Under New Jersey law, minors who were victims of sex crimes can prosecute their abusers under the protection of anonymity.
Elisheva Akselrod, however, wants her true identity known in connection with the lawsuit and criminal complaint she filed against disgraced kosher restaurateur Shalom Yehudiel, because she doesn’t like how stories about crimes center on the perpetrators.
“Everyone knows their names,” she said in an interview. “No one names the people who are actually hurt.
“The victims are nameless and faceless, and the perpetrators are the only focus. When people talk about this, the perpetrators don’t deserve to be remembered. People should be interested in how to stop them and asking the victims to share their stories.”
Deciding to talk to the Jewish Standard and other media outlets “is about giving me a name and a face and not being known as a nameless and faceless ‘victim,’” she said. “We are multidimensional people. Our lives were hurt. The people who care about us were hurt.”
In a series of publicly filed legal cases, Ms. Akselrod has alleged that Mr. Yehudiel groomed her and molested her, beginning when she was 14, at Congregation Anshei Lubavitch in Fair Lawn.
Today, she is 21. She is working in film, enrolled in school, and living in Brooklyn.
Mr. Yehudiel, for his part, apparently is in Florida. He told a New Jersey court that he planned to go there to rejoin his wife and child, after he was arrested at Kennedy Airport on August 8 with a one-way ticket to Thailand. That came after charges for alleged rape of another minor were dismissed, because the Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office failure to obtain evidence from the FBI properly. Those charges were dismissed without prejudice, meaning that Mr. Yehudiel can be reindicted for the alleged crime. Attorney Michael Gorokhovich, who has taken on Ms. Akselrod’s case, convinced the sex crimes attorney at the Union County Prosecutor’s Office to issue an arrest warrant for Mr. Yehudiel.
The Union County prosecutor has taken another, similar case at the request of New Jersey Attorney General Matthew J. Platkin. That was in response to Mr. Gorokhovich’s complaint that the Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office bungled the investigation of Ms. Akselrod’s allegations, and now it has a conflict of interest when it comes to prosecuting them.
Mr. Gorokhovich has his doubts about where Mr. Yehudiel might be.
But this is a story about Ms. Akselrod, not Mr. Yehudiel — though Ms. Akselrod said she understands the fascination with focusing on perpetrators. “Why are people so obsessed with true crime videos? Because it seems more interesting to see how a sick mind works.”
She, however, is interested in “humanizing the victims as much as possible.”
Mr. Yehudiel “doesn’t deserve people to be talking about him. They should be interested in how to stop him, and in asking victims to share their stories.”
Asked to reflect on how her experience changed her, Ms. Akselrod said that she sees her younger self as “very different, in good ways and in bad ways. Sometimes I’ll look back and say I was so stupid, how could I do that? But I was just a kid. I’m trying not to shame my past self. ‘You were a kid! Your frontal lobe was not developed!’”
Looking back, “I was very naive,” she said. “I was sort of confident by default, because I didn’t know much about the world.
“My mother told me that she was surprised this happened to me because when I was a kid I was extremely outgoing. I was the kid who tried to have a lot of friends.
“She told me, ‘I thought signing you up for all these activities would help you be confident, so that if anyone much older tried to take advantage of you, you could stand up for yourself,’
“What my mom did not realize was that this confidence was effective only if people my own age were mean to me. But if someone 36 years old was crossing boundaries, I didn’t know what to do.
“A lot also has to do with what young Orthodox girls are taught. We’re told that if we’re ever rejecting a man, we have to be polite about it. ‘Don’t be rude. Don’t be snappy. Don’t raise your voice. If you’re being harassed, just keep walking. Just stay silent.’
“We keep telling Orthodox women you have to be patient and kind when someone is being horrible to you — it’s so messed up. It doesn’t work.”
She said she sees a similar desire in her community not to talk about what happened to her.
“I think it’s disbelief,” she said. “They don’t want to admit something bad like this could happen under their noses. People wave it away as not important enough to talk about.
“A lot of times people say, ‘Just leave it to the police.’ But the police never do anything about it. I tried going to the cops — they did nothing.” Here, she’s referring to the Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office decision not to file charges against Mr. Yehudiel after it did not investigate her complaints seriously in 2019. That failure includes not obtaining many inculpatory text messages that Yehudiel sent her.
“It’s not going to get talked about in a legal context unless people talk about it in a regular context first,” she said. “It has to be seen as something serious, not something you gloss over, in order for the cops to take it seriously.
“People in the Orthodox community just don’t believe it could happen — and then it does. That’s a big problem. You see kids being hurt every which way, and nobody takes any precaution because they don’t want to admit it could ever happen. Nobody makes sure their kids are not wandering where they’re not supposed to.
“It’s not that they don’t care about kids’ safety,” she continued. “I think they don’t want to admit something this terrible could happen under their watch. I think they take it personally.”
“Perhaps there’s a guilt the community has when they ignore these situations. But honestly I think it’s disgust. It’s like a stink you close your nose to. Get away from it, don’t worry about it. Just move along and get far away until you forget. As if it’s nothing of their business.
“That stems from a fear of what evil truly is.”
What about her own siblings? (She has an older sister, a brother not much younger than she is, and then five more, including twins, between 8 and 11.) Has she tried to teach them something based on her painful experience?
“I’m a little afraid to pass it down to them,” she said. “I don’t want them to live in fear. I don’t want to kill any of their outgoing mischievous spirit. But I want them to be safe.
“I haven’t really had that conversation with them; I think my mother might have. I’ve heard examples of how my little brothers stood up to coaches and teachers who bullied them, so I’m not as worried. They’re more headstrong than I was.
“I was a woman. A lot of time we are told to be polite for some stupid reason, even if we’re getting unwanted attention. My brothers were never taught that. They were told, that if someone is disrespecting you in any way, to stand up for yourself even if it means being aggressive. I wasn’t told that.
“A lot of times young Orthodox girls are told they have to shut up and take it. No. Don’t ever let someone hurt you and just shut up and take it. Fight back as much as you can.
“It might be scary, but it’s better for you in the long run.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: We feel that Ms. Akselrod’s broad-brush depiction of the community might be too sweeping. The Orthodox community is not monolithic. Many Orthodox Jews, like other Jews, have learned from the Baruch Lanner debacle that sexual abuse happens in the Jewish world, and that hiding it does not make it go away. We know that some parts of the community want to sweep all signs of abuse under a very thick rug but others in the community want to air it, fight it, and get rid of it. We honor Ms. Akselrod’s desire to have her voice heard.