Forward Thinking

The Chabad Rabbi and NBC's Abuse 'Smear'

By Eliyahu Federman

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Avraham Berkowitz

Did NBC smear a prominent Chabad rabbi over his position on reporting child abuse to the police?

The Peacock Network’s ‘Rock Center’ show on June 21 ran a story about Judy Brown, who has written for the Forward and whose bestselling book, ‘Hush,’ chronicles her spiritual journey away from the Hasidic world and discusses sexual abuse in the deeply insular Hasidic community.

Rabbi Avraham Berkowitz, a well-known figure in the Chabad movement, was interviewed for the story. Although Berkowitz supports reporting suspected abuse directly to police, NBC edited his comments to make it seem that he believes they should only be reported only to rabbis, a controversial position that has divided the Jewish community.

The transcript of the unedited interview shows that Berkowitz said “the rabbis work together hand-in-hand with the authorities,” “deviants must be punished,” and “they’ll be caught.” The full un-aired interview demonstrates that Berkowitz was discussing educational initiatives on abuse prevention, not the reporting of sexual abuse — and makes clear that he believes rabbis should work hand-in-hand with the authorities.

But NBC apparently decided that Berkowitz’s views did not fit the storyline of Orthodox sexual abuse cover-ups. So it selectively edited his quotes and added grossly misleading voice-overs that implied he believes sex abuse crimes should be handled only by rabbis.

“Avraham Berkowitz is a local rabbi in the community and he says people are now acknowledging that sexual abuse is happening and insists that they can handle the problem themselves,” Dr. Nancy Snyderman, of NBC says on the show.

NBC never directly asked Berkowitz whether he thinks abuse should be reported directly to the police. Yet they superimposed his unrelated quotes over a discussion the case of Nechemya Weberman, the unlicensed Satmar “therapist” who was convicted of sexually abusing a young girl. The Weberman case, a narrator intones, “was a rare instance of a Hasid going to outside authorities to report a crime.”

NBC has since pulled the story from its web site and issued an editor’s note clarifying his comments.

“In the story, (Berkowitz) said ‘the community can handle the problem themselves,’” the editor’s note says. “Rabbi Berkowitz says he was referring to the community handling efforts to prevent sexual abuse - not whether to report sexual abuse to police. He says he has always advocated reporting suspected abuse to the appropriate law enforcement agencies.”

Berkowitz says he accepts the clarification.

“I’m very grateful to NBC for the steps they took to resolve the matter,” the rabbi wrote on his Facebook page.

The story behind the story is the big split within the Orthodox world about whether and how to report child abuse to authorities. That feud pits those like Berkowitz and Chabad on the side of encouraging reporting directly to the police, while the Satmars and other Hasidic groups oppose it.

The Chabad-affiliated Bein Din of Crown Heights has even issued a ruling that required suspected abuse be reported directly to the police. Chaim Dovid Zwiebel, the executive vice president of Agudath Israel of America, on the other hand, has said that Jews should not report sexual abuse allegations to the police unless permitted to do so by a rabbi.

NBC apparently didn’t want to dig too deeply into the story about divisions within different Hasidic groups, instead focusing on the headline-grabbing story about their supposed reluctance to go to authorities.

At the end of the day, the ‘Rock Center’ viewers didn’t know much more this important and divisive issue after watching than they did before.


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