Wednesday, December 03, 2014

Hasidic Enclave Keeps Its Secrets Amid Elusive Rebbe's Tight Control 

To his hasidim, Rabbi David Twersky is nearly akin to God.

But that does not mean he exempts himself from the obligations God imposes on all Jews, at least as traditionalists understand them.

Like his followers, Twersky prays to God three times a day. But unlike other Hasidic grand rabbis, Twersky does not pray in the main synagogue with his hasidim. He worships, alone, in an adjoining room. When he has completed his silent readings of the daily prayers known as the Shmoneh Esrei, he knocks on the wall to signal the waiting congregants outside. Only then can the communal service move forward.

Similarly, Twersky's home in New Square, New York, the exclusively Hasidic upstate enclave where he presides over his sect, has its own mikveh, or ritual bath, built exclusively for him and his sons. His followers use the communal bath.

And when Twersky feels a need to get away from the community he leads — where more than half his followers live below the poverty line — he can summon his black Cadillac XTS and instruct his chauffeur to drive to his multimillion-dollar lakeside vacation home in Nyack, New York, which also sports a private mikveh.

For outsiders, such royalty-like privilege may inspire disapproval. But for his followers, the separateness that Twersky cultivates only increases the holiness with which he is regarded. To them, he is a revered tzadik, a higher spiritual being endowed with saintly wisdom.

That aura of grandeur filled the parents of 14-year-old Laiby Stern with both high hopes and deep trepidation when they set off for an audience with Twersky in 2006. They were coming to tell their holy leader something horrifying that required his immediate intervention: Recently, after a long period of being clearly troubled, their son had related to them that their neighbor, Moshe Menachem Taubenfeld, a 55-year-old father of 20, and a highly respected teacher of Torah and Talmud to adult men in the community, had been sexually molesting him for five years.

As Laiby, now 21, explained to me during a recent interview, "He [Taubenfeld] took me into a room, made me pull down my pants, and started touching me in inappropriate places. I couldn't make sense of what was happening. I was 8 years old. He said, 'Don't tell anybody; it's between you and me.'"

But when Laiby's parents finally were able to haltingly explain why they had come, Twersky exclaimed in Yiddish, "Ich veis nisht, in ich gleib nisht!" ("I don't know it, and I don't believe it!")

"He looked genuinely shocked [at the accusation]," recounted Avrumi Stern, Laiby's older brother, who accompanied the parents. The family left the rebbe's office as they had entered: sad, scared, and with no idea what to do next.

Over the next few months, the family secretly sent Laiby to therapy — secretly, because therapy comes with a stigma attached to it in ultra-Orthodox communities. But the financial cost was too much for the family to bear. Again Laiby's mother approached the rebbe, pleading for help to pay Laiby's therapy bills.

"He refused to pay and made her shut up about the whole thing," Laiby's brother said.

This was not the first time that Twersky has been alleged to have directly quashed the effort of an alleged sexual abuse victim to find help and support to get out of his situation.

New Square resident Deb Tambor was 20 when she sought her rebbe's help in 2000. According to her account, she told him she had been sexually abused by a close relative since childhood. Tambor, who subsequently left the New Square community and tragically took her own life last year at the age of 33, recounted the meeting with her rebbe in a personal diary entry she kept a year before she died.

"[D]on't ever tell anyone you spoke to me about it!!!" Twersky told her, according to Tambor's August 5, 2012 diary entry, transcribed just as she scrawled it and published here for the first time. In the entry, she refers to him not by name but as "the grand egoist of Skver."

Expressing her undimmed rage in the entry, Tambor continued, "u two faced idiot!! U believe in hell??? If there is one it's a place u will burn for eternity." [sic]

Abe Weiss, a former Skver Hasid who became Tambor's live-in boyfriend after she left the community, described his own experience when, at age 18, he tried to tell Twersky about an incident six years earlier in which his teacher at a Skver school in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn pulled his pants down and raped him in the school's boiler room.


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