Wednesday, December 07, 2011
Last spring in a New Jersey courtroom, a prosecutor and defense attorney battled it out in a series of seemingly routine pre-trial hearings. At issue was a narrow point of law: whether or not a social worker who had evaluated an alleged child molester would be allowed to testify at his trial.
Amid the legal wrangling, however, facts emerged that were anything but ordinary — ones perhaps amplified by the recent revelations about alleged sexual abuse scandals at Penn State and Syracuse universities.
The social worker's evaluation had not been conducted on behalf of the courts or police. Instead, it was commissioned by a Lakewood, N.J., beit din, a Jewish religious tribunal operating as a kind of shadow justice system, adjudicating sexual abuse cases without the involvement of law enforcement.
Witnesses spoke of a world in which abuse allegations are typically "investigated" not by the secular authorities, but by rabbis lacking supervision by the criminal justice system. It is a world where victims and perpetrators alike are subjected to threats of social ostracism and, in some cases, physical harm for non-compliance with the "system."
To anyone following the unfolding story of child sexual abuse in the haredi world, that these communities have a history of handling abuse allegations internally is hardly news. The longstanding and harshly enforced communal taboo against "informing" on another Jew to the secular authorities plays a key role in blocking victims from reporting abuse allegations to police and pressing charges.
In the past few years, aided by the Internet and blogs, a number of advocacy organizations founded by members, or former members, of these communities has emerged. Much of their work, centered mostly in Brooklyn, has focused on combating this taboo and providing support to abuse victims.
In addition, advocates have worked to shine a spotlight on many of the major social and political institutions in those communities, including yeshivas, social service agencies and even Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes. (Hynes' office launched a hotline to report haredi abuse cases in 2009, seemingly in response to criticism that his office has a history of "going easy" on haredi child molesters.)
The climate is different in Lakewood, acknowledged as the seat of non-chasidic haredi Judaism in the United States. Home to one of the largest and most prominent yeshivas in the world, Beth Medrash Govoha (BMG), and a community of close to 40,000 Orthodox Jews, Lakewood has not been spared the problem of child sexual abuse — an ill that plagues all communities, religious and secular alike.
However, there are no public advocacy groups in Lakewood helping victims and agitating for change. Further, unlike Brooklyn, which is home to myriad haredi groups with no centralized "governing" body, the Lakewood community, dominated by BMG — which boasts over 6,000 students and an annual operating budget approaching $25 million — is something of a company town, residents and observers say. Indeed, the brothers who run BMG, Rabbi Aryeh Malkiel Kotler and Rabbi Aaron Kotler, exert considerable control over daily life within the community, with the bylaws of the Lakewood Jewish Community Council stating that the "community is centered around [BMG] … and [the council] functions at the pleasure of [the yeshiva heads] as represented by R. Malkiel Kotler."
This control — bolstered by the geographically bounded and insular nature of the community — means that it can be even harder for Lakewood residents to overcome the communal taboo and report abuse to the authorities than it is for their counterparts in Brooklyn.
"Most victims of abuse and parents in Lakewood are afraid to speak up because [they fear being threatened by rabbis]," Debbie Rudin, a victim of childhood sexual abuse who now lives in Lakewood, told The Jewish Week.
"There are many Jewish communities that are controlled by the rabbonim [rabbis] of their towns that set certain standards, whether in regards to businesses, giving kosher supervision or allowing schools to open," said Harold (Hershel) Hershkowitz, a Lakewood businessman who ran (and lost) for the Lakewood Township Committee on an anti-cronyism platform against the BMG-backed candidate. "But all of these are controlled in an open manner well understood by all that live there," he said. "Lakewood, on the other hand, has a cabal that controls most Jewish publications, websites and of course the political arena, in order to exert full influence whenever it is necessary in order to keep their position of influence."
Rudin and Hershkowitz are two of numerous Lakewood residents, therapists, educators, social workers and community activists, as well as seven abuse victims interviewed by The Jewish Week in the course of a months-long investigation into the abuse situation there and how it is being handled. An interest in maintaining communal control, they say, is a major factor in the rabbinic and lay leadership's desire to deal with abuse in ways that do not involve law enforcement.
Indeed, the court testimony described above affords a rare public glimpse into what New Jersey Superior Court Judge Francis R. Hodgson characterized as Lakewood's "parallel justice system."
The testimony itself comes from the only sexual abuse case in memory from the Lakewood haredi community to be prosecuted — something that came about because a family flouted, at great personal cost, communal norms and pressed charges against an alleged child molester, Yosef Kolko, in 2009.
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