Abuse Scandal Plagues Hasidic Jews In Brooklyn

Joe Diangelo i i

hide captionJoe Diangelo, 28, says he was sexually abused at a mikvah, a bathhouse usually used by women for ritual cleansing, when he was 7. He no longer has contact with his family.

Coburn Dukehart/NPR
Joe Diangelo

Joe Diangelo, 28, says he was sexually abused at a mikvah, a bathhouse usually used by women for ritual cleansing, when he was 7. He no longer has contact with his family.

Coburn Dukehart/NPR
Joel Engelman i i

hide captionJoel Engelman, 23, says he was sexually abused at his Jewish boys' school when he was 8.

Coburn Dukehart/NPR
Joel Engelman

Joel Engelman, 23, says he was sexually abused at his Jewish boys' school when he was 8.

Coburn Dukehart/NPR

In Depth

Initially seen as a radical movement at its founding in the 18th century, Hasidic Judaism, now has a distinct identity and following and draws on the principles and teachings of Orthodox Judaism.

Rodney and Lee streets, Brooklyn i i

hide captionThe corner of Rodney and Lee streets in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, is near the heart of the Hasidic Jewish neighborhood in New York.

Coburn Dukehart/NPR
Rodney and Lee streets, Brooklyn

The corner of Rodney and Lee streets in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, is near the heart of the Hasidic Jewish neighborhood in New York.

Coburn Dukehart/NPR
Joel Engelman as a young boy. i i

hide captionEngelman, about age 7.

Courtesy of Joel Engelman
Joel Engelman as a young boy.

Engelman, about age 7.

Courtesy of Joel Engelman

Joel Engelman and Joe Diangelo are driving through their old Brooklyn neighborhood. Williamsburg is a place from another time and country. The shop signs are in Hebrew. The men scurry by in long black coats; their hair hangs in corkscrew curls. Married women wear wigs to cover their heads.

Engelman and Diangelo haven't been here in years. They just met a few weeks ago, but as they begin swapping stories and the names of family members, they realize they have a lot in common. Both men are in their 20s, both were raised as strict Hasidic Jews, and both fled their upbringing for the same reason.

"Are you ready for this?" Engelman asks Diangelo, glancing at his friend in the back seat.

"Yeah," Diangelo says, his breath quickening. "Yeah, I'll do it, just a quick pass by."

Diangelo grows quiet as we approach a nondescript brownstone building: a synagogue.

"See the Hebrew sign?" he says, pointing. "You go downstairs, and that's where the mikvah is."

The mikvah is a bathhouse usually used by women for ritual cleansing. But in some Hasidic communities, like this one, fathers bring their young sons on Friday afternoons before Shabbat begins. Twenty-one years ago, when he was 7, Diangelo recalls going to the mikvah with his father to find the place packed with naked men and boys.

"And I was in the tub, and I had my back turned, and somebody raped me while I was in the water," he says. He takes a shaky breath. "And I didn't know what happened. I couldn't make sense of it, really."

Diangelo says he never saw the man who abused him. These days, monitors are posted by the bath to stop any sexual activity. But back then, the boy was on his own. He told no one but began refusing to go to the mikvah. He left Orthodox Judaism when he was 17. He changed his name from Joel Deutsch and cut almost all ties with his family and friends.

Now, Diangelo wears black leather and mascara. He plays in a rock band and takes refuge in the heavy-metal lyrics of Metallica.

"There are so many songs, you know. They have a latest song, which is called 'Broken, Beaten & Scarred,' and one of the verses is: 'They scratched me, they scraped me, they cut and raped me.' " He laughs wearily. "And that's my life right there. When I listen to it, it gives me strength."

Allegations Of Abuse

For these two men, this is a tour through aching secrets and violent memories. Diangelo and Engelman are unusual because they let their names be used. But they believe that sexual abuse is woven throughout this Hasidic community.

For Engelman, the loss of innocence came at school.

"This is it, right here," he says.

Engelman parks his car across from the United Talmudical Academy, a hulking building on a desolate street. This was the yeshiva, or Jewish boys' school, that Engelman attended. Engelman says he was 8 years old, sitting in Hebrew class one day, when he was called to the principal's office. When he arrived, he says, Rabbi Avrohom Reichman told him to close the door.

"He motioned for me to get on his lap, and as soon as I got on the chair, he would swivel the chair from right to left, continuously," Engelman says. "Then he would start touching me while talking to me. He would start at my shoulders and work his way down to my genitals."

Engelman says this occurred twice a week for two months. He told no one for more than a decade. Reichman was, after all, a revered rabbi. Four years ago, he told his parents. And a year ago, when he heard that Reichman had allegedly abused several other boys, they confronted Reichman. When the school heard about it, they gave the rabbi a polygraph.

"He failed miserably," Engelman says. "So they told me, 'This guy is gone. This guy has to go.' "

But a few weeks later, a religious leader from the school approached Engelman's mother, Pearl. He posed an astonishing question: On a scale of 1 to 10, how bad was the molestation?

She was speechless. Then she says, the man continued, " 'We found out there was no skin-to-skin contact, that it was through clothing.' So he's telling me, 'On a scale of 1 to 10, this was maybe a 2 or a 3, so what's the big fuss?' "

The school hired Reichman back. That was in July 2008 — one week after Joel Engelmen turned 23 and could no longer bring a criminal or civil case against the rabbi.

An Open Secret

Reichman and school officials declined to be interviewed for this story. But Rabbi David Niederman, who heads the United Jewish Organizations of Williamsburg, says the school did its due diligence. He says the allegation was thoroughly investigated by an independent committee of lay people and rabbis.

"I'm convinced that they made a serious investigation," he says. "They felt that it's not credible."

Now Engelman has filed a long-shot civil suit against Reichman and the school, claiming they broke an oral contract.

Reichman's attorney, Jacob Laufer, says the lawsuit is baseless and that the community is fully behind the rabbi.

"Even after these accusations were publicly made," he says, "the parents continue to compete among themselves for the opportunity to have their children be educated by Rabbi Reichman."

The Reichman case is not isolated. Four ultra-Orthodox rabbis in Brooklyn have been sued or arrested for abusing boys in the past three years. That's a tiny fraction of the actual abuse, says Hella Winston, author of Unchosen: The Hidden Lives of Hasidic Rebels. She says that in researching her book, she encountered dozens of alleged victims who told her sexual abuse is an open secret in the Hasidic community. But the community is so insulated and the rabbis are so powerful that few dare to come forward.

"If I become known as an informer, then people also won't want to have anything to do with my family," she explains. "They won't want to marry my children, won't want to give me a job. This is the fear."

But more and more accusations against rabbis have begun to circulate. Last August, politician and radio talk show host Dov Hikind devoted an hourlong program to sexual abuse. He interviewed Pearl Engelman, who spoke under an alias, about her son's case.

The calls flooded in. Hikind, who is an Orthodox Jew himself, represents this area in the New York Assembly. He says after the show, people started showing up at his office with their stories.

"Fifty, 60, 70 people," he says, "but you got to remember for each person who comes forward, God only knows how many people are not coming forward."

Ongoing Investigations

Hikind refuses to release the names of alleged perpetrators, although he is working with the district attorney's office. He says the people who confided in him are afraid to go public, which creates a perfect situation for abusers.

"If you're a pedophile, the best place for you to come to are some of the Jewish communities," he says. "Why? Because you can be a pedophile and no one's going to do anything. Even if they catch you, you'll get away with it."

"To me, it does not make sense," says Niederman, of the United Jewish Organizations, "that so many people have been violated and for so many years they have been quiet. Something does not add up. It's being blown out of proportion — big time."

Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes says he has 10 active sexual abuse cases involving Orthodox Jews — including a school principal who was recently arrested on a lead from Hikind. And Hynes says there could be many more. Yeshivas are private schools, which means they don't have to report accusations of sexual abuse to civil authorities.

"I've got no way to know if there's a pattern of concealing the conduct," he says.

Hynes says the Jewish leaders — like Catholic bishops — try to handle these affairs internally, through a rabbinical court. It's a practice that infuriates him.

"You have no business taking these cases to religious tribunals," Hynes says. "They are either civil or criminal in nature. Or both. Your obligation is to bring these allegations to us and let us conduct the investigation."

Hynes says he's trying to work out a memorandum of understanding with the rabbis, in which they promise to bring the prosecutor every allegation of abuse.

Pearl Engelman is skeptical: The rabbis have hardly been forthcoming in her son's case. Still, she loves her community and worries these allegations have tarnished it.

"This is a community of the most wonderful people, hardworking people who lead righteous lives," she says. "And it's just a few corrupt people who give us a bad taint."

Her son Joel isn't so sure it's that few. Anyway, for him, any remedies come too late.

"Pretty much, I left my childhood here," he says. "After I left here, I had a totally different picture of school, religion and life."

But Engelman hopes that his story will shine a light on the secret and, perhaps, protect the next generation of children in this community.

Overview: Hasidic Judaism

Hasidic Judaism found its roots in Eastern Europe in the mid-18th century, at a time when Jewish people were experiencing persecution in the Polish kingdom. Seen as a radical movement, a challenge to the tradition of scholarship and the rejection of worldly pleasures of the Jewish elite, early Hasidism emphasized mysticism, emotion, faith and joy. Prayer, song and dance were parts of worship.

The movement was initially led by Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer, known more commonly as the Baal Shem Tov, or Besht. The Baal Shem Tov, which in Hebrew means "Master of the Good Name," won widespread support among all levels of Jewish society for his ideas of inclusion through invocation of stories, folklore, sermons and fables.

"The Hasidic movement was initially a populist movement," says Sylvia Barack Fishman, professor of contemporary Jewish life at Brandeis University. "It realized that the vast majority of Jewish men and women did not have the financial means or the leisure to perform text study. But Hasidic Judaism said there were other equally valid ways of drawing closer to God besides text study. One way was through the joyous worship of God."

The practice of Hasidism today looks different from when it was founded, though many of the principles of community, deep spiritualization, music and lifestyle remain the same.

"The idea of joyous prayer, singing, dancing and spiritual feelings became, within Hasidic Judaism, an alternate route to Jewish excellence," Fishman says.

Modern Hasidic Judaism has broken up into dozens of movements, each led by a central figure, or rebbe, who serves as both a spiritual and political leader. Hasidic movements are located around the world, with the Lubavitchers, in Crown Heights, N.Y., among the most prominent.

The tenets of Orthodox Judaism play a strong role in Hasidism, as religious observance, rituals and the Torah, or the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, are centerpieces of Hasidic culture. Hasidic Jews believe in following the literal word of God and the 613 commandments as found in the Torah as closely as possible.

Hasidic life focuses on cultural institutions, including the school, prayer house, ritual bathhouse and the study house, and dress is traditional, with men wearing long black coats and beards while women wear scarves and modest clothing.

Everyday life is deeply religious, and Hasidic Jews engage in ongoing study and regular prayer. Hasidic Jews believe in the presence of God in all things, so almost every action throughout the day is accompanied by a prayer, including such actions as washing one's hands and eating.

Hasidism places emphasis on the intent of the prayer, as mood and feeling are central to the religious experience. As such, Hasidic worship frequently involves music and dance in a celebratory and joyous mood.

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