In April of last year, a 22-year-old former member of the ultra-Orthodox community in the Borough Park neighborhood stood to address a Brooklyn court in a halting voice. Weeks earlier, the young man had recounted how a wealthy and powerful member of that same community, Baruch Lebovits, had lured him into a car multiple times when he was a teenager and forced him to perform oral sex. “Mr. Lebovits showed me no mercy,” the man told Justice Patricia DiMango. “I know that seeing the man who caused me so much pain being punished will give me hope and strength to rebuild my life.”
Sentencing Lebovits to the maximum term of up to 32 years in jail, DiMango told the courtroom that both the victim, who was a recovering drug addict, and Lebovits, who had been abused as a boy, epitomized “the ultimate harm and havoc” of sexual abuse. At the time, Lebovits was one of a string of men who had been hauled before a judge on what seemed like an almost monthly basis to face charges of sexually abusing boys. By last spring, the Brooklyn District Attorney had indicted and prosecuted almost 30 men over a period of about 18 months, many of them teachers and rabbis, in what was perceived to be a crackdown on abuse in the ultra-Orthodox world.
Then, this April, without warning, Baruch Lebovits walked out of jail.
Lebovits was free on $250,000 bail following the arrest of a rabbi, Samuel Kellner, on charges of bribery and witness tampering. Kellner was charged with giving a boy—not the boy who addressed the court, but another alleged victim—$10,000 to falsely testify he had been abused by Lebovits and of threatening to bring more victims forward unless the Lebovits family paid him $400,000. Today, the matter is still unresolved.
Brooklyn D.A. Charles Hynes told a press conference that he remained confident the victim whose testimony secured Lebovits’ conviction—the young man who had addressed the court—was telling the truth and that Lebovits would return to jail. But, regardless of the outcome, the episode represented a major setback for Jewish victims of abuse.
For the past few years, survivors’ advocates have been chipping away at the communal wall of silence that has surrounded abuse in the ultra-Orthodox world and at the various halakhic justifications that have been given for dealing with the issue internally through Jewish courts, known as beit dins. The allegations that now complicate the Lebovits case epitomize some of the worst fears within the community: that the so-called victims are liars, that the secular authorities do not always get the right man, and that, without rabbis as a firewall, innocent people can be publicly shamed and put in prison.
There is little doubt, even among leaders of the ultra-Orthodox community, that sexual abuse of children is a serious problem. As more victims and their families have come forward in recent years, reports of abuse have proliferated. Dov Hikind, a state assembly member whose district includes Borough Park, claims to have gathered material on hundreds of such cases, largely from personal testimony.
The more pressing issue is how to solve that problem. Victims’ advocates and law-enforcement officials continue to urge survivors to report cases to social services or the police. But some leading rabbis in ultra-Orthodox communities like Borough Park continue to insist that adults who suspect abuse must consult a rabbi before reporting it to the authorities. Earlier this month, Agudath Israel of America, the top Orthodox rabbinic authority in the country, released a statement instructing its followers that only a rabbi can decide whether there is enough suspicion in each case to override the Jewish law of mesirah, which prevents Jews from reporting each other to the secular authorities.
Rabbi Yosef Blau, Yeshiva University’s spiritual adviser and a prominent advocate on behalf of survivors, said Lebovits’ harsh sentence followed by the allegations of witness-tampering and bribery would only make a mistrustful community even more suspicious. “We are dealing with an element within the Orthodox community that feels American society is not their friends,” said Blau. “One would have to think that anything that increases that fear is just going to make it more and more difficult to work with them in future.”
In the wake of Lebovits’ release, at least one advocate did not do his cause any favors. Rabbi Nachum Rosenberg, who regularly uses YouTube and a recorded telephone line to rail against abusers, sided with Kellner. In a telephone interview days after Kellner’s arrest for witness tampering, Rosenberg said that he did not know whether Kellner was guilty. “I wasn’t with him at the time,” he said. But shortly afterward, he asserted that the allegations against Kellner were false. “It’s a 100 percent hoax,” he said, before launching into a tirade against Hynes, which included the accusation that the D.A. turned a blind eye to abuse in return for favors from the strictly Orthodox hierarchy. (The D.A. declined to comment on this and other issues related to Lebovits’ case.)
Kellner denies the charges against him. Nevertheless, many advocates are wary of springing to his defense. One, who did not wish to be named, called Rosenberg’s allegiance with Kellner “unfortunate.” “You can’t maintain credibility in these cases by refusing to hear people are behaving badly,” the advocate said.
If Rosenberg comes out of the episode with his reputation diminished, then the D.A. fares little better. During Lebovits’ trial, his family claimed the accusations against him were financially motivated. Yet the D.A. appears to have done nothing to follow up on those claims.
Instead, Lebovits’ defense team hired a private detective to gather the evidence that eventually led to Kellner’s arrest. That detective, Joe Levin, was quoted soon after Lebovits’ release, on the blog Failed Messiah, saying that despite the material he gathered against Kellner, he still believed that Lebovits was guilty. But in a more recent interview, Levin claimed that he was misquoted. “He is clean,” Levin said of Lebovits.
What is clear is that Lebovits’ case highlights just how complex sexual-abuse prosecutions can be. Victims, often as a result of the trauma they have suffered, frequently appear in court with convictions for drug use or petty crime. Victims’ advocates can be erratic and prone to see conspiracy at every turn. Abusers often turn out to have once been abused themselves. Last year, Lebovits’ defense team was joined by the high-profile lawyer Alan Dershowitz, who has called for a new trial. But Lebovits’ fate seems to rest on Kellner, whose next court date, a hearing, is currently set for September 6.
Paul Berger, a staff writer at the Forward, is the co-author or contributing editor of seven books. He has also written for the New York Times, the Daily, and the Jewish Chronicle.
Clarification, August 23: The phone conversation between reporter Paul Berger and Joe Levin, the private detective hired by Lebovits’ defense team, during which Levin said that Lebovits was “clean,” took place in April. Since then, Levin twice declined to comment further on the Lebovits case. In an interview with Tablet Magazine today, Levin said that he had made the original comment in haste, that he had not been misquoted on the Failed Messiah blog, and that he did not wish to talk further on the record because both the Lebovitz and Kellner cases are still open.
Paul Berger is a journalist based in New Jersey.