By MICHAEL POWELL
Published: June 17, 2013 76 Comments
Sam Kellner, 50, spoke out about the sexual abuse of his son, 16, and others in the Hasidic community. Now he is charged with trying to extort the abusers.
Five years ago, this gray-bearded and excitable man with a black velvet yarmulke spoke out about the sexual abuse of his 16-year-old son by a prominent Hasidic cantor. As Mr. Kellner helped investigators with the Brooklyn district attorney’s office search for other young Orthodox victims of this man, the Orthodox establishment grew ever angrier at him. The rabbi at his Hasidic synagogue in Borough Park, Brooklyn, denounced Mr. Kellner as a traitor and forbade parishioners to talk with him on the street. Yeshivas barred his sons. His businesses dried up — he pawned his silverware to meet his bills. And he still fears that he will never find a marriage match for his son.
Leaving aside the personal questions, let me just make the anthropological point that this kind of ostracism, not letting anybody marry your child, is one big way how nonviolent endogamous minorities enforce their rules. If one Orthodox diamond merchant cheats another, they victim doesn't go to the Antwerp cops, he just gets everybody else in the community to not let their children marry the cheater's children. It can be awfully effective.
“I felt murdered and abandoned,” Mr. Kellner said. “I’m ruined.”
This, however, was a prologue to a worse situation. In April 2011, after the district attorney’s office gained a conviction against that cantor, Baruch Lebovits, the prosecutors turned around and obtained an indictment of Mr. Kellner. They said, based on a secret tape and the grand jury testimony of a prominent Satmar supporter of Mr. Lebovits, that he had tried to extort hundreds of thousands of dollars from Mr. Lebovits.
Commenters have explained to me the very subtle difference between what's blackmail and what's perfectly legal, but I can never remember it. My takeaway lesson is: when blackmailing somebody, always use a lawyer.
District Attorney Charles J. Hynes has shown great deference to the politically powerful Hasidic community over the years, and it has rewarded him with large margins on election days. Even his heralded crackdown on Hasidic sexual abuse was a velvet glove wrapped around a velvet fist, as he took the unusual step of refusing to publicize the names of defendants — even the convicted.
Huh? Is that legal?
Mr. Hynes extended no such courtesy to Mr. Kellner. “We allege that Kellner sent emissaries to Lebovits’s family telling them that he controlled the witnesses against Baruch Lebovits,” the district attorney said at a 2011 news conference, “and that in return for $400,000, he would ensure that the witnesses would not testify.”
Remember the family that got a $20 million payoff from Michael Jackson? They used a lawyer.
This indictment stunned the small, embattled community of Hasidic whistle-blowers. Mr. Kellner, to their view, took enormous risks in a righteous fight. That he could sit in the dock next month is a message not lost on anyone.
“If he’s convicted, no one will ever come forward again,” said Rabbi Cheskel Gold, a member of a rabbinical court in Monsey, N.Y., that gave Mr. Kellner religious permission to investigate Mr. Lebovits. “No one.”
Mr. Kellner posted $25,000 bail. And to pile legal insult atop injury, Mr. Lebovits’s lawyers used his indictment and other technicalities to persuade a state appeals court to overturn his conviction. Even today, Alan M. Dershowitz, one of Mr. Lebovits’s lawyers, portrays Mr. Kellner and other prominent whistle-blowers as extortionists. “We see Kellner as a leader of a major extortion ring,” he said in an interview. “He is not a do-gooder.”
It's fun to look up students' anonymous opinions of their famous college professors like Dershowitz on RateMyProfessors.com, especially at colleges where the students have good vocabularies. One Harvard student rated Dershowitz as "odious."