By Rachel Silberstein (Tablet)
July 26, 2013
In June 2011, shortly after Moshe Keller, a rabbi who ran an organization for wayward Chabad youth, was charged with molesting a local teenaged boy, an anonymous blog began to circulate in Crown Heights, the heart of the Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidic movement. In the blog’s initial post, its author, who first called the site Crown Heights Watch, later changing the name to Jewish Community Watch (JCW), claimed that Keller had been “sexually abusing children since his days in Israel, two decades ago.”
“He believes he can hide behind being a rabbi, since the Rabbonim (rabbis) of the Jewish communities have a track record of hiding such matters,” the post continued.
At first, only Keller’s photo was posted, along with a testimonial from an alleged victim and a call for additional victims to report abuse to the police. A month later, two more men, Yaacov Weiss, who pleaded guilty to child-endangerment charges in 2010, and a never-charged cantor were added to the blog’s “Wall of Shame.” People began to whisper, speculating about who could be behind the blog. The blogger, fearful of retribution, remained anonymous until the summer of 2012, when he revealed himself to be 23-year-old Meyer Seewald, a long-haired local with pale blue eyes, a stubborn jaw, and a dark tan.
Now 24, Seewald claims to have a database containing over 225 suspected sex offenders and a confidential eight-member advisory “board” made up of mental-health professionals, legal experts, and rabbis who, according to Seewald, refuse to acknowledge their roles publicly for fear of backlash. JCW’s Wall of Shame features 36 accused abusers, 21 of them arrested, according to the site, each added when the “board” has determined there is sufficient evidence of wrongdoing. Like other Jewish blogs dedicated to sex-abuse awareness, such as Mark Appell’s Voice of Justice or Vicky Pollin’s The Awareness Center, JCW aggregates related news and offers referrals for legal advice or counseling services, but Seewald takes the job a step further. When a victim who confides in Seewald is unwilling—or unable due to the statute of limitations—to press charges, Seewald conducts his own investigation, selectively exposing alleged abusers on his Wall of Shame.
According to Chaim Levin, 24, a Crown Heights blogger and activist who won $3.5 million judgment against his cousin on June 12, claiming years of childhood sex abuse, gaining Seewald as an ally was a relief. “The day I got a call from Seewald asking me about my story was the first time I believed that our community was actually making some progress in combating abuse,” said Levin. “I had been talking about what happened to me to anyone who would listen since I was 14, but everyone told me to keep it to myself and move on.”
Seewald’s confrontational style is evident in his latest project, Project E.M.E.S., an acronym for Educating Mosdos (institutions) on Eradicating Sexual abuse, launched this month, which aims to prevent sex abuse in religious summer camps. The project’s accompanying video, titled “A Friendly Message to Camp Counselors,” warns them: “I don’t care who you are, what family you come from. If you touch a child, we will find out about it.”
But is Seewald—whose apparent irreverence for the hierarchies of Jewish institutions sets him apart from other crusaders in the field—helping or doing more harm than good? Seewald said he hopes the blog’s Wall of Shame will warn parents and instill fear in local predators, preventing the victimization of more children. “The only thing molesters are afraid of is being exposed and caught. They are more afraid of the Wall of Shame, than going to jail,” he told me. But the Wall of Shame has also proved to be deeply problematic; used irresponsibly, it can easily undermine the organization’s objectives and destroy an innocent person’s life. According to Ben Hirsch, co-founder of Survivors for Justice, an organization that advocates and educates on issues of child safety, Seewald is on a dangerous track. “Setting up a separate registry [from the law enforcement agencies] can be perceived as condoning a separate justice system,” he told me, “Which, in a way, perpetuates the message of the rabbis that we can deal with this issue in-house. The message must instead be that the only way to deal with child sex abuse is to report it directly to the police, without any prior consultation with a rabbi or other communal figure.”
Seewald was 17 when his friend Benny Keller died in his arms in the summer of 2006. According to Keller’s close friends, a fistfight several days prior to their camping trip in the Catskill mountains had caused him to hemorrhage in his sleep. At the funeral, Benny’s father spoke. Moved by the crowd of Chabad youngsters in attendance, Moshe Keller wept and vowed to start an organization in his son’s name (called Gesher Ben Tzion) to support “at-risk” teens. When Seewald heard about Rabbi Keller’s arrest five years later, he began question anyone who had spent time at Keller’s home, and two of his friends told him they had been violated by Keller.
“I came home in shock, like, this person abused people,” said Seewald. “I remember telling my siblings, my mom, my brothers, and no one understood. They just saw the pain in my face.”
On his own, Seewald launched an investigation, tracking every move Keller made and every person who had come in contact with him in 20 years. One clue led to another, and Seewald said he learned that Keller had been accused of child sex abuse in Israel and that Crown Heights rabbis had helped him put the charges behind him.
One of Keller’s alleged victims, who called me from London, said he emailed Rabbi Shea Hecht, who represents the National Committee for the Furtherance of Jewish Education, in 2007, following a series of sex-abuse seminars moderated by the rabbi, but Hecht, concerned for Keller’s family, did not suggest going to the police.
“[Hecht] was the go-to guy [for sex abuse]; if you couldn’t trust him to take care of things properly, there was no one else.” said the victim, now 25, who asked not to be named.
In fact, no charges were brought against Keller until 2011, when a third victim, Mordechai Feinstein, filed a complaint against him, and in May 2012, Keller would be sentenced to three years of probation for endangering the welfare of a child. When Seewald posted Keller’s picture on his blog along with a call for victims to come forward, he thought he had done his part to end decades of cover-up.
Three months passed and Seewald noticed an email account associated with the blog. When he figured out how to access it, he told me he found hundreds of emails from people who had been affected by sex abuse and he realized that he had no choice but to keep helping victims find justice.
“It really, really got to me. None of these people had spoken to anyone about it. No one was doing anything,” Seewald said.
The Keller case was not Seewald’s first encounter with unchecked sex abuse. As Seewald spoke to victims, he says he came to terms with his own experience of being molested by a counselor at sleep-away camp. When he mustered the courage to post his story on his still-anonymous blog, omitting his alleged perpetrator’s name, he received an email from someone who said he had an identical experience at the same sleep-away camp. When Seewald figured out that they had been molested by the same person, the counselor’s name appeared on the Wall of Shame. It was then that Seewald no longer wanted to conceal his identity. “I was Meyer Seewald and I was sharing my personal story and feelings with other victims. It was an open relationship. They knew who they were talking to and sharing their deepest pain and secrets with,” he said.
Then Seewald made a major error. In August 2012, a special-education teacher named Daniel Granovetter wrote a since-deleted personal account on a Crown Heights news site, titled “I Was Falsely Accused,” describing how he was arrested after an autistic boy he tutored accused him of abuse, though the investigation was eventually dropped when the child retracted his claim. “In people’s eyes I was no longer a Jew, let alone a human being,” Granovetter wrote in a harrowing account. “I was regarded as a monster, an out-of-control filthy, dangerous beast capable of snatching little children and sexually abusing them.”
Granovetter told me Seewald confronted him outside his home “rather aggressively,” demanding Granovetter confess to molesting the child. When Granovetter refused, he was featured on the JCW Wall of Shame, which he said has destroyed his career and social standing.
Shortly after the incident, Seewald removed Granovetter’s name and picture from the blog, releasing a statement that there was insufficient evidence against the teacher. Granovetter, who told me over the phone that forgiveness is his nature, removed his story criticizing JCW from the news site and replaced it with one praising Seewald’s work, placing blame on the student who falsely accused him rather than JCW. Seewald admitted to me that it was a mistake to confront Granovetter when there was a police investigation under way, but like Granovetter’s reputation, JCW’s credibility never fully recovered from the debacle.
Now Seewald has found himself pitted against an aging group of sex-abuse-awareness activists in Crown Heights, led by Hecht, who told me he disagrees with Seewald’s insensitivity toward the families and religious institutions of the accused. Hecht is prone to talking in parables. “When we come in with a shotgun and shoot up whole building and only get one guy, we call that collateral damage,” Hecht told me when I asked him about JCW. “Seewald doesn’t care about collateral damage.”
Hecht and Seewald have both encountered the limitations of the legal justice system. Of the victims who press charges, many are beyond the statute of limitations. Furthermore, the Brooklyn District Attorney’s office has a record of granting Orthodox abusers generous plea deals, resulting in many confessed abusers still living, unregistered, among their victims.
Ironically, Hecht’s endorsement might be just what Seewald needs to win over the religious establishment. Of the 14 Chabad-Lubavitch camps in the United States, only two have agreed to meet the project’s guidelines. Rabbi Moshe Shemtov, who runs Camp Gan Israel in Detroit, said that he takes sex abuse seriously, but he said he declined to share his staff list with Seewald, because JCW lacked the official backing of any Chabad institutions, such as Hecht’s, behind the E.M.E.S. campaign.
“Supposedly, he has a list of offenders that no one knows about,” Shemtov said. “He doesn’t have any official credibility with anyone I know.” Sex abuse, he said, “is too sensitive to ignore, but it’s also too sensitive for someone to grab and twist any way they want.”
As Brooklyn’s ultra-Orthodox communities grapple with sex abuse, Hecht, who made a name for himself in the 1980s as a “Jewish cult buster,” says leaders in Crown Heights have been taking proactive measures to combat sexual abuse for 30 years, involving the police when they deem it appropriate. Hecht maintains, as opposed to secular civil officials such as the NYPD, that rabbis should be granted the discretion to determine whether victims are lying. “The last time I remembered, I was ordained as a rabbi,” said Hecht. “If the person [victim] came to me, I have at least the responsibility to decide if it’s true or not true, because they want guidance.”
Not all Crown Heights leaders agree with Hecht. Prompted by the Keller case, in July 2011, two out of three members of the Crown Heights Rabbinical Court signed a letter asserting a ruling that the laws of mesira, the halachic prohibition against reporting Jews to secular authorities, do not apply to cases of sex abuse. The abuser, they wrote, is like a rodef, a murderer, in which case, a religious leader “is forbidden to remain silent.” The third and senior member of the Beit Din, Rabbi Avrohom Osdoba, abstained from signing the letter, highlighting a schism in Chabad.
In some ways, Seewald’s efforts to spread awareness have trickled down to Chabad institutions. For example, in the winter of 2012-2013, all yeshivas and elementary schools in Crown Heights implemented an educational initiative informing children about appropriate touch.
These days, Seewald wants people to know that under his brash armor is simply a Chabad kid who feels betrayed by his community and rabbis. Defending his Project E.M.E.S video he said: “I was emotional in the video because it hurts. My heart and soul have been ripped out from what I have heard and seen. There have been countless nights that I have not slept or when I do my sleep is filled with nightmares. I need to make sure that what I have seen happen to hundreds of thousands of children does not happen to your child.”