How the Evan Zauder Pre-Sentencing Letters Harmed Victims

This article by Meira Bayar Ellias* and Rahel Bayar* first appeared in the New Jersey Jewish Standard (5/2/14) with the title Taking Care of the Victims and is posted here with the kind permission of the authors and the editor of the Standard. For background to the controversy about pre-sentencing letters written on behalf of Evan Zauder see David Cheifetz’s Pelcovitz and Leading Orthodox Rabbis Line Up Behind Sex Offender Evan Zauder. Also see other posts in Frum Follies searching the tag, Zauder. (Yerachmiel Lopin)

TAKING CARE OF THE VICTIMS

We are sisters. One of us is a former child abuse and sex crimes prosecutor. One of us is a licensed social worker who has worked clinically with victims of sexual abuse and is also a victim of sexual assault. One of us is a member of the Orthodox community. One of us was a member of the Orthodox community. We are writing about the case of Evan Zauder.

Evan Zauder

Evan Zauder

For those who do not know, Evan Zauder was a teacher at Yeshivat Noam in Paramus. He worked for more than a decade with children through youth groups, including at Congregation Bnai Yeshurun in Teaneck, and in summer camps. In January 2013, Zauder pled guilty to transportation, receipt and distribution of child pornography, possession of child pornography and enticement of a minor to engage in illegal sexual activity. He admitted committing sex crimes against children.

Much has been debated regarding the multitude of letters sent on behalf of Zauder to the federal judge determining his sentence. (He was sentenced to 13 years in prison last month.) More than 50 letters were sent by rabbis, teachers, friends, and family members asking the judge for leniency. The letters came from those who are pillars of the Orthodox community, individuals who have been drawn to “helping professions.” As we looked at this list we saw many names we know, some peripherally, some personally. These are intelligent, kind, and valued members of their communities. They are not evil. Yet the words they used were not intelligent, kind, or of value. In their own words many referred to Zauder’s “mistake” when they were talking about the crimes he committed, the “struggle” he was going through, that he is a “good and decent person who lost control.” They laud the time he spent alone with students and campers, stating he was always “honorable, respectful and caring” in the time he spent with these children.

These letters, available in the public domain and on the Internet, have provoked much comment with regard to the many “big names” who wrote them on Zauder’s behalf. They asked the judge to consider all that made him an integral part of their community. They asked the judge to see him as other than his admitted crimes of pornography and molestation. They ignored the fact that he violated his own parole by accessing child pornography on a monitored computer. They argue that Zauder’s worth to the community as an educator and leader should mitigate his punishment. In making their case, they forget that the victims are more than just victims.

They are children.

scales of justice and childIt is unacceptable to call pedophilia, child molestation, or child pornography heinous “activities.” These are not “activities,” these are crimes. It is unconscionable to call what Zauder did a “poor decision,” that now he understands the “error of his ways,” and that he made a “grievous mistake.” It is horrific to think that someone actually could tell the judge that he has watched Zauder interact with children and that he was always “honorable, respectful, caring and gentlemanly” and the “consummate professional.” It is unforgivable to hear someone praise Zauder for struggling with his “problem.” These words minimize the acts.

As we read these letters we saw little consideration for the victims. If we could we would question those who praised Zauder’s restraint for the numerous times he was alone with children and did not succumb. Should he be applauded for showing restraint? How does the writer know these children were safe? How could a child ever feel comfortable coming forward when they see the name of their role model and protector on the list of people requesting leniency for Zauder? The pertinent question is not how best to come to the aid of the predator in our midst. Instead, the question is how as a community can we reach out, protect defenseless children from them, and create a space where these children feel supported and not re-victimized by their community.

One of us was assaulted on a yeshiva class trip. While the teacher informed responded appropriately, the other educators blamed me for the assault. After I left the program early and returned home, a prominent educator in the school called me a quitter and told my parents that I was a failure. That moment was the start of a journey away from a toxic environment, and away from Orthodoxy.

We cannot help but wonder how many others have suffered in similar manner. Perhaps if Zauder’s supporters were more aware of the harmful effects of their words we could stop this process of invalidating the victims.

One of us remains in the Orthodox community but lives with trepidation. In the year 2014, where is the understanding that when community members neutralize a perpetrator’s crimes by praising his “leadership qualities” they negate the seriousness of his crimes? They create a communal false sense of security and allow misperceptions about child abuse to permeate our collective understanding. Furthermore, it is sad to realize how many good people went to bat for a convicted child molester. How can we trust our educators, schools, camps, and leaders to keep our children safe after this?

These letters give voice to this ongoing problem. The question must be asked: Who is of greater value to the community — our children or those who prey upon them?

These letters raise the likelihood that the next victim may not speak out. We have a moral obligation to give our children a safe place to share. We do not have a coequal obligation to speak on behalf of our criminals.

*Meira Bayar Ellias and Rahel Bayar

Rahel Bayar, a practicing attorney, is a former child abuse and sex crimes prosecutor. She is the author of “Pikuach Nefesh, To Save a Life: A Jewish Response to Domestic Violence” (Ikkar Publishing, 2003), and has facilitated many trainings on recognizing and preventing abuse within the Jewish community.
Meira Bayar Ellias, LSW, has worked with victims of sexual abuse and other violent crimes in New York City through the Kingsbridge Heights Community Center in the Bronx and the Greenwich House Children’s Safety Project in Manhattan. While at Columbia University for her masters, she conducted research and wrote on the affects of sexual abuse on members of the Orthodox community.

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30 thoughts on “How the Evan Zauder Pre-Sentencing Letters Harmed Victims

  1. Kudos! It appears clear that our communities are breeding a new generation of professionals who have the brains and the chutzpah to realize what our “leaders” are doing. It is time for us to take up the charge to hold their feet to the fire. Clearly, there is little to no difference between what Dr. Pelcovitz advocated and what R’ Belsky did.

  2. This letter is bang on. Well done to Meira and Rachel for writing it. We should remember, child abusers ARE PREDATORS, they pray on the week and often seek out professions to be near kids, not to help them but to HAVE ACCESS TO THEM SO THEY CAN MOLEST THEM! All those times he was being nice to kids he was just grooming them and figuring out which ones were the easy victims.

  3. A perfect parable of the moral bankruptcy of Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox Judaism. Circle the wagons, protect the adult criminal. No outrage.

    Where is the holiness and goodness here? It resides within the children – certainly not within the religious leadership. Sickening and infuriating and no, it doesn’t make it any less so to know that the Catholics do the same.

  4. I happen to personally know many of the people who wrote letters on his behalf, and none of those people knew about his physical sex crimes at the time. They were all under the impression that he had only used his computer to download things. at the time to call to write letters on his behalf was issued, h is other crimes had not yet come to light. please bear that in mind, nobody knew that there were any physical victims.

    • The plea bargain language makes it very clear he used the internet to entice boys into sexual activity and actually had such activity with at least one of them.

      If rabbis or professionals write pre-sentencing letters to defend a molester they should at least take the effort to read the plea bargain. Is that too much to ask? Do you want to trust a rabbi or professional who makes decisions in willful ignorance. Instead, they seemed to have relied on requests based on one-sided information.

      Sadly, these same people often defend a molester’s innocence with the same sort of one-sided information.

      • The emails asking people to write letters on his behalf went out on February 10th, or possibly before. When was all the information made public? I was asked to write a letter but i declined because of this exact reason – all of you people slinging names through the mud and bringing everyone down with the Evan ship. Of course sex crimes are terrible, but if you are honestly thinking that my friends and relatives would have EVER written a letter had they known about the oral sex or whatever, you are sorely mistaken. I warned my loved ones not to write letters, citing this EXACT eventuality, but they felt bad for someone who they knew at a different point in their lives that they thought at the time had only viewed things on his computer. If you could see my inbox and facebook messages (which I won’t share), you will see messages from my upset friends and relatives whose names are now public when they were assured they could write letters anonymously, and did not know about the physical sex crimes. Whoops.
        But you people need to calm down. I get that you might have been molested or might have a vendetta against Orthodox Judaism or whatever is going on here, and I’m sorry for your pain and the pain of your loved ones, but this malicious cabal of Evan sycophants that you are conjuring up in your vitriol just simply doesn’t exist. Nobody is rushing to his defense; they just felt sorry for someone they thought had limited his urges to internet/computer only, and wrote letters for him. Nobody was intentionally forgetting the victims here because almost nobody knew that there were.
        And these apologies you are looking for will not come – these people are mortified that their names are in the public sphere already and don’t want to bring anymore undue attention to their google-able names. Just get over it. He’s in jail, and his “supporters” to were at best unaware and at worst naive. Nobody intended to hurt anyone here.

        • The simple Google search, “evan zauder pled guilty” immediately turns up a press release on the FBI site dated January 22, 2013. The first sentence is “Preet Bharara, the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York, announced today that Evan Zauder, a former sixth-grade teacher at a private school in New Jersey, pled guilty in Manhattan federal court to charges of using the Internet to entice a minor to engage in illegal sexual activity and to receipt, distribution, and possession of child pornography. (emphasis added).

          I commend you for your prudence in not relying on a one-sided representation of the facts by his attorney. I think the lesson is not to refuse to write letters for defendants but only to do so after considering the facts and thinking about the victims along with the perpetrator.

          Most of the critics are not accusing the letter writers of intending to aid and abet child molesting, but of indifference and insensitivity.

          I also feel that there needs to be much more awareness that distributing child pornography is not a victimless crime. There is a high correlation between child pornography involvement on the Internet and physical sexual abuse. Children had to be exploited to create the videos. Survivors of Internet broadcast child porn have to live with knowing that for eternity, someone, somewhere will be getting off on watching them being debased. Imagine your own legitimate adult sexual intimacy captured in vivid detail and being broadcast every day. Imagine the licentuous stares, laughter and sexual stimulation of other viewers. Now multiply that invasion with the thought that it was rape rather than consensual and it happened while you were a helpless child.

          I believe that some of those who wrote those letters, particularly family members, might have been naive. This level of naivite among professionals, whether rabbis, lawyers, or mental health workers is professional negligence. Hopefully, this episode has served as a wake-up call. If the community really cares about sex abuse its leadership will educate itself about the messages it sends to survivors. Survivors are not a tiny minority. It is estimated to approximately 20% of adults suffered some form of sex abuse before they were eighteen years old.

          I also th

        • Dear Al Falfa,

          Thank you for revealing the date on which the effort to solicit letters to the judge commence. As Yerachmiel Lopin observed, this was AFTER the plea agreement was publicly available, both on the FBI website (see Yerachmiel’s comment) and on the US Justice Department website (http://www.justice.gov/usao/nys/pressreleases/January13/ZauderEvanPleaPR.php).

          At least on this blog, there has been very little if any criticism of friends and family of Zauder. The criticism has been of people with standing in our community, especially those who invoke some level of expertise in their letters to the judge.

          The first two paragraphs of the letter written by Dr. Pelcovitz:
          “I am a clinical psychologist who has been in practice for the last thirty years. I have also served as Director of Psychology at a large hospital center and as a professor of clinical psychology in several medical schools. I am writing this letter, in my capacity as a former teacher of Evan Zauder’s in a Pastoral Psychology course he took with me. I also gained some insight into Evan’s many positive qualities in a meeting I had with him shortly after his arrest.
          “I spent most of my career treating the victims of child sexual abuse in the specialized clinic and research program that we had at North Shore University Hospital, which was then part of the NYU School of Medicine. In light of this expertise and the qualities I saw in Evan when he was my student, I hope that this letter can provide a perspective that can help justice be tempered by mercy when Evan is sentenced.”

          The first two paragraphs of the letter written by Rabbi Pruzansky:
          “I write as the Rabbi of above-referenced synagogue, where Evan Zauder was employed as our Youth Director for two years, until the Summer of 2010. But I am also an attorney (retired), a member of the Bar in the State of New York, and admitted to practice in Southern and Eastern Districts of New York and before the United States Supreme Court, and as such fully cognizant of the seriousness of the charges to which Evan has pleaded guilty.
          “Evan served as our Youth Director with great distinction. He was beloved by our children and parents alike; that fact alone made his arrest in this matter such a shock to our community. Obviously, we extensively questioned our youth after Evan’s arrest, and there was not the slightest accusation of any untoward conduct raised by any child or adult. I cannot help but believe that the charges herein reflect aberrational conduct on Evan’s part, for which he has accepted responsibility, admitted his guilt and will be punished accordingly.”

          People who invoke their professional qualifications in such letters should do some due diligence to verify the crimes the person on whose behalf they are writing actually pled to. Had they done so, they would have realized that Zauder admitted molesting a minor. But even had he not done that, the idea of treating viewing child pornography as a “victimless crime” is disturbing. The should know that children are exploited in order to produce the videos.

    • I have heard this comment from many people, though not directly from any individual who wrote a letter. I would respond that it is on an individual to make sure that when we vouch for someone, we know why we are doing it, (and that information was available as these letters were for a sentencing hearing) and if after the fact you find out that you were mislead, or didn’t “do your homework” that you apologize. I have not seen one person who wrote a letter on his behalf apologize and say that if they had known the full extent of his crimes they would not have written it. The onus is on them, not us, to come up with a justification for why they did what they did.

  5. My question is how did we as religious jews get to be so indifferent to the suffering of innocent children who are helpless, by religious i mean our rabbis who are so learned in toreh, it boggles the mind

  6. Standing Ovation to this article. Thank you to the authors for writing it and for allowing it to be put on this blog. Thank you to Yerachmiel for posting it. Absolutely excellent article. It should be published in every Orthodox publication which reaches the Orthodox public.

  7. I’m not disagreeing, I’m just asking. You write that Zauder pled guilty to transportation, receipt and distribution of child pornography, possession of child pornography and enticement of a minor to engage in illegal sexual activity. The last item mentioned, enticement.. I don’t know the meaning of. If it refers to direct involvement with the victims, then he is clearly a monstrous assailant. But the other items mentioned, and if this last one is similar, seem to be without direct contact or involvement. In which case, while I understand (although admittedly not to the fullest extent) that this also contributed to the victimization of the victims, it is basically using materials that have already been created by other people violating the victims. It is a crime, but not a violent crime, because there is no direct violence or violent abuse being committed. It might be that an individual who does this, does not have it within him to commit violent crimes and would not directly touch inappropriately or otherwise directly physically violate anyone. Only when it is some steps removed from the actual direct violation, in the sense that his experience is just that he is indulging in pornographic pleasures but not wanting or intending to hurt anyone (even though, truthfully he is hurting the victim), only then does he do it. So how much worse is he than someone who accesses pornography? To view pornography is a serious Issur indeed, Bain Adam Lamakom, but it is not abuse and therefore not an Issur Bain Adam Lachaveiro, and therefore the perpetrator of such is not a menace to society in the sense that an abuser is.

    • The plea bargain makes it clear that he used the internet to solicit sex with several boys and had oral sex with one of them. How could these rabbis have written these letters without bothering to know what he did. These were rabbis and professionals. If you want to insist they did not bother to read the relevant document, they should also admit they are professional incompetents who write letters willy nilly with no attention to the facts. That is how much they care about their friends and how little they care about kids.

    • There is a high correlation between viewing internet child pornography and sexually abusing children.

      As you noted, the stuff can’t be created without perpetrating abuse. Moreover, the abuse is perpetual. The survivor often has to go on living knowing they are still being viewed online. Because these things go viral, even if the perpetrators are effectively prosecuted and prevented from further acts, others keep seeing the victims. Imagine knowing your most intimate consensual sex acts were out their for the world to view. Now magnify the discomfort by imagining it was you as a child, and it was rape.

      Many of the comments minimizing the viewing of child porn reflect a lack of sensitivity to abused children. Try this mental experiment; imagine someone getting excited and delighted watching videos of Nazis or Cossacks beating Jews. Now imagine loads of high profile rabbis and professional lining up to testify to the essential goodness of the guy and pleading for mercy.

      • Yes yes, but it is still not the same as committing a violent crime, or being a person who is dangerous to allow contact with children, because he has never done anything bad during such contact. In a justice system, the differentiation between levels of evil, is very important. Stealing $100 is a very serious crime, and even making a false insurance claim for $100 is Genaiva which is a very serious crime, but it is not to be compared to violently making an armed holdup threatening the victim and forcing him to empty his pockets. The difference needs to be reflected in the punishment.

        • You are wrong. People into watching child porn are pedophiles, their brains are wired to get turned on by children. Normal sexuality consists of being sexuallly attracted to adults.

          Your analogy is misplaced: yes levels of theft differentiate abetween amounts and amount of violence employed. But here we are talking about someone who also did engage in sex with a minor, not just someone with fantasies which he endlessly indulged using materials produced by actually violating children.

        • H Follman shows a typical, I hope not willful, misunderstanding of the crime & it’s effects. Even 30 years ago, when everyone likes to say “we had a different understanding then”, the criminals were very careful to swear their victims to secrecy, threatening them if necessary etc: they very well understood the gravity of the offence.

      • I’m glad you gave this example of someone delighted by watching videos of Nazis.
        1. It can in no way be considered equal to actually beating Jews.
        2. Your example if far worse than viewing child porn, because healthy human nature does not enjoy watching torture, and if someone does enjoy it, he is depraved or wicked or something else terribly wrong. Such a warped person might be liable to actually commit vicious crimes. Whereas the lust for Histaclus Benashim is part of healthy human nature, and although he is fulfilling his lust in the form of sin, he is not necessarily depraved by the mere fact that he likes viewing porn, and it isn’t an indication that he would harass anyone in any way.

        • Follman, are you unable to distinguish between the normal desire for consensual sex with adults and enjoying the rape of children? You have made a case for the current legality of adult porn. But Evan Zauder pled guilty to various CHILD pornography charges and actual sexual misconduct with children.

        • The issue I have with your comparison is that you seem to be forgetting that an innocent child was subjected to the nightmare being viewed. Is that not the definition of the torture you make note of in your comment? Part of the interest in viewing such extreme videos is an attraction to the torturous nature they contain…it is very much the same as the comparison to watching videos of Nazis. The only difference is that the perpetrators than pretend to be your friend after they are finished…

    • The US Attorney’s Press Release can be found at http://www.justice.gov/usao/nys/pressreleases/January13/ZauderEvanPleaPR.php. Here is the relevant excerpt:
      “According to the Complaint, the Superseding Information, and statements made in court:
      “Between April and November of 2011, ZAUDER used the Internet to entice a minor in New Jersey who was 14 to 15 years old at the time to engage in sexual activity, and to attempt to entice the minor to do so a second time….

      For Zauder to “attempt to entice the minor to do so a second time” means he succeeded the first time. As Meira observed, it is the responsibility of those who write letters to ascertain that they have complete information.

  8. “That is how much they care about their friends and how little they care about kids.” That’s the problem world-wide. I expect much, much better from people that pretend to be frum…

  9. Thank You. Folks,please support the MANY victims of the very real abuse from George Finkelstein at YU-MTA and the blatant cover up by its LAME leadership. YU’s own $1,000,000 plus investigation (which they refuse to release to the public) clearly states there was rampant abuse under George’s ,et al reign at MTA. The case is being appealed as YU and friends in Teaneck celebrated the court’s decision that basically said, Ha, Ha, we Raped you once and we’re Raping you NOW,simply because the victiims ran out of time! YU praised George et al for all the Abuse at a dinner in his honor

  10. Reblogged this on The left side and commented:
    I am so glad someone is speaking out in the Jewish community on the issue. Ignoring and excusing these types of actions is one of the major reasons I left the orthodox community.

  11. From what I can see of the letters quoted here (I have not read the others), the letter writers did not say or suggest that Evan should not be punished. (RP in fact says he should be punished.) They just urged the sentencing judge should bear in mind that justice might also be tempered by mercy — that his entire life need not end now. Evan received a sentence of 13 years. Perhaps some feel that is not enough. But it does not sound to me wildly too merciful, as a result of the letters,

    • Abby #2, first let’s look at the letter from Rabbi Pruzansky. Below is the full text. I will interject comments in various places.

      “I write as the Rabbi of above-referenced synagogue, where Evan Zauder was employed as our Youth Director for two years, until the SlUnmer of2010. But I am also an attorney (retired), a member of the Bar in the State of New York, and admitted to practice in Southern and Eastern Districts of New York and before the United States Supreme Court, and as such fully cognizant of the seriousness of the charges to which Evan has pleaded guilty.”

      My comment – Rabbi Pruzansky invokes his legal expertise as having been admitted to practice before the highest court in the land.

      “Evan served as our Youth Director with great distinc,tion. He was beloved by our children and parents alike; that fact alone made his arrest in this matter such a shock to OW” community. Obviously, we extensively questioned our youth after Evan’s arrest, and there was not the slightest accusation of any untoward conduct raised by any child or adult.”

      My comment – Rabbi Pruzansky wrote “…we extensively questioned our youth…”. He did NOT write “we asked the police question our youth…”. It would seem that the Rabbi and other members of the synagogue did the questioning. Conducting the investigation internally, if that is what happened, contradicts something Rabbi Pruzansky wrote in December, 2012 (http://rabbipruzansky.com/2012/12/18/dealing-with-scandal): “…all crime victims should report the alleged victimization to the police – especially when the allegations involve the abuse or molestation of minors. This is a matter which I addressed in our congregation well over a decade ago, and have reinforced several times: don’t come to me. I cannot investigate or make arrests. Go right to the police and prosecution. They make arrests and prosecute. The judicial system exonerates or punishes. Rabbis have no role, despite what others might argue.” In addition, there have been cases when the questioning of alleged victims by persons not specially trained to do so can cause any testimony by the victim to be inadmissible. In addition, they may not be able to conduct the questioning in an effective manner.

      “I cannot help but believe that the charges herein reflect aberrational conduct on Evan’s part, for which he has accepted responsibility, admitted his guilt and will. be punished accordingly.

      “Clearly, Evan has pleaded to a most serious offense, and faces a statutory minimum sentence. But, having worked together with Evan for two years, seeing his sensitivity, thoughtfulness and acts of kindness first hand, and knowing of his good character that render the charges herein atypical of his true nature, I would respectfully urge the Court to temper justice with mercy and sentence Evan to that statutory minimum.

      “I am convinced that, rehabilitated, he will still be able to contribute to society in the future, and although his incarceration will likely not end until his mid-30’s, he will be able to make amends for his behavior herein. I have heard that, even now, he has seized the opportunity in detention to teach, mentor and to be a positive influence on others.”

      Now, let’s look at the charges to which Zauder pled guilty. This is from the press release on the website of the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York (http://www.justice.gov/usao/nys/pressreleases/January13/ZauderEvanPleaPR.php). I am changing the layout, but not the words, to make the potential sentences stand out.

      “ZAUDER, 27, pled guilty to a Superseding Information charging him with one count of enticement of a minor to engage in illegal sexual activity, one count of transportation, receipt, and distribution of child pornography, and one count of possession of child pornography. He faces
      a minimum sentence of 10 years in prison and a maximum sentence of life in prison on the enticement count,
      a minimum sentence of 5 years in prison and a maximum sentence of 20 years on the transportation, receipt, and distribution count, and
      a maximum sentence of 10 years on the possession count.”

      The absolute minimum sentence the judge could have imposed is ten years. He could have imposed a life sentence. In that context, thirteen years is not a long sentence.

      But beyond the specifics of this or any other letter is the broader issue of people in leadership positions writing letters of this kind. This can create a perception among victims that they will not find a sympathetic hearing from leaders who have written such letters. I hope that leaders will come to realize the potential negative impact of such letters.

  12. I too often wonder at people who make excuses for pedophiles. I too wonder how they can show so much compassion for those monsters and so little for the victims.

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