article

12.08.12

At Orthodox Sex-Abuse Trial, Little-Known Enforcement Group Comes to Light

The ultra-Orthodox “modesty committee” has allegedly used intimidation, threats, and even “arrests” to uphold strict community standards—but some won’t even admit it exists. Allison Yarrow reports.

Wearing masks, the men broke into her bedroom after dark to confiscate the evidence. They are not the law or the mafia, and she is neither a criminal nor a rat. Baila Gluck was just a 15-year-old girl, and it was just a cell phone, but to the Vaad Hatznius—the self-appointed arbiters of right and wrong in the Satmar Orthodox Jewish community—Baila might as well have been holding a time bomb.

The Satmars, who live in two extremely insular enclaves in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and in upstate New York, know and fear Vaad Hatznius, which means “modesty committee,” but most people have never heard of the group and its practices, which can include intimidation, threats and even “arrests”—for example, of a girl who attends a party with boys, or a religious man who shaves his beard. While its members have no official permission from the state to engage in law enforcement, Jews who live under the Vaad’s law say beatings, harassment and stolen property are all too common.

“Many within in the community call it the Taliban as a joke,” said Deborah Feldman, who grew up in Satmar Williamsburg and is the author of Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of my Hasidic Roots.

“They answer to no one. They can get away with whatever they want,” Feldman said.

But this week the Vaad is answering to the New York court system, at least indirectly, through the trial of Nechemya Weberman, 54, a counselor charged with 60 counts of child molestation for sexually abusing a 12-year-old girl who was under his care for nearly three years. Weberman took the stand this week and vehemently denied the allegations, saying he “never, ever” raped or assaulted the girl. The accuser, now 18, previously testified that, among other things, Weberman locked her in a room and made her re-enact pornographic movies.

While the sexual elements of the case have garnered the most media attention, the largely shrouded behavior of the Vaad has provided a compelling undercurrent to the proceedings.

Some members of the community won’t even acknowledge its existence. On Tuesday, Weberman’s cousin, who is the principal of the Satmar school the accuser attended, testified that the Vaad did not exist. At that assertion, many of the accuser’s supporters laughed aloud in their seats.

Meanwhile, the accuser testified that her community considered Weberman “a god” while school officials told her she was “a piece of dirt.” She said she endured the abuse silently for so long out of fear of Weberman’s connections to the Vaad.

On Wednesday prosecutors pressed Weberman on those connections, but he denied any affiliation with the group. (Earlier in Weberman’s trial, four men were accused of taking pictures of the accuser as she testified, and are facing possible contempt charges. It is not clear whether any of those men are associated with the Vaad.)

Proponents of the Vaad argue that such a unique religious community is constantly under assault by the modern world, and that safeguarding the Satmar way of life—which centers on prayer, simplicity and family—can only be achieved by self-policing. Feldman said it actually started out as “something very innocent.”

‘They answer to no one. They can get away with whatever they want.’

“It was a committee to preserve the integrity of the community. They would hire righteous people to get together and talk about how to make things better,” she said.

Scholars point out that the Vaad emerged to prevent any infractions of yichud, the Orthodox rule forbidding a man and a woman who are not related from being alone together, as well as to keep young women dressing modestly—covered arms, legs and collarbones, plus covered hair for married women—and away from music, movies and books that don’t meet Satmar standards.

But others say the Vaad never had a place or a purpose at all.

“The Torah doesn’t say, ‘Make a modesty squad.’ They made it themselves,” said Judy Genut, a victims’ advocate and resident of the community who says she grew up with the accused woman.

Feldman said she feared punishment from the group when she attended Sarah Lawrence College and drove on its campus—two actions Satmar women are prohibited from taking. Although her car had tinted windows, she said she was convinced a dark car with the Vaad logo was following her.

“They are now comprised of people with a lot of financial power and spiritual currency,” Feldman said, characterizing the committee as an outlet for the angry, the violent and the “easily manipulated.”

But the power and influence of the Vaad may stop at the doors of the Brooklyn courtroom where Weberman sits before a jury, facing up to 25 years in prison.