For Prosecutor in Sexual Abuse Case, Muted Praise From One Corner

By Michael Powell (New York Times)
December 18, 2012

Charles J. Hynes, who served as Brooklyn district attorney for more than two decades before he decided to take a close look at the scourge of sexual molesting among the Hasidim, talked tough a few weeks ago.

Sitting for an interview with Ami, a Jewish magazine, Mr. Hynes gave the side of his hand to “some absolute clown at The Daily News” who had written editorials criticizing his inaction on the Hasids. And he aimed an elbow at The New York Times, saying its long explorations of his handling of such cases and the shielding of the names of Hasidic molesters were “silly” and “dishonest.”

Let’s give the district attorney his recent due. A week ago, his office convicted a leader in the Satmar community, Nechemya Weberman, of many counts of molesting. This prosecution owed nothing in particular to his investigators; the young and exceptionally courageous woman in question came forward and insisted on testifying.

Still, Mr. Hynes is to be congratulated.

I mention this to Rabbi Nuchem Rosenberg and he rolls his eyes. For nearly two decades, this Hasidic rabbi, a member of the Satmar sect, challenged his community’s silence and complicity. Until recently, he and a handful of courageous ultra-Orthodox crusaders and families were alone.

“Charles Hynes rides our chariot and claims victory,” the rabbi says. “He stands up and says ‘I’m doing a pheeeeeenomonal job.’

“But for so many years, we had no one.”

With a wispy nimbus of white hair taking flight beneath his skullcap, a white beard and pale piercing eyes, Rabbi Rosenberg, 62, has the haunted look of a man who has stared into the abyss.

Mr. Rosenberg recalls the Jewish boys, hesitant and embarrassed, who first approached him in the 1990s. In whispers, with eyes averted, they said teachers had abused them. He assumed the teachers had struck them. Then he realized it was worse still. “I said: Could you be more graphic?” Mr. Rosenberg recalled.

The children told of heinous sexual acts, in classrooms and in the ritual baths. Mr. Rosenberg recorded hundreds of these stories, and sent the accounts around to rabbis in Brooklyn and overseas. Finally, he says, one rabbi told him: Why do you bother? You think we don’t know this? We know much worse but it will never get out.

The Hasidic leaders often choose to vilify victims. Time and again, rabbis assured that families were paid off, or cowed into silence.

Even now, faced with a lone young woman who had the courage to speak up in State Supreme Court, Satmar leaders showered her with abuse. Aaron Teitelbaum, one of two feuding brothers who compete to lead the Satmar, likened her to a “zona,” a whore.

Her fiancé’s restaurant lost its kosher supervision.

Shame spreads a stain to many corners. A few months ago, David Zwiebel, executive vice president of Agudath Israel, an Orthodox organization, acknowledged that dissidents had surfaced a troubling issue. But, he asked, is it “worth the cost?” “At the very least, he added, “it’s rechilus, lashon hara, and bittul zman.” Translated this means malicious gossip, evil tongue, and telling tales, all prohibited by the Torah.

On Monday, I asked another prominent group, the Orthodox Union, if it had anything to say on the conviction of Mr. Weberman. Its president, Simcha Katz, offered that his organization has long opposed child molesting.

That is a comfort.

As to the specifics of Mr. Weberman’s case, Dr. Katz executed a neat two-step. “Due to our lack of knowledge of the specifics of the trial and details of the case,” he said in a statement, “we are not in a position to comment one way or the other.”

None of this surprises Rabbi Rosenberg. He has been barred from synagogues and been spat at. Once a rabbi called for his beheading. “The rabbi said whoever kills me goes to heaven,” he says. “They said I was Satan.”

Even in victory, with a girl vindicated and Mr. Hynes fully awake, forbidding men move in shadows.

Last week, Rabbi Rosenberg walked down Roebling Street, in Williamsburg. He felt a tap on his shoulder and turned. There, he charges, was a Satmar activist, holding a cup.

The man splashed bleach in Mr. Rosenberg’s face. Only a quick-thinking Puerto Rican shopkeeper saved the rabbi from serious damage.

Mr. Rosenberg is now in hiding. “We are a good, religious people,” he says. “But we committed the worst sin: Our children had no one to look to.”