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Case of Rabbi Baruch Mordechai Lebovits (Brooklyn, NY)
Unprecedented Case Brings Brooklyn Rabbi To Secular Court To Be Sentenced
Outside Hasidic Realm, Rabbi Lebovits Faced New Trend in Sexual Prosecutions
By Yasmina Guerda
Special to the Brooklyn Eagle
by Brooklyn Eagle - 04-12-2010
Brooklyn — As the Vatican struggles with fresh headlines on scandals of child sex abuse, the Jewish communities throughout the world have been embroiled in a similar plague. In the last year, Brooklyn’s State Supreme Court has issued an increasing number of subpoenas to members of the Jewish Orthodox community in relation to child sexual abuse cases. Until recently, most of these cases were handled for the community by the community and entirely within the community.
The increase in the number of cases reported to the secular justice system by members of this particularly closed group is the result of a long process: bridges built between secular and religious judicial authorities in Brooklyn, and a strong collaboration between Jewish organizations and the District Attorney’s office through the project Kol Tzedek, Hebrew for “Voice of Justice.” The program has now reached its first year milestone.
He could spend the rest of his life in jail, but he remained silent during the four days of his trial. Baruch Mordechai Lebovits is a corpulent 59-year-old rabbi from Borough Park, in Brooklyn. On March 8, 2010, the day his verdict was to be announced, he arrived in the Kings County State Supreme Court striding behind his two lawyers, his face looking down to avoid the stares of a dozen bystanders outside Ceremonial courtroom No. 1.
Lebovits was followed by five of his relatives and friends. Slowly, more and more of the rabbi’s supporters quietly entered the courtroom and congregated in the benches behind the accused. Soon, two thirds of the seats would be filled with members of the Borough Park Jewish Orthodox community. Interviews with some of these men and women revealed their complete rejection of the charges: that Lebovits molested one of his 16-year-old students in 2004. His supporters were equally unconvinced by the multiple counts of child sexual assault for which Lebovits has yet to be tried. By the end of this year, Lebovits will be judged for allegedly abusing two other children.
Seated 30 feet away from his molester on the other side of the room, the plaintiff Yoav Schonberg, now 22, was surrounded by his father, a few friends, and Kal Holczler, who claims to have been molested by his own rabbi when he was a teenager. Schonberg was the prosecution’s primary witness against Lebovits. He was timid, obviously at odds with himself, and Justice Patricia DiMango had to ask him several times to speak up during his testimony. Speaking haltingly in a frail voice, Schonberg explained to the court that on May 2, 2004, Rabbi Lebovits offered him a free driving lesson. After a few minutes, Schonberg said, Lebovits instructed him to pull the car over, at which point the rabbi unzipped the young boy’s pants and began performing oral sex. According to the Assistant District Attorney Miss Gregory, the same thing happened to Yoav Schonberg, who was 16 back then, nine more times, until February 22, 2005. “It happened many many more times, but my son wasn’t able to remember the specific dates so it is not valid for the prosecution,” explained Yaakov Schonberg, the plaintiff’s father.
When the verdict was handed down, Lebovits did not move. He did not grimace; he did not sigh almost as if he had expected it, despite his “innocent” plea. Among his supporters, though, a few wiped tears from their cheeks and gasped for breath. Many started making calls as soon as they left the courtroom, to keep the rest of the community updated. The jury found the rabbi who is also a teacher at the Munkatch yeshiva (religious school) and the owner of a travel agency in Borough Park guilty of eight of the ten counts in the indictment. The sentence will be read today. For these charges alone, Lebovits faces up to 32 years in prison, four years for each count on which he was convicted. But at least two more trials await the rabbi this year. One of his alleged victims was 16-years-old and the other was 15 at the time the assaults are said to have occurred. “In the community, I’ve spoken to dozens of families who say their children were molested by this man. Dozens! The problem is that half of them don’t want to let it be known, and the other half can’t do anything about it because it’s too late,” explained Yaakov Schonberg, in reference to the five-year statute of limitations that make it impossible for victims to file a lawsuit after they turn 23.
Brooklyn is home to over 300,000 Orthodox Jews – mainly in Williamsburg, Flatbush, Crown Heights and Borough Park — but for decades, prosecutors very rarely tackled alleged child molesters in this community. According to an October 14, 2009 article by Paul Vitello in the New York Times, “of some 700 child abuse cases brought in an average year, few involved members of the Orthodox Jewish community. Some years, there were one or two arrests, or none.”
In the past year, however, according to the Kings County D.A.’s office, 30 members of this community in Brooklyn have been prosecuted for child sexual abuse. Among those 30 prosecutions, half were for misdemeanor offenses, half for felony crimes.
This sudden breakthrough in the ability of the secular judicial system to prosecute sex crimes within this tight-lipped community has been facilitated by Kol Tzedek, the program that Brooklyn D.A. Charles Hynes launched a year ago. Its goal was to build a dialogue between secular law enforcement agencies and Orthodox Jews as well as within the community itself.
Kol Tzedek includes a hotline for victims to report abuse and receive psychological support anonymously until they are ready to go to court. The program also has a prevention component, operated with the help of three Jewish social organizations – the Jewish Board of Family and Children Services, Ohel Children’s Home and Family Services, and the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty.
“It is a very scary issue,” said Dr. Hindie Klein, the psychotherapist who runs Ohel’s Tikvah Mental Health clinic in Borough Park in which several victims of sexual abuse have been treated. Klein is also in charge of Kol Tzedek at Ohel. This social services organization specializes in Jewish communities, provides help in several fields job search, poverty, mental health, foster care, etc, and last year, it celebrated its 40th year of existence. “Many members of the community don’t even know what is and what isn’t considered sexual assault!” Klein explained. “It’s Sabbath, the whole family gets together, and then you notice that this uncle or this neighbor has been playing a lot with your kid, taking him on his lap, touching him affectionately … Where is the line? Sometimes it’s nothing, and sometimes it’s worrying. The first thing that people lack in this community is definitely knowledge on this matter,” she pointed out, stressing each one of her words with both her hands. “But even then,” added Derek Saker, Ohel’s spokesman, who was sitting next to Hindie Klein, “once they know their children have been molested, families won’t always have the right reaction. There’s the fear of the stigma, enhanced by the fact that this is a very close-knit and modest community that we are talking about.”
According to Rabbi Nuchem Rosenberg, an activist who works in Williamsburg to prevent the sexual abuse of children, “If a kid comes home and tells his parents that one of his teachers or his rabbi touched his private parts, parents will have one of these two reactions: they will either slap him in the face and ground him for lying and being immodest, or they will tell him that it was nothing and that he should forget about it.” The general disbelief and/or denial was also noted by Shoshannah Frydman who is in charge of the project Kol Tzedek at the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty, a social services agency operating in New York City. “In any community, it is a topic that people refuse to face, and in an insular community, as is the Orthodox Jewish community of Brooklyn, of course, these things tend to be hidden under the carpet even more. They have a different understanding of child protection and criminal justice.” Frydman also said that there was an important lack of information on sexual abuse itself. “People think that if their children were abused, it is going to influence their whole sexuality, or create problems when it comes to finding a wife or a husband.”
An indication of the resistance within the Orthodox community to bringing child molesters to justice can be found in posts from blogger Yerachmiel Lopin, who writes about child molestation in Brooklyn: “A source in Boro Park tells me that [a flyer calling for witnesses to testify against Lebovits and to contact Miss Gregory at the D.A.’s office] was strewn all over his neighborhood on Shabbat morning on November 21, 2009. By noon the flyers had all been removed. … It is striking that this secret activity is being undertaken. One would have thought that given the many children he may have molested the community leadership could easily assure the necessary roster of witnesses.”
“We can’t let things be handled by the community. Our only way out is to turn to secular justice,” insisted Victoria Polin, the social worker who founded the Awareness Center, based in Baltimore, MD. This international organization has been fighting child sexual abuse for eleven years in Jewish communities throughout the world by means of prevention programs and information workshops. Polin’s Awareness Center also helps survivors deal with the consequences of having been sexually assaulted. “So many children end up committing suicide, or falling into drugs… They can end up having very serious health problems because some were abused when they were very young and they had their insides torn; girls can have long-term gynecological issues; others will refuse to go to the dentist during their entire lives because of the trauma of having somebody else put something in their mouth,” Polin said.
In Williamsburg, on November 5, 2009, several newspapers reported that Motty Borger, 24, committed suicide, two days after his wedding. As his new wife was asleep, at 6:45 a.m., Borger jumped from his seventh floor room at the Avenue Plaza hotel. Although no suicide note was found, friends of Borger’s told reporters that, a few days before Borger killed himself, he had confided to his father-in-law and to his wife that Rabbi Lebovits had sodomized him.
“My son hasn’t killed himself,” said Yaakov Schonberg, the father of the abused boy in Lebovits’ trial. “But he spent four years navigating between crack and cocaine addiction, he was unable to get a job, he started stealing money from synagogues to finance his addiction… and of course he was arrested several times for stealing that money. It’s a vicious cycle!” In 2008, Yoav was sent to a rehab center in Los Angeles, CA, but he only stayed there for one month. Since then, even though he still wears his black velvet kippah, and considers himself a Jew, Yoav Schonberg says he has left the Hareidi world: he no longer goes to the synagogue to pray, he shaves his beard regularly and has stopped wearing his hair side curls. His father still has the side curls and follows the dress code of the Munkatch Orthodox sect, but he has also partially withdrawn from its strict rules: “I am under no rabbi. No rabbi tells me what to do now,” Yaakov Schonberg said.
This trend is not specific to the Jewish Orthodox communities, according to Victoria Polin, the Awareness Center founder. “When something this tragic happens, of course, victims will lose trust in their community, and that is why it is so important that secular authorities be there for survivors. Otherwise, they will feel like they have nobody to turn to,” Polin insisted.
District Attorney Hynes, who has spent his whole career in Brooklyn, is used to dealing with leaders of the Orthodox Jewish community. Several times in the past ten years, advocates for victims of sexual abuse have accused Hynes of seeking peace in his jurisdiction by turning a blind eye to the community’s practice of funneling abuse cases through religious tribunals and shutting out secular justice authorities. “But the real problem,” said Jerry Schmetterer, spokesman for the Brooklyn D.A., “was that they just didn’t trust us. We really feel it’s working well now. The fact that the program Kol Tzedek is anonymous is what really made the difference.”
Dr. Hindie Klein who, as the director of a mental health clinic, has received “many anonymous calls from frightened parents looking for information,” said that the reason why it is so difficult for a family to talk to secular authorities is that they don’t know what consequences their call will have. “Will everything break out publicly? Will their family be outcast for something that could possibly have been nothing? They need to know that their call will have no consequences unless they decide otherwise.” According to Klein, as well, total anonymity and privacy is what Kol Tzedek’s strength depends on.
Every Orthodox Jewish community has religious tribunals, composed of three, or sometimes four rabbis. These rabbinical courts, called “Bet Din,” Hebrew for “House of Judgment,” are intended to settle every disagreement within the community and only rarely choose to report cases to secular judicial authorities. “It’s a matter of protecting the community,” explained Yaakov Schonberg. “By handling problems yourself, you prevent the others from knowing about those problems and from using them against you.” Breaking the rule and reaching out to secular authorities when there is a problem within the community, according to Schonberg, will get you excommunicated more often than not. Excommunication means that someone will not be allowed in any synagogue of the community, his/her children won’t be accepted in any yeshiva, and shopkeepers will refuse to do business with that person. “The pressure on the family is huge!” added Yaakov Schonberg.
In Lebovits’ case, for instance, the prosecutor presented evidence that pressure had been applied to the victim by a local religious court to persuade him to drop the charges. One of the defense attorneys’ witnesses was Rabbi Berel Ashkenazi, a friend of Lebovits’ who had come to court to testify that the victim was a “con man” as defense lawyer Arthur Aidala described him and that he was not worthy of trust. Ashkenazi, 44 years old and the father of nine children, had also been the plaintiff’s teacher, from October 2003 until June 2004 at Spinka religious school in Borough Park. Assistant D.A. Miss Gregory brought to the trial copies of a letter sent by one of Borough Park’s rabbinical courts to Rabbi Ashkenazi. It stipulated that Ashkenazi, to whom Schonberg had gone for assistance, should offer financial support to Schonberg to treat his drug addiction, and help him to a rehab center “if and only if” he agreed “to drop the case in a non-Jewish court.” This is just one of the many types of pressure a rabbinical court can apply to the community it rules in, if they are suspected of committing “Mesirah,” Hebrew for “informing.”
In the courtroom, after Assistant D.A. Gregory asked him to do so, witness Rabbi Ashkenazi explained what the concept of “Mesirah” meant for the Orthodox community: “A Jewish man is not allowed to go to a secular court against another Jew without the permission of his rabbi,” Ashkenazi explained. Then, Gregory continued: “And could you tell me what happens if someone does not follow that rule? Would that person be stigmatized for not doing so?” After a few seconds of hesitation and stammering, Ashkenazi replied: “If someone doesn’t do so, the rabbi would have to talk to him.” When the questioning was over, the witness swiftly got up from his seat and walked rapidly towards the exit of the courtroom, looking straight ahead, avoiding the stares of the audience.
The plaintiff’s father said he had also been under pressure during the month before the Lebovits’ trial began. “As soon as the date of the trial was officially announced, I received calls from everywhere, even from Israel!” He said people were calling to ask him to drop the case and go to a religious tribunal instead. “But you have to understand, rabbinical courts used to mean something,” Yaakov Schonberg said. “They used to have real authority and real moral superiority in the community. Now it has become a business, a way to make money!” Schonberg explained how thirty years ago, there used to be only one Bet Din in Borough Park and another one in Williamsburg, and how now, there were dozens in each neighborhood. “Now, it’s usually three young rabbis who know very little, fresh from rabbinical school, and they call themselves rabbinical court!” he said, gesticulating vigorously. He paused and added: “They don’t have to be approved by anyone, there is no election, no nomination, no validation whatsoever. They just open an office, put a sign that says “Bet Din,”… and charge each plaintiff $100 an hour!”
Rabbi Nuchem Rosenberg, who has for over ten years been strongly encouraging victims to bring sexual offenders before a secular court, said he was now considered an outcast in Brooklyn. He was excommunicated two years ago after he launched a hotline to “teach victims and their relatives how to react when they are confronted with a sexual abuse situation.” “Today, there isn’t one synagogue in this borough that will accept me, even the most liberal ones,” Rosenberg said. “Such pressure has been made on every rabbi in Brooklyn that now I have to go pray in Manhattan, and even there, my rabbi received several calls from leaders in Williamsburg asking him not to let me in anymore. But he answered ‘No one rules in my synagogue but me!”
For Yaakov Schonberg, the fact that sexual crimes in the community are perpetrated by rabbis, teachers and other community leaders is “what’s worst about it. … These people have a very high stature, everybody knows and respects them.” According to Lebovits’ defense attorney Arthur Aidala, Lebovits’ son, Chaïm, is “a multi-millionaire,” who has “businesses all over the world,” a fact that Schonberg uses to describe how powerful Lebovits is, according to him.
“I do not know anything about money pressure or any other kind of pressure,” said Dr. Hindie Klein, the director of Ohel’s Mental Health clinic in Borough Park. “What I do know, and this is the case in every community, not just in the Jewish Orthodox world, is that sexual abusers are generally in a position of authority over the child.” She added: “It can be rabbis, but also teachers, camp leaders, or family members. The thing is that when a rabbi does it, it has a more dramatic resonance, because they represent this moral authority, and they are supposed to know better.”
* * *
One of the big problems judicial authorities face when dealing with the sexual abuse of children in Jewish Orthodox communities lies in defining the extent of it. Looking only at the cases reported to secular authorities, the problem would be almost non-existent. Jewish advocacy groups for sexual abuse victims argue, however, that molestation in the Hareidi community is heavily underreported to secular authorities. According to Victoria Polin, from the Awareness Center, “it is generally considered that 84 percent of child sexual abuse cases are never reported to the police. But in the Jewish Orthodox community, we believe the rate is around 99 percent … And this is an optimistic estimation!”
According to a study issued in 1988 by the National Institute of Mental Health, the typical child sex offender molests an average of 117 children. “There aren’t many sexual abusers in each community,” observed Rabbi Nuchem Rosenberg. “But even if there’s only one or two in each neighborhood, the problem is that it’s easy for them: they have all the children at their disposal.”
No organization seems to have kept any record or statistics concerning child sex abuse in the Jewish Orthodox community. The Metropolitan Council offered support, long before Kol Tzedek, to sexual abuse victims “but [they] never ever reported the number of calls [they] received on a file or anything. [They] have absolutely no figures concerning the percentage of children being sexually abused in our communities,” explained Shoshannah Frydman, head of Family Services at the Met Council.
Which is why, Dr. Hindie Klein from Ohel said, Kol Tzedek is such a step forward. “They have done a fabulous job at the D.A.’s office, encouraging victims to talk. They are extremely culturally competent and they keep records of the calls. This is going to help evaluate the extent of the problem in depth.”
Both the Met Council and Ohel Children’s Home organize regular meetings and workshops with Jewish Community Council’s directors and other community leaders in schools and synagogues, as well as with social workers throughout Brooklyn. “The aim of these meetings is to give information on what sexual abuse means for a victim, how to handle the trauma, how to identify a sexual offender in the community...,” explained Shoshannah Frydman.
While the Kol Tzedek hotline’s goal is to guide survivors mainly towards a secular legal process, the Met council, Ohel and the Jewish Board focus more on prevention, treatment, awareness, specific training of social workers within the community, outreach and financial support both for sexual abuse victims and for perpetrators. “There are a number of skilled clinicians who are providing treatment to the victims in our Borough Park counseling center,” explained Faye Wilbur, licensed social worker and coordinator of Kol Tzedek for the Jewish Board. “Our therapists are especially trained in working with trauma, and are members of the Orthodox community.” Apart from Kol Tzedek, the Jewish Board has, since 1995, been taking part in another program to fight the sexual molestation of children in Borough Park. Called “Be’ad HaYeled” (Hebrew for “On behalf of the child”), its goal is to “educate the community on the signs and symptoms of abuse and neglect,” explained Jo Gonsalves, director of communications for the Jewish Board.
Ohel Children’s Home and Family Services also tried to tackle the issue repeatedly. In the past years, this social agency produced several videos with survivors of child sexual abuse testifying on camera, and appealing to other victims to come forward and search for professional assistance.
Kol Tzedek is the program of which the purpose is specifically to encourage sexual abuse victims to press charges in non-Jewish courts. However, it is not the Brooklyn D.A.’s first attempt to address issues that touch specifically the Jewish Orthodox community, nor is it the first attempt to address specifically the issue of child molestation in that community. A domestic violence program, called Project Eden, and an additional project to fight drug addiction, were launched several years ago. But more importantly, in 1997, Ohel had already partnered with the D.A. to create the Offender Treatment Program. Its aim, as its name clearly suggests, was to treat child sexual abusers who were members of the Orthodox community. But the program is now defunct. According to an article published in 2000 in The Jewish Week, the program treated 16 sexual offenders. Eight had gone through the secular criminal justice system and had been assigned to treatment. The remaining eight were also in treatment, but their cases had been handled by local Bet Dins and had never reached New York criminal courts. After a few months, the program died and it took the Kings County D.A.’s office more than ten years to come up with a new system. “It is essential to have a program that is respectful of the nuances,” explained Faye Wilbur, the counselor and social worker in charge of Kol Tzedek operations for the Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services. “The program’s partners have staff that speak the language of the community, literally and figuratively.” The importance of this factor in building trust in secular justice was also stressed by Derek Saker, from Ohel Children’s Home and Family Services: “When you’ve been through such a horrendous experience, the last thing you want is to talk to people who do not understand where you come from,” he said.
The Kol Tzedek hotline welcomes callers Hebrew or English. The phone is answered by a full-time licensed social worker specialized in the needs and conventions of the Orthodox community. “Should a caller want to file a prosecution, they will then be taken care of by the team of 18 prosecutors in the Sex Crimes Unit with similar specializations,” said D.A.’s spokesman Schmetterer. “The final goal, of course, is to have them press charges, because it is the only way for us to fight child sexual abuse in the area. But we never push them, we let them go through the process at their own pace. It’s all about building trust.”
* * *
After only one year of existence, Kol Tzedek still has to prove its long run efficacy. Brooklyn D.A.’s spokesman Schmetterer made it clear that “for now, there are no plans to expand the program,” although he acknowledged that “obviously, with more resources, [they] would be able to do more.”
However, at the beginning of March of this year, the state granted the Met Council $500,000 for the purpose of intensifying its prevention program throughout the 25 Jewish Community Councils in New York City, nine of which are located in Brooklyn.
The funds were requested by Brooklyn’s Democratic assemblyman Dov Hikind, and are part of a bigger budget, also allocated in March 2010, and dedicated to abuse awareness and action in other communities. Hikind has made the fight against child molestation in the Jewish Community the signature issue of his term. In fact, it was partly in response to one of his weekly radio shows, in the summer of 2008, that Kol Tzedek was launched a year ago. On his radio program, Hikind several times prompted victims to report to competent secular authorities what had happened to them, and, according to him, he received dozens of private calls from survivors every week.
How the $500,000 will be spent to fight child sexual abuse has yet to be determined. According to the Met Council, most of it should go to prevention and educational programs in Borough Park, the neighborhood which carries the largest Jewish Orthodox community outside of Israel.
“We feel we are getting a lot of support from the local councils, the schools, the synagogues…” noted Shoshannah Frydman, from the Met Council. This observation is shared by most children’s advocates: things are starting to change among members of the Orthodox communities. “We are now facing what the Catholic church faced ten years ago,” said activist Rabbi Nuchem Rosenberg. “Awareness keeps growing day after day. It’s going to take some time, but we are getting there…,” he added. And for Ohel spokesman Derek Saker as well, the struggle has only just begun: “Curbing this issue is going to take a long, long process, and there still needs a lot to be done tremendously!” confirmed Derek Saker, at Ohel.
Still, “five years ago, if you Googled ‘pedophilia and orthodox Jews’, you would’ve only gotten results for anti-Semitic websites,” noted Victoria Polin, from the Awareness Center. “Now, you get respectable organizations, reliable reports, specialized advocacies, blogs maintained by members of the community itself.” And this transformation was also noticed recently by Yaakov Schonberg, the father of Baruch Lebovits’ young victim: “Two years ago, if I had walked into a synagogue after Lebovits’ “guilty” verdict, everybody would have been very hostile for attacking such a well-respected rabbi. But now, it’s the opposite: I’ve been considered as the winner, I’ve been welcomed as a hero!”