There is a lot of media coverage devoted to Nechemya Weberman, the alleged child molester. But equally important in understanding this man is recognizing that he is also an alleged extortionist. Shortly after he his arrest last year I posted Who Will Watch the Watchers. As his trial draws near I am re-posting that article for those of my readers who are new to my blog.
Who Will Watch the Watchers?
Two thousand years ago, Juvenal, the satirist of the corrupt Roman legal system asked, quis custodiet ipsos custodies, Who will watch the watchers? This question is timeless. It is not just that power corrupts; corrupt people seek power.
Nechemaya Weberman, faces multiple felony indictments for sexually assaulting a girl between the time she was twelve and fifteen. Weberman found his niche in the subterranean world of Williamsburg’s watchers, the Vaad Hatznius (Modesty Committee). Some people insist he was once a decent honest fellow. If so, he may have learned to be devious by watching the business shenanigans of his peers. I am told he worked for David Niederman’s United Jewish Organizations (UJO). He could have learned a lot about skullduggery working for him.
Weberman entered a new stage in his career when he became one of the watchers over five years ago. Yosef Duvid Kraus is considered the head of the Williamsburg Vaad. Weberman was one of its important activists. His neighbors say he is a successful businessman who voluntarily gives up his time to promote modesty. It is not clear if his business succeeded on its own or is a front for laundering his profits from the Vaad and is maintained by hired managers.
You may ask, how can promoting modesty be so profitable? Your question would betray your naivete You are imagining an old-fashioned Vaad, which finds out about sexual misconduct, warns the offender, and if that fails, escalates to harassment, public humiliations or even violence. But we have entered a bold new world in which the Vaad extorts money in the guise of helping the family of an offender protect its reputation.
According to our tradition, a “good reputation is better than precious oil” (tov shem mishemen tov). These days a good reputation greases all transactions. Reputations determine whether kids are admitted to schools or expelled. Marriage matches are made or broken on reputation. When marriages fail, reputation can affect the financial terms and custody arrangements. At every stage, reputation matters.
Here is how the new scam works. One guy from the Vaad shows up and says to Mr. or Mrs. Ploni Almoni, “We are sorry to have to tell you, your teenager was hanging out with the wrong element on the edges of Williamsburg. Her school found out, and they will expel her.” The “wrong element” might be one of the cliques of rogue Hasidic teenagers who gather in coed groups and talk to each other. Sometimes a little more happens, and in rare cases, a lot more.
Now the parents are in panic. They can see their daughter’s reputation and marriage prospects falling over the cliff and dragging down the family with them. The parents simmer in anxiety while they wait for the next blow. But, as we say, “the remedy exists before the affliction.” During a follow-up visit the Vaad suggests therapy. “Simple, send your daughter to a therapist, the school will hold off on expulsion, and she will be straightened out.”
However, they are not talking about a licensed professional but a “Torah therapist”selected by the Vaad. The fee is around $250 for a one hour session, there are 1-2 sessions a week, and the therapy lasts for 10-20 weeks or more. There is no insurance coverage and fees are not negotiable. Nevertheless, desperate parents cough up the money. The bite depends on the Vaad’s mood and their estimates of the vulnerability and financial situation of the family. I have heard figures in the range of $10,000 to $30,000. A good name is precious; it is also very expensive when you buy it from the Vaad.
Variants of this scam can be deployed against anyone, boy, girl, adult philanderer, etc. Other variants of this scam are applied to couples in marital and custody disputes. Sometimes it involves services other than therapy. The common denominator to all these scams is a threat to reputation followed by financial extortion disguised as the purchase of services.
The Vaad was also into catching people on tape and video. The added bonus is this situation was the ability to indefinitely keep the recorded material to be used for blackmail. When it did that it also charged exhorbitant fees for the cost of recording. I sometimes wonder how much of B & H’s business came from the Vaad.
Weberman was definitely involved in such scams, sometimes by making referrals to another Torah therapist and sometimes by taking money from both sides in a martial dispute. In the case involving the girl he allegedly raped Weberman was the Torah therapist.
It is widely known in the abuse advocacy community that Yaakov Yagen, a Torah therapist, also used the office on Classon Avenue where Weberman allegedly assaulted this girl. Yagen, who started in the therapy business with Weberman later set up an office in Monsey, NY, where he saw people referred by Weberman and others.
There is a lot of tension between the brothers Zalman Leib (headquartered in Williamsburg) and Aaron (based in Kiryas Joel) each of whom claims to be the only true Satmar Rebbe. The competing factions regularly sabatoge each other and sometimes come to blows. However, Weberman’s Zaali aligned Vaad and the KJ Aaroni Vaad cooperate when it comes to the bite.
Let’s return to Juvenal’s question, quis custodiet ipsos custodies, who will watch the watchers? Jew’s asked the same question about negius (conflicts of interest) during the Roman Era. When it came to sexual propriety, Jews concluded aiyn apitropos l’aroyos, (you cannot be your own guardian). Men are not supposed to be alone behind locked doors with unrelated females who have reached puberty, even if all parties involved are considered upright and G-d fearing. Williamsburg’s hasidic community has gone far beyond the requirements of Jewish law in restricting interactions between the sexes. It is a thoroughly sexually segregated community.
- How then did a member of a Vaad Hatznius end up alone with a twelve-year-old girl?
- Why wasn’t a female therapist seeing this teen girl?
- Why isn’t the Vaad HaTznius chastising Weberman for violating their norms even if they believe he is innocent of the criminal charges?
When all the details become known, I believe. this will be much more than a story of sex abuse. It will be the sad story of a community that has descended into hypocrisy, corruption and tyranny, all in the name of torah and tznius.