Was Nechemya Weberman on Trial — or Satmars?

Brooklyn Prosecutors Took Aim at Hasidic Group's Way of Life

Community Pressure: Posters in Brooklyn denounce the accuser of Nechemya Weberman. In their zeal to convict Weberman, did Brooklyn prosecutors tar the entire Satmar community?
Community Pressure: Posters in Brooklyn denounce the accuser of Nechemya Weberman. In their zeal to convict Weberman, did Brooklyn prosecutors tar the entire Satmar community?

By Batya Ungar-Sargon

Published December 17, 2012, issue of December 21, 2012.

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On the other side of the aisle, the DA’s office painted Weberman as a sexual predator with a harem of young girls to satisfy his every sexual need. But their main attempts to discredit him came not from testimonies of other victims, of which there were none, but rather from his shady business dealings and his position in the male-dominated Satmar world. They said he used a credit card belonging to his charity organization to pay tuition for one of his children, and later used the same credit card to purchase lingerie (his wife maintains that the charge was hers; she purchased clothing for a young woman who was the recipient of Weberman’s charity). They mentioned the fact that Weberman allows people to call him “Rebbe” despite not being ordained. They mentioned the fact that he charged a whopping $150 a session for “counseling” despite being unlicensed.

But beyond the connotations and stereotypes suggested by this evidence and certainly reiterated in the media, the DA’s case focused on the rules of the Satmar world; the stringency of the dress code; the suppression of free thought; the laws of yihud, or seclusion, governing women and men’s conduct; the regime of terror that the Va’ad Hatznius, the modesty council, allegedly metes out upon young women; the beit din, or private courts, and most of all, the injunction to maintain an absolute separation of the sexes. An expert was brought in to go over the details of this community’s lifestyle, all of which were portrayed as draconian, misogynistic and enabling of sexual abuse. The clear implication was that the accuser was victimized not only by Weberman, but also by his form of religion.

In this context, the accuser was portrayed as a hero in her attempts to escape from this repressive and alienating environment. Her process toward secularization was represented as emancipation from the world of the defendent toward the world of the jurors. She stood up for herself in school — questioning God and the necessity of modesty laws — becoming an outcast; now she stands up to the accused, who is backed by the Satmar establishment “like a god in Williamsburg,” the accuser said.

But one of the main signs of this secularization was hidden from the jury. The judge didn’t allow the tape showing the accuser having sex with her older boyfriend to be admitted into evidence — an expected but monumental decision, as it turns out. One alternate juror who I spoke with while observing the trial, a Brooklyn resident in his mid-30s, said he was “split down the middle” as to whether he would have convicted. The alternate juror said that seeing a sex tape would definitely have made him question the credibility of the witness. While it would be deeply problematic for a young woman’s testimony to be discounted simply on the grounds of her not being a virgin, or even on the grounds that she might be the only victim, it would be equally problematic for a man to be accused of a crime he might not have committed because a jury had been alienated by his religious choices.

Based on the evidence actually presented in court, only the accuser and accused, and not the jury, can be said to know what happened between them during those sessions, beyond reasonable doubt. The testimonies of those who have heretofore refused to come forward would be required to tip the scales. While the value of using reasonable doubt as a standard for judging criminal acts, especially rape, may be debated, as might the Satmar community’s business dealings and handling of teenage behavior, Weberman was not on trial for his community or his business dealings, though at times this seemed like the DA’s central and more damning argument against him.

Batya Ungar-Sargon is a Brooklyn-based freelance writer who teaches at CUNY’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice.



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