Abuse Scandal Plagues Hasidic Jews In Brooklyn Two men have come forward with allegations that they were abused by leaders of their Hasidic community in Brooklyn when they were children. The ultra-Orthodox Jewish sect, known for devout religious beliefs and insular culture, says it has investigated the claims.
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Abuse Scandal Plagues Hasidic Jews In Brooklyn

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Robert Siegel. Religious leaders abusing children, cover-ups lasting for decades - it sounds familiar, but this is not a story about the Catholic Church.

BLOCK: A growing scandal is emerging in Brooklyn's Hasidic Jewish community, an ultra-Orthodox and insular group. As NPR's Barbara Bradley Hagerty reports, after years of silence, alleged victims are coming forward. First, a warning: The content in this story is not suitable for children.

Mr. JOEL ENGELMAN: So you lived on this block?

Mr. JOE DIANGELO: Yeah, I'll show you, 153.

Mr. ENGELMAN: My grandmother…

BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY: Joel Engelman and Joe Diangelo are showing me around their old Brooklyn neighborhood. Williamsburg is a place from another time and country. The shop signs are in Hebrew. The men wear long black coats. Their hair hangs in corkscrew curls. Engelman and Diangelo haven't been here in years, and they just met a few weeks ago, but they realize they have a lot in common.

Mr. ENGELMAN: I have a brother-in-law, Gentz(ph).

Mr. DIANGELO: Dude, get out of here. Really?


HAGERTY: 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?

Mr. DIANGELO: All right.

Mr. ENGELMAN: You don't have to do this, you know.

HAGERTY: Would you rather not?

Mr. DIANGELO: No, I'll do it. I'll do it. We'll just do a quick pass-by.

HAGERTY: Diangelo grows quiet, visibly shaken as we approach a nondescript brownstone building, a synagogue.

Mr. DIANGELO: Yeah. I need to breathe.

HAGERTY: When he was 7, Diangelo went with his father to the mikvah in the synagogue basement. It's a bathhouse for ritual cleansing before Shabbat. One particular day, he says, the place was packed tightly with naked men and boys.

Mr. DIANGELO: And I was in the tub, and I had my back turned - and somebody raped me while I was in the water. And I didn't really know what happened. I couldn't make sense of it, really.

HAGERTY: 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.

(Soundbite of song, "Broken, Beat & Scarred")

Mr. JAMES HETFIELD (Lead Singer, Metallica): (Singing) ...make you more strong / Dawn, death, fight, final breath / What don't kill you make you more strong

HAGERTY: Now, Diangelo wears black leather and mascara, and takes refuge in the heavy metal lyrics of Metallica.

Mr. DIANGELO: They have a latest song, which is called "Broken, Beat & Scarred," and one of the verses is, they scratched me, they scraped me, they cut and raped me.

(Soundbite of song, "Broken, Beat & Scarred")

Mr. HETFIELD: (Singing) They scratched me, they scraped me, they cut and raped me.

Mr. DIANGELO: That's my life right there. And I - when I listen to it, it just gives me strength.

HAGERTY: 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 there are many more young men just like them, that sexual abuse is woven throughout this ultra-Orthodox community. For Joel Engelman, the loss of innocence came at school.

Mr. ENGELMAN: This is it, right here.

HAGERTY: Engelman parks his car across from the United Talmudical Academy, a yeshiva or Jewish boys' school. 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.

Mr. ENGELMAN: He motioned for me to get on his lap, and as soon as I got on his chair, he would swivel the chair from right to left. And then he would start touching me while talking to me. He would start at my shoulders, and work his way down to my genitals.

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

Mr. ENGELMAN: He failed miserably. So they pretty much told me, this guy is gone. This guy has to go.

HAGERTY: But a few weeks later, a religious leader from the school approached Engelman's mother, Pearl. She told me he posed an astonishing question.

Ms. PEARL ENGELMAN: On a scale of one to 10, how bad was the molestation?

HAGERTY: She was speechless. Then the man said...

Ms. ENGELMAN: We found out that there was no skin-to-skin contact, that it was through clothing. So like he's telling me, on a scale of one to 10, this was maybe a two or a three. So what's the big fuss?

HAGERTY: The school hired Reichman back. That was in July, one week after Joel Engelman turned 23 and could no longer bring a criminal or civil case against the rabbi. Through their lawyers, 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.

Rabbi DAVID NEIDERMAN (United Jewish Organizations of Williamsburg): I'm convinced that they've made a serious investigation. They felt that it's not credible.

HAGERTY: Joel Engelman has filed a civil suit against Reichman and the school, claiming they broke an oral contract. Reichman's attorney, Jacob Laufer, says the lawsuit is baseless, and the community is fully behind the rabbi.

Mr. JACOB LAUFER (Attorney): Even after these accusations were publicly made, the parents continued to compete among themselves for the opportunity to have their children be educated by Rabbi Reichman.

HAGERTY: 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, a writer who's interviewed dozens of alleged victims. They told her sexual abuse is an open secret, but the Hasidic community is so insulated, and the rabbis are so powerful, that few dare to come forward.

Ms. HELLA WINSTON (Writer): If I become known as an informer, then people also won't want to have anything to do with my family, won't want to marry my children, won't want to give me a job. This is the fear.

(Soundbite of radio show)

Mr. DOV HIKIND (Politician, Radio Talk Show Host): Tonight, we have some very special people in the studio. You do not want to miss tonight's show.

HAGERTY: Last August, politician and radio talk show host Dov Hikind devoted a show to sexual abuse.

(Soundbite of radio show)

Mr. HIKIND: Let's go to our callers.

Unidentified Woman: We're going to go to Lev(ph) in Bar Park. Lev, you're on the air with Dov.

LEV (Caller): I want to thank you very, very much, Dov, for doing this show. It's very, very important. I'm talking as a victim.

HAGERTY: The calls flooded in. Hikind, who's an Orthodox Jew himself, represents his area in the New York Assembly. He says after the program, people started showing up at his office with their stories.

Mr. HIKIND: Fifty, 60, 70 people. But you've got to remember, for each person who comes forward, God only knows how many people are not coming forward.

HAGERTY: Hikind refuses to release names of alleged perpetrators, though he is working with the district attorney's office. He says the fear of going public creates a perfect situation for abusers.

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

Rabbi NIEDERMAN: To me, it does not make sense...

HAGERTY: Community leader Rabbi David Niederman.

Rabbi NIEDERMAN: ...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.

HAGERTY: But Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes says he has 10 active sexual abuse cases involving ultra-Orthodox Jews, including a school principal who was recently arrested on a lead from Dov Hikind. And he 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.

Mr. CHARLES HYNES (Brooklyn District Attorney): I have no way of knowing whether there's a pattern of concealing the conduct.

HAGERTY: 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.

Mr. HYNES: You have no business taking these cases to religious tribunals. 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.

HAGERTY: Hynes says he's trying to work out an agreement with the rabbis where they promise to bring the prosecutor every allegation of abuse. Pearl Engelman is skeptical of that. She says the rabbis have hardly been forthcoming in her son's case. Still, she loves her community, and worries these allegations have already tarnished it.

Ms. ENGELMAN: This is a community of the most wonderful people, hard-working people who lead righteous lives. And it's just a few corrupt people who give us a bad taint.

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

Mr. ENGELMAN: Pretty much, the way I see it is, I left my childhood here. After I left here, I had a totally different picture of school, religion and life.

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

Barbara Bradley Hagerty, NPR News.

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