Violence and Abuse in Insular Communities

The Takeaway with John Hockenberry
December 13, 2012

On Tuesday, December 11, a State Supreme Court jury in Brooklyn convicted 54-year-old Nechemya Weberman on 59 counts of sexual abuse. As an unlicensed therapist in the insular Satmar Hasidic community, Weberman worked with young, Orthodox women whose behavior was considered immodest or outside the Hasidic norm. One of the women in his care accused him of sexual abuse, claiming he abused her for three years, starting at the age of 12.

Sharon Otterman, reporter for Takeaway partner The New York Times, has covered the case and its impact. Though the rate of sexual abuse in the Hasidic community is estimated to be the same as that in the general population, Otterman writes, "for generations, most ultra-Orthodox abuse victims kept silent, fearful of being stigmatized in a culture where the genders are strictly separated and discussion of sex is taboo."

Author Deborah Feldman was raised in the Satmar Hasidic community. In her recent memoir, "Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots," Feldman describes her childhood in the insular Hasidic world.

According to Feldman and Otterman, the Weberman case stands out because it bucks a trend of silence for victims in the Orthodox community which has made these cases very difficult to prosecute. "I had never recalled a case in which someone came forward about abuse in the community, and those claims were listened to, those claims made it to court," Feldman says. "Every victim I had ever heard about was effectively silenced."

Feldman could hardly believe the case went to to trial; when the jury read its verdict, she describes her shock. "When that conviction came down, it was like my life changed. It felt like world changed. I felt like there was hope."