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08.08.13

How One Sex Abuse Case Tore Apart the Williamsburg Hasidim

The story of how the repeated sexual abuse of one Hasidic girl by a prominent man shook up her community in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and tore apart their world. An excerpt from Allison Yarrow’s The Devil of Williamsburg.

Nestled within modern-day Williamsburg, Brooklyn, the hipster capital of the world, is an ultra-Orthodox community that claims to be the world’s largest sect of Hasidic Jews. In Satmar Williamsburg, there is no president, no Internet. Just God. Religious laws govern life. All of it. What you eat, what you wear, what you say, what you do. Many of these laws—strict laws—lord over relationships between women and men. So many laws that 12-year-old Rayna (the victim's name has been changed in this piece—her identity is sealed by the court as she was a minor when the abuses took place) could hardly keep track. She knew that socializing, dating, kissing, or even being alone in a room with a man who was not a family member were all forbidden. She knew that when women walk down the street, Orthodox men avert their eyes.

In a building not far from Williamsburg’s trendy clubs and local food stores, Rayna, her father, and a stranger are parsing her future on this day in 2007. Her father had brought her to Nechemya Weberman’s fifth-floor home office after school. Rayna had been seeing a boy, her first crush, and they were regularly texting and talking on the phone. The boy had approached Rayna. He made her feel giddy and shy at the same time. He was unlike the other boys she knew.

Rayna’s parents were distraught. Their daughter didn’t understand the gravity of what she was doing, they thought. Her mother, Emily, grew increasingly distressed as she listened in on her daughter’s calls with the boy. She and her husband feared this illicit relationship would threaten Rayna’s marriage prospects. After all, Rayna wasn’t like other girls. She was pretty and sweet. And she was a Satmar, a member of one of the world’s largest, most powerful groups of Hasidic Jews.

In Williamsburg, Nechemya Weberman was a revered leader and a counselor to wayward youth. Rayna’s parents respected him, and had entrusted him with advising Rayna’s older siblings before they left the nest.

Rayna’s strict yeshiva school had learned of her illicit behavior, and they too promoted Weberman as a therapist. The yeshiva would later threaten to end her education if she refused appointments with Weberman. Her parents were desperate. Their daughter’s future in the Satmar community was at stake.

That afternoon, Weberman sat in front of father and daughter at his table with his back to the windows. The men spoke to each other in Yiddish, the tongue Satmar Hasidim use in work, worship, and family life. When the men finished discussing business, all were quiet for a long time. Weberman sensed that the girl was upset, that she didn’t want to talk to him, but having counseled many before her, he believed he could get her to talk to him, to open up.

Rayna was upset. She and the boy were young and maybe even in love. They were doing nothing wrong, but no one understood. She sat silently and stared straight ahead. Her eyes landed on a computer, an uncommon sight in a Satmar home, because religious leaders forbid them.

The “outcome of abuse is in a way far worse than murder,” Rayna later wrote. “With murder, the person is dead and it is final. By abuse the victim experiences death over and over, again and again.”

Weberman asked her father to leave. An attempt at further defiance, Rayna didn’t even watch as he stood and walked out the door. Weberman told Rayna that her father would wait for her downstairs in the car, but that was not true. He tried to coax the distraught girl out of silence, inquiring about her school and family life, but her replies were clipped. She was furious—at her father for bringing her here, at this man who knew nothing of her struggles or her life. Rage boiled inside her thin frame. Sitting face to face with a Satmar man schooling her in atavistic Satmar rules was the last place she wanted to be.

“Why should I talk to you? You look like a Hasidic fuck. You look like my father,” Rayna said.

“I’m not like your father,” Weberman said. “You can choose whether you talk to me or not.”

They sat silently, for longer now. Rayna eyed the older man, with his salt-and-pepper beard and peyos dangling in front of his ears. They all looked the same to her, the gods and kings and kingmakers of Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Her whole life and being were dominated by these men—men who thought they were the holiest on earth. They wore the same hair, hats, and coats. Some spent all day praying in Satmar synagogues, or studying texts in Satmar yeshivas. Others were shopkeepers, bus drivers, or landlords. A regal few were spiritual counselors, like Weberman, bringing wayward kids and teens back from the brink of ruined lives.

“Why do you want to talk to a guy?” Weberman asked her, inching closer.

“I don’t know,” she said, but that was a lie. She had seen romantic love in the banned movies and magazines she devoured in secret. She dreamed of what she saw, handholding and kissing, the kind of love that might lift her out of the suffocating box she lived in.

She spent four hours at Weberman’s that night. He told her she was a beautiful girl, special and smart, and that he had watched her grow up. He said he would continue to watch and help if she would let him. Weberman said she would become even more beautiful, and strong, and one day she would be queen of a Satmar home all her own, loved like the great women of the Bible—Esther and Miriam and Rachel. This fantasy appealed to her, and as she listened, she softened.

He asked her questions, one after another, more than she could remember ever being asked before. How is your school? Do you have friends? Is your home a happy place? It seemed he cared for her, the way he asked the questions, his voice lilting up and his dark eyes on hers as he waited for her answers. So when he began to touch her, she thought he was trying to help her.

She yielded to his hands on her body, over her clothes first, then beneath them. He touched her breasts and her stomach, her neck and face, continuing to talk to her about the boy she was seeing, asking his name, what he was like, why she was drawn to him. Reminding her that young Satmar boys were dangerous, that they could jeopardize her path to becoming a prosperous Satmar wife and mother. Rayna knew this touching was out of her control, but what she didn’t know was how very wrong it was. She was not even a teenager. This man made her nervous, this friend of her father and counselor to her siblings, but he also validated her belief in romantic love, and listened to her as if he cared a great deal about her life.

After the appointment was over, it was dark outside.

“You’ll come see me again,” Weberman said. “We share a destiny.” He watched the beauty mark on her cheek as she nodded.

Rayna walked the 25 minutes home alone. The streets were bustling with Satmar night owls, who stroll Lee Avenue until the early morning hours. She would make this walk hundreds of times over the next three years, often not returning home until after midnight or one in the morning. Not only did her parents not seem to mind, they barely noticed. They had already raised her older siblings and married them off. Rayna often felt left behind and small in her large family. Here was a prominent man in the community who predicted a special destiny for her.

devil-in-williamsburg-yarrow-cover
'The Devil of Williamsburg' by Allison Yarrow. 47 pp. Amazon Kindle Single. $2. ()

Nearly four years later, when Chani Segall heard of these late-night visits, and of Rayna walking home alone after them, she was shocked. “As a mother, where the heck were you and how did you let this happen?” asked the administrator at a religious girls school in Midwood, Brooklyn, where Rayna would later find a new family.

Rayna’s mother, Emily, claims she had no idea what her daughter had endured over those years.

“She never told me face to face until this got out. She never told me, she never told us. I couldn’t stop crying. I had vases of tears filled,” she said.

What began with the community elder hugging, touching, and kissing the girl he was hired to counsel grew bolder with progressive sessions until he was raping her regularly.

Rayna’s face reddens and she fills with tears recalling the specifics: Weberman forcing her to perform oral sex on him. Surprising her at her house and raping her in her own bed. Burning her with candle wax and matches, which left gruesome scars. Making her copy acts in the pornographic films he showed her behind a triple-locked door.

The “outcome of abuse is in a way far worse than murder,”  Rayna later wrote. “With murder, the person is dead and it is final. By abuse the victim experiences death over and over, again and again.”

• • •

In December 2012, more than five years after the abuse of Rayna began, 54-year-old Nechemya Weberman was found guilty of 59 counts of sexual assault of a minor after an exhausting two-week trial. Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes, who had long been criticized for reluctance to prosecute ultra-Orthodox sex abuse cases, now nabbed a victory with Weberman’s conviction within a year of Hynes’s reelection bid. The powerful Weberman’s 103-year sentence was a record for a Hasidic man convicted in a Brooklyn courtroom.

While past complaints of sex abuse in the ultra-Orthodox community centered on old men and young boys, this time the victim was a young, beautiful, and charismatic girl. Still, Rayna’s family was defamed and intimidated in their own community because she went public. The life of the man she married, Hershey, was threatened, and his business was destroyed. The intimidation, a legal fees fundraiser for Weberman, and the trial itself made national headlines. In past trials of Orthodox sex cases, court benches brimmed with the accused’s supporters, never the victim’s, but Rayna drew more supporters than victims before her. A community that once denied that sexual abuse festered within its ranks now had factions acknowledging it, combating it, and beginning to heal. Rayna changed everything.

An excerpt from Allison Yarrow’s Amazon Kindle Single The Devil of Williamsburg.