Dear Assemblyman Hikind:
I address this open letter to you, with penitence and with hope, because I am moved by your commitment to fighting the evil of child sexual abuse in our community. From this perspective, I believe you will understand the mistake I made, many years ago – and also my need to rejoin you and the community in this noble campaign.
I sought your forgiveness three years ago. At the time you would not relent. But that was before you had begun to hear the stories of survivors – before you shared the pain of Jewish abuse victims who either bore their agony in silence, or suffered the double victimization of being disbelieved and ridiculed for speaking out.
Now I feel sure you will understand.
This is the season when all Jews do t’shuvah, and when all Jews should stand ready to accept those who sincerely return. During the yamim noraim I realized that my own time has come to return. Now I want to stand together with the community I once wronged, for the sake of the daughter whose fate darkened my life over 20 years ago.
A Child of the Community
You know who I am. My father, Rabbi Abraham Neustein, was a true Talmudic scholar and brilliant orator whose eulogy (September 6, 2002) was prominently featured in The Jewish Press. As for me, Irene Klass described my wedding in the same newspaper (“A Very Special Wedding,” June 22, 1979). Three years earlier, after doing volunteer work at Sha’arei Tzedek Hospital in Jerusalem (and fundraising for the hospital back in Brooklyn), I had been pictured atop the Sha’arei Tzedek float in the Israel Day Parade. My volunteer work included teaching ba’alei t’shuvah at Bais Chana in St. Paul, Minnesota. Like my parents, I was devoted to charity, to g’milus chasadim, and to the life of Torah.
That life shattered in the fall of 1986. On the fourth day of Sukkos, my 6-year-old daughter was taken from me by family court officials who did not believe her report of having been sexually abused by my ex-husband. Our community turned against us both. Even confirmation from one of New York’s leading experts on child sexual abuse did not protect us. In those days – as you, Mr. Hikind, know all too well – reports of child sexual abuse were simply not tolerated among Orthodox Jews. My daughter was called a liar; for believing her, I was shunned.
Soon my daughter learned the harsh lesson of silence. But the reactions of her body were less easily controlled. Once in her father’s custody, she slipped into life-threatening anorexia. Several doctors later testified that she was virtually at death’s door when I took her for emergency-room treatment. But for that act of rescue – as you know – I was denied all contact with my daughter, then 8 years old.
My Desperation and My Offense
Desperate situations lead to desperate acts. In 1991, nearly three years since I had last seen my daughter – or even heard her voice – I learned that she was once again severely anorexic. When I sought the help of the city officials supposedly charged with my daughter’s welfare, even though my pleas were seconded by supporters like then-City Council President Andy Stein, the politicians refused to give her a medical examination. Instead, they referred her case to the Fatality Review Panel . . . as if she had already died! They would not even tell me that my beloved daughter was still living.
That was when I committed the act for which I now seek forgiveness. Misled by aides to Mayor David Dinkins, I came to believe that in exchange for public criticism of the Jewish community in the wake of the Crown Heights riot, Dinkins’ staff would see to it that the Child Welfare Administration would intervene to protect my daughter.
I did what I was told. I went on radio talk shows where cynical hosts were all too eager to present complaints against the Jewish community – from an Orthodox Jewish woman. Of course, I also reached out for help to anyone who seemed to care about my daughter’s life. Congressman Jerrold Nadler was so moved that he warned city officials at a press conference: “If this child dies, you will all be guilty of accessory to murder.” Yet in the end, Dinkins’ staff did nothing.
I had been manipulated by self-seeking bureaucrats. But in allowing myself to be used, I know that I offended you, and others like you, who have heard of my comments from those dark days and have held them against me ever since. Mr. Hikind, you heard my words – but you didn’t know my anguish. You didn’t know the desperation of watching your daughter’s very life threatened because, at 6 years old, she had spoken the unspeakable. You couldn’t know – because you had not yet listened to Orthodox abuse survivors telling you their stories of being silenced, ignored or threatened when they were children.
But now you know.
And that is why I believe you can finally accept my apology and my plea to rejoin you and the community, as we all work together to save the next generation of our children.
A Campaigner and a Mother
My daughter became an orphan of the family courts, and I became a “childless mother,” during Sukkos 22 years ago. Since then, I’ve organized press conferences dealing with the child abuse, put together legislative hearings in New York state and Congress on the issue, and helped draft legislation. I’m the co-author of From Madness to Mutiny: Why Mothers Are Running from the Family Courts – and What Can Be Done about It (Northeastern, 2005). In January 2006, I received the Woman of Valor: Lifetime Achievement Award at the Battered Mothers Custody Conference in Albany, New York. Early next year, Brandeis University Press will publish a book I edited on child sex abuse, containing important contributions by such prominent community figures as Rabbi Mark Dratch, Rabbi Martin Schloss, Dr. Erica Brown and Dr. Michelle Friedman, and Dr. Joy Silberg. What I couldn’t do for my own daughter, I’ve struggled for over twenty years to do for others.
But nothing can close the open wound where my daughter should be in my life. Nor have I been the only one injured. My mother, the rebbetzin, could never enter a sukkah without misty eyes and trembling hands, because she remembered all too well how her little granddaughter was taken from her, never to return, during that holiday. I do not think it was an accident that my mother’s own soul departed this life during Sukkos in 2001. You see, when rabbis refuse to hear a child say, “I was molested,” the damage spreads and spreads; many hearts are broken forever.
Mr. Hikind, you know all this. You have heard the wrenching stories of too many victims not to know it. And you know that this suffering must stop; that all caring Jews must unite to protect more victims from the torments of sexual abuse.
A new year has begun for all of us. I want to begin it right. Recently, you told the Forward, “If you’re a child molester, the best community to come to is Borough Park, Flatbush, Lakewood or Monroe . . . because people don’t press charges.” My daughter and I were casualties of that attitude. I need to help you change it – you and other brave Orthodox Jews who want to ensure that what happened to my daughter, and to so many others, will never happen again.
Please don’t bar the gates to my t’shuvah. Please forgive the errors of the past so that, together, we can prevent the tragedies of the future.
Dr. Amy Neustein
The following people, having read this letter, wish to express their support:
Rabbi Aaron Reichel
Mo Therese Hannah, Ph.D.
Michael Lesher, Esq.
Joyanna Silberg, Ph.D.
UOJ RESPONDS TO CRITICS OF DR. AMY NEUSTEIN!
Seems you can't come forward with any story about child sex abuse in the Orthodox Jewish community without being pilloried as liar or a lunatic.
It's been years since the facts about the Neustein case (which began in 1986) were laid before the public. (Stories laying out the damning details have appeared in USA Today, the New York Post, The Village Voice and The Jewish Week, to name a few.) No one has published anything demonstrating a single factual inaccuracy in any of those articles. As a result, I think it can be confidently stated that, at the very least: 1) there was strong evidence of sexual abuse of Amy Neustein's 6-year-old daughter; 2) the case was egregiously mishandled by Brooklyn Family Court, Ohel, the Brooklyn Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, and others; and 3) plenty of effort has been invested over the years into trying to suppress the story.
A few years ago, that effort culminated in a very belated and -- based on the information I have -- very inaccurate statement purportedly from the allegedly abused girl herself, then 24 years old. That statement has been copied onto this blog.
I've corresponded quite a bit with Amy Neustein and have come to know something of her record and character. I think it's a shame that her sincere and selfless efforts to support a critically important cause have earned her a run of public slander. Well, since it has come to that, let me take a few minutes to try setting the record straight.
I don't know who wrote the "Silent No Longer" piece supposedly authored by Sherry Orbach some three years ago. I have learned that its authenticity has been questioned (see below), and that it was written at a time when the judge who sent Sherry into her father's custody, against strong evidence of sex abuse by him, and his law clerk at the time -- Steve Mostofsky -- were under the impression that the Neustein/Lesher book From Madness to Mutiny, about the family courts, was primarily based on that case and were doing all they could to interfere with its publication. (Michael Lesher tells me that he got a call from David Pollock, a JCRC official motivated by Mostofsky, threatening legal action. Of course, nothing came of it.) When bluster didn't work, this column from "Sherry" suddenly appeared.
Michael Lesher -- who has done crucial work in cracking the Mondrowitz case -- was also one of the journalists who broke open the Neustein story, primarily in two articles published in 1996, one in The Village Voice and one in The Jewish Week. Those were strongly-worded articles that accused many people involved of having covered up substantial evidence of sex abuse. No one has ever pointed out any inaccuracies in those pieces.
Michael says the story was so horrific it inspired him to look into the issue of child sex abuse in Orthodox communities in general -- including the Mondrowitz case. He also ended up writing a book with Dr. Neustein about failures in the family court system. (The book has received many glowing reviews for its thoroughness and accuracy, among other things.)
Let me share with you some of the key problems Michael Lesher identifies in "Silent No Longer," which have convinced him that whoever wrote it simply did not know the facts of the case:
* The author says that Sherry lived with her grandmother "in upstate New York" and "rarely" saw her mother. That's false. The Neusteins did have a summer house in Ellenville. In fact, that is where her grandmother later testified she saw the girl being molested by her father. But the house was occupied infrequently, and Sherry never lived there over any extended period. Court records clearly show that she lived with her mother in Brooklyn.
* The author suggests that the sex abuse charge was Amy's invention. It wasn't. Court records make plain that Sherry herself reported having been sexually abused by her father to the BSPCC caseworkers and to Dr. Anne Meltzer, one of New York's leading experts on child sexual abuse. Dr. Meltzer stated in writing and on the record her "strong reason to believe" Sherry's father had indeed abused her. And Amy's mother gave eyewitness testimony to such an act. Not even Judge Deutsch, who awarded custody to the father, claimed that Amy had fabricated the abuse allegation.
* The author says specifically that the abuse allegation surfaced while she was in the "country house" (that is, in Ellenville), and when "my father had indicated he would be filing for custody." The actual chronology renders this impossible. According to all testimony, the incident witnessed by Amy's mother (not Amy, who was then out of town), occurred in Ellenville during a visit in the spring of 1986. Afterward, Amy's mother reported his conduct to the police. But Orbach (who had already been divorced for 3 years) did not seek custody until the late summer, AND SHERRY HAD BEEN IN BROOKLYN FOR MONTHS BY THAT TIME. In other words, she could not possibly remember discussions of her father's desire for custody while in "the country house." And since, when she WAS in Ellenville, there was no court action of any kind, nor even a threatened dispute over custody (Amy had had undisputed full custody for 3 years), how could Sherry remember being told what to say to to the judge in that setting? True, memories can be muddied over time, but this author says she remembers it "as if it were yesterday." Clearly, that's just not true.
* Court records belie the claim that Amy regularly "posed" Sherry for photographs, and in any event, pictures were not used in "the media" at least until Sherry was dangerously anorexic, and other people were publicly claiming she was not. Testimony indicates that Amy only tape recorded some of her conversations with Sherry after it was claimed that she was secretly maligning her ex-husband to Sherry. (That claim proved false.)
* The author claims that "research" shows that "false" allegations occur in as many as 60% of custody cases. That is simply untrue; there is no such research. Since Sherry Orbach is now a lawyer with a special interest in child welfare issues, it's hard to believe she would be ignorant of that fact.
* Michael says that no one he interviewed who knew the Neusteins had ever seen an antique silver hair brush in their house, and that they never used slipcovers. (He went to the house himself, interviewed guests, and reviewed court testimony of people who knew them well.) It's strange that the author should specifically stress sense memories that simply couldn't have been stimulated in the Neustein home.
* Plenty of journalists sought for years to get Sherry's comments, without success. Michael tried when she was 16, and despite being told by third parties (one of them a relative, one a friend of Dr. Orbach) about comments supposedly made by Sherry, he was rebuffed when he tried to talk to Sherry herself. The same thing happened to Susie Rosenbluth when she wrote about the story, when Sherry was nearly 25... certainly old enough to speak for herself. Yet Sherry kept silent, knowing full well what was being written about her case. The author of "Silent No Longer" rationalizes this silence by claiming, "My family [not all of it, obviously!] believed that my mother's publicity would fizzle out, and that it was best to avoid the media spotlight as much as possible." But that just isn't true.
Over the years, supporters of Dr. Orbach bombarded journalists who wrote about the story with violently worded comments -- all of which turned out to be false. The one thing they wouldn't do was to let any of the reporters talk to Sherry herself. This continued even when Sherry was clearly old enough to comment and when longer and more detailed stories about the case were appearing in the press. On the other hand, "Silent No Longer" appeared when Dr. Orbach's supporters believed that a forthcoming book would further expose what happened in the case, after remaining conspicuously silent as articles detailed the story in the press.
That's pretty much the story on "Silent No Longer." To quote Michael Lesher, it's a "sad hoax" that has been circulated to smear Amy Neustein, whose 20-year history of scholarship, advocacy and activism has earned her an impressive record of credibility. (The same can hardly be said of her detractors: one of them claimed in writing several years ago that Sherry had remained a member of the Orthodox community, only to be contradicted by an email purportedly from Sherry herself days later. Susie Rosenbluth pointed out this lie in print, and was never contradicted.)
And besides all this, there's actually plenty of evidence contained in public reports and records that Sherry, at the age of 6, was a victim of sexual abuse -- evidence that simply isn't mentioned in "Silent No Longer." As the articles and columns (except "Silent No Longer") show, in print and on the Internet, there's Sherry's own report to caseworkers of BSPCC. There's the written statement and testimony of Dr. Anne Meltzer and other psychologists who backed her up. There's the eyewitness testimony of Sherry's grandmother, who by all accounts had remained friendly with her ex-son in law until, as she testified, she saw him molesting the girl on the summer house floor.
There's Sherry's anorexia after being transferred to her father's custody (at such an early age, often a symptom of sexual abuse). And there's Sherry's ominous warning to her father after she was hospitalized for near starvation at Brookdale Hospital -- written down by a nurse there -- "You got me into this. If you don't get me out of here, I'm going to tell everything." Unless that nurse, too, was somehow controlled by Amy Neustein, it's hard to see how this can be seen as anything but independent and disturbing evidence.
And none of this has ever been explained away or refuted, though it's clear that Dr. Orbach's defenders have had plenty of opportunities. Even "Silent No Longer" ducks all the key points.
What gets my goat is that while these folks have never bothered trying to refute the detailed and careful work done by investigators into the case, and backed up by such people as Andy Stein, Jeremiah McKenna (former chief counsel to the New York State Senate's Committee on Crime), Congressman Major Owens and David Paterson -- yes, David Paterson has been quoted as calling the Neustein case “an intensely ferocious effort made by judges, social service and law guardian agencies, rabbis and elected officials to protect the father from an investigation . . . [so that] a heinous crime has been committed and is being covered up” (sound familiar?) -- these folks seem to have had plenty of time to circulate outrageously false claims about Amy Neustein.
What's even more suspicious, they intensified their efforts precisely when they thought they were in danger of exposure to a broad public. Just for instance, Steve Mostofsky (Judge Deutsch's former law clerk) took time out to threaten Susie Rosenbluth, Michael Lesher AND Amy with lawsuits about a story in which he himself was barely mentioned. And was it only coincidence that it was the lawyer for Young Israel (of which Mostofsky is president) who wrote threatening letters to Ms. Rosenbluth and to the publisher of Neustein and Lesher's book about the extent of family court dysfunction in abuse cases?
And while we're on the subject of child welfare, please note that David Pollock (an associate of Mostofsky and a subordinate of Judge Deutsch's wife Sylvia) told Michael Lesher that Sherry had been brought to meet with him in order to apply pressure on Michael in an attempt to interfere with the publication of the book. Why was this young woman being dragged into an effort to protect the reputations of Judge Deutsch and Steve Mostofsky? And why did "Silent No Longer" suddenly appear when it was clear that Neustein and Lesher would not buckle under threats?
What seems most likely to me is that Sherry was cynically manipulated by people whose interests are certainly not with her welfare. I mean, where were they when Sherry nearly starved to death in 1988-89 and again faced dangerous anorexia, three years after being deprived of all contact with her mother by Judge Deutsch's order (because she took her to a hospital for treatment), in 1991? At that time, it seems, they all supported silence. Now their modus operandi appears to be slander. Under the circumstances, both are reprehensible.
As for Sherry herself: I'm certainly not trying to be hard on anyone with her past. It is certainly possible that she no longer remembers the facts of her case. After all, she was banned from all contact with her mother when she was 8 years old, after being removed from her home two years earlier. Since then she's been surrounded by people who told her her mother was a liar, an anti-Semite and heaven knows what else. But what has any of that got to do with the demonstrable facts of the case? Hikind knows better. It's a shame that so many people who fight child sex abuse in our communities have to spend so much time defending themselves from slander. Hikind must know about that by now: look what happened to Benzion Twerski. So I don't see why he should be taken in by the slanderers this time around.
And we shouldn't be, either.
Added Saturday evening - October 25, 2008 - by Susie Rosenbluth.
The situation regarding “Silent No Longer,” purportedly written by Sherry Orbach, is even worse than UOJ reports.
I was the first journalist to receive the piece, which came to me by email shortly after The Jewish Voice and Opinion published an article on Dr. Amy Neustein in March 2005.
When I received “Silent No Longer,” I told the author, who claimed to be Miss Orbach (Dr. Neustein’s estranged daughter), that, because she was a principal in the article I had written, I would gladly publish anything she had to say. However, I told her, because of the incendiary nature of her piece—and the, to be mild, wildly incomprehensible emails and phone calls I had received from people purporting to be her aunt and uncle (Martin and Frima Berger)—I wanted to make certain that “Silent No Longer,” was actually written by Sherry Orbach.
To do that, I told her, I would gladly meet her in any public place on the Columbia University campus (where she was a law student) so that she could hand me the piece in person. Possible venues I suggested were the cafeteria, library, dean’s office, or even the local police station, located just two blocks from the school’s main campus.
The person purporting to be Miss Orbach, then 24, flat out refused, even when I explained that, without my knowing from whom I was receiving the article, I could not possibly publish it.
When I related this story to Rabbi Moshe Faskowitz (whom I called because Mrs. Berger--Miss Orbach’s aunt--had told me he was her rabbinic adviser who had tried to help her reconcile with her estranged family), he told me that it was obvious the person who had sent me the article was not Sherry Orbach, with whom he was well acquainted.
A few weeks later, I spoke with Naomi Klass Mauer, associate publisher of the Brooklyn-based Jewish Press, who told me she, too, had received “Silent No Longer” by email. Mrs. Mauer informed me that she was inclined to publish it. I told her I did not blame her, because that is how I, too, felt when I first received it. However, I told Mrs. Mauer, once the author refused to give me the piece in person, I could not, in good conscience, print it.
Mrs. Mauer told me she agreed with me and that she, too, would insist on being given the piece in person by the person purporting to be the author before The Jewish Press would publish it.
One week later, “Silent No Longer” appeared in The Jewish Press. I called Mrs. Mauer to ask if she had met Miss Orbach. Mrs. Mauer told me she had not. Mrs. Mauer said she had spoken with someone on the phone who purported to be the author and who, in Mrs. Mauer’s words, “knew a great deal about Brooklyn.” Satisfied, Mrs. Mauer allowed the piece to be published.
When I expressed chagrin, Mrs. Mauer acknowledged that, in retrospect, she probably should have stuck to her guns and insisted on receiving the piece in person.
The point is, no one at The Jewish Press or anywhere else knows for certain who the author of “Silent No Longer” really is. Like Rabbi Faskowitz, attorney Michael Lesher, and UOJ, I have strong doubts that it was written by Miss Orbach, a young woman who, most assuredly, has been rendered a victim by everyone who is not encouraging her to reconcile with her mother.
Sherry, if you are reading this, it’s not too late. Your mother is waiting for your call, just as she has been ever since you were taken from her when you were eight years old. Please call her, sweetie. It’s a new year and you have nothing to lose and everything to gain.
The Jewish Voice and Opinion
I want to plead with you to let me assist you, in any way I can, in the reconcilitiation process with your mom. She loves you more than you can ever know, and there is no greater reward for yourself to have a relationship with this wonderful person - you can call mommy!
PLEASE e-mail me at:firstname.lastname@example.org - we'll take it from there.