The Outcast: What happened after a Hasidic man exposed child abuse in his tight-knit Brooklyn community

Rachel Aviv, The Outcast. The New Yorker, 10 November 2014. “After a Hasidic man exposed child abuse in his tight–knit Brooklyn community, he found himself the target of a criminal investigation…. In exchange for political support, Brooklyn politicians give Hasidim latitude to police themselves. They have their own emergency medical corps, a security patrol, and a rabbinic court system, which often handles criminal allegations.”

Excerpts from story:

Sam Kellner’s reputation in the Hasidic community of Borough Park, Brooklyn, began to suffer in 2008, when his teen-age son told him that he had been molested by a man who had prayed at their synagogue. Kellner’s first instinct was to run the man over with his van, but he didn’t know if his anger was justified. Molestation was rarely discussed in the community, and it didn’t seem to Kellner that any of the prohibitions in the Ten Commandments explicitly related to it. The most relevant sins—adultery and coveting a neighbor’s belongings—didn’t capture the depth of the violation. Kellner couldn’t pinpoint what was lost when a child was sexually abused, since the person looked the same afterward. But he sensed that molestation was damaging, because he knew a few victims, and they had gone off the derech, or religious way. “They became dead-enders, lost souls, outcasts,” he told me….

Kellner had once been a top administrator at the Munkacz synagogue and yeshiva, in Borough Park, but he had fought with other leaders about financial and educational policies. He had left the job and started a toner business, collecting discarded cartridges and reselling them. His son’s alleged abuser, Baruch Lebovits, was the descendant of a rabbinic dynasty, a prominent cantor with twenty-four grandchildren….

On March 6, 2008, Joshua [all victims’ names have been changed] told Detective Litwin [the senior detective at Brooklyn Special Victims Unit, in Crown Heights] that he had been molested by Lebovits on more than thirty occasions over four years. Once, he said, Lebovits had picked him up on his way to school and anally raped him in a building near his yeshiva. After each encounter, Lebovits apologized and promised he would never do it again.

Five days later, Baruch Lebovits was arrested in front of his house. Although Joshua’s name wasn’t publicly released, everyone in his neighborhood seemed to know that he had gone to the police. Natalie Hadad, his best friend, said, “People would call him and say, ‘If you testify, bad things are going to happen to your parents. If you testify, you’re going to get thrown out of Borough Park.’ ”

A few months later, Kellner spoke with Dov Hikind, the assemblyman who represents Borough Park. Hikind hosts a weekly radio program, and he had recently dedicated three shows to the problem of sex abuse among the ultra-Orthodox. Hikind said that, after the show, more than a hundred victims had called or visited his office to complain about multiple offenders. One of the victims was a twenty-year-old named Aron, who said that Lebovits had repeatedly molested him in his car, beginning when he was sixteen. A year later, he fell in with a clique of teen-agers who were known to be O.T.D., or off the derech, and he began using heroin or cocaine almost every day….

Aron’s trial began in March, 2010. With no material evidence or eyewitnesses, it hinged on Aron’s credibility…. The jury found Lebovits guilty on eight counts of sexual abuse. In the month between the conviction and the sentencing, nearly eighty people sent letters to the judge, requesting mercy for Lebovits. … The judge, Patricia DiMango, sentenced Lebovits to the maximum penalty on eight counts, to run consecutively, for a total of up to thirty-two years—a harsher sentence than anyone had expected. The average sentence given to defendants convicted of similar crimes is two years. She said, “It is imperative for courts to send a clear and unequivocal message that abusing and harming children will not be tolerated.”… One of Kellner’s relatives told me that after the trial “no one talked about the real issue, the victims. Instead, they talked about the problem of Sam Kellner going on a crusade.” He believed that the lengthy sentence “triggered everything. Now the Lebovits family would not let this go down. They were going to spend millions of dollars and fight, fight, fight.”

Aidala, Lebovits’s defense attorney, told me that the trial was one of the worst and most surprising losses of his career. Immediately, he began second-guessing his strategy. A year before, he had given the district attorney’s office a tape of a recorded conversation that he thought indicated that his client’s family was the target of extortion by Kellner. After discussing it with sex-crimes prosecutors, Aidala had dropped the subject.

Now Aidala wanted to broach the topic of extortion again….

Hasidic families typically marry off their children in descending order: the younger siblings wait for the older ones to be matched, ideally around the age of eighteen. Kellner’s four youngest children had been stalled since 2008, when their father first went to the police. Kellner said that his brothers thought he was crazy for allying himself with loners like Joshua and Aron. “They tell me, ‘You’ve ruined the family,’ ” he said. “And the truth is I’m starting to think maybe they are right. If your job is to protect your child, maybe the best thing to do is keep your mouth shut.”…

Out Loud: A Sex-Abuse Scandal in a Hasidic Community. The New Yorker, 4 November 2014.

The Hasidic Jews of Borough Park, Brooklyn, rarely interact with outsiders—they rely upon their own education and justice systems and see their extreme insularity as a means of self-preservation. But Rachel Aviv, a staff writer, spent months among Borough Park’s Hasidim for her story in this week’s magazine, about a man named Sam Kellner who was ostracized after he accused a prominent member of his community of molesting his son. On this week’s Out Loud podcast, Aviv talks to Sasha Weiss, the literary editor of, about the practical and moral complexities of reporting the story. She describes the lengths she went to in order to interview Hasidic men—buying special clothes, finding meeting places that wouldn’t violate the restriction against men and women meeting behind closed doors—and what it was like to discuss sexual abuse with men who rarely interact with non-Hasidic women. Aviv acknowledges the dangers of a community policing itself, but adds, “I hope that the story also shows that there’s a lot of courage within the community.”