By Michael Powell (New York Times)
June 17, 2013
Sam Kellner is a man twice shunned and living in a deepening shadow.
Five years ago, this gray-bearded and excitable man with a black velvet yarmulke spoke out about the sexual abuse of his 16-year-old son by a prominent Hasidic cantor. As Mr. Kellner helped investigators with the Brooklyn district attorney’s office search for other young Orthodox victims of this man, the Orthodox establishment grew ever angrier at him. The rabbi at his Hasidic synagogue in Borough Park, Brooklyn, denounced Mr. Kellner as a traitor and forbade parishioners to talk with him on the street. Yeshivas barred his sons. His businesses dried up — he pawned his silverware to meet his bills. And he still fears that he will never find a marriage match for his son.
“I felt murdered and abandoned,” Mr. Kellner said. “I’m ruined.”
This, however, was a prologue to a worse situation. In April 2011, after the district attorney’s office gained a conviction against that cantor, Baruch Lebovits, the prosecutors turned around and obtained an indictment of Mr. Kellner. They said, based on a secret tape and the grand jury testimony of a prominent Satmar supporter of Mr. Lebovits, that he had tried to extort hundreds of thousands of dollars from Mr. Lebovits.
District Attorney Charles J. Hynes has shown great deference to the politically powerful Hasidic community over the years, and it has rewarded him with large margins on election days. Even his heralded crackdown on Hasidic sexual abuse was a velvet glove wrapped around a velvet fist, as he took the unusual step of refusing to publicize the names of defendants — even the convicted.
Mr. Hynes extended no such courtesy to Mr. Kellner. “We allege that Kellner sent emissaries to Lebovits’s family telling them that he controlled the witnesses against Baruch Lebovits,” the district attorney said at a 2011 news conference, “and that in return for $400,000, he would ensure that the witnesses would not testify.”
This indictment stunned the small, embattled community of Hasidic whistle-blowers. Mr. Kellner, to their view, took enormous risks in a righteous fight. That he could sit in the dock next month is a message not lost on anyone.
“If he’s convicted, no one will ever come forward again,” said Rabbi Cheskel Gold, a member of a rabbinical court in Monsey, N.Y., that gave Mr. Kellner religious permission to investigate Mr. Lebovits. “No one.”
Mr. Kellner posted $25,000 bail. And to pile legal insult atop injury, Mr. Lebovits’s lawyers used his indictment and other technicalities to persuade a state appeals court to overturn his conviction. Even today, Alan M. Dershowitz, one of Mr. Lebovits’s lawyers, portrays Mr. Kellner and other prominent whistle-blowers as extortionists. “We see Kellner as a leader of a major extortion ring,” he said in an interview. “He is not a do-gooder.”
I talked with Brooklyn prosecutors about the case against Mr. Kellner. By way of throat-clearing, the prosecutor Nicholas J. Batsidis demanded to know if I’d read the indictment. As it was five pages long and contained little detail, I allowed that I had managed to stumble through.
He pointed to the key evidence, a secretly taped, rambling and excited conversation between Mr. Kellner and Meyer Lebovits, the cantor’s son. Mr. Kellner is also accused of paying witnesses to testify against Mr. Lebovits. “When you have an audiotape where Kellner is warning him that he’s going to bring other victims, it speaks for itself,” Mr. Batsidis said.
That explanation sounds better than the tape itself. The transcript reveals a conversation soaked in ambiguity, and rendered in overwrought language. It depicts Mr. Kellner as a tortured father trying to find justice. The younger Mr. Lebovits at times seems to accept that his father committed some acts of abuse.
Hella Winston of The Jewish Week has profitably plowed the fields of this case, exposing its many weaknesses. Ms. Winston notes that, far from persuading fake witnesses to testify, Mr. Kellner worked closely with a rabbinical court in Monsey, and with a Brooklyn assemblyman, each of whom helped him find alleged victims of Mr. Lebovits.
Two weeks ago, I talked with the three-member rabbinical court — known as a Beit Din — in Monsey. These rabbis rarely grant interviews, but spoke now of their moral obligation. Their community for too long has resisted coming to grips with sexual abuse.
They view Mr. Kellner as a brave pioneer. He did not seek out witnesses at random; rather their court, with the help of local leaders in Williamsburg, gave him the name of a victim.
“Lebovits is known to have a long history” of sexual abuse, Rabbi Chaim Flohr said. But Mr. Lebovits has powerful supporters, and people are fearful, he added.
Mr. Lebovits’s lawyers maintain that he is innocent of all charges.
The rabbis frowned at talk of extortion. Mr. Kellner spoke to them of being offered bribes, and of his determination not to let abusers buy him off. “We are not aware of Mr. Kellner ever asking for money,” Rabbi Flohr said.
Mr. Kellner takes pain to insist that he is no saint. He wanted only justice for his son. Now, though, he hears from more and more Hasidic families, with their own stories of more abuse, and asking for his help.
If I win my case, he asked, what should I do?
“I’m not clear how this happened,” he said, his voice keening. “I got into this to avenge my son. Do I have the strength to go on?”