Witness for the Prosecution

witness

Professor Allan Nadler helps expose a secretive sect in a highly charged sexual abuse case.

By Mary Jo Patterson

In November 2012 religion professor Allan Nadler settled into the witness box in a Brooklyn courtroom, where a sensational child sex abuse trial had just begun. A witness for the prosecution, Nadler was called to testify about the sexual mores of an ultra-Orthodox Jewish sect known as Satmar Hasidim. Reporters covering the trial barely mentioned Nadler’s testimony, but his blunt remarks about Satmar “modesty committees” in a follow-up article in The New York Times nearly went viral.

“They operate like the Mafia,” Nadler told the Times. “They walk into a store and say it would be a shame if your window was broken or you lost your clientele. They might tell the father of a girl who wears a skirt that’s too short and he’s, say, a store owner: ‘If you ever want to sell a pair of shoes, speak to your daughter.’”

Nadler’s testimony was designed to orient the jury to the Satmar way of life. A prominent member of the community, Nechemya Weberman, stood accused of sexually abusing a 12-year-old girl who had been sent to him for counseling. Later convicted, Weberman was sentenced to 103 years in prison.

Nadler, an Orthodox rabbi, is an expert in ultra-Orthodox culture. His first scholarly article traced the history of the Satmar sect, which was established in Hungary in 1928 and is headquartered today in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood.

He stands by his comparison of the Satmar’s modesty squads to mob enforcers. “They don’t kill people,” he said in an interview, “but they use all kinds of intimidation tactics” to enforce conformity to their rules, including violence. “They’re very secretive, and the process by which one gets on these squads is very murky. Although their existence is denied, ultimately nothing happens in a Hasidic community without the approval of the chief rabbi.”

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