In Brooklyn, a 17-year-old girl just testified against the man accused of sexually assaulting her. On the surface, this case is sadly too familiar: she and her accused rapist are both members of a strict right wing sect of ultra-Orthodox Judaism, known as the Satmar Hasidim.
Extreme groups exist in every religion, and Judaism is no exception. However, the Satmar Hasidim are a fringe group within a fringe group. Though they are ultra-Orthodox Jews (meaning that they keep kosher, observe the Sabbath, and follow all the other rules), they differ from other super-religious Jews in that they don’t support the nation of Israel. Like other ultra-Orthodox Jews (this isn’t really a thing in the more liberal branches of Judaism), they keep strict gender segregation, sending boys and girls to different schools that teach different subjects and keeping men and women separated in synagogue. But the rape case currently happening in Brooklyn could blow the roof of the place.
The 17-year-old girl (I’ll call her “Raish”) at the center of the case, who has not been named, was fairly typical of girls in her community. She was sent to a religious all-girls school and taught about the rules of tznius (modesty), told to wear long skirts and dark stockings while buttoning her sweaters up all the way. One of the men in her community, Nechemya Weberman, was held up as a person of great virtue. Children were sent to him for religious-themed counseling and advice, even though he had no formal training as a therapist or psychologist. And, Raish says, when she went to Weberman he sexually assaulted her.
He kissed and groped her body, she says on the stand, forced her to perform oral sex on him, showed her pornographic films, and made her copy the acts. Sometimes, she says, his children played on the other side of the door, or Weberman’s wife might call before entering to use the very computer on which she said the community pillar forced her to watch and mimic sex. She recounts skipping sessions after Passover in 2009, but said Weberman visited her family home and entered her room while she was in bed and abused her there.
Raish is not the only young woman to challenge the Satmar community lately. Deborah Feldman’s memoir Unorthodox caused a huge scandal, as Feldman alleged she’d been forced into an arranged marriage when she was just 17 (note: Raish is also married, though she says it’s to a man of her choosing). Feldman details the way Satmar girls are raised, eschewing Talmud study in favor of housewifery skills and told that everything in their lives — including their bodies — are the domain of her husband and, by extension, her rabbi. Orthodox couples must follow the laws of niddah, often translated as “family purity,” which means that a woman is considered unclean during while menstruating and for a period afterward. Feldman explained it thusly:
For two weeks every month, he can’t touch you. He can’t hand you a glass, even if your fingers don’t touch. He has to put it down on the table and then you pick it up. Secondary contact can’t happen. If you’re sitting on a sofa, you have a divider between you. It makes you feel so gross. You feel like this animal in the room. If there’s a question about your period, you take the underwear and put it in a zip-lock bag, and give it to your husband. He takes it to the synagogue and pushes it into this special window and the rabbi looks at it and pronounces it kosher or nonkosher. It’s so disgusting.
Unlike Feldman, “Raish” isn’t completely leaving the Satmar world. But the two women – and many others like them – are speaking out against the way that they were raised. Both women grew up in the same Satmar enclave in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, a neighborhood better known for hipsters and “Gossip Girl” characters. (It’s also where I live, and where I’ve had some interesting encounters with Satmar men, as I chronicled on The Frisky before. It seems astonishing that an insular, conservative community can survive just a block away from coffee shops, music venues, and stores that sell lingerie. But Feldman says she was raised to believe that all outsiders were bad people who would kidnap and harm her, so she never went beyond the increasingly narrow confines of her community. But what changed?
The organization Footsteps, who provide support, counseling, and classes for ex-Orthodox Jews, offers some insight into why so many young people are leaving their community. Several have said that access to the internet helped them learn about the outside world and find out that it wasn’t so scary after all. (It’s no coincidence, then, that many Satmar rabbis encourage their communities not to go online and that they held an anti-internet rally in New York earlier this year.) For others, it’s the opportunity to take classes outside at secular schools (Feldman’s was the notoriously liberal Sarah Lawrence College). In Raish’s case, it was a young man she met and interacted with (and kissed, she admitted in court, as if that’s some sort of crime) at a neighborhood coffee shop who showed her that not all non-Satmars are evil.
Often, when we talk about globalization, we talk about fruit from South America being sold in California or workers in Tokyo teleconferencing with their colleagues in London. But one of the effects of globalization is cities that swell and expand, neighborhoods crashing into each other. As the internet becomes more and more accessible, there will be more Raishes. There will be more young men and women who realize that the rest of the world gives them more options for their lives. As the world gets more connected, it will become increasingly difficult for insular communities to remain insular. And the result of that growing connectivity will be women like Raish, who challenge and question the status quo and refuse to back down when crimes are committed.
To their credit, the Satmar community has been supportive of Raish. In the past, communities like theirs have chosen to protect predators rather than let outsiders in. (Just Google “Baruch Lanner” for an example). But in this instance, the Satmar community has chosen to defend one of their daughers rather than protect one of their fathers. And, for this family, that’s a very good thing.