Baruch Lebovits (Source: failedmessiah.typepad.com)
Sam Kellner, an Orthodox man and Borough Park resident, was seeking justice on behalf of his sexually abused 16-year-old son. The New York Times reported that in the midst of his ordeal, he was shunned by the local community, damaging his business and social life, but also indicted on charges of attempting to extort the accused abuser for hundreds of thousands of dollars.
The complicated and tragic story began five years ago when Kellner accused Baruch Lebovits, a prominent Hasidic cantor, of sexually abusing his 16-year-old son. Kellner began working with investigators in helping them uncover other victims of Lebovits, in turn seriously upsetting the Orthodox establishment. A rabbi at Kellner’s synagogue declared him a traitor and forbade community members from talking to him. As a result, Kellner’s son was barred from all local yeshivas and Kellner’s business was driven to closure. Kellner also became worried that he would be unable to find his son a wife.
According to Kellner, his life was ruined.
“I felt murdered and abandoned. I’m ruined,” Kellner told the Times.
For Kellner, things went from bad to worse in 2011. Prosecutors had successfully tried Lebovits for sexual abuse crimes but then quickly indicted Kellner on charges of extortion. The Brooklyn District Attorney’s office, led by Charles Hynes, had obtained a secret tape and grand jury testimony from a supporter of Lebovits, both of which provided evidence that Kellner had attempted to extort $400,000 from Lebovits.
The evidence against Kellner subsequently led to the release of Lebovits.
Battle lines between a growing group of embittered Orthodox whistle-blowers who faced similar community harassment, and the powerful Orthodox establishment who fight hard to keep such cases under wraps, are increasing in intensity. The Times described how for whistle-blowers, Kellner’s case is of the utmost importance:
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.”
Alan Dershowitz, an attorney for Levbovits have painted Kellner, and other people who have come forward in sexual abuse cases in Orthodox communities, as nothing more than extortionists.
“We see Kellner as a leader of a major extortion ring. He is not a do-gooder,” Dershowitz told the Times.
The case against Kellner isn’t as cut and dry as Dershowitz would want people to think. The Times describes the audiotape, which allegedly captures Kellner trying to extort Lebovits, as being vague:
[Dershowitz] pointed to the key evidence, a secretly taped, rambling and excited conversation between Mr. Kellner and Meyer Lebovits, the cantor’s son. Mr. Kellner is also accused of paying witnesses to testify against Mr. Lebovits. “When you have an audiotape where Kellner is warning him that he’s going to bring other victims, it speaks for itself,” Mr. Batsidis said.
That explanation sounds better than the tape itself. The transcript reveals a conversation soaked in ambiguity, and rendered in overwrought language. It depicts Mr. Kellner as a tortured father trying to find justice. The younger Mr. Lebovits at times seems to accept that his father committed some acts of abuse.
Kellner has also gained support from Beit Din, a three-member rabbinical court in Monsey, NY, who believe that they have a moral obligation to fight sexual abuse in their community:
They view Mr. Kellner as a brave pioneer. He did not seek out witnesses at random; rather their court, with the help of local leaders in Williamsburg, gave him the name of a victim.
“Lebovits is known to have a long history” of sexual abuse, Rabbi Chaim Flohr said. But Mr. Lebovits has powerful supporters, and people are fearful, he added.
Currently, Kellner is free on a $25,000 bond and is awaiting his day in court.