A New York State Supreme Court judge has criticised the Orthodox community for shielding perpetrators of sexual abuse while persecuting victims.
Judge Gustin Reichbach lamented the community’s “circle-the-wagons attitude” as he sentenced Yona Weinberg, a barmitzvah tutor and social worker from Brooklyn, to 13 months in jail for molesting two boys.
At the sentencing earlier this month, the courtroom was filled with Weinberg’s supporters. Almost 100 members of the Orthodox community wrote letters to the judge defending him.
Judge Reichbach lamented that no letters displayed “any concern or even any acknowledgement for these young victims which, frankly, I find shameful”. Rather, the community “seeks to blame, indeed punish, victims who seek justice from... civil society”.
Sexual abuse has become a highly contentious issue in the US Orthodox community following a string of cases involving well-known teachers and rabbis. Over the past year, 26 strictly Orthodox men have been arrested in Brooklyn in child sexual abuse cases; eight have been convicted and 18 await trial.
The strictly Orthodox are statistically no more likely to experience sexual abuse than any other group. But the problem is often exacerbated because there is pressure on victims not to go to the police, due to a suspicion of secular society and a fear of bringing shame on the community. In some cases, parents worry that revealing abuse might harm chances of a shidduch. Meanwhile, some community leaders prefer to act solely through a beth din.
However, the timing of Judge Reichbach’s comments may be ironic, as some see signs that the taboo against reporting sexual abuse is beginning to fade. NY state Assemblyman Dov Hikind became involved in the issue 15 months ago. He says many people in the community have overcome the stigma associated with abuse and are openly discussing it.
“There has been an improvement, no question about it,” says Mr Hikind. “The fact that people are acting is a huge accomplishment, but we have an even longer way to go.”
This year, more than 40 minors have agreed to testify about abuse in court.
David Zwiebel, executive vice president of the Charedi group Agudath Israel of America, told the New York Times this week that “A broad consensus has emerged that many of these issues are beyond the ability of the community to handle internally.”
In the past, victims who have spoken out have faced ostracism, as well as verbal and physical threats.
One victim, Shua Finkelstein, died of an overdose at the beginning of this year. His parents later discovered a letter he had written criticising the community for not confronting abuse, which they published online. Soon afterwards, their New Jersey home was damaged in a suspected arson attack.
Yona Weinberg joins a list of recent high-profile court cases involving Orthodox Jews. Last year, Rabbi Yehuda Kolko, a teacher at Yeshiva Torah Temimah in Brooklyn, struck a plea deal with the Brooklyn district attorney. To campaigners’ dismay, Kolko pleaded guilty to two counts of child endangerment, ducking a jail sentence and avoiding registration as a sex offender.
Meanwhile, Rabbi Avrohom Reichman, a principal at the United Talmudic Academy in Williamsburg, is currently the subject of a civil lawsuit filed by Joel Engleman, who claims he was molested during the 1990s.
Rabbi Avrohom Mondrowitz, who fled to Israel from New York in 1984 to avoid prosecution for sexual abuse, continues to fight extradition.
Mark Weiss, who says he was abused by Mondrowitz in the late 1970s, blames community leaders for the support shown to Weinberg and others like him. Mr Weiss says that “otherwise good, warmhearted, caring people are suddenly reprogrammed to defy all logic”, when they are told that they must defend the community from a chilul hashem — disgracing god’s name — by standing up for the accused.
“It’s a disgrace that our community has to get chastised by someone like Judge Reichbach, but he’s 100 per cent right,” he added. “This is about the Orthodox leadership’s control over people.”