September 12, 2009
Culture clash: Secular law and the Torah: Orthodox community deals with sex abuse
By ZACH PATBERG
At some point, amid battling a drug addiction and childhood memories of molestation, Shua Finkelstein wrote a letter.
Discovered on his computer after he died Feb. 28 from an overdose of pain killers, the letter admonished his Orthodox Jewish community for not doing enough to remedy alleged sex crimes.
"It is your duty as a Jew, as a human to find these people in our community and no longer let them live among us!!!" it read. On April 14, a few weeks after the letter became public online, the Finkelsteins' house was gutted by a fire while they were out of town for Passover. A police report cited arson as the likely cause. Authorities say they are still investigating.
Not until about a year ago did Shua, then 19, finally confide in his mother that, starting at age 6 and lasting for several years, he was sexually abused by an older male. When asked why she didn't go to the police, Rivkah Finkelstein said it didn't occur to her. As part of an outsider-wary religious community, she had been given every indication that such sensitive matters didn't belong in the secular world. Instead, she went to her rabbi, and eventually the alleged offender was put into therapy.
A similar approach has been used to deal with sex abuse complaints against private child care centers in the community. This year alone, rabbinical tribunals, or Batei Din, have closed at least one such play group at a home and allowed another to stay open when not enough evidence surfaced to close it. Neither was reported to authorities.
"There's no one monitoring them," said Finkelstein, whose two daughters attended a play group a decade ago that was closed down by one of the community's Batei Din, which more routinely handle civil disputes. "What's to say they don't move to another town and do the same thing?"
Critics say a problem with sex abuse reporting has pervaded this growing Orthodox hub for years. Lakewood rabbis downplay that contention but acknowledge more can be done in opening up dialogue with secular authorities.
Perpetrator recidivism and a lack of closure for victims' families are primary reasons why families, therapists and child advocates have come out against the handling of such cases through a tribunal system, long practiced in Orthodox communities. It is a system that parallels the legal process but lacks the investigative and judicial powers to issue sentences, weed out false accusations and monitor offenders. Some people say it is meant to discourage victims from going to the police. Others simply see it as a stale practice that needs reform.
In 2006, Yocheved Mauda reported to the police that her 15-year-old daughter was raped by a 35-year-old man just over the border in Howell. When her rabbis in Lakewood learned the authorities had been alerted, they were furious, she said, telling her she should have brought her complaint before a Bais Din. Now it was too late. Monmouth County prosecutors charged the offender, Levi Danziger, with kidnapping and aggravated sexual assault.
Two years later, Danziger, who lives in Monroe, was convicted of endangering the welfare of a child in a plea deal to lesser charges. He was sentenced to three years probation.
"If you go to police, they (her rabbis) make a protest against me, nobody talks to me, nobody helps me, nothing," said Mauda, an Orthodox Yemenite Jew, who had moved to Lakewood from Monroe and now lives in Monsey, N.Y.
The town's rabbinical leaders strongly deny their residents are discouraged from reporting suspicions to law enforcement as a way to avoid outside stigma. If anything, they say, there is an increased hypersensitivity toward ridding the community of offenders swiftly and openly. But because of an inherent distrust in the secular legal system, a fear of a destroyed reputation or an uncertainty of the evidence, another option is needed. Their system offers those people who are reluctant to go to authorities another channel through which to bring allegations that otherwise would never be heard, according to Rabbi Moshe Zev Weisberg, a member of Lakewood's Vaad, the council of Jewish leaders.
The Batei Din were created in Lakewood years ago as an alternative, not a substitute, to the secular courts, Weisberg acknowledged.
"The moral weight of a Bais Din can have a tremendous effect as an incentive for perpetrators to stop their activity for fear of community sanctions," he said.
Yet even many Orthodox leaders concede the internalized process can potentially enter a gray area when taking on criminal matters such as sex abuse.
Critics were less diplomatic.
"We believe there's an epidemic of sexual abuse in the Lakewood Ultra-Orthodox community," said Loni Soury, spokesman for Survivors for Justice, a support group that has dealt with hundreds of victims from the New York and New Jersey Orthodox communities. "In our experience working with victims, we have found that many are, at least initially, very reluctant to report these crimes to law enforcement. This is the case often because rabbis expressly forbid them from reporting these crimes to law enforcement."
The issue also raises legal questions, because state law requires anyone with "reasonable" suspicions to report acts of child abuse to the police or the state Division of Youth and Family Services.
"We understand and appreciate that often times people feel most comfortable confiding in their spiritual leaders who can, in turn, help guide individuals on how to report child abuse or neglect and obtain help," DYFS spokeswoman Lauren Kidd said in an e-mail. "However, the law is clear . . ."
Yet another state law, called the Cleric-Penitent Privilege, requires clerics such as rabbis to keep privileged any communication made in confidence unless both he and his confider agree to release it or the information pertains to a future criminal act.
While some people have compared the controversy to the priest molestation scandals and cover-ups that have plagued the Catholic Church in recent years, others say the dilemma is more rooted in the rabbis' adherence to religious doctrine and an over-protection of their communities against public glare and false accusations.
They point, for instance, to a speech by Matisyahu Salomon, an internationally respected rabbi and teacher at Lakewood's Beth Medrash Govoha yeshiva. The speech addressed the handling of sensitive matters such as sex crimes in the context of criticizing anonymous bloggers.
"Yes, I would say we do sweep under the carpet sometimes," Salomon said at a 2006 convention for Agudath Israel of America, a national organization of Jewish leaders. "You know what we sweep under the carpet? Not what we don't do; what we do. Do these people know how many times perpetrators have been dealt with? Do these people know to what extent one had to have the courage to stand up against public opinion in order to make sure to protect our children? The only thing is, that was swept under the carpet, because we protect human dignity . . . And sometimes if the thing is not proven 100 percent, yes, we are guided by the Torah . . . . we don't jump to conclusions but we are consequent."
In an e-mail, Salomon's secretary, Rabbi Mordechai Levi, said: "Indeed, his (Salomon's) position today is the same as it was then; that perpetrators and predators must be punished, albeit not in the limelight."
A New York parallel
Still, the issue of sex abuse in Orthodox communities has gained attention in recent years, primarily in Brooklyn. One of the first media reports to shine a harsh light on the topic was a 2006 story by New York Magazine headlined "Do the Orthodox Jews have a Catholic-priest problem?"
In May, The Jewish Week, a weekly Jewish newspaper in New York, published an article alleging that convicted child molester Stefan Colmer, 32, was ushered under the courts' radar into an offender treatment program where he was allowed to leave voluntarily before completing treatment. Afterward, in 2007, he was arrested and charged with sodomizing two teenage boys, according to Brooklyn prosecutors. He then fled to Israel where he was extradited to Brooklyn and sentenced June 30 to between 2 1/2 and 4 years in prison.
Brooklyn law enforcement and politicians have, in recent months, stepped up efforts to bridge the Orthodox-secular gap in sex abuse reporting. New York state Assemblyman Dov Hikind, who represents parts of Borough Park and Flatbush where some 150,000 or more observant Jews — many of them Orthodox — reside, plans to allot more than $1 million to improve such communication.
"It's been a tough road these eight, nine months; very depressing on many occasions listening to so much pain from so many victims," Hikind said. "But, you know, if you look at the past, it's a very shocking past, but I prefer to concentrate on the future, where hopefully we're going to make a difference."
He said more rabbis are now advising victims to go the police as well.
District Attorney Charles J. Hynes also is making changes, namely in the creation of Project Kol Tzedek, an anonymous hotline staffed by social workers, many of whom are observant Jews. The hotline is tailored to be sensitive to the religious and cultural differences that have so far boxed-out the potential for secular investigations.
"This came from the DA's concern that some of these crimes were not being properly reported," said Jerry Schmetterer, a DA spokesman.
Since its inception about three months ago, the hotline had turned some tips into active investigations, he said.
"Because of the insular nature of Orthodox Jewish communities, many victims are reluctant to report crimes to secular authorities," Hynes said in a news release. "This program will go a long way to address those impediments."
Yet in Lakewood — host to the largest yeshiva and one of the fastest-growing Orthodox populations in the country — there has been virtually no public discussion and little secular awareness of the community's sometimes unique handling of sex abuse cases. Many people involved say it is as much or more of a problem here.
Brooklyn's legal and political counterparts in Lakewood have said they see no real difference between the Orthodox community and other segments of the population regarding sex abuse reporting. However, more recently, Ocean County prosecutors and Orthodox leaders said a dialogue has begun to "bridge the gap."
"If it's dealing with children, and it's not reported, it's a criminal offense," said Robert Singer, a state senator and Lakewood's mayor. "That's a tough thing to hide."
In an interview in early June, Ron DeLigny, Ocean County's first assistant prosecutor, said he has no concrete evidence that the problems in Brooklyn exist in Lakewood.
"If someone wants to reach out to law enforcement, certainly you would think the ability is there," he said. "Now, could there be things in their culture preventing that? Possibly, but as far as making the actual contact and reaching out, you'd think that'd be able to be done."
Asher Lipner, a therapist in Brooklyn's Orthodox community for more than eight years who has treated sex offenders referred by Lakewood Batei Din, said he could not recall one instance when a rabbi referred a case to the authorities.
Another psychologist who has treated several sex abuse victims from Lakewood said he knows of people still living in Lakewood with unreported histories as sex abusers.
"They don't stop," said Michael Salomon, the psychologist. "If someone has abused once, the odds are he will continue to abuse."
Salomon is seeing a patient now who was molested by the same alleged offender of a previous patient of his. As a teenager, the previous patient had confided to someone in the community about the abuse and was told it would be handled quietly, Salomon said. Now a parent in his early 30s, the patient remains unaware of any action taken and, at this point, is not willing to go to the police.
"The same issues apply there (Lakewood) as everywhere else," Salomon said. "They are hesitant to report it, they are discouraged to report it, and when they do tell someone it's not believed."
Beyond religious courts
Though not as common, direct attempts outside tribunal channels to quiet people who want to raise awareness about a case — either through police reports, fliers or the media — have occurred, witnesses say. Yet whether they originated from an organized effort or self-interested individuals is unclear.
Fewer than five years ago, the family of a woman who went to the police to report an instance of sexual abuse soon began receiving anonymous threats from people who promised, among other things, financial ruin if the complaint was not retracted, according to a family member.
Days later, the family agreed, at the behest of their rabbi, to drop all charges and no longer cooperate with any investigation unless first approved by two rabbis.
"We were just true believers in our rabbi, and we felt we had to listen to our rabbi, and the rabbi told us you must make this agreement," said the relative, who did not want to be identified for fear of retribution. "So we agreed to this agreement, and we called the police."
But the threats persisted. They included one suggestion that their house would burn down and another promising to run them out of town if these allegations persisted.
Eventually, the family moved out of the state.
"It tremendously altered our lives," the relative said. "We almost stopped being religious because of it. That's what happens to many people. But, on purpose, I don't want that to happen to us because that will invalidate it. And so I'm determined to stay religious and fight this in every other way I can."
Dr. Carmen Otalara-Levin, a chiropractor in Lakewood, also admitted she has received numerous threats because of her attempts to help this family, as well as the Finkelsteins. One threat, she said, warned her that if "I didn't watch out, I'd get burned out of my office or house."
More recently, after Otalara-Levin put a sign in her office offering a reward for information about the Finkelstein fire, she said she was approached while getting in her car, pushed against the door and told her face would be "rearranged" if she didn't stop putting her "nose where it doesn't belong."
"One of the rabbis who was worried about me told me it's a dangerous game that I play because I'm making myself noticed, and apparently it's not a good thing for a woman to do so," Otalara-Levin said. "But my grandmother said, if you don't do anything in the face of evil it's as if you participated in it."
Suppressing such sexual abuse experiences for whatever the reason can often exacerbate any lingering trauma, advocates say. One likely link to sex abuse is the development of a drug addiction.
Donna Miller, the clinical director at the Chabad Residential Treatment Center — a Jewish drug treatment facility in Los Angeles that commonly accepts East Coast patients — said a disproportionate number of patients arrive from Lakewood, which has a smaller Orthodox population than Brooklyn.
"You'd think more would come from New York," she said.
Miller added that a "large amount" of these patients have some history of sexual abuse.
Shua Finkelstein was one of those patients. In his letter, he spoke of drugs as an "escape" from a "horrible reality." After six months at the Chabad Center, however, he returned home seemingly cured of his addiction, family members said. Then one morning his friends could not wake him up.
Yocheved Mauda's daughter, Shlomit, also displayed drastic changes in her behavior after her assault, becoming more erratic and showing signs of post traumatic stress disorder, said her psychologist at the time, Mark Seglin.
Already hit with wary stares upon moving to Lakewood because of word about her rebellious relationship with the religious authority in Monroe, Mauda believes she was cast further to the side after her daughter's allegations and the subsequent police investigation.
In an Aug. 9, 2006, letter, Bais Shaindel, a high school for girls, ended her daughter's trial enrollment, saying "Based on her performance in our school, we regret to inform you that we can no longer service her." A short time later, Mauda's husband, Gavriel Mauda, was brought to court on simple assault and harassment allegations, which a judge dismissed last year.
In December 2006, child services workers were called to investigate the parents for child neglect and abuse. The state's Division of Youth and Family Services determined that "the allegation was unfounded," according to a letter from the DYFS.
That same month, the family was told they would be evicted from their rented house, leaving the parents and eight children homeless for four months. The eviction notice stated: "You have continued to assault and threaten Menachem Steinberg. These actions have deprived this and other tenants of their right to the peaceful enjoyment of their property."
"She was shunned by segments of the community, absolutely," Seglin, the psychologist, said. "They didn't cut her much slack."
In fall 2007, the family moved to Monsey, N.Y.
The Lakewood Orthodox leadership tells a different story. A community spokesman said any abandonment of the Maudas from neighbors and schools predated Shlomit's assault. He pointed to the reputation the family brought with them from Monroe, where they were in effect told to move, and their refusal to fit in while in Lakewood as reasons why only one of the eight children could find a school and why, eventually, they were again asked to leave.
"It didn't have anything to do with her daughter; it had to do with her whole attitude," said the spokesman, who requested his name not be published. "These people were problems from the second they moved to town."
The final straw could have been when Yocheved Mauda made her daughter's assault public through a story in the Jewish Voice in August 2006.
"If something happens like this in the community, it's dealt with, the girl's put into therapy, and if the guy needs to go to jail, he will," the spokesman said. "But don't put it in the paper."
Bridging the gap
Orthodox leaders here do not deny Lakewood could face, to some degree, the same problems as Brooklyn, but stress the community's small size and tight networking make the possibility for cover-ups unlikely. During the reporting for this story, they and Ocean County Prosecutor Marlene Lynch Ford said they have started meeting to discuss ways to coordinate efforts and improve cultural understanding.
"We have a history of working hand in hand with prosecutors," said Meir Lichtenstein, a township committeeman and member of the Orthodox community. "Recently, I spoke with the Prosecutor's Office about this issue to see if we can again collaborate and bridge the gap between law enforcement and a community bound by religious differences and sensitivities. They have asked to come speak with social workers and rabbis in order to better understand the community and ways to encourage victims to feel comfortable going to secular authorities. We welcome this development."
Ford added her office is now looking to Brooklyn "to see what if anything they have learned that could teach us to have better outreach to the community in Lakewood."
More recently, on July 19, Yosef Kolko, a Lakewood camp counselor and yeshiva teacher, was arrested and charged with sexually assaulting a young boy, according to prosecutors.
Cooperation between rabbis and secular officials has yielded results in the past in Lakewood. Dents were made in a drug problem in the community, for one. And secular officials such as Singer were successful in helping erase a tendency of Orthodox families to hide the diagnosis of their special needs children for fear that the stigmatization would prevent their other children from marrying. All it took, he said, were meetings with rabbis that started at a doctor's office under the cloak of night.
"We worked with the community, and it really flipped the other way to where you were absolutely morally incorrect if you didn't help that child to the max," Singer said. "All of a sudden it took on its own life of realization."
Generally, signs of improvement in sex abuse awareness also have surfaced, notably in the waning tolerance that communities have to any hints at passivity with sex crimes, rabbis say. For example, a sizable number of Orthodox residents lambasted Agudath Israel this spring for coming out against a bill before the New York state legislature that would extend the statute of limitations for child abuse cases.
Also, more accusers are being encouraged to approach law enforcement, Orthodox leaders say. In the matter of the closed playgroup, for example, the accusers have been urged by some rabbis to take their case to a leading rabbi in Israel who will decide whether it is strong enough to take to the authorities.
An age-old practice
In the end, a deep-seated tunnel vision could be most to blame for bypassing secular authorities.
Rochel Shanik, the wife of well-known local pediatrician, Dr. Reuven Shanik, acknowledged she had brought a case before a tribunal recently. But, she said, "I can't talk about it. That's the problem."
Shanik said she did not believe the rabbis or the tribunals were attempting to cover up cases but to follow the only available recourse: Torah law. Asked why she didn't go to the police, Shanik gave a response similar to Finkelstein's: "It didn't even cross my mind, to tell you the truth."
Relying on Batei Din and rabbinical authority has been a staple in Orthodox communities for thousands of years, largely because Torah law splits from secular law on many civil issues. And it mostly works, community members say. More disputes are settled by a rabbi telling both parties to "grow up," as one rabbi put it, meaning less of a case load for the courts.
Still, the system of Batei Din and internal governing has its limits and could use reform, some rabbis say.
Asked whether such a shift would be difficult considering the often ingrained assumption that the road to justice ends with a rabbi, not a prosecutor, Rabbi Chaim Abadi, a police chaplain, replied: "There's no question that that's valid. But the reason it's valid is because it has worked for so many years. It's not going to work completely anymore."
His reason why not was simply that youth don't heed their elders like they used to.
Yet Lakewood is by no means unique. The problem exists across the world, from Baltimore and Chicago to Melbourne, Australia and San Paulo, Brazil, said Vicki Polin, founder of The Awareness Center, a Baltimore-based international Jewish coalition against sexual abuse.
"Case after case, I will hear stories of families being threatened if they go to the secular authorities, (that) their children will no longer be allowed to attend Jewish day schools or yeshivas," Polin said in an e-mail. "They are also told that their children will not be able to get a good shuddich (spouse). There have been extreme cases in which families are chased out of a community when they threaten to call child protection hotlines."
As for Rivkah Finkelstein, dwelling on possible cover-ups and conspiracies is not a primary concern. She does concede to feeling cheated out of knowing what exactly happened at her daughters' play group years ago. And she admits to having, in an emotional eruption, blamed her rabbis for not doing enough for her late son.
But all that is past. Now she just wants to know who set her house on fire. One recent afternoon, an Ocean County investigator came to Finkelstein's new home to discuss the investigation. The update he gave was far from encouraging. Before leaving, however, he offered her a piece of advice in hopes those with information about the case would come forward.
"He said, "You want to find out who did this? Start talking about molestation again,' " she said.