Nechemya Weberman, a 54-year-old unlicensed counselor within the ultraorthodox Satmar Jewish community, was found guilty Monday of sustained sexual abuse of a child and endangering the welfare of a child, concluding a grinding two-week trial, that shed a rare light on a sect that’s remained deeply suspicious of outside authorities.
“We are very gratified by the jury’s verdict,” said head of the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Sex Crimes and Crimes Against Children Division, Rhonnie Jaus. “She was an extraordinary witness,” she said of the victim, who spent 15 hours on the stand recounting tales of being raped and forced to perform oral sex and reenact pornography behind a triple-locked door of Weberman’s office, which is adjacent to his home. The victim cried at times on the stand, and said she had wished she were dead.
Much of the Satmar community has stood behind Weberman, who was the driver for the late Grand Rebbe Moses Teitelbaum.
“A Jewish daughter has descended so low, terrible!,” said Rabbi Aaron Teitelbaum—one of Moses’s two sons who both claim to now lead the dynastic community—in a public address earlier this week. “Is our sister to be like a whore?’ When they go down, they go down to the ground.”
The now 18-year-old victim said that she had been abused from the ages of 12 to 15 by Weberman, who was being paid $150 an hour to counsel her because of her immodest and rebellious behavior, including reading secular magazines and not fully buttoning her sweaters. She reported the abuse about a year after it ended.
Weberman’s supporters have been outraged by the trial, and now the conviction, given the lack of physical evidence, which left the jury of six men and six women to consider two stories: that of the accuser and that of the accused.
Jaus said the jury “found her extremely believable. She testified with so much emotion. It was so heartfelt. They saw her struggle and they saw what she was up against coming forward.”
Her critics within the Satmar community charge both that she was lying, and that she should have taken her complaints to rabbinic authorities, rather than to the district attorney. The victim testified that she received both bribes and threats aimed at convincing her to reverse her decision to testify. She testified that her father lost his job and her nieces were thrown out of their school when she persisted with her complaint. During the trial, four observers were arrested for photographing her and distributing those images.
“If you want to leave the community, just leave. No problem,” said Weberman supporter Benny Polatseck. “Leaving the community and coming back to haunt the community is not proper.”
During his testimony, Weberman denied the charges, while admitting to taking charitable money he received and spending it on his children’s education and personal expenses, including money spent at a lingerie shop. He suggested that the victim was motivated by revenge after she discovered his role, along with her father (who was Weberman’s former business partner), in surreptitiously taping the victim and her then boyfriend in bed together, and then bringing that tape to the DA to have the 18-year-old boy charged with statutory rape.
Because Weberman is not a licensed therapist, he freely discussed what were supposed to have been his confidential sessions with the girl during his testimony, where he said that he had tried to “save her life.” The victim, he said, challenged his authority in their very first meeting:
“She looked at me and said: ‘Why should I talk to you? You look like a Hasidic fuck. You look like my father.’”
Two other young women Weberman has counseled testified in his defense, denying that he had ever sexually assaulted them while recounting sleeping at his house and spending long car rides and other time alone with him in contravention of Hilchos Yichud, a prohibition on seclusion between a man and a woman who is not his wife or an immediate family member.
Past the role of unlicensed youth counselors and the community’s strict sexual values, the case also brought into the public eye the Vaad Hatznius, or modesty committee, a secretive group of men who enforce the community’s mores and, its critics say, resort to beating, harassment, and even breaking into the houses of straying Jews.
One Weberman supporter who attended the trial, a man in his 20s who asked not to be named, said that he had been molested as a boy. He told his father about the abuse, who took him to see their rabbi. The rabbi brought in the man he accused, who admitted his wrongdoing in front of the boy and his father.
“The rabbi instructed my father to send me to counseling outside the community,” he said. “I think I’m a better person because that happened. I went to therapy and I learned about life. Not everyone that looks like we do is a good person.”
Most Satmar leaders prefer that sexual-abuse charges—as well as most other claims of wrongdoing—be addressed by rabbinical committees, called bet dins, rather than by the police and the courts.
But others argue that bet dins are ill-equipped to hear sex-abuse cases, and that the more victims stand up to their accusers, the better off the ultra-Orthodox community and its children will be.
“What a great set-up,” wrote Orthodox blogger Harry Maryles, who is not a Satmar. “Confused young girls that do not obey modesty rules get referred to him for counseling. He charges parents thousands of dollars for the privilege of sexually abusing their daughters. And deniability is built into the halo he wears daily. A halo built upon an image of being so pious about sexual matters that he removes his glasses in the street so that he will not inadvertently look at a woman. For them his pious act grants him almost immutable credibility over that of the victim. This victim he says brought him to court in order to smear Satmar. That’s exactly what his community believes.”
The DA’s office, which has been criticized in recent years for its reluctance to bring sexual-abuse charges against members of the politically potent and highly insular community—at one point saying it was harder to bring cases against its members than against the mob, since there’s no way to offer observant Jews new identities—hopes its high-stakes win Monday would encourage other victims to seek secular justice.
“We hope more people to come forward once they see we’ll provide them with protection,” said Jaus. “And that they see the success we were able to achieve with this case.”
Weberman, who was convicted on all of the 59 counts he was charged with, faces at least 25 years in prison. His sentencing is scheduled for Jan. 9.
George Farkas, one of his lawyers, told reporters that Weberman would appeal:
“We firmly believe that this jury got an unfairly sanitized version of the facts, and as a result the truth did not come out,” he said. “The struggle to clear an innocent man will continue in full force.”