Talk About Sheldon Silver Should Be about Hafner

Guest post by Michael Lesher

NYS Assemblyman Sheldon Silver

NYS Assemblyman Sheldon Silver

Judgment Day may finally have dawned for Sheldon Silver – but is the punishment he may be facing (if convicted) coming for all of the right reasons?

Not if you care about child sex abuse, and not if you get your information about Silver from the newspapers.

True, the charges of bribery and corruption are serious. If Silver is convicted for the crimes alleged in the federal complaint against him, he will be – and should be – facing a considerable prison sentence. And I’m glad to see the public scandal attending Silver’s arrest lapping at the doorstep of Ohel Children’s Home and Family Services. That agency, a moral cesspool for many years, needs to be exposed for all sorts of reasons.

But one particularly important case in which Silver played a personal role – though not a criminal one, as far as anyone knows – isn’t being written about anywhere, even as stories proliferate about his cozy and lucrative ties to New York City’s Orthodox community and his lavish support for its leadership. (Wayne Barrett has an important recent piece in the Daily News giving many details.) Those of us who care about child sex abuse cover-ups among Orthodox Jews ought to take advantage of this moment to try to extract a belated apology, at the very least, from the man who helped derail the justice system in the ugly case of Solomon Hafner 15 years ago.

Solomon Hafner, a Bobov rabbi, tutor and camp counselor, was arrested in early 2000 and charged by the Brooklyn D.A. with 96 counts of child abuse against a young, hearing-impaired pupil. The alleged abuse included tugging and twisting of the boy’s genitals as well as other sorts of violence and, according to the complaint, had gone on for some 18 months while Hafner was supposed to be privately tutoring the boy.

Amy Neustein and I became interested in the case at once and soon were able to reveal to the press that the Bobov sect had privately convened its own “court,” had decided on Hafner’s innocence (surprise!), and might be planning an attempt to upend the grand jury that had begun hearing witnesses. (Al Guart, “Rabbis’ Ruling May Nix Bid To Indict Suspect in Kid-Sex Rap,” New York Post, March 11, 2000, p. 10.)

The actual story was even worse than we had anticipated. Ohel’s notorious rabbinic advisor, Dovid Cohen, agreed that Hafner should be “tried” by a panel of five Orthodox rabbis from across the area, headed by Rabbi David Feinstein, whose long association with Sheldon Silver would soon come in handy. (Cohen even helped select the members of the court.) Next, the rabbis took “evidence” in the selective way often favored by batei din in such cases. Neither the police detective nor the child abuse expert who had interviewed the boy was called as a witness – the latter, according to a friend of one of the rabbinic judges, was shunned because she was not Jewish. Another potential witness, the boy’s (Jewish) speech therapist, was barred from testifying because she had talked to the press.

On the other hand, the rabbis readily accepted the story – fabricated, as Amy and I concluded – that the abuse could not possibly have occurred because, during tutoring sessions, both Hafner and his young student were constantly observed by a crowd of people. As we reported in the chapter we wrote on the case – “Justice Interrupted,” in Tempest in the Temple: Jewish Communities & Child Sex Scandals (Amy Neustein, Ed.; Brandeis University Press, 2009)* – Hafner’s own wife contradicted that claim, while our personal inspection of the site confirmed that 1) the place was empty on weekdays, when the tutoring took place, and 2) no one outside the building could possibly have seen what was happening inside. But rabbis will be rabbis; the beth din cleared Hafner, got a public letter of apology from Dovid Cohen (who had initially okayed the family’s police report), and reportedly tried to bully the boy’s family into making a recantation to the D.A.
*It first appeared in the Journal of Child Sex Abuse in 2008

The parents, however, did not back down, so the rabbis had to get to the D.A.’s office without them. And that’s where Silver came in. According to one of the rabbi-judges, Chaim (Leibish) Rottenberg, prosecutors were at first reluctant to meet with them. But a call from Silver changed all that. “Shelly Silver said he’s not taking sides,” Rabbi Rottenberg told us, “but he does want the doors opened [at the D.A.’s office] to listen to what we have to say.”

Days after the “doors opened” via Silver’s call, on March 21, the D.A. tersely announced that all charges against Hafner had been dropped. The grand jury had not even finished taking testimony.

The D.A.’s office has never divulged any of the evidence that is supposed to have cleared Hafner. As I’ve said, everything the rabbis themselves communicated to us turned out to be demonstrably false. On the other hand, the rabbis’ attitudes toward the alleged abuse were crystal clear. “Because he’s hearing impaired,” sneered Rabbi Moshe Farkas, another of the judges, “he always wants to get attention.” Rabbi Rottenberg took a similar line: “The kid was bragging on and on…just eating the attention with such appetite.” Rottenberg boasted about having “cornered” an Orthodox therapist who believed the boy’s story. “I said to him, “How stupid could you be?’” he remembered – though, in fact, the evidence on the point in question (whether the young boy already had pubic hair) supported the therapist and not Rottenberg.

Nothing about the outcome of this case – alleged perpetrator cleared (the rabbis even gave him a written “blessing”), alleged victim’s family forced to leave town after being publicly humiliated, rabbis who peddled fake evidence still reaping their communities’ highest honors – will surprise readers here.

But as news story piles up on news story about Silver, we ought to remember three things. First, of all sex abuse cover-ups at the Brooklyn D.A.’s office, the Hafner case is still the one we know about in the most detail. Second, despite the punishing clarity that establishes the mishandling of the case (or maybe because of it), this story remains virtually unmentioned in the press. This isn’t because the facts aren’t available. In 2002, Karen Matthews of the AP reported what Amy and I had uncovered about the Hafner story; we later published a thorough description of the case in Tempest in the Temple (described above); and I’ve written again about the media’s avoidance of the Hafner story in my new book, Sexual Abuse, Shonda and Concealment in Orthodox Jewish Communities. Protecting rabbis accused of child sex abuse and obstructing the criminal justice system on their behalf just doesn’t seem to attract press coverage the way alleged bribes and kickbacks do.

Third, we should remember that this particular cover-up involved some very prominent figures in Orthodox Jewish life. These included Rabbi David Feinstein (as head of the beth din that “cleared” Hafner, leader of the Lie Brigade), and Rabbi Dovid Cohen (who reportedly told the boy’s mother, “Let’s let it die down…. They have a lot more political clout than we do…”).

And then there was Sheldon Silver. Had that powerful Orthodox Jew, closely associated with Rabbi Feinstein and influential everywhere in New York City, not given timely support to the rabbis’ end-run of justice, maybe Hafner’s alleged victim would have had his day in court. And if the Hafner case had gone to trial, as it should have, how many other alleged victims might have been spared a similar fate?

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5 thoughts on “Talk About Sheldon Silver Should Be about Hafner

  1. So, I just read about Yonason Rosenblum proclaiming that Sherut Leumi in Israel for charedi girls is forbidden, agreeing with rabbonim who say it is yehareig vial yaavor. He points out an example of sex abuse of women in the police department to support his stance. Ha! I will now take his logic a step further. It is yehareig vial yaavor to send one’s daughter to any educational facility where men play a role either as educators or administrators. It is yehareig vial yaavor to turn a blind eye to any SA that one ever becomes aware of. See, I can play the yehareig vial yaavor game too!

    • I haven’t seen that particular comment, but my book documents statements by Jonathan (Yonasan) Rosenblum that reveal him as a particularly insidious defender of sex abuse cover-ups, as well as an apologist for whatever policy the haredi rabbinate happens to be advocating at the moment.

      I’m afraid the hypocrisy of his stance is not unusual. The reductio ad absurdum of the rabbinate’s position was reached by one Rabbi William Handler in a column published in The Jewish Press in 2013. Handler argued that because the “government apparatus” for investigating child abuse complaints is “cumbersome, insensitive, and largely incompetent,” all child abuse cases arising in Orthodox communities “must be referred to our top Torah leadership.” In other words, since secular officials deal poorly with SOME child abuse cases (which is true enough), we must entrust those cases to precisely those Orthodox rabbis who deal wrongly with ALL of them. Rosenblum has never said exactly that, but much of his writing on the subject of sex abuse amounts to a muddled paraphrase of it.

      As a side issue, it’s worth noting that the haredi rabbinate’s indiscriminate use of “y’hareig w’al ya’abhor” — an ideologically-driven scare tactic, to put it bluntly — often involves shameless misrepresentations of halakhah. In fact, in my own view the problem is even more serious, because the inevitable discovery of the flimsiness of the rabbis’ position is likely to expose Torah and Torah scholars to ridicule. I always marvel at the ease with which the super-pious clergy flirts with heresy.

      • Indeed, a flirtation with heresy not infrequently consummated. “Yehareg ve-al ya-avor,” “let him be killed but not sin,” is a mortal judgment not to be invoked lightly – see, e.g., Rambam’s Iggeret ha-Shamad (Letter on Apostasy). I can’t imagine that Hashem looks favorably on those who magnify their petty claims of authority by trivializing Torah.

    • Sheri – Well, at least you realize that it’s all a game that they are playing, and you are choosing to play – either along with it or against it. Most people don’t realize the leadership is playing games with our lives, our heritage, our history, our culture, and our future. Most people certainly don’t realize the extent to which they themselves, their lives and their children have been played by the leadership. A religious mafia, by any other name, even a holy and pious sounding name, is still a religious mafia.

      • Seriously, I’m sorry to say I’m so disgusted that I no longer feel that the lifestyle I lead is a choice. I’m forced into it because I have no better alternatives, and people who I care deeply about stand to get hurt badly if I deviate even slightly.

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