Shomrim by the Forward

For Orthodox Brooklyn’s private police, a code of silence hides domestic abuse

Photo by Deborah Svoboda

New York’s Community District 12, which covers the Borough Park neighborhood of Brooklyn, has by far the city’s lowest reported rate of domestic violence: 459 incidents per 100,000 residents in the most recent year the police department has published data.

But that doesn’t mean the largely Haredi community does not have a domestic violence problem. In fact, an analysis of crime data and court records, coupled with interviews of abuse victims, social workers, police officers and experts, show that the low rate instead reflects a code of silence in the insular religious enclave — and, until recently, a longstanding — if unwritten — agreement between the authorities and Orthodox leaders to let the community handle the problem internally.

“In Borough Park they like things taken care of in-house,” said Yael Machtinger, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice who studies domestic violence in religious communities. “It’s definitely part of the culture that they don’t really want to be airing out their dirty laundry.”

Women from Borough Park and other Orthodox neighborhoods in the New York area described nightmare scenarios in which their husbands coerced them into having sex by invoking the authority of God, withheld money for household necessities and used GPS to track their movements. They told of being thrown to the ground while in late stages of pregnancy — or of watching their partners beat their children.

And they shared stories of seeking help from rabbinic and civil authorities, only to find themselves subjected to surveillance, harassment or the loss of their children in custody proceedings. This cycle has had profound consequences, intimidating victims into not reporting crimes, and shielding abusers from consequences.

Henny Kupferstein, a former Borough Park resident who grew up in the Belz Hasidic sect, said in a series of interviews that she faced stigma, community hostility and the loss of her children when she finally left her husband and accused him of domestic abuse.

“Literally gang warfare — mafia tactics,” Kupferstein said. “Ganging up, harassment that comes in a way that is presented as a holy task.”

Domestic violence is widely underreported, with survivors of all races and religions balancing their desire for justice against risks including dissolution of their families, loss of household income, potential for retaliation and government intrusion into their private lives. A 2017 federal study suggested that more than 40%of domestic assaults are never reported to law enforcement. And experts say that reporting rates are lowest among immigrants who fear that calling 911 could lead to deportation and insular religious communities like Haredi, or ultra-Orthodox, Jews.

An analysis of New York Police Department data from 2018, the last publicly reported year, shows that Borough Park’s domestic-violence rate was 37% of the Brooklyn average. The disparity persists when accounting for overall crime rate as well as neighborhood poverty and unemployment, which the Centers for Disease Control identify as risk factors for domestic violence.

Two former officers in New York’s 66th precinct, which includes Borough Park, said that for years the area had two unequal methods of law enforcement: one for Orthodox perpetrators and one for everybody else.

The officers, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of potential retaliation and career consequences, said that until a series of corruption indictments involving Borough Park businessman Jeremy Reichberg shook the NYPD in 2016, officers would routinely decline to arrest Haredi men for misdemeanors, letting the community take care of its own. One of the officers said that if his colleagues did not accommodate requests for special treatment, they would get calls from their superiors telling them to get in line.

A spokeswoman for the NYPD, Sgt. Jessica McRorie, said in response to emailed questions that the 66th Precinct now conducts domestic violence outreach at least twice per month, including answering questions at community meetings and handing out pamphlets at train stations, hospitals, supermarkets and outside of doctor’s offices.

“The Department is committed to serving all communities in the City of New York,” McRorie said.

But the two former 66th officers, several women in the community, and others said that the all-male Orthodox watch groups called Shomrim — Hebrew for “guards” — were sometimes the first responders to domestic disputes, allowing incidents to escape notice by civil authorities. The Borough Park Shomrim received as much as $30,000 in annual city funding for years until 2018; the Flatbush chapter continues to get public money, with city contracts and grants to the organization totalling at least $56,000 in 2020.

The former 66th officers said the precinct relied on the Shomrim’s volunteers, who patrol in police-blue windbreakers with triangular badges on their sleeves, to keep them abreast of disturbances and street crime, leveraging their deep community ties and Yiddish fluency.

(Nearly 33% of Community District 12 has limited English proficiency, according to the American Community Survey, well above the city average of just under 23%. The NYPD said last year in response to a Freedom of Information Law request that it employs four Yiddish-speaking officers in Brooklyn, but none were stationed in the 66th precinct.)

In the mid-2000s, the former 66th officers said, Shomrim would virtually never notify police if they learned of a domestic assault. And while the Borough Park chapter now says its policy is to report all domestic violence to the police, a leading member of the organization suggested in an interview that does not always happen.

“If we can straighten it out, we straighten it out,” said Berish Freilich, a Shomrim coordinator and former Jewish liaison for the New York State Police.

The coronavirus pandemic intensified challenges around domestic violence in Orthodox areas as in many communities. Shana Frydman, executive director of the Shalom Task Force, which runs a domestic-violence hotline, said demand for services spiked 80% last summer, and that the group responded by offering more online programs and accelerating rollout of text-based help via WhatsApp.

“Early in the pandemic, the calls we were getting were more significant physical violence,” she said, adding that over the last year she has seen more women ready to contact the police. “People are willing to talk about domestic violence in the communities like we’ve never seen before.”

Frydman and other experts explained why Haredi women are under particular pressure not to involve the police in domestic disputes: mesirah, a code dating back more than 1,000 years that prohibits reporting a fellow Jew to civil authorities without rabbinic permission. “There are still some communities that consider it against the tradition to use criminal justice, or go to secular courts at all,” she explained.

Though growing numbers of Orthodox rabbis say mesirah should not apply to child abuse or domestic violence, Brooklyn’s Haredim — who have spent decades nurturing a highly traditional way of life that was nearly eradicated during the Holocaust — still abide by it. All disputes that do not involve immediate danger to human life are supposed to be resolved by tribunals of rabbis known as beit din.

One Haredi domestic-abuse victim, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of repercussions in her ongoing custody case, said that her children were not allowed to return to their religious school after she reported her husband to the police. In an email she sent to the Brooklyn District Attorney in 2012, the woman said that the school also refused to honor an order of protection the children had against their father.

“We were excommunicated pretty much,” she said. ”They said they asked a rabbi and they said they don’t have to take the kid back.”

Trying to escape

It was an overcast and unseasonably warm November day in 2009 when Kupferstein, the woman who described “mafia-like tactics,” finally decided she had suffered enough.

The cries of her young child through an apartment window after her husband, Victor, allegedly locked Kupferstein out of the family home. The slurs, delivered in Yiddish — “witch,” “dog,” and worse. And the weight of her husband as Kupferstein lay underneath him, weeping through desperately unwanted but religiously obligatory sex.

“I was just crying the whole time,” Kupferstein, now 43, said in an interview. “Think of this from the perspective of someone who believes, quite strongly, that this act is something that God wants you to do.”

Kupferstein’s husband declined to comment in a phone call, and did not respond to letters detailing his ex-wife’s account of their marriage. In family court transcripts, his attorney disputed her descriptions of the marriage and accused her of emotionally harming her children by putting them through unnecessary autism treatments.

When she left her marriage after 13 years, Kupferstein spent a week trying to enter a domestic-violence shelter with her four young children, then went to family court for an emergency custody order. But seeking help came at a high cost — including eventually losing custody of her children.

She found what she thought was a lifeline of hope at the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office, where she met Henna White, a Chabad-Lubavitch woman and longtime liaison between the D.A. and Brooklyn’s Orthodox communities. White had been appointed to lead a program called Kol Tzedek — Hebrew for “voice of the righteous” — that the D.A., Charles Hynes, launched in 2009 after facing criticism for lack of action against Orthodox abusers. Kupferstein was grateful for what she thought was White’s sympathetic ear.

As they talked in her office in the Brooklyn Supreme Court building, Kupferstein recalled in an interview, White summoned two social workers, and told Kupferstein to give them her cell-phone number and her husband’s. Kupferstein said White then directed her downstairs to family court, where she could apply for an emergency order of protection

“She said ‘Oh my God, this is horrible, I’m going to make sure the rabbis get involved,’ ” Kupferstein recalled.

She filed the paperwork. Hours later, she was sitting in the second row of a hearing room with her infant and her four-year-old child, waiting for her petition to be called, when she saw someone she did not expect: her husband, who she said was “with a man who looked like a lawyer.”

“They were rushing together, they whispered something to the clerk,” Kupferstein recalled. “The door was opened, they went in for about 15 minutes, and when they exited they ran out of the building.”

A court officer told Kupferstein that her husband had filed a counterclaim for custody, and she should go home and wait to be served.

The delay was disappointing. But the sense of betrayal was worse. According to Kupferstein, the lawyer who had appeared with her husband was Asher White — the husband of Henna White, the very woman who hours earlier had expressed sympathy for her plight. White’s alleged appearance may have been an informal favor; no attorney is listed on a copy of her husband’s custody request, and a different lawyer appeared on the husband’s behalf in later hearings.

For Kupferstein, there was only one explanation: the district attorney’s liaison, who was supposed to help victims like her, had instead tipped her husband off and thwarted her petition.

“Asher White and my husband had their petition heard before mine so they could have a leg up in the case,” Kupferstein said.

Neither Henna White, who went on to teach at Touro College, nor Asher White, who runs a private legal practice, responded to requests for comment.

Michael Lesher, an attorney and community activist, and a blogger who tracks child sex-abuse cases in Haredi communities under the pseudonym Yerachmiel Lopin, both said in separate interviews that they had heard stories of Asher White, a family attorney, working on the other side of cases Henna White was involved in, but they could not point to specific instances.

The Orthodox liaison position was eliminated after Hynes left office in 2013, said Oren Yaniv, a current spokesman for the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office. Instead of singling out the Jewish community for special attention, Yaniv said, it is now served alongside other groups by the D.A.’s Family Justice Center.

“We have a lot of meetings with members of the Jewish community in different settings,” he said, adding that the D.A.’s office offers access to Jewish social-service and domestic-violence agencies.

‘They are the law’

Few men in New York have walked the line between shul and state for as long as Berish Freilich.

Freilich, a Hasidic rabbi who lives in Borough Park, was named the New York State Police liaison to the Jewish community in 1995. He kept the job for 16 years, until his misuse of official perks — a State Police badge, a public vehicle and emergency lights — led to his resignation in 2011. (His salary that year was $100,000, records show.)

But Freilich’s interest in public safety has not abated. He is a board member of the Borough Park Shomrim, and says that ties between the Shomrim and the 66th Precinct are as strong now as they were before the 2016 corruption scandal. One of the men convicted in that case was a Shomrim member who bribed NYPD officials to obtain gun licenses.

Shomrim leaders are meeting again with precinct officials to coordinate response to crime and share information, Frielich said in an interview, as part of the group’s role as the “eyes and ears of the police department.”

“The idea for everybody was let’s give it a bit of breathing space for a while and let this whole thing pass ‘til they went to a trial,” he said of the people charged in the corruption cases. “Lately, everything started again.”

For decades, the Shomrim have served as a de-facto auxiliary police force in New York’s Haredi neighborhoods, bridging language and cultural barriers between the NYPD and insular Jewish communities skeptical of police involvement in their affairs. Before the indictments, Shomrim regularly met with NYPD officials. And the group continued to get $30,000 a year from the City Council for two years afterward.

“They are the first people you call — that’s just accepted in the community; they are the law,” said Lesher, the community activist and attorney who has written books about the Orthodox community’s response to child sex abuse. “If they show up at the site of a domestic quarrel, they will generally tell them not to report to the police.

Marc Katz, president of the Borough Park Shomrim, said the group effectively acts as the neighborhood’s 311 service.

“They will call us many times before they call 911,” he said of neighborhood residents. “Sometimes there might be a language barrier. They will call us, so when the cops come, we can be the spokesperson to speak to the officers, let them know what is going on.”

A special relationship

The NYPD — and the 66th Precinct in particular — has a long, checkered and at times corrupt history with Brooklyn’s Hasidic establishment, according to court records and interviews with former precinct officers.

In the 1990s and early 2000s, the 66 regularly gave special treatment to Hasidic people who were suspected of crimes, the two former 66 officers with direct knowledge of the precinct during that time period said. That preferential treatment continued at least through the mid 2010s, said one of the officers, who continued working in Brooklyn through those years.

Officers arresting Hasidic men were expected to call their supervisors first. Misdemeanors were frequently left for community leaders to resolve without charges — a courtesy not extended to other ethnic groups in the precinct, both officers said. Sergeants were expected to expedite paperwork for Hasidic men who were arrested, allowing them to be released from lockup more quickly than other suspects. Officers would drive rabbis in their squad cars to central booking to bring kosher food to Hasidic detainees, one of the officers said.

“We knew we had to kind of cater and give preferential treatment,” the officer said.

Police officials respected Hasidic leaders’ political clout — they regularly turn out thousands of people who vote in a bloc that can have outsized influence on low-turnout local elections — and appreciated the community’s willingness to cooperate with investigations. When the perpetrators were not Orthodox Jews, officers in the 66 often relied on Shomrim to make them aware of incidents.

That practice virtually guaranteed that domestic assaults remained hidden, the two officers said. One said that while Shomrim of that era were a “tremendous asset” in investigating most street crime, there was virtually no chance they would notify police of domestic violence.

“They would probably be more likely to take a guy to Monsey for a week and figure out what to do,” the officer said.

Domestic violence cases in the 1990s and early 2000s often did not even reach the ears of the Shomrim, said Katz, who has been a director of the group since at least 2003.

“If there was a husband and wife beating up each other they would go to their local rabbi, and whatever happened with them in their local rabbi’s happened,” Katz said. “Times changed.”

The Shomrim’s unease with giving police too clear a view into their communities continued into the 2010s. In 2011, after the abduction and murder of Leiby Kletzky, an 8-year-old Borough Park boy, shook the community, neighborhood leaders called for the installation of security cameras on public streets. The idea had broad public support, and state legislators quickly secured a grant to make it a reality.

But Jacob Daskal, who led the Borough Park Shomrim at the time, had concerns. If the NYPD had unfettered access to the cameras, he told the Forward in 2012, officers might learn of domestic assaults that families wanted to keep secret.

“The camera is very good for the community, but if it’s a private thing,” Daskal said then. “If it’s a public thing, it might hurt a person who doesn’t want to arrest her husband for domestic violence.”

The cameras have not been operational since 2016, when the initial grant to run them ran out.

In 2018, Daskal himself was charged with statutory rape and sexual abuse for allegedly abusing a 15-year-old girl at his home in Brooklyn. In February of this year, a federal grand jury also indicted Daskal on charges of taking his alleged victim across state lines and enticing or coercing her into having sex. He has pleaded not guilty to both the federal and state charges, and is awaiting trial.

In 2015, the special relationship between the NYPD and the Shomrim faced its greatest test.

Alex Lichtenstein, a Shomrim member known as Shaya, was indicted by federal authorities and later convicted of bribing NYPD officials to secure gun licenses for other Hasidim — including one for a man with a history of domestic violence, according to court documents.

And Officer James Grant, who for years was a key liaison between the NYPD and the Hasidic community, was charged with accepting bribes from a businessman that included a private-jet trip to Las Vegas for him, another NYPD detective, two high-dollar donors to Mayor Bill de Blasio and a call girl. Grant was found not guilty of those charges in January 2019.

Still, Katz — the Borough Park Shomrim director — said in a recent interview that the Shomrim’s bond with the NYPD is as strong as ever.

“As for Borough Park Shomrim and the 66, our relationship stayed, our relationship is close,” Katz said. “We need the NYPD and the NYPD uses us to work with the community.”

He also said that “when it comes to domestic violence, we don’t want to get involved. The cops are always called.”

But Freilich, a Borough Park Shomrim board member, said the volunteers still frequently try to resolve domestic disputes without notifying police when there is no restraining order or immediate threat of further violence.

“If there’s an order of protection, the police are always involved,” he said. “If there’s not an order of protection, it’s a small item, somebody calls, they try to see if they can straighten it out or take them to the rabbinical court.”

NYPD precincts, including the 66, now have dedicated domestic-violence police officers who hold public meetings to make women aware of how they can seek help. But one advocate who worked with officers in Borough Park said that while many residents attend the outreach sessions, few follow up.

And, the advocate said, victims in her assigned cases are often reluctant to confide in her.

“They just say, ‘Everything’s OK, nothing happened, I’m fine.’ But the police report is telling me different,” said the advocate, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because she was not authorized to speak to the press. “I’ve had reports that say they’ve been beat up and hair pulled and dragged down the street, and they’re still saying they’re fine.”

Slipping through the cracks

Sheindy Weichman met her husband through a matchmaker, as is typical in the Williamsburg Hasidic community where she grew up. They married when she was 18, and she was miserable. Within three months she stopped having sex with him, but he refused to consider divorce, Weichman said in an interview.

“I was completely alone,” Weichman said. “I had no one. I had no friends. I was married and I was supposed to be happy.” Instead, she recalled, all she could think was: “You’re here forever.”

Seeing no way out that would allow her to keep custody of her son, who was born in 2006, she stayed.

“Please God help me, I don’t want to lose my son,” Weichman wrote in a journal in March 2013.

In July of 2015, Weichman filed a police report alleging verbal abuse and accusing her husband of taking their son from the home without saying where they were going. Police found that it was not a criminal matter and no charges were filed.

A month later, Weichman took her son to stay for a weekend at the apartment of a friend who was going away. Her husband sent a text message demanding she bring the boy back home.

When she refused, Weichman recalled, he came to the apartment and banged on the door for minutes as she huddled in a bedroom with her son. She called the police, but by the time they arrived, he was gone. The officers took a report and called the next day to follow up, but her complaint did not lead to an arrest.

The friend’s husband, who was in the house at the time, confirmed Weichman’s account in a separate interview. Weichman’s husband did not answer a certified letter seeking comment, nor a follow-up letter sent last month.

In transcripts of family-court proceedings, Weichman’s husband said that she had pushed him out of the apartment when he tried to talk to her.

A month after this incident, Weichman called the police again, alleging that her husband had screamed at her and their son; police again found that no crime had been committed.

Four years passed before Weichman called the police again, in October 2019, and was connected with a 66th precinct officer specializing in domestic violence.

They texted back and forth; Weichman wanted to set up a meeting somewhere other than the police station because her son, who was then 13, was scared to go inside. The officer was polite and accommodating, offering translation services if her son preferred to speak Yiddish, according to the text messages, which Weichman shared with a reporter.

But when Weichman texted to confirm the meeting the day before it was scheduled, the officer did not respond. The next day, Weichman went to the 66th Precinct and was told that the domestic-violence advocate stationed there did not deal with anyone under age 14.

By the time the officer texted her that afternoon, Weichman had lost faith in the system.

“I made it clear that my son would not feel at all comfortable or safe walking into the precinct,” she texted the officer. “And now it’s all for nothing. I don’t know when he’ll next be off from school and with me. This gave me so much hope and now I just feel defeated.”

God’s law

From within a squat, pale-bricked duplex in Borough Park, in a conference room at the top of a narrow staircase, Rabbis Asher Landau, Reuven Alt and Samuel Gurwitz dispense judgment.

They make up the Bais Yosef Beit Din — one of a multitude of rabbinical courts used by Orthodox Jews in Brooklyn. The laws of New York State consider them arbitrators, and their decisions — when parties sign agreements — are enforceable in civil court. Within the Haredi world, they are the main venue for handling legal affairs, including contracts, marriages, disputes over stolen goods and assault.

Rabbinic courts are, therefore, a bridge between two worlds that are sometimes in tension. They rule on issues that concern civil authorities, but ultimately hold themselves accountable to God, not the state.

“Jews have to go in front of a Jewish court that abides by the Jewish laws to adjudicate any differences of opinion that we have,” Landau said in an interview. “Whether it’s divorce, whether it’s civil, monetary, problems with neighbors, any of these things.”

Before a religious woman can pursue a divorce in civil court, for example, she must receive a document known as a “get” from her husband and the religious court. Advocates for Orthodox women see husbands’ refusal to provide the “get” as a form of domestic abuse; it is often wielded over women as leverage to obtain financial and custody concessions. Women whose husbands deny them a divorce are known as agunot, Hebrew for “chained women.”

Landau said he and his fellow rabbis use all the tools at their disposal to help agunot. But they will not help women who seek alimony in their civil divorce cases or use the legal system to pressure their husbands to release them, saying those women are violating Jewish law.

“They run to court and they get whatever they want and then they say they want a get,” Gurwitz said. “That’s not an agunah.”

As for domestic abuse, Landau stressed that if “there’s an imminent threat of violence,” women should go to the police, adding: “The rabbinical court is not the place.”

But the rabbis said theirs is the proper venue to handle allegations of abuse that do not involve an immediate physical danger. While civil courts are generally neutral about whether couples should split up, the religious tribunal will try to help them reconcile and restore shalom bayit — peace in the house.

“Unless proven otherwise, everything is salvageable,” Gurwitz said.

A growing number of Orthodox rabbinic groups, though, are carving domestic violence out as an issue that should not be handled internally. In 2017, leaders of the Chabad Hasidic movement released a statement calling for the immediate reporting of domestic abuse to secular authorities.

And the Beit Din of America, a religious court that serves modern Orthodox Jews, considers such cases outside its purview.

”The way we deal with any issue related to domestic violence is tell people to report it to police,” said Shlomo Weissman, the court’s director. “Any kind of domestic abuse is going to be handled in this country by a criminal authority. There is not really a legitimate private setting for resolving domestic abuse allegations.”

Dan Glaun is a freelance journalist. This article began as his master’s thesis at Columbia Journalism School’s Stabile Center for Investigative Reporting, where he graduated in 2020. Contact him at dglaun@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter.

Author

For Orthodox Brooklyn’s private police, a code of silence hides domestic abuse

Your Comments

The Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. All readers can browse the comments, and all Forward subscribers can add to the conversation. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Forward requires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not and will be deleted. Egregious commenters or repeat offenders will be banned from commenting. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and the Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Recommend this article

For Orthodox Brooklyn’s private police, a code of silence hides domestic abuse

Thank you!

This article has been sent!

Close