Machberes: Inside The Chassidish And Yeshivish World
By Rabbi Gershon Tannenbaum
On Friday, March 28, erev Shabbos Hachodesh, Abraham Rubin of Williamsburg was released from New York City’s Riker Island Correctional Facility to a hero’s welcome, with hundreds of men dancing to joyous music and spirited songs in the streets of Williamsburg. On Motzaei Shabbos, Rubin was feted with a catered celebration meal at an upscale wedding hall and was received with great honor at the Williamsburg home of the Satmar Rebbe. Several large, laudatory display ads were placed in Der Blatt, a Satmar Yiddish weekly, bestowing glory upon Rubin.
Rubin was sentenced on Wednesday, January 10, 2014, to four months of incarceration and five years of probation and immediately led away to begin serving his sentence at Rikers Island. He had pleaded guilty on August 21, 2013, to four class-D felonies and to an A misdemeanor for his attempting, in June 2013, to bribe the victim in the Nechemyia Weberman case. Rubin was charged with obstruction of justice and witness tampering, amongst other crimes. In reward for good behavior, Rubin was released early, having served only two-and-a-half months of his four-month sentence. Probation continues until the end of the five-year period.
He had offered $500,000 in cash for the victim to leave to Israel and not testify against Weberman. The Weberman trial took place in Brooklyn in late November and early December of 2013. Weberman was found guilty of all 59 counts of child molestation on December 10, and he was sentenced to 103 years of incarceration.
On May 16, 2013, a well-attended fund-raising event was held in Williamsburg for Weberman’s defense fund. Various media reports indicated that approximately $500,000 was raised. Quite coincidentally, that same amount of money was conveniently offered to silence the victim-witness one month after the money was raised and six months before the trial was to begin. After Weberman’s overwhelming conviction, an attempt was made to raise money for an appeal of that draconian 103-year sentence. No one showed up and no money was generated.
Immediately after the Weberman conviction and sentencing, an editorial appeared in Der Blatt, the Satmar Yiddish weekly, of Friday, January 26, 2013, having ventured into the Weberman case discourse, citing the known cases of seemingly disproportionate sentencing of chassidishe Jews and posing a question to rabbinical leaders. With the justice system, both in New York State and the United States federal levels, appearing to be forbidding to chassidishe defendants, would it not be practical, expedient, and wise to enter into plea-deal negotiations rather than go to trial, lose automatically, and face monstrous sentences? The exorbitant legal fees and the grueling consumption of time associated with protracted trials would be saved.
The Der Blatt editorial felt that it is virtually impossible for a chassidishe Jew to prevail in a jury trial. And when inevitably convicted, a chassidishe Jew will face the imposition of a maximum sentence. Once entangled in a court case, the editorial feels that notwithstanding one’s innocence, a chassidishe Jew should cop a plea. The only question that remains to be determined is whether a Jew is permitted to go into court, come before a judge, and under affirmation (which is the legal equivalent of an oath) knowingly plead guilty to a falsity in order to avoid an undeserved, devastating, excessive sentence. In order to qualify for leniency, the defendant must take responsibility for the crime. If innocent, the defendant is lying and possibly in violation of the Biblical injunction of “distance yourself from a falsehood” (Sh’mos 23:7). Clear, unambiguous, sincere elocution of guilt is required. Pleading no contest or its equivalent would not benefit the defendant with the “taking of responsibility thus deserving the mercy of the Court.”
With a clear directive from universally respected dayanim (rabbinical judges) for chassidim in Brooklyn to automatically enter into negotiations for the best possible plea agreements, the embarrassment of pleading guilty in secular court will be understood by the observant community as an expedient, and the guilty plea would not necessarily blemish the accused. An accused chassid would thus save massive legal fees, hopefully get a minimal sentence, and quickly be back with his or her family and kehillah.
Sholom Mordechai Rubashkin was aggressively prosecuted and found not guilty on most of the charges leveled against him. However, on charges found guilty, mostly business misstatements, he was sentenced in 2010 to 27 years, notwithstanding that he is a nonviolent, first-time offender. Rubashkin was wrongfully denied bail pending trial because he was Jewish, and according to the Iowa Federal court he automatically was a flight risk to Israel. Rubashkin’s appeal has been denied a hearing by the Supreme Court.
Mordechai Samet was convicted of business fraud in 2002 and sentenced to 27 years’ imprisonment. Some feel that the sentencing of Samet had an element of religious persecution, as the judge, seemingly biased, quoted the Bible in imposing the lengthy sentence. Samet had made full restitution but was nevertheless given a sentence longer than headline billion-dollar cases of business fraud such as Enron, WorldCom, etc. Recently, in anticipation of a review of his case, Samet has been begging forgiveness in full-page ads in many Jewish weeklies from anybody he may have slighted.
Baruch Mordechai Lebovitz was convicted by jury of abuse of a minor and sentenced to 32 years in prison. He had turned down a plea-agreement offer of only 15 months in prison. His conviction was overturned on a technicality, and after one year of incarceration, he was released. He is to be retried in the coming weeks. Lebovitz will be facing a possible sentence of 40 years. The Lebovitz conviction had become enmeshed in the arraignment of a supposed extortionist, generating a cloud of confusion as to the DA’s office proceeding against either or both. The alleged extortionist had actually worked with the DA’s office aiding in the prosecution of Lebovitz. After careful detailed review, the case against the supposed extortionist has been tossed out of court.
In addition to the Rubashkin (non-abuse), Samet (non-abuse), Lebovitz, and Weberman sentences, Rabbi Israel Moshe Weingarten, a former respected rosh yeshiva, was sentenced in 2009 to 30 years in Federal prison for abuse.
In the background of the prison sentences of 27, 30, 32, and 103 years, the life sentence imposed upon Jonathon Pollard for spying for Israel is lamented every day. To date, Pollard is in prison for more than 29 years. Major attempts to persuade successive presidents to grant clemency have failed. The efforts have included requests by former United States attorneys general, senators, members of Congress, key government officials, and heads of Federal security agencies. Recent declassification of secret government documents reveal that Pollard’s offense was not as severe as formerly touted and generally assumed. Nevertheless, Jonathon Pollard, a Jew, remains incarcerated for life despite his failing health. As this is being written, the United States has offered to free Pollard in exchange for hefty Israeli concessions in the so-called Middle East peace negotiations.
In July 2013, during the Brooklyn trial of an Orthodox Jew charged with child molestation, a female juror publicly disclosed that the jury was openly anti-Semitic and had agreed amongst themselves that the defendant was guilty before evidence was heard. The juror was quoted as saying, “There was a lot of talk about the Jewish religion and one girl said it was a Jewish trial.” The juror’s refusal to convict led to a mistrial.
Contrast these jury convictions with the conviction rate in the Bronx of only 43% percent. In the Bronx, an accused has better than a two-in-five chance of being acquitted. On the other hand, being a chassidishe Jew seems to be a major deficiency in Brooklyn courtrooms, especially if he pleads not guilty. Many leading criminal attorneys agree that a chassidishe Jew has no benefit of the doubt with a general-population jury. Years ago, first-time nonviolent offenders were dealt with more lightly. However, with the introduction of rigid sentencing guidelines, judicial discretion has gone out the window. The old-time consideration for a first-time nonviolent chassidishe Jew is worthless today inside a Brooklyn courtroom. After conviction by jury, judges must impose a sentence in accord with the applicable sentence guideline. Judges in the above-cited cases have imposed severe prison sentences.
The Suggestion Actualized
Der Blatt’s editorial of Friday, April 4, reiterates its position of January 26, 2013, and elaborates on the many good deeds performed by Rubin. He is continuously involved in hachnosas orchim and pidyon shevuim (redeeming captives). The editorial renders Rubin’s involvement in the Weberman case as an effort in pidyon shevuim, seeking to amicably settle the matter between the victim and Weberman. According to the editorial, the case revolved around the translation of a Yiddish word, which Rubin meant as “settling,” but which can also be translated differently. Of course, the then-district attorney chose the other, negative translation and had Rubin arrested. Three other young men, all brothers, arrested at the same time were not sentenced to any jail time.
In January 2014, the victim initiated a lawsuit in Brooklyn Supreme Court seeking damages from Weberman and from the school with which he was affiliated as a counselor. After all the dust settles, the $500,000 bribe or settlement offer may have been a better financial choice.
Consulting with rabbis and community leaders, Rubin did not fight the charges. He immediately agreed to a plea-bargain deal in order to save his family from aggravation. Prosecutors agreed to seek a sentence of six months. The judge, in response to overwhelmingly positive community overtures, issued a sentence of only four months, which, with good behavior, reduced the actual prison time to two-and-a-half months. At the meeting with the Satmar Rebbe, Rubin described the challenges he had at Rikers Island in wearing a yarmulke, davening with tallis and tefillin, eating only kosher, reading the Megillah, observing Shabbos, etc., and that he persevered.
Rubin’s relatively short sentence, as the editorial narrates, was the cumulative result of rabbis and community leaders agreeing that a chassidishe Jew should consent to a plea deal rather than fight and risk an almost inevitable prohibitively long prison sentence. Further, the editorial states, since Rubin was not found guilty by a jury, Rubin’s reputation and integrity can be considered intact. v
Rabbi Gershon Tannenbaum is the rav of B’nai Israel of Linden Heights in Boro Park and director of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He can be contacted at email@example.com.