When Nechemya Weberman was found guilty and was sentenced to 103 years in prison for repeatedly raping a girl who he was supposed to be counseling, most thought the grisly tale was over. This was a record sentence for a Hasidic man convicted in a Brooklyn courtroom. The counselor had fallen, and his cloistered Satmar community — a shtetl in the shadow of the world’s hipster capital, Williamsburg Brooklyn — had cracked open, revealing secrets.
The victim, a minor whose identity is protected by the court, made headlines for withstanding four days of brutal testimony. Both Weberman’s defense and the prosecution later agreed that she was the best witness they had ever seen. Press coverage praised her courage and resolve in combating not just her abuser, but also her own community, which, rather than supporting her, united to raise funds for Weberman’s legal fees.
Even Rebbe Aaron Teitelbaum, the dynastic community leader, outrageously asked, “Is our sister to be like a whore?” The tale seemed well cast and clear cut: heroine, villain, justice.
Covering the case for Newsweek and The Daily Beast, I saw Nechemya Weberman’s wife, Chaya Weberman, in court every day. It became clear that this was a story of not one woman, but two: the traditional heroine — the victim, now a young and beautiful newlywed — and the wife who stood beside her husband as shame cloaked all he touched. I wanted to know that woman.
In court, where the seating was gender segregated like at a religious wedding, the victim’s supporters wore expensive wigs and big jewels, announcing an Orthodoxy that was more modern, while Weberman’s small female faction dressed in funeral black with Old World hats attached to somber wigs. They didn’t smile. Who could blame them?
My eyes met Chaya Weberman’s while waiting for our bags to be searched by court police. Each day she sat beside her husband in the gallery before proceedings began. She was often with a daughter, or with her husband’s sister, women who stared coldly and wouldn’t return hellos. Looking calm and grim, Chaya Weberman nodded in recognition.
After Nechemya Weberman had been shipped to prison in upstate New York, I called his wife again and again, learning more about her and her husband and their 10 children each time, asking repeatedly when we could meet.
She told me that she and her husband had first met, like most Satmar couples, under the gaze of their parents. She liked him from the start, thought him kind and imagined they could make a life together. I told her I remembered first meeting the man who would become my husband, the first Jew I’d ever dated, and thinking the same thing.