Areas of Brooklyn, New York feel like a trip back in time. Ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities live a lifestyle that mirrors their ancestors from centuries ago. The dress, hair, language, education, food, values, prayers, traditions and community structure have been passed down and preserved through many generations and across oceans. All of those are an expression of the residents’ profound faith in God.
What is not visible are shameful secrets: Child sex abuse scandals have been making headlines for years and bringing unwanted attention to a group bent on privacy.
For Hasidim, every waking act is defined by the laws of the Torah; they depend on the teachings of rabbis to guide them in all parts of their day. Influence from the secular world threatens to invade their insular community.
Now revered leaders of the community are accused of protecting child predators and punishing the victims who dare to speak out about what was done to them, all to avoid outside involvement.
CNN’s Gary Tuchman talked with Rabbi Nuchem Rosenberg who is trying to change that attitude. He has created a hotline for victims and their families. As a result, he received death threats. He told Tuchman, “The rabbis feel very hurt that this is what's happening in the community so they want to push it under the cover, so that it shouldn't come out.”
Crimes against children by adults who claim to live the word of God are not new. Many religions have demons, and the ultra-Orthodox Jews are no exception. Most deny it could happen in their midst. Child rape and molestation don’t fit their pious image.
In Brooklyn, there are allegations of abuse in schools, homes and religious settings. Several boys say they were assaulted in a ritual bath called a mikvah. For all branches of Judaism, the mikvah is the ultimate symbol of purity. Some Orthodox men go there before each Sabbath. Under the guise of observance, the accused find their victims where they are most vulnerable and trusting – a heinous strategy.
Still some victims and their families choose to bury the assaults or seek redress in a rabbinic court to avoid the alternative: Rabbis losing authority, bringing disgrace to the community, and suffering the backlash of friends and neighbors.
Pearl Engelman says her son was repeatedly molested by a school official as a young boy 20 years ago. After she found out about the abuse, she reported it to religious leaders but there was little sympathy for her family. “We stand for truth, for justice. And the cover-up is deeply painful to me,” she told Tuchman. The statute of limitations has now expired.
The Hasidim in Brooklyn are a powerful voting block. That’s why District Attorney Charles Hynes is accused by victims’ rights advocates of going easy on alleged Hasidic child molesters and rapists. He’s been elected six times, and is accused of appeasing the rabbis in order to get their support and keep his position.
Hynes strongly denies the allegations. In 2009, he established a program and a hotline to help victims called Kol Tzedek (“Voice of Justice” in Hebrew). But critics are outraged because he refuses to disclose the names of the men arrested through the initiative. The Jewish Daily Forward’s request for the records filed under the state’s Freedom of Information Law was denied.
Hynes claims that revealing the names of the suspects could lead to the community identifying the victims and intimidating them. That decision raises concerns about the rights of the public, the legality of shielding the men, and the DA’s motives.
Tuchman asked Hynes how he reconciles instituting a policy for the Hassidim, but no other groups, like the Roman Catholic Church. He says because “there’s never been any intimidation by priests.”
In a May 16 op-ed, Hynes wrote:
Since the inception of Kol Tzedek, we have made 95 arrests; 53 cases have been adjudicated, with a conviction rate of 72%.
I stand by these numbers.
The statistics show how absurd it is to suggest that we cover up, downplay or in any way “give a break” to sex offenders in the Orthodox Jewish community. Like any other defendants, they are often arrested in public by the police, and their court appearances are open and available to the public as part of the public record. I welcome scrutiny of these cases.
The suggestion that I have ever condoned the practice of first seeking a rabbi’s advice before an Orthodox Jewish community member reports sexual abuse is a distortion of my record. I have never suggested that someone seeking the advice of a rabbi is then relieved of the obligation of reporting sexual abuse to the appropriate authorities.
While some may persist in protecting the community ahead of justice for the young victims, there are signs of progress. On June 10, a group of ultra-Orthodox Jews held a meeting in Crown Heights to talk about combating child sex abuse. Hynes was on the panel. Some rabbinic leaders have said anyone with knowledge of abuse should go to the police and do not need to talk first with a rabbi. It will take the courage of the victims and the compassion of the community to make lasting change.