By Allison Yarrow (NY Daily News)
September 1, 2013
Last November, Nechemya Weberman, pillar of his community and unlicensed counselor of wayward children, swore to a standing-room-only Brooklyn courtroom that he had only been trying to save the life of the girl who’d once called him “Daddy,” who was now accusing him of raping her for years, beginning when she was 12 years old and in sixth grade.
Many observers thought he looked smug as he testified, and why wouldn’t he? With the vehement backing of most of the tightly knit, deeply insular Satmar Hasidic Jewish community in Williamsburg, the 54-year-old former driver for its spiritual leader, the Grand Rebbe Moses Teitelbaum, felt he could get away with anything.
After all, he always had.
Members of the Satmar collective, who consider themselves members of one of the world’s holiest communities, closed ranks to defend an accused child molester from the secular world — and cast out the girl who’d accused him.
She wasn’t their concern. She’d gone outside of the family.
Mirroring groups from the Catholic church to Penn staters, Satmars attacked the victim, more concerned with protecting itself from the outside world than with the evil within.
Some of Weberman’s supporters conceded that he may have sexually abused children, but were nonetheless more concerned with the indignity of one of their own facing a jury they saw not as peers but as a collection of anti-Semites and (some irony here) sexual deviants, and the prospect of one of their own ending up in a state prison, cut off from the community.
Because its members vote in blocs, as their spiritual leaders instruct, the group has outsized sway in election years — and could prove crucial in the current races for mayor and Brooklyn district attorney. Despite keeping the outside world at arm’s length, with a separate language, culture and dress code, their votes have helped convince elected officials to subsidize separate services, from ambulances to patrol groups to schools. Even criminal matters among Satmars are often adjudicated by rabbis rather than the state.
See, Satmar is a family — of parents, daughters, sons, siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins and in-laws, each belonging to the whole. Descending from Hungarian and Romanian Jews who fled their villages mostly during and after the Holocaust, they now live as a group in Brooklyn, close by but culturally cut off from their Latino, African American, Caribbean and hipster neighbors in Williamsburg. (A second Satmar community lives upstate in Kiryas Joel, the village with America’s highest poverty rate.)
Within the fold is the sort of unyielding support rarely found in an age of “I” and “me,” unique and costly to replicate. Satmar charities do wonders for the needy among them, raising funds to cure the sick and helping would-be mothers who struggle with fertility, as birthing more Satmars is their obligation. Remain true to the fold and your needs can be met; the proverbial pot (in part taxpayer-funded) can be bottomless.
But about that fold. Scads of rules govern it, and those who transgress them come in for harsh treatment.
Both sexes dress in dark wool uniforms that cover their whole bodies, even in summer. Yiddish, not English, is the language of education, business and family life. Kosher food is procured from specific shops and restaurants governed by biblical codes and frequented almost exclusively by fellow believers.
Men wear holy fringes, beards and earlocks — and only men can access leadership positions and high levels of religious education, drink alcohol and drive cars. Women are required to cover their arms, legs and collarbones for modesty, and to cover their hair once married. On buses, they literally sit in the back.
While men and women pray (and mostly live) separately from each other, both are separated from the outside world — cut off from open or recreational Internet use, popular television and even magazines.
Because they abstain from secular education, avoid jobs in which they would interact with non-Satmars and often receive state benefits, the standard of living can be low — which makes the group support that much more essential, especially given the religious and social expectation of having many children. The average Satmar family in Williamsburg has 7.9 children, according to one recent census. Recent reports found half of the households there are poor.
Within the family, sex is barely discussed, and if so it’s in hushed tones and addressed to married couples — who learn the basics only from designated counselors just before they wed. Sexual impropriety of any kind is considered the purview of the secular, or at least the non-Satmar, so the very idea of child sex abuse runs counter to the modest, religious and restrained life they seek to embody.
There are even enforcers, the Vaad Hatznius — a group that Weberman was accused in court of holding a powerful position in — who act as a shadowy “modesty police,” using harassment, beatings and even home invasions to “confiscate” cell phones and computers and maintain their strict interpretation of the group’s rules about dress and propriety.
In many ways, Satmar imported an Eastern European shtetl after the Holocaust, a walled-off biodome of anachronistic religious life. All these strictures work to keep it all in the family.
Of course, no group is a monolith. There is diversity within this community, like in any other. But, living apart from the wider world, the Satmars manage to enforce their norms more rigidly than most.
Perhaps the greatest threat to this way of life is individualism, a questioning and free spirit.
The victim, now 18, had that.
She bucked authority when she questioned God’s existence and purpose, read magazines and listened to popular music, wore different clothes and socialized with boys.
Psychologists called it “reverse prostitution.” The victim’s father paid Weberman, the community pillar and his former business partner, $150 an hour to counsel his wayward daughter, who read secular magazines and didn’t always fully button her sweater.
With his stature and reputation within the community as an aid to troubled youngsters as his cover, Weberman instead committed horrors, as he had with many other victims, including one woman who lived in his office apartment and testified on his behalf.
The victim's parents ceded her to the great man, even as she came home at one in the morning or when he took her alone on a day trip in flagrant violation of religious law.
She called Weberman “Daddy” in a letter she sent him from the upstate New York yeshiva summer camp she adored. “I am you,” she wrote, in the bubbly script typical of teenage girls, echoing the mystical lies he had fed her as he had previous young girls and hoping for his love in return.
Not long ago, the ready image of a child predator was a strange man in the shadows, offering candy. Now, we know better, that predators are often assimilated into the bedrock of communities where there is little sex education, deadbeat parents, or both, and given unfettered access to dozens of children in offices, classrooms or ball teams.
Hiding in plain sight were grievous abuses at Horace Mann and Yeshiva University, the Catholic Church and the Boy Scouts. While these institutions may seem culturally alien from the shtetl of Williamsburg, they all spent years shrouding child predators in the name of loyalty and family.
Asher Lipner, a psychologist who treats Orthodox child-sex-abuse victims and is himself Orthodox and an abuse survivor, believes this case and victim mirror incest cases he has seen.
As in instances of incest, the girl was scared for years to out her abuser, fearful of her community’s retaliation, of ripping apart the Satmar family — or of being torn from it.
Lipner speculates she might have written her abuser love letters because “in the mind of a child, the more loving you are the more safe you’ll be.”
But this victim grew up and separated herself from Weberman, who then conspired with her father to film her with her older, teenaged boyfriend and have the young man arrested, and she realized she was anything but safe.
So she went outside the family to seek justice, to Brooklyn District Attorney Joe Hynes. Satmars had long favored Hynes with their votes, and he had been roundly criticized for not aggressively pursing cases within it (and not naming the accused when he did, even after rare convictions), instead often appearing to let the group administer its own justice.
Hynes defended himself in part by comparing the community to the mafia, claiming it was even harder to bring a case against a Satmar since he couldn’t offer witness protection to victims who weren’t willing to leave the family.
This time, Hynes responded aggressively, brining charges against Weberman, and naming him.
The community was infuriated. “He was a god,” the victim testified, while she was a “piece of dirt.”
And the Satmar response to the trial seemed to back that view, as most of her family stood with Weberman.
“Is our sister to be like a whore?” Aaron Teitelbaum, a figure of vast influence as the grand rebbe of Kiryas Joel, said of her during the trial. “Terrible! Terrible! When they go down, they go down to the ground.”
A thousand people attended a fundraiser to cover Weberman’s legal fees. The victim and her husband were offered money if they’d make the case go away, and, when that failed, threatened with violence. Her nieces were kicked out of their school, and her husband’s and father’s businesses were severely disrupted. Even her parents sent her to a rabbi who advised her to drop the case.
As she testified, four separate men were arrested for taking (and in one case then Tweeting) her picture, an open threat and a gesture of contempt for the court’s rules intended to protect young victims of sexual crimes.
Because Weberman, reflecting the groups’ disdain for outside authority, was not a licensed therapist, he freely discussed on the witness stand (and with anyone who asked) the details from what were supposed to have been his confidential sessions with the girl.
In her testimony, his victim described what she endured as “worse than murder.”
After the two-week trial, Weberman was convicted and sentenced to 103 years.
And there the story ends. She is married now, and still an active Jew.
She and her husband finally left the fold, no longer welcome in the only world they’d known until then. Her ties with the Satmar family are severed, her very name blasphemous within it, and she will forever grapple with the shards of her relationship with Weberman.
Is that winning?
Yarrow, who covered Weberman’s trial for The Daily Beast, is the author of “The Devil of Williamsburg.”