District Attorney-elect Kenneth P. Thompson
District Attorney-elect  Kenneth P. Thompson
District Attorney-elect Kenneth P. Thompson

By The News

Reading the news from various sources–and the accompanying opinions and prejudices–has become quite an interesting challenge. Let’s take, for example, the very public and sordid case in Boro Park that had a man sentenced to up to 32 years in prison after being convicted of child sexual abuse, then having his conviction overturned and his sentence vacated.

Baruch Lebovits was tried and convicted of abusing several boys, his behavior apparently starting at a time when it was pretty much a sure thing that people would be too embarrassed to publicly come forward as a victim or even discuss the matter. Perpetrators could operate freely and without the potential of consequences, or so they believed.

Sam Kellner says his son is one of Lebovits’s victims. His avowed mission seems to have been to seek justice and have Lebovits turned in and prosecuted. This is where a complicated case becomes even more complex. Kellner was charged with bribing a young man in Boro Park to testify that he was molested by Lebovits. But that person who was alleged to have been bribed was not the same person to testify in Lebovits’s first trial that convicted him.

In addition, according to Kellner’s brother-in-law, Shimon Weiser, what really happened was that one of the victims was paid by the Lebovits side of this crazy business to tell the district attorney’s office that Kellner offered him money to lie. According to Weiser, none of that is true and all that was going on here was an effort to frame and hopefully silence Kellner.

“You cannot begin to understand what happens to a person when they learn that their child was victimized this way,” Weiser said. He adds that his brother-in-law was obviously furious and determined to seek justice. At the time of the assault, Kellner’s son was 15 years old. Now, at 21, he is still very much distraught about being a victim.

The way events unfolded, it seemed that Lebovits’s side was determined to force the young Kellner to testify at his trial. That was perceived by Mr. Kellner as a move that might do even more psychological damage to his son than had already been done. So, according to Weiser, Kellner began to dig and discovered additional victims willing to testify against Lebovits.

But that’s where Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes enters the picture. As these cases began to pop into the open over the last few years, the DA for the last three decades in Brooklyn was having his close ties with the chassidic community in Brooklyn constantly being put to the test.

I don’t know about you, but I am more distressed by the fact that the frum community in Brooklyn has a case this repugnant emanating from its confines than the sleazy details of the case that the local media enjoys to no end analyzing and detailing.

Writing about this crazy tale in last week’s Forward, Paul Berger admits that even though he has done exhaustive research on the case, he still finds the entire matter quite confusing. As to whether he believes one side or the other, he says at some point in the rather lengthy piece that he is inclined to believe neither of the individuals who are the focus of the case.

The details of this unbelievable sordid tale can be found in a multiplicity of places. The question here and now is how a community of at least seemingly pious Jews becomes embroiled in such a mess. I suppose these things have a way of just tumbling out of control and almost everyone involved just loses it.

And additionally, was there actual reluctance on the part of law enforcement to investigate and prosecute these types of crimes so as to at least keep the political peace between elected officials and the community?

I know that many–even some whom I have spoken with on the matter–would disagree that a district attorney like Mr. Hynes would not prosecute a matter due to communal pressure that is brought to bear. Granted that the insular frum community to an extent is governed by something that looks at least on the surface other than conventional law.

For example, there are the accusations of bribery that emanated from just about all sides in this particular case. A blogger on the subject raised the issue that in a community like this, there is a Talmudic orientation of sorts to everyday life. That is, if someone damages the next person, their child, or their property, there is just one option, and that is to pay for the damage.

Now American jurisprudence does not work that way. Simply stated, to pay someone for something outside the parameters or guidelines of the law can easily be interpreted as being a bribe and can end up–as was the case with Mr. Kellner–looking like he was paying for someone’s testimony or silence. Now that doesn’t mean whatever money changed hands was not precisely that which it could have been–a bribe. More likely, however, and after talking to some of the parties, it looks more like the former–that money was paid to compensate for damages that were perpetrated.

Needless to say when it comes to this kind of chaotic system that is rooted in ancient times, the cases have the heads of law-enforcement officials spinning.

I don’t want to venture off on too much of an additional tangent here, but we will most likely find a similar situation with the recent arrests of ten community individuals involved in attempting to extract, by the use of force, Jewish-halachic divorces from reluctant men for their wives. Someone, somewhere in the process will have to explain to a prosecutor that an individual can certainly exceed acceptable parameters but the idea of force of some kind (not necessarily physical) is within the parameters of Jewish law.

That means that what we may have in these cases is some overzealous proponents who overstepped halachic bounds and found themselves conceivably on the wrong side of the law.

Let’s be very clear: the behavior of the people in both scenarios is condemnable. This is not the way that people should act even when they have severe disagreements. But that doesn’t mean that law enforcement is less confused about how to proceed. The challenge here is what to do when Jewish law and American civil law come in conflict with one another. An example of this is what is considered a minor child by law. Jewish law says that for a man it is the age of 13 years and for a woman 12 years. Those numbers are off the charts by civil law standards, with anyone under the age of 18 being considered a minor.

From the outside, it looks like DA-elect Ken Thompson, who will take office in Brooklyn on January 1, does not want to immediately get embroiled in this wild and crazy case with an incomprehensible history. For now, the perpetrator, Mr. Lebovits, has already served a year in prison and a year of house arrest. Some involved in the case say that they see no purpose in pursuing further incarceration for him and that he has learned an important lesson.

They believe, though, that people have been in some cases irreparably harmed by his abhorrent actions and they say those victims should be paid for their pain and suffering. That may all be fine and good, but how to go about doing that, as you can see, is a whole other story. v

Comments for Larry Gordon are welcome at editor@5tjt.com.

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