Watching the Jewish Community Watch and Its ‘Wall of Shame’
A young man’s brazen blog about alleged child sex-abusers in the Chabad community divides Crown Heights
The Keller case was not Seewald’s first encounter with unchecked sex abuse. As Seewald spoke to victims, he says he came to terms with his own experience of being molested by a counselor at sleep-away camp. When he mustered the courage to post his story on his still-anonymous blog, omitting his alleged perpetrator’s name, he received an email from someone who said he had an identical experience at the same sleep-away camp. When Seewald figured out that they had been molested by the same person, the counselor’s name appeared on the Wall of Shame. It was then that Seewald no longer wanted to conceal his identity. “I was Meyer Seewald and I was sharing my personal story and feelings with other victims. It was an open relationship. They knew who they were talking to and sharing their deepest pain and secrets with,” he said.
Then Seewald made a major error. In August 2012, a special-education teacher named Daniel Granovetter wrote a since-deleted personal account on a Crown Heights news site, titled “I Was Falsely Accused,” describing how he was arrested after an autistic boy he tutored accused him of abuse, though the investigation was eventually dropped when the child retracted his claim. “In people’s eyes I was no longer a Jew, let alone a human being,” Granovetter wrote in a harrowing account. “I was regarded as a monster, an out-of-control filthy, dangerous beast capable of snatching little children and sexually abusing them.”
Granovetter told me Seewald confronted him outside his home “rather aggressively,” demanding Granovetter confess to molesting the child. When Granovetter refused, he was featured on the JCW Wall of Shame, which he said has destroyed his career and social standing.
Shortly after the incident, Seewald removed Granovetter’s name and picture from the blog, releasing a statement that there was insufficient evidence against the teacher. Granovetter, who told me over the phone that forgiveness is his nature, removed his story criticizing JCW from the news site and replaced it with one praising Seewald’s work, placing blame on the student who falsely accused him rather than JCW. Seewald admitted to me that it was a mistake to confront Granovetter when there was a police investigation under way, but like Granovetter’s reputation, JCW’s credibility never fully recovered from the debacle.
Now Seewald has found himself pitted against an aging group of sex-abuse-awareness activists in Crown Heights, led by Hecht, who told me he disagrees with Seewald’s insensitivity toward the families and religious institutions of the accused. Hecht is prone to talking in parables. “When we come in with a shotgun and shoot up whole building and only get one guy, we call that collateral damage,” Hecht told me when I asked him about JCW. “Seewald doesn’t care about collateral damage.”
Hecht and Seewald have both encountered the limitations of the legal justice system. Of the victims who press charges, many are beyond the statute of limitations. Furthermore, the Brooklyn District Attorney’s office has a record of granting Orthodox abusers generous plea deals, resulting in many confessed abusers still living, unregistered, among their victims.
Ironically, Hecht’s endorsement might be just what Seewald needs to win over the religious establishment. Of the 14 Chabad-Lubavitch camps in the United States, only two have agreed to meet the project’s guidelines. Rabbi Moshe Shemtov, who runs Camp Gan Israel in Detroit, said that he takes sex abuse seriously, but he said he declined to share his staff list with Seewald, because JCW lacked the official backing of any Chabad institutions, such as Hecht’s, behind the E.M.E.S. campaign.
“Supposedly, he has a list of offenders that no one knows about,” Shemtov said. “He doesn’t have any official credibility with anyone I know.” Sex abuse, he said, “is too sensitive to ignore, but it’s also too sensitive for someone to grab and twist any way they want.”
As Brooklyn’s ultra-Orthodox communities grapple with sex abuse, Hecht, who made a name for himself in the 1980s as a “Jewish cult buster,” says leaders in Crown Heights have been taking proactive measures to combat sexual abuse for 30 years, involving the police when they deem it appropriate. Hecht maintains, as opposed to secular civil officials such as the NYPD, that rabbis should be granted the discretion to determine whether victims are lying. “The last time I remembered, I was ordained as a rabbi,” said Hecht. “If the person [victim] came to me, I have at least the responsibility to decide if it’s true or not true, because they want guidance.”
Not all Crown Heights leaders agree with Hecht. Prompted by the Keller case, in July 2011, two out of three members of the Crown Heights Rabbinical Court, which reportedly tried to implement a gag order preventing members the Chabad community from speaking to news media or reporting crimes to the police in 2010, signed a letter asserting a ruling that the laws of mesira, the halachic prohibition against reporting Jews to secular authorities, do not apply to cases of sex abuse. The abuser, they wrote, is like a rodef, a murderer, in which case, a religious leader “is forbidden to remain silent.” Motti Seligson, a spokesman for Chabad, claims that the Beit Din is not affiliated with the movement, though Rabbi Avrohom Osdoba, the court’s senior member, claimed it is—in strong terms. “I have been voted in by the entire community and I was confirmed by the Rebbe,” said Osdoba, in a phone interview with Tablet.
In the wake of Seewald’s revelations, Chabad and other institutions have made a noteworthy push to raise awareness about the issue of sex abuse. For example, in the winter of 2012-2013, all yeshivas and elementary schools in Crown Heights implemented an educational initiative informing children about appropriate touch.
These days, Seewald wants people to know that under his brash armor is simply a Chabad kid who feels betrayed by his community and rabbis. Defending his Project E.M.E.S video he said: “I was emotional in the video because it hurts. My heart and soul have been ripped out from what I have heard and seen. There have been countless nights that I have not slept or when I do my sleep is filled with nightmares. I need to make sure that what I have seen happen to hundreds of thousands of children does not happen to your child.”
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