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Crown Heights Ultra-Orthodox Jews Meet to Combat Child Sex Abuse

By Brigid Bergin (WNYC News)
June 10, 2102

Mordechai Feinstein felt obligated to tell his story. The 19-year-old stands nearly 6-feet-tall with square shoulders and an unmistakable Brooklyn inflection in his voice. When he was 15, he joined a group led by a local rabbi in Crown Heights who mentored at-risk youth.

"I went there for Sabbath meals. He was the spiritual guide and mentor I would go to when I had questions. He helped get me into different religious schools," explained Feinstein. "So in effect, he was my personal rabbi."

This rabbi also became his abuser.

Feinstein shared his story with the approximately 100 ultra-Orthodox that attended the public meeting at the Ohel Nosson Shul in Crown Heights on Sunday. He joined a panel of speakers, including Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes, civil rights attorney Norman Siegel, child advocates and rabbis, to talk about how to prevent child sex abuse in the community — and what people could and should do when faced with it.

This isn't the first meeting of its kind, but it comes at a time where the Brooklyn D.A.'s office faces increased scrutiny for its handling of child sex abuse cases within the ultra-Orthodox community. Hynes has consistently defended his office, pointing to intimidation from within the ultra-Orthodox community itself — on par or beyond that of organized crime cases — that stymies sex abuse prosecutions.

But in Crown Heights, home to the Chabad-Lubavich Hasidic community, an awakening may be emerging. Last year, the local rabbinical court ruled it was forbidden not to report cases of child sex abuse to secular authorities, breaking a long-standing tradition within the community where people sought the counsel of their rabbi before engaging with law enforcement.

"If I could get religious courts around this county adopting that policy, we'd be a much longer way towards solving this problem," Hynes said, referring to the large ultra-Orthodox communities in Williamsburg and Borough Park.

Last month, Hynes set up a task force to address intimidation in the ultra-Orthodox community. The second meeting of that task force is Monday.

While prosecution is an important element of cracking down on child sex abuse, Rabbi Yosef Blau of Yeshiva University said the community itself needs to understand the severity of the problem.

"Does the community understand that victims are victimized again and again when they get no support from the community, when they are seen as the troublemakers, when people are afraid to be whistle-blowers," Blau said. "The mentality of the community has to change."

In some ways Feinstein was lucky. His case was successfully prosecuted by the Brooklyn D.A.'s office, and with the help of civil rights lawyer, Norman Siegel, he had a say in how his perpetrator was punished. But Feinstein is no longer part of the Crown Heights community. He now lives in Miami, Florida.

"It's been painful, very painful at times," Feinstein told the audience. "If you care about the community, do something positive for the children."