A young woman who claims she was sexually abused by a prominent member of New York’s Hasidic Jewish community three decades ago is going after his greatest legacy: a massive brass menorah in the heart of Brooklyn.
The plaintiff, a 36-year-old woman now living in Israel, claims celebrated silversmith Hirschel Pekkar sexually assaulted her more than a dozen times in the 1990s, starting when she was 5 years old. Pekkar died this July, but his menorah—which the lawsuit describes as “one of the most important pieces of Jewish artwork of the 20th century”—lives on, displayed every winter outside the world headquarters of the Chabad-Lubavitch Jewish movement.
The plaintiff hopes to get possession of the 6-foot-tall menorah, her lawyer told The Daily Beast, and melt it to the ground.
“Our client has been revictimized every year, watching it light up globally knowing what happened to her,” attorney Susan Crumiller said. “The menorah has become a real symbol to our client, and to us, of justice in this case.”
Asked about the allegations in the lawsuit, Pekkar’s son, Moshe Pekkar, who is also a silversmith, said he had not seen the court papers but was “not aware of anything like that.” He did not respond to further requests for comment. A spokesman for the Chabad Lubavitch said his “heart goes out to this woman,” but that the movement was not party to the suit and thus would not be commenting further.
The Chabad-Lubatvich movement is one of the largest and best-known Hasidic Jewish communities in the world. Founded in Russia in 1775, its world headquarters moved to Brooklyn during World War II; today, the community in Crown Heights alone is said to number between 10,000 and 16,000. One of its most prominent outreach strategies is the lighting of some 15,000 public menorahs around the world to raise awareness for Hanukkah.
In 1982, followers of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson—the most recent leader of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, also called the rebbe—commissioned Pekkar to create a giant menorah in the image of what the rebbe believed a traditional menorah would have looked like. The resulting piece was displayed outside the Chabad-Lubavitch world headquarters, and quickly became a prized symbol for the community worldwide. (A “Jewish Hasidic Chabad Lubavitch Rebbe 770 Menorah Sweatshirt” is currently available on Amazon.)
The plaintiff claims she met Pekkar a decade after he created the famous menorah, when her father began working with him at the jewelry-making studio adjacent to his Crown Heights apartment. The plaintiff and her family were not members of the local Chabad synagogue, she said, but visited often to meet with the rebbe, who they considered a spiritual leader. She grew up visiting the menorah every Hanukkah, she said, and idolizing the man who made it.
The abuse she allegedly suffered, she said, was like “Santa Claus doing something bad.”
“Everything with Santa is so cute,” she said. “Everything with [Pekkar] is so holy.”
One day in 1991, while visiting her father at the jewelry studio, the plaintiff asked to use the restroom. Because there was no bathroom in the studio, the suit claims, Pekkar volunteered to bring the plaintiff to the bathroom in his apartment. He led her to the bathroom, the suit claims, but stopped outside, sat down on a stool, and began to touch the plaintiff’s vagina under her clothes.
Because the 5-year-old was “completely unaware what was happening or how she should respond,” the suit claims, and because she “trusted Pekkar as a friend of the family, and a notable figure in her community,” she stood frozen and silent while he abused her. Afterward, he allegedly engaged her in friendly conversation to make her feel comfortable with what had happened, but also warned her never to tell anyone. It was the first of at least a dozen such instances, the suit claims.
The plaintiff claims that when her parents learned of the abuse, they brought her allegations to the local rabbinical court, located right next to the Chabad-Lubavitch headquarters. What the plaintiff says is the tribunal’s August 1993 decision, which was reviewed by The Daily Beast, states that Pekkar “admitted that he has committed an offense,” but sentences him only to “treatment” and the observation of a specialist. (The decision was reached by three rabbis, one of whom is dead; the other two could not be reached for comment.)
A month later, the lawsuit claims, Pekkar sent a letter to the plaintiff’s father threatening to tarnish his name if he ever raised the allegations again. Fearing retribution from Pekkar and worried that her reputation would be tarnished, the plaintiff said, her parents buried what had happened to her for years.
The plaintiff moved to Israel at age 8 to live with family, but continued to suffer from “pervasive and fragmented memories and dreams about Pekkar,” according to the suit. At home in New York on summer breaks, she tried cold-calling people named Pekkar out of the phone book, pretending to be a police officer. Finally, at age 18, the suit says, she discovered a copy of the tribunal's verdict in her father’s files, confronted him about it, and demanded to confront Pekkar.
According to the suit, Pekkar did not deny the abuse when the plaintiff approached him about it, but claimed she had “wanted” it. It claims he even gave her a tour of his house, pointing out the areas where he abused her. More than a decade later, when she was 30, the plaintiff tried again to confront Pekkar. This time, the suit claims, he threatened to take legal action against her.
“I just let it go,” the plaintiff said. “Talking to him was always really hard, so I just tried to forget about it and go on with my life, understanding that no one is going to listen anyway.”
Then, last year, she heard about the Child Victims Act—a 2019 New York law that allows victims of child sexual abuse a chance to file their claims that would otherwise be outside the stuate of limitations. It had been years since they last spoke, but, “when I heard I could sue [Pekkar], I actually called his house,” the plaintiff said. “I asked for him and they said one second and I hung up. I just needed to know he was alive.”
It took time to find a lawyer who would take her case, and more to compile a complaint from a more than 30-year-old incident. The plaintiff was finally prepared to file the lawsuit this summer when she got the news she had been dreading most of her life: Pekkar was dead.
“When he died it was just an absolute shock, to her especially,” Crumiller recalled. “Now [was] like, ‘We have to figure out how to sue a dead person.’”
Doing so required a novel legal strategy, which involved requesting a lien on the menorah and demanding an administrator be put in charge of Pekkar’s estate. The ownership of the menorah itself is still unclear, as is who will be appointed to take over the Pekkar estate. But Crumiller said she is hopeful it will result in her client seeing justice, after 30 years of being denied it.
The plaintiff knows the lawsuit will likely be unpopular in the Chabad community. (“[It’s] kind of telling a person that that piece of art you’ve been looking at for 40 years might just not be as holy as you think it is,” she said.) But she said she doesn’t resent the Chabad movement; in fact, she’s grown closer to it in recent years, drawn to the beauty and spirituality of its fundamental texts.
She also still feels love for Schneerson, who died in 1994. In a strange way, she said, she is doing this to help him.
“For a whole decade he was lighting [the menorah] and loving it, and he was loving something that wasn’t holy,” she said. “He touched a lie. And if he knew, maybe he wouldn't touch it.”
But she is also, she said, doing this to help other people who endured abuse and are too afraid to speak up about it.
“No one talks about it, so you think it’s a big secret you have to not talk about and keep to yourself,” she said. “You don't even think about other people being hurt, but maybe they did.”
She added: “I think once you're strong enough and able to take care of other people, you should.”