Crime and punishment

Hassidim praying 521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Hassidim praying 521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
O n Tuesday, January 22, Justice John G. Ingram of New York’s State Supreme Court sentenced convicted child molester Nechemya Weberman to 103 years behind bars for 59 counts of sexual abuse against a little girl sent to him by her school, the UTA Satmar, for religious counseling. In passing sentence, the judge praised the young victim for her “courage and bravery in coming forward.”
After speaking to her briefly on the phone last week and having a long talk with her older brother, who lives here in Jerusalem, I must say I believe she heartily deserves this compliment. I now have an even deeper appreciation of the unique spirit and deep conviction that allowed this young person (let’s call her “Esther” – a fitting name for a heroine who risked everything to save others) to keep strong and go forward. Vilified, her veracity questioned at every turn, her family harassed and many in her insular community shamelessly lining up behind the convicted sex offender, Esther never faltered. “Was it worth it?” I asked her.
“Definitely. [When Weberman was convicted] people started opening their eyes, looking at what’s going on around them.
We have to teach children that if someone is bothering them, if they’re uncomfortable, they shouldn’t just accept it. We have to make parents really listen to their kids.”
What did she learn most from this whole experience? “That even if people don’t believe you, you should never lose faith in yourself and allow yourself to be intimidated. God knew I was telling the truth. And I knew He was on my side, not on his [Weberman’s] side.”
Still, even now, after the conviction and the whopping sentence, the Satmar community continues to make life difficult for Esther and her family. Her new husband, who ran a restaurant, had his kashrut certificate canceled. “He’s looking for a job,” she says. Her father, who for many years supported his family from the ad revenue of Williamsburg businesses by publishing a local Jewish yellow pages, suddenly has a new competitor, The Jewish Phonebook. The Satmar Rebbe, Rabbi Zalman Teitelbaum himself, went to the offices of the new company to affix the mezuza. Many see this as a vengeful attempt to drive Esther’s father out of business. Her brother is especially upset by this. “My father follows everything in that world to the letter in the purest, most sincere way. Why should they target him?” Anti-Zionist Teitelbaum, who showed up in Israel right before the election, reportedly to discourage haredim from voting, is allegedly at the top of the pyramid of abuse against Esther and her family. He’s taken part in Weberman defense fund-raisers and, according to some interpretations, even publicly labeled her Esther a whore. Weberman was Teitelbaum’s late father’s chauffeur. WHAT THOSE who continue to target her and her family never understood – and probably never will – is that Esther isn’t in this for revenge, or even for justice – both of which she richly deserves. It was never about her at all: “I just couldn’t let this happen to anybody else,” she told me in her sweet, girlish voice. “If I didn’t stand up, and it happened to another girl, I would be responsible.”
And then she told me something else; something so startling that at first I couldn’t believe my ears; something that made everything so clear: “I wasn’t the only girl in my family he [Weberman] abused.”
I asked her brother if I’d heard right. “Yes,” he confirmed. An older sister had gone to Weberman and she, too, had been molested. I admit, I was aghast. “But why didn’t she tell your parents, stop them from sending your younger sister to him?” I asked. In answer, he told me the following: “When I was eight or nine years old, I got into some trouble on the school bus. The rebbe told me I’d ‘get it’ the next day. I was absolutely terrified. When I was called to the principal’s office, I ran first to the pay phone and called my mother, begging her to call the principal right away. When they dragged me in, the principal sneered: ‘Crybaby! Do you think your parents can help you?’ He took out a rubber hose and beat me so badly I had welts all over my body.
That’s when I realized that when you’re in their system, nobody can help you. There’s no point in even telling your parents what’s happening to you, because they are helpless to stop it.” According to him, the only way out of this insular system is to do what he did: educate yourself (he read books in Barnes & Noble), learn to question and not be dependent on the community for your livelihood. “Because then, they own you.”
He urges all young people in the community to do the same. “They are making the children in Satmar schools say tehilim [psalms] for Weberman.
What kind of God are they teaching those children to pray to? A God that protects pedophiles?” In imposing the near-maximum sentence, Judge Ingram said: “The message should go out to all victims of sexual abuse that your cries will be heard and justice will be done.”
Apparently, not everyone is listening.
Gary Schlesinger, who runs a charity under Rabbi Aaron Teitelbaum, told The Wall Street Journal: “The sentence will discourage future victims... nobody wants to have that on their conscience.” Right. Victims of sexual abuse are now going to be afraid their abusers might sit in jail too long...
Others say the community will now try even harder to stop victims from testifying. But I say: bring it on! As the Weberman case shows, short of actually murdering the victims, they’ve tried just about everything else. So I beg to differ. I think it will have exactly the desired effect – allowing the fear of secular authorities to fill the vacuum where the fear of God should be, but obviously isn’t.
Some even claim anti-Semitism, or antiSatmarism, is behind what they call an “excessive” sentence. Even Levi Aron, who murdered little Leiby Kletzky in July 2011, only got 40 years to life.
I’d like to point out that it was Weberman’s choice not to plead guilty and accept a plea bargain. Moreover, you can only murder someone once and they can only die once. What Weberman did to that little girl he did day after day, year after year. He was in a position of authority and she was a child in his care. Every time he violated that trust was another crime. That adds up.
No, 103 years sounds like a good number to me. As Esther’s brother pointed out: “If my sister lives to be 120, that’s about the same number of years she’ll have to live with what he’s done to her.”
After I spoke to Esther’s brother, I wandered into Hamashbir, Jerusalem’s department store. And there I saw a religious mother watching her 15-year-old daughter trying on clothes. The girl was slim and lovely, her blond hair pulled back modestly into a ponytail, her complexion makeup free, her eyes bright, laughing and innocent as she looked at herself in the mirror; the kind of girl Esther could have been if Weberman had never come into her life.
“I remember how I would look in the mirror,” Esther told the court. “I saw a girl who didn’t want to live in her own skin, a girl whose innocence was shattered at age 12. A sad girl who wanted to live a normal life, but instead was being victimized by a 50-year-old man who forced her to perform sickening acts again and again. I would cry until the tears ran dry... But now I can see someone who finally stood up and spoke out for myself and for other silent victims.” At age 18, Esther married a man who has supported her throughout her ordeal. In her wedding portrait she stands tall and model thin, her beautiful young face shining with happiness, her elegant wedding gown very hassidic in its neck-to-toe modesty. Beside her stands her short groom, his head topped by a traditional shtreimel. He too is beaming.
She’s my heroine. I wish her and her husband every happiness, and I hope that the Jewish community will embrace, support and comfort them and their families and all who have the courage to defend true righteousness, in every way possible.