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Tuesday, August 27, 2013

New e-book examines Brooklyn’s Hasidic ‘Devil’

Allison Yarrow

Journalist Allison Yarrow may have titled her bestselling new e-book “The Devil of Williamsburg” after the Hasidic spiritual counselor sentenced last January to 103 years in a New York prison. But she wrote the tome for his victim.
“I feel really humbled to have the privilege to witness and tell her incredible story,” Yarrow says of the female teen sexually abused by Nechemya Weberman. “I wanted to shed light on the horrors that happened to her so that they don’t happen again.”

In her 30-page work of investigative journalism, Yarrow, a contributor to Time, recounts how Weberman committed his crimes against Rayna (a pseudonym), who was first abused at 12, testified in court at 17 and is now married and living outside the Hasidic community at 18. (Yarrow employs a fake name because the victim’s real identity has been sealed by the courts).

“The Devil of Williamsburg” also documents how Weberman’s November 2012 trial unfolded, as well as its aftermath. 

Yarrow provides crucial context, explaining the cultural, religious and educational norms of Weberman’s Satmar Hasidic community, and how they contributed to the cover-up of his predatory behavior.

Yarrow, 30, wrote the book based on notes taken while watching the trial as a then-reporter for the Daily Beast and Newsweek, and with a great deal of additional original, on-the-ground reporting in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, in the subsequent months.

Rayna declined interview requests from Yarrow, who says she understands her reluctance. “She was on the stand for four days, and the prosecution and the defense agreed that she was the best witness they had ever seen,” Yarrow says. “She did her job.”

Allison Yarrow interviewed figures including the Brooklyn district attorney and Weberman's wife, who calls her husband's teenage accuser a "slut." (Courtesy of Allison Yarrow)

The author may not have been able to interview Rayna, but she makes clear that the teen is the story’s heroine. 

Without Rayna’s resolve to defy her community’s code of silence, Weberman might still be sexually abusing children behind the triple-locked door of his home office.

With a beat focusing on women’s reproductive health and politics, Yarrow had experience writing about rape. Covering a court case was somewhat new.

“My editor came across a story about a fundraiser that Weberman’s supporters were organizing, and he decided to assign me to cover the trial, which he warned me was going to be ‘quite a show,’” Yarrow recalls.

Knowing Yarrow had previously worked at the Jewish Daily Forward, and that she’d written for the Daily Beast and Newsweek about Mindy Meyer, the flamboyant young Orthodox New Yorker who mounted a Senate run in 2012, her editor figured she had the chops to cover a controversial story set among the Satmars.

“I felt really equipped because I had covered the Orthodox community before. 

I knew about he rules and customs, the terminology relating to modesty in dress and separation of the sexes,” Yarrow says. “I felt well-situated because I understood all the points that the prosecutor was working so hard to explain to the jury.”

Still, understanding all the legal nuances was challenging. “I took some advice I was given, and I befriended the court reporters from the Daily News and other local papers, who are at the court all the time and even have offices in the court building,” Yarrow says.

With her national readership, Yarrow sought to provide a big-picture look at the trial, rather than reporting daily updates on the proceedings. She wrote a long primer on the trial just as it was getting started, and another at the end, when Weberman was convicted on 59 counts of sexual abuse.

Yarrow’s editor had been skeptical of the victim’s claims when he had heard that a sex tape of her and a boyfriend would be entered into evidence.

“But I went into it very open-minded and even-keeled,” Yarrow says. “And it became very clear that Weberman was guilty, especially when he took the stand and could not explain away a car trip to upstate New York he had insisted on taking with the victim. That was a big red flag.”

On the side, Yarrow also wrote a story on the Vaad Hatznius, or modesty patrol, monitoring the behavior of Hasidic community partly led by Weberman.

“This was something that came to light during the trial, and we thought our readers would be interested in knowing about this Taliban-like group operating right here in Brooklyn,” Yarrow says.

By late January, the trial and Weberman’s sentencing were over, but Yarrow knew she wasn’t done with the story. 

A mentor told her about Kindle Singles, works of long-form journalism and novella-length non-fiction published through She met with Kindle Singles editor David Blum in February, and he invited her to write “The Devil of Williamsburg.”

Yarrow spent the next two months hanging out in Williamsburg, talking to locals and even celebrating Purim in a Hasidic home. 

She interviewed Rayna’s friends and some family members, including her new husband. 

She also spoke with Asher Lipner, a psychologist who treats Orthodox victims of sexual abuse, and Nuchem Rosenberg, who advocates for them.

Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes granted Yarrow a long interview, as did father-son legal partners George and Michael Farkas, the high-profile attorneys who defended Weberman.

The hardest interview to pin down was Weberman’s apparently devoted wife, Chaya. Yarrow spoke with her a dozen times by phone to schedule a face-to-face interview, but eventually decided just to show up at the Weberman home, where the imprisoned criminal’s wife invited her inside to talk.

“It became clear that this was a story of not one woman, but two: the traditional heroine — the victim, now a young and beautiful newlywed — and the wife who stood beside her husband as shame cloaked all he touched. 

I wanted to know that woman,” Yarrow wrote in a recent opinion piece.

Chaya Weberman maintains her husband’s innocence, and readily badmouths Rayna and her family, calling them “sluts.”

Yarrow found that members of the Satmar community fall into three categories regarding Nechemya Weberman. 

In addition to those who view him simply as guilty or not guilty, the other group views him as guilty, but believes a Hasidic Jew should not be subject to the secular justice system.

They can believe what they want, but even with a sentence that was reduced in February, Weberman will probably die in prison.

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