NPR aired a brutal story today about two former Hasidic boys who were sexually abused as youngsters—one at the mikvah and the other at his school. Joel Engelman’s tale is particularly troubling and evokes memories of the Catholic clergy sex abuse scandal. Shame. A code of silence. Fear of God and man.
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.
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.”