By Shawn P. Cohen and Steve Lieberman (The Journal News)
January 4, 2014
“Look at the moon,” Herschel Taubenfeld mused.
Yossi was 16, out for a stroll when he came across the older man who pointed him to a bright light encircling the moon one night in early 2011.
Having grown up in the insular Hasidic enclave of New Square, Yossi knew little about sex, or sexual abuse, and didn’t find it strange when the man then invited him into his house.
Nor did he understand what was happening during subsequent visits when he said the man convinced him to pull down his underwear. The 38-year-old married father, a respected teacher in a religious school for boys, fondled him under the ruse that he was a fortune-teller “reading” his genitals.
It wasn’t until months later that Yossi, who asked that his last name not be used, told his parents and then, he said, the cover-up began.
The Vaad, a community group set up to handle sex abuse allegations, referred Yossi and his abuser to therapy. Taubenfeld offered him hush money, Yossi said, and even some relatives pressured him to keep quiet in the interest of community harmony.
Yossi went to police anyway.
“I wasn’t ready to feel guilty for the rest of my life for not stopping this monster when I could have,” he said.
In a community that shuns outside authority, Yossi’s decision was almost unprecedented.
Sexual abuse of children and young people is systemically suppressed in Hasidic communities, advocates and alleged victims say, spawning a culture where victims are sent to therapists picked by the community’s religious leaders and whose sympathies often seem aligned with the abuser.
And if the victim is strong enough to seek out the judicial system, he or she, in the case of New Square, could find themselves in front of a judge elected by local residents at the behest of the grand rebbe. David Twersky is the heir to the rabbinical dynasty that has led the Skver Hasidim since their times in the Ukraine.
“New Square’s leaders have hunkered down,” said Ben Hirsch, a co-founder of Survivors for Justice, who helped Yossi through the legal process. “They have their policy of cover-ups, of keeping everything in-house. It’s the outspoken victim who is the villain, and the reported child molester who is the victim.”
Yossi actually got his abuser to tearfully confess in a telephone call secretly recorded by police. It wasn’t enough to get jail time for Taubenfeld, however.
Stuart Salles, New Square’s part-time elected judge, whose courtroom inside a yeshiva building typically handles petty crimes and traffic offenses, tried to convince the prosecutor to drop the sex abuse charge.
“The judge actually made indications to us that he wanted to see if it could be a non sex-offender case, where Taubenfeld would not have to register as a sex offender,” Rockland County Assistant District Attorney Eric Holzer said. “I said ‘no.’ ”
Salles, Rockland’s longest-serving judge, is a former Ramapo deputy attorney who now lives in New York City and has represented New Square pro bono since the mid-1970s.
“It’s my honor to serve the community,” Salles told The Journal News, while refusing to discuss Yossi’s case. “I sit and weigh things fairly on behalf of everyone.”
Originally charged with 10 misdemeanor counts each of third-degree sexual abuse, forcible touching and endangering the welfare of a child, Taubenfeld faced up to two years behind bars. He pleaded guilty to one count of forcible touching in January 2013, received six years probation and was forced to register as a sex offender under a plea deal Rockland District Attorney Thomas Zugibe hailed as a triumph.
“If the guy had done jail time, he would have been out in a few months and under no one’s control,” Zugibe said. “We got a plea to the top count and six years probation and supervision. This was our first successful case in New Square. It was a home run.”
For Yossi, the sentence was devastating because his abuser never served a day in jail. And as a Level 1 sex offender — the least restricted — Taubenfeld’s name, address and case information are not publicized on a state registry.
“Everything I worked for, I risked everything,” Yossi told The Journal News during a recent interview. “When I found out he got nothing, and I see that he’s still out and continues his life here as if nothing happened, and that more children are at risk of being abused, it felt and still feels horrible.”
Yossi, who never had the chance to testify, is now the star witness in a new effort to fight his case in the media. He and his supporters argue his community and the local court failed him and will fail other abuse victims so long as the current dynamic prevails. They’re trying to influence change in New Square and other Hasidic communities where victims experience similar problems, and ultimately create a culture where sex abuse crimes get reported and aggressively prosecuted.
“If Yossi weren’t so brave and dogged, Taubenfeld would never even have been arrested,” Hirsch said.
In New Square, they’ve come up against community leaders who say it’s not their job to report sex crimes.
“We’re not mandated reporters,” said Isaac Brewer, a member of the Vaad. “That’s not our function. What we do with the accused is therapy and restrictions, until the authorities step in. He (Taubenfeld) is a typical subject that therapy and a slap works.”
Brewer, whose committee hears a couple of abuse allegations a year, said details about Yossi’s case have been “distorted.” He said leaders never sought to keep Yossi from contacting police.
“What friends, neighbors, cousins, others told him to do, we can’t be held responsible,” Brewer said of Yossi’s case. “We will never hold back anyone from saying what they want to say.”
Yehuda, who also asked that his last name not be used, said he is among the victims pressured not to speak. He claims he was sexually abused at age 15 by a man who was once part of Twersky’s inner circle and is suspected by police of molesting others.
Yehuda has spoken to Ramapo police, but hasn’t filed charges because he fears retribution from those loyal to the grand rabbi.
“Once you go public, you are damaged goods there,” said Yehuda, now 19.
“My family will be targeted. They could blow up my father’s house. I have nephews in New Square schools,” he said. “They will go after the children if I press charges. My sister would never forgive me. They use family against you like the Mafia.”
He said the man who abused him gave him a job working in the grand rabbi’s kitchen, where he joined other young followers who did butler work and other menial tasks.
One night in 2009, Yehuda said the man picked him up in a village car used by Twersky and parked behind a wedding hall on Route 45.
“He opened my zipper and began touching me,” Yehuda said. “I was shocked. I didn’t know what’s going on.”
Yehuda said he felt confused.
“I told my father — and he didn’t believe me,” Yehuda said. “The whole thing made me sick. I couldn’t eat. I left school.”
He said the man molested him twice more, once at the Holiday Inn in Montebello.
“Why are you doing this? We’re doing a sin,” Yehuda recalled telling him at the hotel. He said the man pointed to a 9 mm pistol at his waist and threatened to kill him if he told anyone.
For accusations made by people like Yossi and Yehuda, Twersky established the Vaad in 2008.
The committee of five local men, who meet about once a month, serves as a local clearinghouse for sex abuse allegations, referring victims and abusers to a roster of therapists and arranging training for teachers, principals and community rabbis on how to recognize signs of abuse.
Gabriel Fagin, a therapist who has provided training and also counseled Yossi and other local sex-abuse victims and abusers, said the efforts have dramatically changed the culture of a village that was “in complete denial about the issue.”
“There is a much more comprehensive and wholesome approach to how the community is dealing with the issues,” he said.
Rabbi Yakov Horowitz, dean of Yeshiva Darchei Noam in Monsey and director of the Center for Jewish Family Life and Project YES, said some high-profile sex abuse cases have penetrated the religious community’s protective wall and that parents are increasingly turning to secular authorities.
“On the street, parents are much more aware of child safety matters and it’s not even comparable to a few years ago,” Horowitz said.
Samuel Heilman, a New Rochelle resident and professor of Jewish studies and sociology at the City University of New York at Queens College, said ultra-Orthodox community leaders still discourage their followers from reporting sexual abuse to police or secular authorities to maintain their control and keep the outside world at bay.
Allowing outsiders to protect community residents, he said, “threatens to undermine the belief in the moral superiority of their community and its leaders. If the price is a few victims, they — or at least some of them — are willing to pay it.”
Victim advocates say the Vaad helps maintain a protective wall.
“They block people from going to the authorities by saying, ‘Come to us, not the police, we’ll deal with this,’ ” Hirsch said.
“So in practical terms, it’s an organization that serves to obstruct justice,” Hirsch said.
Yehuda and Yossi said they learned the hard way that the Vaad and New Square leaders were not looking to help them.
Yehuda said after he reported being abused, he was sent to Rabbi Israel Eisenberg, who is assigned by Twersky to handle such sexual abuse cases. Eisenberg declined to comment.
Yehuda said he felt insecure, even scared, when he walked into the rabbi’s New Square study lined with religious books. The rabbi sat at the end of a long table.
“He asked me who abused me and what color underwear the individual wore,” Yehuda said.
“He seemed to be trying to figure out whether to believe me or not. He told me I shouldn’t do anything, not to talk to anyone else.”
He saw this as part of a cover-up sanctioned by New Square’s leadership.
“Yes, 100 percent they tried to protect (the older man),” Yehuda said.
“If they weren’t trying to protect him they would have given him up. They would have told me to go to the cops. The grand rebbe knew. They all knew about him.”
Suicide triggers more debate
In September, it was a highly publicized suicide that exposed the tormented past of another longtime New Square resident, Deborah Tambor.
The 33-year-old, who had psychiatric problems and overdosed in New Jersey, left the village four years ago after divorcing her husband.
She told friends she was still suffering from the childhood trauma of being molested by an uncle — and having members of the community accuse her of lying about it.
Yossi said he experienced similar alienation after he revealed that Taubenfeld had abused him repeatedly over several months, while his wife and children slept elsewhere in the house.
Yossi’s abuser continues to live less than a half mile away from him in New Square.
Taubenfeld has declined comment but his wife said she believes in her husband’s innocence and that he pleaded guilty only because his lawyer pressured him. She said she was home during Yossi’s visits and would have noticed if there were abuse because the door to her husband’s study was open.
Yossi, who started taking college classes in the fall and is seeing a non-Vaad therapist, worries about the impact his case may have on other victims from his community who remain too scared to pursue criminal charges — Yehuda, for one.
“My case might have strengthened that fear of coming forward, that even if you risk so much, it doesn’t accomplish much,” he said, though he does not regret breaking the silence.
“For other victims who feel alone, they should know there’s people out there to help,” he said. “A large part of the healing process for me was not to be ashamed about what happened.”