Written By Meyer Seewald
It’s been almost six years since I found myself in tears, sitting on a floor as a victim of childhood sexual abuse described to me in detail how, at 14 years old, Mendel Tevel performed oral sex on him. Tevel was seen by many as a beloved, caring, and charming “mashpia” (spiritual guidance counselor) within the Chabad community of Crown heights Brooklyn and beyond. I remember this conversation as if it happened yesterday. It would be one of many sleepless nights to come which I experienced during my years of confronting childhood sexual abuse within the Orthodox Jewish community.
At the time he told me of the matter, this victim was not ready to press charges. I started doing research on Tevel and found out that he was a staff member at a school and camp in upstate New York. After months of investigation that included hundreds of hours taking phone calls, ten separate people alleged to me that they were victims of Mendel Tevel. The acts theydescribed Tevel forcing them to be a part of where some of the most depraved and terrifying accounts of sexual torture I have ever heard. These included, but are not limited to, whipping them with hangers until they bled, and leaving one victim tied up naked and left on the floor. (Click here to read more stories in the Jewish Journal.)
Shortly after Jewish Community Watch warned the Los Angeles Jewish community of the danger he posed to their children, several people contacted us with stories of how tevel tried groom their children for potential sexual abuse. Instead of taking action, the JEM Community Center, which is owned and operated by the Illulian family – and the family that Tevel married into – continued to support Mendel Tevel and provide him with unfettered access to children at the JEM center.
This went on until one victim, the first one I had spoken to about Mendel Tevel and the only victim who had some time left within the statute of limitations, decided he had had enough. He gave a statement to the Special Victims Bureau at the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office, and they began their investigation of Tevel. After many months of investigating, including speaking to the other victims who had already passed the time frame of the statute of limitations and couldn’t press charges themselves, Mendel Tevel was arrested in California and extradited to New York to face criminal charges for his crimes.
The Tevel family started a smear campaign against the victim who had come forward, including falsely accusing this young man of similar acts. When they saw him or his family members in the streets of New York, they yelled at them and accused them of committing the act of “mesirah” (a Hebrew word ‘Snitch’ for people who report crimes to the public authorities). They contacted other victims, whom they suspected spoke to the police as well. They tried using family, friends, and rabbis from the community to send messages and warnings to the victim who had come forward, in order to pressure him into dropping the charges. Even under such pressure, this brave hero did not back down. He promised himself that he would not allow the crimes committed against him to happen to any more children, and continued to resist.
After almost two years of battling in court, Mendel Tevel finally accepted a deal in which he received a reduced sentence of eleven months of jail time in exchange for pleading guilty. He would have to register as a sex offender for the rest of his life. The victim who came forward agreed to the conditions in this plea deal due to the promise that Tevel would be on the sex offender registry for the rest of his life. The aftermath of his prison sentence, however, may be even more shocking than the intimidation this victim faced prior to the trial. Mendel Tevel was released early for good behavior on January 12, 2016. He served a total of seven months instead of the eleven months agreed upon within the plea deal. Most disturbing is the fact that Tevel walked out of prison without being required to register as a sex offender, as was an additional and important part of his plea deal. According to the Jewish Journal: “A spokesman for the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office told the Journal that the hearing will clarify Tevel’s sex offender registration requirements — which could range from twenty years to life — and that until then he’s not required to register. While a sex offender’s designation is typically established before release from prison, the spokesman said there was a technical error in Tevel’s case and the judge had to grant Tevel’s attorney’s request for a re-evaluation.”
Currently, Tevel is arguing his case in front of Judge Elizabeth Foley in Brooklyn Criminal Court in order to not have to register as a sex offender, despite his plea deal. After over twenty hearings, Justice Foley is to render her decision on May 15, 2017.
We rely on a justice system to keep our society safe, and yet the current statute of limitations makes it almost impossible for the system to work properly. In order to press charges, a victim (when abused as a minor) must come forward before the age of 23. This, in many cases, can be virtually impossible. When the few victims who do manage to come forward, despite the potentially significant costs to their livelihood and ability to heal, they are let down, yet again, by the very people who are sworn to protect and advocate for them. This is the exact opposite of what our justice system is supposed to be doing, and this is not the standard we should accept for the safety of children — in the state of New York and beyond.
If the shameful current statute of limitations on sex crimes was to be changed, more of Tevel’s victims would have been able to press charges when this matter first came to court. This dangerous individual would receive due justice for the enormous amounts of damage he caused to so many people.
Will there be any justice for victims of child sexual abuse in New York? Is there any justice for victims of child sexual abuse in the Orthodox Jewish community of Brooklyn, as the system currently stands? What will it take for victims to finally have a voice to be able to prosecute those that hurt children? I hope and pray that Judge Foley finally sees past Tevel’s lies. He is a danger to children, a fact to which his numerous victims are very aware of. Any responsible society has the right to know about and to protect themselves from people such as Mendel Tevel.
Meyer Seewald is the founder of Jewish Community Watch. An organization which is dedicated to combating child sexual abuse in the orthodox jewish community.