NEW YORK – When “guilty” was called out 59 times on Monday — once for each of the counts of sexual abuse on which Satmar Hasidic therapist Nechemya Weberman was convicted — it brought a sense of vindication to molestation survivors and their advocates, who had been filling the New York State Supreme Court room in Brooklyn during the two week-long trial.
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Weberman, 54, has been a prominent figure in Williamsburg’s insular Satmar community, where for many years he worked as an unlicensed therapist to girls whose parents felt forced to send them by the Vaad HaTznius (Modesty Committee). He faces a sentence of up to 117 years, according to a statement put out by Kings County District Attorney Charles Hynes.
“Today’s verdict is quite monumental. This is the first time that a person with such great authority in the Satmar system has been brought to court and convicted for these heinous crimes,” Joel Engelman, 27, told Haaretz. Engelman is a former member of Williamsburg’s Satmar community who was just 8 years old when, he says, he was sexually molested by a senior member of staff at his yeshiva.
But the reaction in Williamsburg, where Yiddish websites and social media were filled with accusations that the conviction was rooted in anti-Semitism, led others to worry that Weberman’s conviction won’t make much impact on the Satmar community’s attitude toward the sexual abuse of children.
“They’re circling the wagons. They will not accept the fact that he was convicted, and he’s guilty. The attitude is shocking,” said Ari Mandel, 29, who founded the group Zaakah [“Cry Out”], to bring attention to Haredi attitudes toward sexual abuse in their midst. Mandel is a former member of the Nikolsberg Hasidic sect, which is based in upstate Monsey and closely related to Satmar. “Their knee jerk reaction is to attack the victim and stick up for the abuser,” said Mandel.
The young woman at the heart of the case against Weberman was sexually molested by him from the age of 12 to 15, most of the time in his office, which was connected to his apartment. The woman, who is now 18 and married, is presently part of a different Orthodox community in another Brooklyn neighborhood.
Her parents, however, still live in Williamsburg. “What happens [to them] now remains to be seen,” Engelman said. They, like other parents, were told that their daughters would be expelled from school if they didn’t go to Weberman or another of the religious counselors whose stated goals were to put girls whose behavior was not in line with Satmar expectations back on the path to righteousness, said Engelman, who came into contact with Weberman when he worked as a driver and assistant to another of the so-called therapists, before leaving the community at age 18.
Hynes’ spokesman, Jerry Schmetterer, said in an interview that the main count of the conviction alone — “Course of Sexual Conduct Against a Child in the First Degree — carries a sentence of 5 to 25 years. Weberman will be sentenced on January 9.
Mandel and others recently protested outside the Williamsburg armory where at an event Satmar’s grand rabbi, Aaron Teitelbaum, described Weberman’s accuser as a “zona,” or “whore,” as did leaflets posted around the neighborhood during the trial.
That attitude has taken deep root in the insular neighborhood, where large families with eight or 10 children are the norm.
In an interview after the conviction Satmar grandmother Raizy Brody said that the young woman abused by Weberman “is a very, very bad girl. Everybody knows it. Such a prostitute like this girl made a chillul haShem [desecration of God’s name] on the community,” Brody said. “I feel bad for his wife and his children.”
“There will be a strong segment of the Satmar community who will maintain his innocence regardless of the evidence,” said Ben Hirsch, a spokesman for Survivors for Justice, an advocacy group for victims of sexual abuse, in an interview. “To them the real crime here is that a young woman stepped forward and exposed this and other terrible things going on in their community. There will be no dialogue with people who have that mindset.”
Using Facebook and other social media, Mandel and Hirsch among others shared information about the trial and encouraged people to attend in solidarity with Weberman’s victim. They filled the courtroom and spilled out into the halls.
One indication that this trial was a possible turning point in Haredi communal attitudes about sexual abuse is that it was the first time that a victim’s allies have outnumbered those present for the defendant, said those interviewed.
Weberman is not the only Haredi Jew recently convicted of sexually molesting children in Brooklyn, as Hynes appears to be stepping up prosecutions. Elite High School yeshiva principal Emanuel Yegutkin, 33, was convicted on December 3 on 75 counts of sexually abusing three young boys over the course of a decade.