By Zoë Blackler (The Guardian UK)
March 29, 2012
Brooklyn's ultra-Orthodox rabbis claim they are co-operating with authorities over child sex abuse. But victims say they are being persecuted – and that the DA is doing little to help
When Mordechai discovered his mentally disabled child was being molested, he reported the crime to the police. A local man was arrested and charged with repeatedly raping the boy in their synagogue's ritual bath. When news of the arrest got back to their Brooklyn community, the neighbours launched a hate campaign. But the object of their anger wasn't the alleged perpetrator, Meir Dascalowitz, it was the abused boy's father.
For the last two years, Mordechai says he's been hounded by his community. "The minute this guy got arrested I started a new life, a life of hell, terror, threat, you name it." There were bogus calls to the fire department resulting in unwelcome late night visits, anonymous death threats, banishment from synagogue, even a plot to derail his move to a new apartment. "I lost my friends. I lost my family. Nobody in Williamsburg can talk to me. Nobody means nobody. We are so angry, so broken."
Mordechai's persecution is part of a widespread cover-up of child sexual abuse among Brooklyn's ultra-Orthodox Jews. With echoes of the Catholic priest scandal, for decades rabbis have hushed up child sex crimes and fomented a culture in which victims are further victimised and abusers protected.
After the first claims of a cover-up surfaced in the mid 2000s, the rabbis' stance was outright denial – not only that crimes were being concealed, but of the very existence of ultra-Orthodox child molesters. In the years since, victim advocates and whistle-blower blogs have forced open the issue. Today, the religious leadership claims to co-operate with law enforcement. The Brooklyn district attorney, Charles Hynes, long vilified by advocates for his inaction, now cares to be seen to be prosecuting – though how enthusiastically is in dispute. And attitudes within the community have shifted marginally.
But the essence of the problem has changed little. Brooklyn's ultra-Orthodox enclaves remain close-knit and insular, suspicious of secular authority and contemptuous of the criminal justice system. Religious leaders command strict authority inside their communities and have the external political power to demand a degree of self-rule. Ideal conditions for a cover-up.
Lawyer and advocate Michael Lesher has campaigned for years to break the rabbis' stronghold and get abusers into court. There is a misapprehension, he says, that every time a child sex crime reaches the media it disgraces the community. "In reality, it gets reported but only as part of the generally muck and mire of grease-blotter journalism." But when cases are covered up, that really is a scandal. "That is a crime of a different order."
'The blood of all those victims is on their hands'
Unlike Mordechai, few victims inside the community will tell their stories publicly. But in recent years, a number of adult survivors, now living outside the religion and no longer bound by its taboos, have spoken out.Joel Engelman says he was molested at the age of eight by his teacher, Rabbi Avrohom Reichman. Four years ago he sued his former school after it failed to dismiss Reichman. Engelman, by then in his early 20s, had gone to the school to report his abuser and seek redress. The religious leadership investigated, concluded that Reichman was guilty and did nothing, the suit said. Reichman is still teaching there today. (Engelman's civil suit was dismissed on statute of limitations grounds.)
Luzer Twersky, 26, was abused for three years from the age of nine by his private tutor. It only ended when David Greenfeld – whose father was a respected member of the community – was discovered abusing another boy in a ritual bath, a mikvah. Greenfeld continued teaching until his arrest in 2009 on fresh molestation charges. In January, the case against him collapsed because the victim's family would not co-operate, the DA's spokesperson said.
Both men say that when they were growing up – Engelman in Williamsburg, Twersky in Borough Park – the more rampant child molesters were well known to their group of friends.
During research for this article, I heard numerous stories like Twersky's and Engelman's. Though the details varied, the dynamics of the cover-up were always the same. Many were relayed secondhand, the victims themselves refused to speak. There was the boy molested by his teacher, a rabbi. When his mother found out, the teacher was temporarily suspended, only to be appointed principal a few years later. There was the childhood friend, condemned for accusing a respected family man, who later committed suicide. The abusive father, who pleaded with rabbis to hush up the crime, which they did, now works with children. And just a few months ago, a 14-year-old boy sent by his rabbi to apologise to his molester for seducing him.
As consistent as the tales of cover up are those of community intimidation, where victims are branded a moser – an informer – excluded from school, spat on in synagogue, their families threatened and harassed by supporters of the accused.
On the occasions the religious leaders have taken action, they've turned to their shadow justice system, the religious courts known as the beit din. But lacking investigative powers, forensic expertise or means of enforcement, the beit din are wholly ineffectual in trying molesters. At other times, they've shuffled offenders off for "treatment", typically to unlicensed therapists.
"My story is one of hundreds they've covered up," said one victim who asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals. "The blood of all those victims is on their hands."
Of all the horror stories, the most notorious involves Rabbi Yehuda Kolko, for several decades a teacher at Yeshiva Torah Temimah in Brooklyn and a summer camp counsellor.
In 2006, two adult men publicly accused Kolko of molesting them as children, one in the late 1960s, another in the mid 1980s. In a civil suit, the men claimed that rabbis first learnt Kolko was a serial molester back in the 1980s. At that time, a beit din was convened. But Kolko enjoyed the protection of his school principal, Rabbi Lipa Margulies, whose intimidation of witnesses and concealment of information made victims drop their claims, the complaint said. The religious court proceedings came to nothing.
The men took their stories to the mainstream media and the revelations shook the ultra-Orthodox community. Their civil suit was thrown out on statute of limitations grounds but during the publicity two of Kolko's current students, boys aged eight and nine, revealed that they too had been abused. Kolko was indicted on felony sexual abuse charges.
Ben Hirsch of victims support group Survivors for Justice was instrumental in getting their cases to court. "The two kids were prepared to take the stand. The families were supportive. Other victims, ranging in age from their 20s to mid 50s, including a lawyer, were prepared to testify that Kolko had molested them as children. There was solid evidence he'd been molesting boys for decades. We'd given the DA well over a dozen names of people willing to co-operate. It was a rock solid case."But instead of putting Kolko on trial, the DA gave him a deal. In April 2008, Kolko pled guilty to misdemeanor child endangerment (not a sex crime), was given three years probation, was not required to register as a sex offender, and returned to life as normal in Borough Park.
The DA said the families refused to let their children testify.
Ben Hirsch says that's untrue. He says the parents were presented with a done deal. When the father of one boy signed a letter agreeing to the plea, he sent it back with another, written in his own words: "My son was ready to go to trial and we feel he would have done an excellent job and I am sorry to hear that [Yehuda] Kolko will not proceed further ... I feel justice was not served," he wrote. And he signed off: "I will end by saying I understand what the district attorney wants from me and I will sign the letter."
Hirsch and the other advocates were incensed. "We don't know the back story, but we think the DA was under great pressure from the community and he buckled," Hirsch says.
The Kolko case is no aberration, says lawyer Michael Lesher. For further evidence, he points to the failed extradition of Rabbi Avrohom Mondrowitz, another cause celebre. Mondrowitz was an unqualified psychologist who used his practice to gain access to vulnerable children. He also had powerful friends within his sect who protected him for years. It was only after Mondrowitz abused a number of non-Orthodox children that the police were called in. In 1984, on the eve of his arrest, Mondrowitz fled the country, turning up in Israel a few months later. It's widely believed he received a tip off.
At that time, Israel didn't recognise sodomy (since renamed criminal sexual act) as an extraditable offence and Mondrowitz was beyond reach. But in 1988, that law was changed, raising the possibility of bringing Mondrowitz back to Brooklyn. Not long after Hynes came into office in 1990, however, he abandoned the extradition effort. In January 2007, a new extradition treaty was drawn up that reflected the change in Israeli law, and that autumn Hynes did file a fresh request, but only after months of campaigning by advocates. When Israel's supreme court ultimately refused the request, it said America had left it too long.
"The man was indicted on 14 charges including five counts of sodomy and the DA says we don't want him: that is how strong the Orthodox influence can be," Lesher says.
Lesher is trying to obtain the DA's files on Mondrowitz – two boxes of them – through the freedom of information law. The DA is fighting him. At the latest hearing in February, the DA's office argued the case was ongoing and the contents of the files remained sensitive. But in a radio interview a few weeks before, when asked about getting Mondrowitz back, Hynes replied: "That's finished, finished." Mondrowitz, meanwhile is still living freely in Israel.
Defenders of the DA say he's hamstrung by his lack of access to the community. Child sex crimes are hard enough to prosecute at the best of times. Often the victim comes forward only years later, with scant evidence and no witnesses. Even when the crime is current, a child's word is pitted against an adult's, frequently one in a position of power and authority. It is no surprise few reach the courts and of those that do, the majority end in plea deals. With a community suspicious of law enforcement, where witnesses drop out under community pressure and leaders impede investigation, the problems are particularly acute.
But Hynes' detractors believe there's more going on.
Mark Dratch, a modern-Orthodox rabbi, founded JSafe to tackle abuse in the Jewish community. "The DA's position is an elected position, and the Orthodox have a large voting bloc and I'm sure Mr Hynes will deny it but I think that is the nature of the situation. I know there is a lot of pressure on his office from the organised rabbinic community in Brooklyn either not to deal with the cases or to minimise them."
'If it's someone prominent, the community won't co-operate'
In April 2009, in the wake of controversy over Kolko and Mondrowitz, Charles Hynes launched Kol Tzedek. Hebrew for voice of justice, Kol Tzedek was described in publicity at the time as "an outreach program aimed at helping sex-crime victims in Brooklyn's Orthodox Jewish Communities report abuse". Its centrepiece is a hotline for victims, staffed by a culturally sensitive social worker.
More broadly, Kol Tzedek is the formalisation of a relationship with community leaders.Rabbi Yosef Blau of Yeshiva University (a longtime victims advocate and a more moderate rabbi than his Brooklyn counterparts) describes how such a relationship works. If the police doesn't have the cooperation of the community there is little it can do, not just to investigate crimes but learn of them in the first instance. "So one approach is to go to the leaders and say, we're sensitive to your community needs, tell us under what conditions you're prepared to work with us." The leaders will ask for a liaison, someone who understands them, and in return, direct their people to cooperate. "But that doesn't actually work, because the liaison is representing the community and not truly loyal to the police."
In reality, the community may hand over minor figures but will continue to shield those in positions of power. Blau believes this is happening with Brooklyn's ultra-Orthodox. "Yes, Hynes has got a number of cases into the courts, but they're all the nobodies. They won't get somebody prominent because then the community won't co-operate. But if it's some weird guy, OK, let the police handle it."
The DA's office claims there were 85 arrests and 29 convictions between the launch of Kol Tzedek and November last year. But it repeatedly refuses to reveal names or case numbers. The DA's spokesperson Jerry Schmetterer said the policy was adopted to protect the victims' anonymity. Despite Hynes' secrecy, a number of cases have become known to victim advocates. Of the known cases currently open, with a few exceptions, most fit Blau's analysis.
The DA's office says 23 of the successful convictions through Kol Tzedek were the result of plea deals. But it also says that six cases went to trial. Advocates know of only two. Yona Weinberg, a bar mitzah tutor, was sentenced to 13 months in jail in October 2009. At the trial, Judge Reichbach reportedly condemned the Orthodox community for its ill treatment of victims and its 'circle the wagons attitude'. (The DA counts Weinberg as a Kol Tzedek case, even though he was arrested in May 2008, a year before the programme began.)
Two years ago, Rabbi Baruch Lebovits was tried and sentenced to the maximum term, 10 2/3 to 32 years, for his repeated abuse of a 16-year-old boy. Lebovits was well known within the community as a child molester but his behaviour went unchallenged for decades. In the run up to the trial, Lebovits turned down a plea deal from the DA which would have given him just one-and-a-third to four years jail time, according to a local TV news report. (The DA refused to confirm the terms of the deal.)
Today, Lebovits' prosecution is in danger of collapse. Another ultra-Orthodox Jew close to the trial is charged with attempting to extort $400,000 from Lebovits' family to have alleged victims pull out and prevent further victims from coming forward. Samuel Kellner is also accused of paying another boy $10,000 to testify falsely to the grand jury. In contrast to Hynes's usual position on publicity, when Kellner was indicted last April the DA announced the news at a press conference. (Lebovits is now challenging his conviction.)
Of the handful of other successful convictions known to advocates, there appears to be a pattern of weak prosecutions, out of step with national trends. Of the eight Orthodox Brooklyn Jews on the New York sex offender registry, prosecuted in Brooklyn, four received probationary sentences. Elizabeth Jeglic, a researcher of sex crimes policy at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, says that since the mid to late 1990s, sex crimes sentencing has become increasingly severe. Notwithstanding the many obstacles to prosecution, she says a national average sentence for child molesters is seven years with three of those served. Probationary sentences are unusual. All sex crimes against children – both penetration and fondling – are treated with great seriousness, and there is little difference in sentencing between them, she says.
Opinions vary enormously on the relative merits of custodial and probationary sentences. Jail time keeps abusers away from children and sends a message to other offenders. But therapy alone can be very effective at reducing relapse rates, says Kenneth Lau of Fordham University, president of the New York Association of the Treatment of Sexual Abusers. Therapy is not intended to "cure" sex offenders, however, but to give them strategies for controlling their behaviour. Avoiding dangerous situations is key. Different categories of offenders are at greater or lesser risk of re-offending and respond differently to therapy. Incest is the easiest to control, exhibitionism the hardest.
Elizabeth Jeglic believes the best approach combines a custodial sentence with sex offender specific treatment. Monitoring is also a crucial element, she says. The community needs to know the identity of offenders to help limit their access to potential victims. A principle at odds with Hynes' secrecy policy.
In a video interview posted on the internet in December by photographer Shimon Gifter, Hynes said he had reached a "rapprochement" with a prominent rabbinic leader, who now understood the beit din "were no substitute for the prosecution of sexual predators". Addressing an Orthodox audience, he went on to say: "Not everyone goes to jail. We have programmes for people who have this sickness."
In Brooklyn's ultra-Orthodox communities, the past use of therapy as a substitute for prosecution has had disastrous consequences. Investigations by the Jewish Week have revealed that before their eventual arrests, both Stefan Colmer (who has just completed a two and a half year sentence for abusing two teenage boys) and Rabbi Emanuel Yegutkin (who is currently facing 110 charges for the sexual abuse of two boys over several years, one from the age of seven) were previously sent by rabbis for voluntary sex offender treatment at OHEL, the Jewish social services agency based in Borough Park.
OHEL took on both men as patients, rather than tell the rabbis to call the police. OHEL did not act illegally (since under the circumstances it was not obliged to report the men to the authorities), and today it says it no longer treats sex offenders. But that past practice continues to cast a shadow. OHEL is a partner in Kol Tzedek – its role, Hynes said in the December video interview, is to encourage reporting. (The DA's office refused to clarify the exact nature of its relationship with OHEL.)
David Pollock, associate executive director of Jewish Community Relations Council New York, acts as a "bridge" between Brooklyn's ultra-Orthodox and the police. Pollock say the DA is sensitive to the concerns of the community – not least its resistance to long custodial sentences. The ultra-Orthodox are often poor, with large families, the women having married young with no means of self-support. If the abuser is the husband, incarcerating the breadwinner risks leaving the family destitute. "The cure could be considered worse than the disease." The DA's office, Pollock says, is aware of these issues. "If we can figure out a way that they can more effectively do their job, they're usually very flexible."
At issue is whether Hynes in his "flexibility" towards ultra-Orthodox child sex crimes is ceding control to the rabbis. Michael Lesher believes he is. "I think to some extent the office is legitimately interested in adapting itself to the mores of the community" in order to achieve prosecutions. "But it's very easy to claim that's what you're doing when in fact you're buckling to political pressure. And I would say that's a far better description of what's really happening."
'With all respect, Rabbis should stop interfering with the process'
Agudath Israel of America, an umbrella organisation for Brooklyn's many ultra-Orthodox factions, embraces the various Hasidic sects (with a few exceptions, notably Satmar) and the other non-Hasidic groups. Agudath also pronounces on Jewish law, as interpreted by its council of Torah sages. As such it dictates to its substantial membership how to live their lives.
For the last few months, Agudath has publicised the sages' legal ruling on reporting child sex abuse. An ultra-Orthodox Jew who suspects a child is being molested must first consult with a senior rabbi before going to the authorities. The rabbi – who must be knowledgeable about both Jewish law and child abuse – will decide if the suspicions pass a threshold known as raglayim la'davar, or reason to believe. Only then can the matter be referred on.
"A person can be destroyed if allegations which are baseless are raised against him," says Rabbi David Zwiebel, Agudath's executive vice-president, by way of explanation. Zwiebel says he is aware some rabbis still conceal allegations, but insists the large majority are now fully engaged with law enforcement.Agudath aims to reconcile "to the extent possible" the obligations of secular law with the dictates of Jewish halachic law. All the rule does, Zwiebel says, "is inject into the process an extra layer ... I don't see that as a real deviation from the secular law."
In New York state, however, social workers, teachers and members of other defined professions (although not clergy) are mandated reporters – they are required by law to report suspicions of child abuse, "immediately" and before consulting a supervisor, or for that matter, a rabbi. In response to a query about Agudath's position, the Office of Children and Family Services said that if a person meets the standards for a mandated reporter "there is no legal authority for the screening out of potential reports". If an Orthodox teacher or social worker were to follows the sages' ruling, they would be breaking the law.
"The rabbis are wonderful spiritual leaders and they should be doing what they do best, spiritual guidance," says Mark Meyer Appel, whose group Voice of Justice gives emotional support to victims and their families. "But they don't have the experience to deal with issues of child abuse. With all respect, they should stop interfering with the process."
Or as Mondrowitz survivor Mark Weiss puts it: "If your house is burning down, who are you going to call? The fire department or a rabbi?"
Agudath's Rabbi Zwiebel denies there is a surreptitious deal with the DA. His organisation wasn't consulted on Kol Tzedek, he says. But he is explicit about his expectations of Hynes. "If the DA doesn't understand [that there is a Jewish law] there will be far less co-operation with the criminal justice system – because of the culture and the general sense in the community, that has prevailed for thousands of years, that typically there are things which, if at all possible, should be handled internally within the community."
Zwiebel stands by his assertion, first expressed publicly in 2009, that the DA should not attempt to encroach on the power of the rabbis. "If the civil authorities are going to come into the community like gangbusters and say we don't care about your rabbis and we don't care about your customs and we don't care about your culture and none of this matters to us, they'll get far less cooperation from the community ... I think [Hynes] is working within a reality. And he's wise to work within that reality."Agudath's sister body Torah Umesorah represents the interests of New York's 360, Orthodox Jewish yeshiva schools, some of which have been accused of harbouring child molesters. For now these private schools are protected, not just by the conspiracy of silence, but also by the law. In New York, child molestation victims have only two or five years after they reach the age of 18 (depending on the allegations) to bring about a prosecution. Five years to bring about a civil suit. Assemblywoman Margaret Markey is sponsoring a bill that would extend each of those statute of limitations by a further five years. The Child Victims Act would also open a one-year window, during which time a victim at any age could take out a civil action against their perpetrator – or the school or other institution where they worked.
Despite repeated success in the assembly, Markey's bill keeps failing to reach the Senate. Powerful religious groups are lobbying against it. The Catholic bishops are aggressively fighting the bill, and alongside them: Agudath Israel of America.
Zwiebel argues the bill would invite capricious litigation "that could be extremely harmful to some of the most important institutions in our community". But it isn't the capricious law suits that really worry Agudath but the genuine ones, says Shmarya Rosenberg whose blog Failed Messiah has been following the issue. Just like the Catholic Church, the yeshivas stand to lose millions.
"If the rabbis do what is really necessary to solve the problem they will expose themselves to lawsuits and public ridicule because quite frankly they have done a lot of very bad things," Rosenberg says. For now, their strategy is to shore up their defences.For all Agudath's belligerence – and the silence of the Orthodox Union, which will not comment publicly – there are some signs of dissent within the rabbinic leadership. Increasingly, some disgruntled rabbis are saying they've had enough, says community liaison David Pollock. Though he cannot guess at numbers, there are those who believe, even if they won't state their positions publicly, that the failures of the past prove it is time to welcome outside help.
Last summer the rabbis on the Crown Heights Beit Din even ruled that reporting child abuse is not mesirah – the ancient taboo against informing on another Jew – and that cases must not be taken to them, but to the secular authorities.
'The DA doesn't want to go out as having been soft on child abusers'
Last month, to escape the intimidation, Mordechai moved his family to a new apartment. With the boxes still unpacked, two local girls invited his daughter to a welcome party. At school the next day they wouldn't talk to her or play with her. Their parents had forbidden it. "This is what I'm going through," he says, for taking a child molester off the streets. "Didn't I do the right thing?"
Throughout his ordeal, Mordechai feels he's had no protection from the Brooklyn DA. So he went online to research his rights. "Victims have rights! We were never told." As a whistle-blower in the Jewish community they knew he was going to suffer like hell, he says, but they "did a zero for us". He has a message for the DA's office: "Once a month, give a call to this family. Say, 'How you doing? How's your wife doing? How are your children doing?'" (The DA's spokesperson said the office takes every allegation of witness intimidation seriously.)
Last summer, his son's alleged abuser Meir Dascalowitz was judged mentally unfit to proceed and sent to a mental hospital. Before the case was put on hold, Mordechai says he learned the DA planned to offer Dascalowitz a deal, against his wishes. When Mordechai told the victims advocates, they held a demonstration outside the DA's office. (DA spokesperson Jerry Schmetterer said no plea is taken without the express agreement of the victim and/or the victim's family.)
But for all the criticism of Hynes and his recent claims for Kol Tzedek, some advocates nonetheless believe he is sincere."I don't think he wants to go out under a cloud as having been soft on child abusers," says Michael Lesher. "But to change his record without political bloodletting, he has to work with the existing structure." Not least Agudath and OHEL.
Rabbi Blau is less optimistic. Although Hynes is in a stronger position today than he was five years ago, Blau doubts he's about to get tougher: "You get locked into a position. The DA in Brooklyn has been there for a very long time. People don't change their policies that late in the game."
Blau is quick to add that there has been some improvement in community attitudes in recent years – but that change is being driven from the bottom up, by the bloggers and advocates.
Many believe that for Hynes to really break the cover-up he would need to stop working with the rabbis and start prosecuting anyone found interfering with witnesses. "The rabbis will only stop if they know the price they are going to pay is arrest, public humiliation and prison even," says Ben Hirsch. "It would be a game-changer. It would be the equivalent of a nuclear explosion."
As it is, the rabbinic leadership shows little sign of acting on its own accord.
When Brooklyn Assemblyman Dov Hikind first started using his radio show to discuss child sexual abuse some questioned his right to interfere, he says. "So I told the leader of a major Jewish organisation in the religious community: 'I will stop doing everything I'm doing if you commit to me that you will take charge of this and do what needs to be done. If you accept my offer, please call me and I will be out of it.'" That was five years ago. Hikind is still waiting.
*****WHERE TO GO FOR HELP IN NYC
If a child is in danger or to report a crime call 911 or the NYPD Sex Crimes Report Line on 1 (212) 267-RAPE
To report suspected child abuse call the State Central Register on 1-800-342-3720 or call 311 and ask to be connected to the hotline. TDD: 1-800-638-5163For support for Orthodox Jewish victims:
Survivors for Justice at www.sfjny.org
Voice of Justice on 1-800-621-8551
For confidential advice and counselling
The SOVRI helpline at Beth Israel on 888-613-1613.
Takanot counseling based at Mount Sinai on 212-423-2147.