July 14, 2011
Yocheved Schachter, a 47-year-old nurse who lives in Borough Park, acknowledges that she has a double standard of sorts: one for people who share her background, and one for people who do not.
"If you're in the airport and need help, a Jew will help you," said Ms. Schachter, who is a mother and a grandmother. "I pick up hitchhikers, boys waiting to go to yeshiva. When I travel and see another Jew, we'll eyeball each other; there's a connection. Everywhere you go, all over the world. I'll still do it."
So like her neighbors in Borough Park, she has been bewildered by the fact that Leiby Kletzky, 8, was kidnapped and killed, the police say, at the hands of another apparently religious Jew, though not a Hasidic one.
"The fact that this came from within," she said, "it's beyond belief."
With its distinctive dress and customs, the insular ultra-Orthodox community of Borough Park has always been somewhat wary of outsiders who might introduce temptations and ideas that could erode their way of life. But the converse — too much trust of those within — has also been true, many civic and religious leaders say, and it is only in recent years that people have become less guileless about and protective of ill-doers from inside their tribe.
On Thursday, Levi Aron, 35, was ordered held without bail on a charge of second-degree murder, and the police disclosed elements of a confession. Mr. Aron, according to the police, said that Leiby had approached him on the street Monday afternoon, that he had taken the boy to a wedding in Rockland County that night and that he had suffocated the boy in a panic the next day when he realized the huge search effort that was under way. The police also say the boy may have put up a struggle.
It may never be known whether Leiby trusted Mr. Aron because he appeared to be someone like him. But the murder occurred at a moment of a slow change in how Borough Park residents regarded one another, and some people interviewed on Thursday predicted that, for better or worse, the tragedy would only accelerate it.
"Someone told me, 'Now you know who your neighbors are,' " said Ben Herb, 37, who works at MS Optical on 16th Avenue. "I said: We always had to be cautious in this neighborhood. Here in the center of Borough Park is where you have to be very careful. Most of your neighbors are Orthodox Jews with which children are comfortable. That, in itself, is a risk."
"My children don't talk to strangers whether they wear a yarmulke or a do-rag," he added.
The authorities and social service officials in Borough Park agreed that attitudes have been changing. Ruchama Clapman, who runs a small agency that deals with drug and alcohol abuse and sexual molestation largely within the pious Jewish community, recalled that 14 years ago when she started her agency she encountered tremendous resistance simply talking about the problems, "and it took many years before the community was accepting that we had these issues in our community."
"It was hanging out dirty laundry," she said.
People were afraid that if a victim sought help and a problem became widely known, parents might find it difficult to find matches for their sons and daughters, and social and business relations would be hurt. There was also the often misinterpreted prohibition against mesirah — informing on a fellow Jew to non-Jewish authorities — that was a leftover tenet from a time when European Jews had to deal cautiously with anti-Semitic officials.
Dov Hikind, the local assemblyman, has a radio show that for several years has highlighted the issue of sexual abuse by people in the Orthodox community.
"People were upset at me," he said. "People were furious. They would say: 'You're embarrassing us. We're dealing with it ourselves.' They were not dealing with it."
But they have been more willing to alert the authorities when crimes are committed by other Hasidim or Orthodox Jews. In a spate of cases between October 2008 and October 2009 alone, Brooklyn prosecutors arrested 26 ultra-Orthodox men — rabbis, teachers and camp counselors among them — on sexual abuse charges. Many others have come forward to the Jewish news media and to social agencies.
Mr. Hikind said there was no evidence that sexual abuse or other deviance was any more widespread in the Hasidic community than in other ethnic groups, but what is different, they said, is that the Hasidic community has just begun to grapple with these problems and educate its members.
Ms. Clapman, head of Mothers and Fathers Aligned Saving Kids, said Hasidim were aware that "we have problems that the outside world may have and the outside world is seeping in."
The often overlooked diversity of Borough Park, with a Jewish population that has been estimated by local officials at 100,000 and with 250 synagogues, could in theory be a fertile field for distrust.
Although most outsiders tend to view Borough Park monolithically, seeing only men in black garb and women in long-sleeved dresses surrounded by a scrum of children, there are many important distinctions.
The Hasidim, who define themselves as such by their loyalty to particular grand rabbis and by their zeal in observance, are divided into numerous sects like the Bobov, Satmar and Belz, each originating from a different part of Eastern Europe and each with its own synagogues, yeshivas and even subtleties of dress (the Satmar hat brim is wider, the Bobov crown higher).
Moreover, a significant minority of Borough Park's Jews are simply Orthodox, like Leiby's parents, and do not revere a particular grand rabbi; others are Conservative, Reform or secular, a remnant of the mid-20th century when Borough Park's Jews included people like Sandy Koufax.
There are rivalries between sects and even within sects. Yet there is a general amity that prevails, a belief that, as Ms. Schachter said, a Jew will readily help another Jew in need.
"I'm not saying that bad apples don't exist," she said. "You can have bad police officers, bad nurses and bad doctors. But you still trust a doctor."
Joe Levin, a private investigator who works in the Orthodox world, said "some people in Borough Park are very naïve" because "they don't believe Orthodox people can do bad things."
Indeed, Motty Jay, 28, a wine consultant who had joined the fruitless search party for Leiby, said of the suspect: "This is not an Orthodox Jew that did it," adding: "In order to do this you've got to be something different. Different than us."
Juliet Linderman, Jed Lipinski and Liz Robbins contributed reporting.