Woman Wants to Melt Down Her Alleged Abusers Famous Menorah

She’s suing the estate of the silversmith she says molested her as a child—and wants his greatest legacy.

The Daily Beast/October 5, 2021

By Emily Shugerman

A young woman who claims she was sexually abused by a prominent member of New York’s Hasidic Jewish community three decades ago is going after his greatest legacy: a massive, gold-plated menorah in the heart of Brooklyn.

The plaintiff, a 36-year-old woman now living in Israel, claims celebrated silversmith Hirschel Pekkar sexually assaulted her more than a dozen times in the 1990s, starting when she was 5 years old. Pekkar died this July, but his menorah—which the lawsuit describes as “one of the most important pieces of Jewish artwork of the 20th century”—lives on, displayed every Hanukkah outside the world headquarters of the Chabad-Lubavitch Jewish sect.

The plaintiff hopes to get possession of the 6-foot-tall menorah, her lawyer told The Daily Beast, and melt it to the ground.

“Our client has been revictimized every year, watching it light up globally knowing what happened to her,” attorney Susan Crumiller said. “The menorah has become a real symbol to our client, and to us, of justice in this case.”

Asked about the allegations in the lawsuit, Pekkar’s son, Moshe Pekkar, who is also a silversmith, said he had not seen the court papers but was “not aware of anything like that.” He did not respond to further requests for comment. A spokesman for the Chabad Lubavitch organization confirmed that Pekkar had attended the synagogue but added that “membership is pretty open.”

The menorah was commissioned in 1982 by followers of Grand Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who declared that popular, rounded menorahs did not resemble what early menorahs would have looked like. Pekkar created his six-foot sculpture to Schneerson’s specifications, and it quickly became a prized symbol for the Chabad-Lubavitch sect.

A decade after Pekkar created the menorah, the plaintiff’s father—also a member of the Chabad-Lubavitch community—began working with him at the jewelry-making studio adjacent to his Crown Heights apartment. While visiting her father at the jewelry studio one day, the suit claims, the plaintiff asked to use the bathroom. Because there was no bathroom in the studio, Pekkar allegedly volunteered to bring the plaintiff to the bathroom in his apartment. He led her to the bathroom, the suit claims, but stopped outside, sat down on a stool, and began to touch the plaintiff’s vagina under her clothes.

Because the 5-year-old was “completely unaware what was happening or how she should respond,” the suit claims, and because she “trusted Pekkar as a friend of the family, and a notable figure in her community,” she stood frozen and silent while he abused her. Afterward, he allegedly engaged her in friendly conversation to make her feel comfortable with what had happened, but also warned her never to tell anyone. It was the first of at least a dozen such instances, the suit claims.

The plaintiff claims that when her parents learned of the abuse, they brought her allegations to the local rabbinical court, located right next to the Chabad-Lubavitch headquarters.

The lawsuit quotes from what it says was the tribunal’s August 1993 decision declaring that Pekkar “admitted that he has committed an offense,” but sentencing him only to “treatment” and the observation of a specialist. A month later, the lawsuit claims, Pekkar sent a letter to the plaintiff’s father threatening to tarnish his name if he ever raised the allegations again.

For years afterward, the suit claims, the plaintiff suffered from “pervasive and fragmented memories and dreams about Pekkar,” which developed into a “singular focus to discover what had happened to her.” She tried cold-calling people named Pekkar out of the phone book, the suit claims, hoping that one of them would have answers for her. Finally, at age 18, the suit says, she discovered a copy of the tribunal's verdict in her father’s files, confronted him about it, and demanded to confront Pekkar.

According to the suit, Pekkar did not deny the abuse when the plaintiff approached him about it, but claimed she had “wanted” it. More than a decade later, when the plaintiff was 30, she tried again to confront Pekkar. He threatened to take legal action against her if she continued to speak out, the suit claims.

Crumiller said her client was resigned to never seeking justice when she learned about the Child Victims Act, a 2019 New York law that allows victims of child sexual abuse a “lookback window” in which to file claims that were previously outside the statute of limitations. Crumiller and her client were about to file suit under the law this year when Pekkar died.

“We assumed we would be suing him as a live defendant,” Crumiller said. “When he died it was just an absolute shock, to her especially.”

But the plaintiff forged ahead, working with her lawyer to construct a new plan to sue Pekkar’s yet-to-be-formed estate and go after the menorah, the ownership of which is not clear. While Crumiller concedes the legal strategy—which involves asserting a lien on the menorah and demanding that an administrator of Pekkar’s estate be appointed—is novel, she is hopeful it will help her client get closure.

“The original plan would have granted her some level of closure that now she can’t get,” Crumiller said “[But] she cares a lot about the legacy of what she’s doing and making a stand on behalf of future victims who feel silenced like she did. So in that way she’s not deprived of the opportunity to make a difference.”

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