By Michael Orbach (The Jewish Star)
March 10, 2010
In what could have been the strangest moment in the trial of Baruch Mordechai Lebovits, Assistant District Attorney Miss Gregory turned to a witness for the defense, a chassidishe man, and asked if he knew what it meant to be a traitor.
Yissocher Beryl Ashkenazi, once a rebbe to the boy who brought the charges against Lebovits, asked what the word 'traitor' meant.
Undeterred, Gregory, who is black, continued.
"Do you understand the concept of mesira?" she asked.
The irony of a non-Jewish prosecutor explaining a halachic concept to a rabbi may have been lost on the thirty supporters of Lebovits who filled the room at Brooklyn Criminal Court — men and women clutching Tehillim and Siddurim. The ADA was referring to the pressure Lebovits' victim faced in coming to court to press charges against his abuser.
Moments later, the trial took a shocking turn when Gregory asked Ashkenazi if he knew a particular Brooklyn boy. Ashkenazi, who speaks fractured English, sat uncomfortably on the witness stand and acknowledged that he did know the boy.
"Isn't it true," the prosecutor continued, that Ashkenazi had once touched his knee to the boy's private parts?
Ashkenazi, flustered, denied that that was true.
Then, Gregory named another boy and asked the witness if, "back in 1998, on multiple occasions, [he] sexually molested him when he was 13 years old?"
Ashkenazi protested to the assistant district attorney, "I am a holy person!"
Ashkenazi said that he would swear that he had never done anything with a boy, prompting Judge Patricia DiMango to remind him that he was already under oath.
Defense attorney Arthur Aidala suddenly found himself defending, not only his client, Lebovits, but his own witness, as well.
"As far as I know, it's a myth," Aidala said, outside the courtroom. "That's the first time I heard about it and the first time he heard about it."
Afterwards, Ashkenazi seemed to effectively perjure himself by admitting that, contrary to what he had said earlier, he had, in fact, spoken to a Beis Din about trying to talk the victim out of bringing Lebovits to court.
Such was the surreal theater of Lebovits vs. the People of New York, a case that began on March 2 and ended Monday with a conviction. Jurors deliberated for three hours before reaching a verdict that could send Lebovits, 58, to prison for 30 years. Lebovits is a brother of the Nikolsburg Rebbe, and prominent in Borough Park, where he lives and operates a travel agency.
Three victims have come forward to accuse Lebovits of sexual abuse. A judge severed the cases, ordering separate trials for each.
In the first case, Lebovits sexually abused the victim over a period of ten months in 2004, when he was 16. Lebovits lured the boy into his silver Toyota Avalon with a promise to allow him to drive, the victim's father told the Star (the newspaper is withholding the boy's name). Ever since, the boy's life has spiraled into drug addiction and petty theft, a point that the defense used in an attempt to portray the victim as a con-artist who made up the allegations in order to blackmail Lebovits.
Few of Lebovits's supporters were willing to talk to reporters. One of his daughters was overheard on the phone explaining that "it was all up to Hashem." Another hurried away after stating that they knew he was not guilty of anything. One family friend called it 'impossible' for Lebovits, a family man with five children and twenty grandchildren, to have committed the crime.
The case was a landmark in the Chareidi community where there is a history of not bringing sexual abuse cases to trial. Many activists considered the verdict a harbinger of future cases.
"Everyone's feeling if he [Lebovits] walks away no one's willing to go through with [a future trial]," explained Nuchem Rosenberg, who maintains a controversial hotline for sexual abuse victims. As a potential witness for the defense in a future case, he was not permitted to enter the courtroom and instead sat outside, asking for periodic updates.
For all intents and purposes, the recent attention inside the Jewish community to sexual abuse has yielded few results. An Israeli court refused to extradite Avrohom Mondrowitz, a Gerer chosid, who is thought to have abused dozens of Brooklyn boys in the 1980's. Yehuda Kolko, an accused serial molester who worked as a rebbe in Yeshiva Torah Temimah was allowed to plead guilty to charges of child endangerment, a decision that was met with scorn by sexual abuse activists. They also suffered a setback when the Child Victims Rights Act, legislation that would have extended the statute of limitations for civil charges of sexual abuse, never made it to a vote of both houses of the New York Legislature.
The verdict clears the air somewhat between the Brooklyn District Attorney's office and survivors who fault the D.A. for a lackadaisical pursuit of sexual abusers inside the Jewish community.
"Our community functioned as it is should," said Ben Hirsch, president of Survivors for Justice, an organization that helps abuse victims in the Jewish community. "Kudos to Kings County ADA Gregory, First Deputy Bureau Chief in the Sex Crimes Bureau, for a job well done. The DA's office functioned as it should. We hope this is an indication of things to come."
Lebovits, according to one prominent abuse survivor, was a prolific molester.
"Growing up in Borough Park, he was known in the community as a nice guy but don't get too close to him," said Joel Engelman, co-founder of Jewish Survivors Network, whose own case against a yeshiva is pending.
"Just common knowledge between the teenagers. I went to yeshiva in Muncasz, where he used to be very often. All the kids knew about him. The 15-year-olds knew about him. In a way, he's not the most dangerous molester," Engelman said, because he was known to be dangerous. "On the other hand, he molested the most vulnerable children."
Engelman estimated that Lebovits had molested dozens of children, if not "hundreds."
Some allege that abuse by Lebovits played a role in the suicide of Motti Borger, the groom who jumped off a Brooklyn hotel balcony last year, two days after he was married.
One 20-year-old friend of Borger, who asked not to be named, attended the trial.
"He was a very good person," the friend said about Borger. "I was his friend... I feel bad that this person [Lebovits] could just do something and get away [with it]."
Lebovits, a large man who stands over six feet tall, slouched quietly throughout the trial, and did not take the stand. Occasionally, he stroked his thick gray beard with a grizzled hand and peered back at his family who filled the second row. He did not say anything when the jury pronounced him guilty on eight of the ten charges. He was acquitted on two charges of sexual assault that occurred during the summer months when, the defense contended, the victim was in summer camp.
Each of the eight convictions could send Lebovits to prison for one to eight years. The verdict was met by gasps and sobs from Lebovits's supporters and restraint from the few who sat on the prosecution side.
"I feel bad for my son," the victim's mother said, though she explained that she was "overjoyed" by the verdict that would see her eldest son's abuser punished for his crimes.
"I think it's the first time in 2-and-a-half years that I have finally seen justice served. My whole entire family is going to be overjoyed...I have no clue how I'm going to handle it."
Judge DiMango refused to free Lebovits pending sentencing. While Lebovits had appeared regularly in court up to this point, there was now a "substantial flight risk" and bail was denied. "Given his family's substantial assets," DiMango explained, "any bail is nominal."
Lebovits was led away in handcuffs.
Judge DiMango apologized to the family of the victim: the sentencing is set for March 29, Erev Pesach.