, after reportedly trying to bribe the teen and her husband with $500,000 to throw out the case against Weberman and leave the country. Hershey claimed he was threatened with physical violence, and that the kosher certification was ripped from his store as a sign that the men meant business. All the while, the teen has been ostracized and badmouthed by Satmars, according to her supporters in the courtroom. The teen and her new husband now live in a different neighborhood in Brooklyn.
Weberman backers “did this to break her so she wouldn’t get to the stand. They dragged her through the mud, hoping she wouldn’t have the courage to testify,” said Yeshiva dean and founder of a program for at-risk Orthodox teens, Yakov Horowitz.
“Their thinking is, this guy is innocent. Why? Because we know him,” said Horowitz.
Genut echoed that sentiment, and said Weberman is owed the support he is receiving. “The defendant happens to be a person who did a lot of favors for a lot of people” in the Satmar community, she said.
Last Tuesday, the teen began what became 15 hours of emotional testimony over four days. She walked slowly to the witness stand, hands balled in long sleeves, skirt grazing her knees and wearing Ugg boots, de rigueur of the young and fashionable. Newly married, she now covers her hair in a long wig in the proscribed fashion for married Orthodox women. “I wanted to die rather than live with myself,” she said on the stand. “I didn’t know how to fight. I was numb.”
At first, though she spoke softly, the girl seemed collected and strong, but as the examination wore on, her friends say she grew exhausted. Her answers became less firm and more clipped. At one point, faced with recounting specific details about the graphic sex abuse she alleged, she broke down into tears, causing the judge to order a break.
So far, four different men have been arrested at the trial for snapping photos of court proceedings, including one of the teen that was tweeted and emailed. This was especially threatening because alleged victim’s identity has been protected because she is a minor, said Judge John Ingram. Police officers now confiscate the cellphones of spectators—a tactic a law-enforcement source told the New York Post was “just like in a gang trial”—the packed rows of mostly Orthodox men and women in fashionable wigs and expensive jewelry supporting the girl, often out loud. “This is not a gymnasium or spectator sport,” Ingram warned. “No waving and expressing support for the witness or the defendant.”
Court security for the girl increased after Weberman stared at her through a strip of glass as she waited during recess, her husband reported to court police. A day later, that strip was covered with paper.
“The strategy is to shred her credibility,” said Mark Appel, an advocate for abuse victims in the Jewish community. “The irony is children victims act out, they act antisocial, and predators turn around and say, ‘You see, they’re messed up.’”
He shows a camera phone photo of the couple dancing at their wedding a few months ago. “Look how happy.”
The girl’s boosters are mostly observant Jews from outside communities, not Satmars, and they are often hushed by court officers during the proceedings for whispering opinions and even cheering the teen’s answers: “You’re a hero,” “The truth is coming out,” and even “I’m going to throw up on him.”
The men and women largely self-segregate into gendered rows as is common in synagogue. Many are taken with the rotating cast of journalists, and share tidbits they hope to see in reports of the case. On the last day of the teen’s testimony, civil-liberties lawyer and commentator Alan Dershowitz dropped by.
Weberman has had comparatively few backers in court, which D.A. spokesman Jerry Schmetterer said is “a little unusual.”
“For these cases in this community, that’s not usually the case,” he said, for the accuser’s supporters to outnumber those there to stand behind the accused. Among Weberman’s supporters have been his wife, daughter, and sister, who have attended nearly every day of the trial.
Mother of two Srivki Weisberg said it was fear that brought her to watch the trial. “It’s a young parent’s No. 1 one fear,” she said, mentioning the mikvah, or ritual bath that has been a place of abuse in previous cases much discussed within the community. Joe Diangello, a former member of the Satmar community who said he was raped in a mikvah by a stranger when he was 7 years old and left the world of organized Jewry at 17, has been attending the trial.
At 32, Diangello wears black eyeliner, plays metal music, and is estranged from his family who he said fled to New York’s Monsey Orthodox enclave from “one of the most beautiful houses in Williamsburg” to escape the shame he caused his family. At the trial, he debates with an Orthodox woman about whether Orthodox parents still send children to unlicensed counselors for reform—like the teen and Weberman. “They can’t get away with the shit they used to get away with,” he said, but “it still happens. Parents still send their kids to counselors.”
Unlicensed counseling from trusted community members should not come under attack, say representatives of the ultra-Orthodox world, including Agudath Israel of America spokesman Avi Shafran—who stressed the need to take safeguards when children are vouchsafed with any adult. “Most rabbis routinely counsel members of their congregations, schools, yeshivas, and seminaries,” he said. “In the case where the counseling involves a man and a woman, halacha [Jewish law] insists that any door be unlocked and accessible to a passer-by and also forbids any physical contact. Experience, sadly, has shown that such precautions are a good idea in all cases.”
Asked if there are ever circumstances when a religious Jew should not report sexual abuse to secular authorities, Shafran said, “If the concerns are based on credible evidence or testimony, no, there are no such instances.”
After the trial, expected to conclude this week after the teen’s parents and Weberman take the stand, the teen plans to start a college seminary program at BCA, the school’s faculty members say. College and marriage are two success markers for young modern Orthodox girls, and the teen’s friends attest to how proud of her they are that she has come forward and that she is on track to have a normal life. But as the trial persists, she remains for her supporters a touchstone for an issue they say has been a scourge in their community.
“This could be the most important case of our lifetime,” says Horowitz.
On the stand, the girl said she had pursued the charges despite “intimidation,” “intimidation of my parents,” “loss of business,” and “having my nieces kicked out of school.” She testified that even her parents had sent her just six months ago to a rabbi who counseled her to drop the case.
Asked why she was pressing on, she replied: “Peace.”