“Look at the moon,” Herschel Taubenfeld mused.
Yossi was 16, out for a stroll when he came across the older man who pointed him to a bright light encircling the moon one night in early 2011.
Having grown up in the insular Hasidic enclave of New Square, Yossi knew little about sex, or sexual abuse, and didn’t find it strange when the man then invited him into his house.
Nor did he understand what was happening during subsequent visits when he said the man convinced him to pull down his underwear. The 38-year-old married father, a respected teacher in a religious school for boys, fondled him under the ruse that he was a fortune-teller “reading” his genitals.
It wasn’t until months later that Yossi, who asked that his last name not be used, told his parents and then, he said, the cover-up began.
The Vaad, a community group set up to handle sex abuse allegations, referred Yossi and his abuser to therapy. Taubenfeld offered him hush money, Yossi said, and even some relatives pressured him to keep quiet in the interest of community harmony.
Yossi went to police anyway.
“I wasn’t ready to feel guilty for the rest of my life for not stopping this monster when I could have,” he said.
In a community that shuns outside authority, Yossi’s decision was almost unprecedented.
Sexual abuse of children and young people is systemically suppressed in Hasidic communities, advocates and alleged victims say, spawning a culture where victims are sent to therapists picked by the community’s religious leaders and whose sympathies often seem aligned with the abuser.
And if the victim is strong enough to seek out the judicial system, he or she, in the case of New Square, could find themselves in front of a judge elected by local residents at the behest of the grand rebbe. David Twersky is the heir to the rabbinical dynasty that has led the Skver Hasidim since their times in the Ukraine.
“New Square’s leaders have hunkered down,” said Ben Hirsch, a co-founder of Survivors for Justice, who helped Yossi through the legal process. “They have their policy of cover-ups, of keeping everything in-house. It’s the outspoken victim who is the villain, and the reported child molester who is the victim.”
Yossi actually got his abuser to tearfully confess in a telephone call secretly recorded by police. It wasn’t enough to get jail time for Taubenfeld, however.
Stuart Salles, New Square’s part-time elected judge, whose courtroom inside a yeshiva building typically handles petty crimes and traffic offenses, tried to convince the prosecutor to drop the sex abuse charge.
“The judge actually made indications to us that he wanted to see if it could be a non sex-offender case, where Taubenfeld would not have to register as a sex offender,” Rockland County Assistant District Attorney Eric Holzer said. “I said ‘no.’ ”
Salles, Rockland’s longest-serving judge, is a former Ramapo deputy attorney who now lives in New York City and has represented New Square pro bono since the mid-1970s.
“It’s my honor to serve the community,” Salles told The Journal News, while refusing to discuss Yossi’s case. “I sit and weigh things fairly on behalf of everyone.”
Originally charged with 10 misdemeanor counts each of third-degree sexual abuse, forcible touching and endangering the welfare of a child, Taubenfeld faced up to two years behind bars. He pleaded guilty to one count of forcible touching in January 2013, received six years probation and was forced to register as a sex offender under a plea deal Rockland District Attorney Thomas Zugibe hailed as a triumph.
“If the guy had done jail time, he would have been out in a few months and under no one’s control,” Zugibe said. “We got a plea to the top count and six years probation and supervision. This was our first successful case in New Square. It was a home run.”
For Yossi, the sentence was devastating because his abuser never served a day in jail. And as a Level 1 sex offender — the least restricted — Taubenfeld’s name, address and case information are not publicized on a state registry.
“Everything I worked for, I risked everything,” Yossi told The Journal News during a recent interview. “When I found out he got nothing, and I see that he’s still out and continues his life here as if nothing happened, and that more children are at risk of being abused, it felt and still feels horrible.”
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