July 20, 2024
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The Case to Support Victims: A Teanecker Speaks Out

A few weeks ago, Sam Kellner, who blew the whistle on child molester Baruch Lebovits for sexually assaulting his son, was acquitted of charges brought against him by Lebovits’ defenders. It was a case where one of Lebovits’ victims was “turned” and testified that Kellner had attempted to bribe witnesses. When the witness recanted his old testimony and was deemed unreliable, the case was finally thrown out of court. It bears repeating that the witness is believed to have been one of Lebovits’ victims, along with his son. The victims were once again victimized, as was the person who went to their defense.

After the Baruch Lanner case which ripped apart Bergen County’s Jewish community as well as the Modern Orthodox establishment, it was assumed that there would be zero tolerance for child abusers. Unfortunately, that didn’t turn out to be the case, and last year’s expose of abuse at Yeshiva University, and the cover-ups that had gone on for decades, brought more victims out of the shadows—victims who had been marginalized when they reported to their rabbis what happened to them.

The recent Evan Zauder case is a case that, once again, has hit the community very hard. Zauder, who was a teacher at Yeshivat Noam, worked at NCSY and was a youth director at CBY, someone who was constantly around young people and children, and everyone liked him. No one suspected that he collected child pornography and arranged trysts with underage boys on the Internet—and more.

Two years ago, the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York announced that Zauder pled guilty in Manhattan federal court to charges of using the Internet to entice a minor to engage in illegal sexual activity and to receipt, distribution, and possession of child pornography. Zauder pled guilty before United States District Court Judge Lewis A. Kaplan. His criminal conduct is not currently known to have involved any students at the school.

Zauder faces a minimum sentence of 10 years in prison and a maximum sentence of life in prison on the enticement count; a minimum sentence of five years in prison and a maximum sentence of 20 years on the transportation, receipt, and distribution count; and a maximum sentence of 10 years on the possession count. For each of the three counts in the superseding information, Zauder faces a maximum fine of $250,000 or twice the gross gain or loss from the offense.

One of the people affected by these revelations was a victim of child sexual abuse more than 30 years ago at Camp Dora Golding—when he, not the abuser, was told to pack his bags and go. David Cheifetz, a resident of Teaneck, is fighting back and is the founder of a new non-profit organization, Mi Li – Who Is For Me? Its mission is to educate the Jewish community about sexual abuse of children and provide support to victims and their families.

In an impassioned blog post last week, Cheifetz, wrote about the things he discovered in the public court documents concerning Evan Zauder’s sentencing, including a number of character references written by local rabbis and community leaders on Zauder’s behalf. While in many cases leaders issue these letters as pro-forma matters in cases concerning white collar crime, Cheifetz pleaded with leaders, who he mentions by name, not to do that. What he found particularly hurtful were two letters that spoke of Zauder in glowing terms, as if what he did was a momentary aberration or something that can be mediated, much as an alcoholic or drug addict can be treated. Some of the letters were written by people whose names are extremely familiar to the Bergen County Jewish community.

And while he says that child sexual offenders have the right to defend themselves, Jewish leadership does not have to be involved in that process, and reminds everyone that it was the he rabbis who ignored the victims who came to them with their stories, who poo-poohed them, and protected their predators.

“Do I not have the right to seek justice? Do I not have the right to try to protect others?” asks Cheifetz.

He ponders why the rabbis have no empathy for the victims. “They do not know the victims—not in person and perhaps not even by name—there is no such empathy [as displayed for the perpetrators]. They are nameless, faceless, disembodied characters who have contributed to the travails of the perpetrator. Little or no thought is given to the short and long-term impact on the mental and physical health of the victims, the fact that the victims are likely to suffer from depression, relationship problems, substance abuse, or other problems throughout their lives. The fact that the victims carry within them a lifelong time bomb that may ultimately result in severe Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. I know. I carried such a time bomb.

“What will it take for our Orthodox Community to recognize that sexual abuse of minors in our community is a plague that has long-term destructive impact on victims? When will the Orthodox leadership begin to recognize that Mitzvot Bain Adam LeChaveiro require you to consider the victims, the misfortunate, the silent and the silenced, and not just one’s friends and family and prestigious members of the community? When will these Orthodox leaders start having Rachmunus on the victims instead of on the perpetrators?

“Until that time, one must question the underlying judgment and integrity of the individuals who would advocate for such abusers, and the institutions that they represent. And what can we do? We can call out bad behavior. We can speak out with our voices. And we can speak out with our dollars.” And we must report the crimes.

The FBI encourages the public to report suspected child predators and any suspicious activity through its toll-free hotline at (212) 384-1000. It is staffed around the clock by investigators. Suspected child sexual exploitation or missing children may be reported to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, an Operation Predator partner, at (800) 843-5678 or http://www.cybertipline.com.

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