Posted by Pesach Sommer
I know that I can’t have held my breath for 1 ½ hours this past Friday. Still, as i sat in the courtroom listening to Laiby Stern testify about the abuse he suffered at the hands of his former neighbor Moshe Menachem Taubenfeld, a powerful and influential member of the chassidic community in New Square, I felt like I couldn’t breathe.
As I listened to Laiby as he was cross-examined by the defense lawyer I felt so many different emotions rise up inside of me. Perhaps the strongest emotion that I felt was anger. Anger at the dozens of men who were there to support Taubenfeld. Men who smiled, smirked, and even laughed each time Stern, who has a learning disability, was tripped up by the high-paid defense attorney. Anger at a community that instinctively circles the wagons around its most powerful members, rather than protecting those who are most vulnerable. Anger at a community that refuses to recognize the dangers posed by abusers in their community, where the abuser might receive, at most, a beating and a warning to not do it again, or, if they are influential enough, no consequence at all. I also felt anger at the the fact that the community fears the outside world more than it fears its children being hurt, and anger that it blames the victim for any subsequent problems he or she might face, rather than holding the abuser responsible.
After the trial, I heard about how other victims of abuse in New Square and other chassidic communities are following this case, anxiously waiting to see whether it’s worth it to come forward to bring charges. If Laiby loses his cases, these young people will take it as a sign that they can not succeed if they come forward. I was told that some might give up more than that, and had suggested they might jump off a bridge if Taubenfeld is found not guilty.
After having had some time to process what I saw and heard, more than anything, I feel powerless, knowing that whatever anger, fear, and frustration I might feel, there is little if anything I can accomplish to bring about change. Perhaps the presence of those who attended the trial to support Laiby gave him some encouragement as the defense lawyer tried to get him frustrated and catch him in a lie, but I am left wondering what, if anything else, I could do to effect change in a community of which I am not a part. I attended the trial wanting to give hope to Liby, and to other victims, wanting to believe that somehow, justice would prevail, and to believe that, finally, in communities like New Square the wellbeing of the children would finally take center-stage. It was this lack of power, and the wishful thinking it subsequently brought about, that, in the end, leaves me feeling so deeply sad and afraid.