What We Talk about When We Talk about Crime

It will soon be Leiby Kletzky’s sixth yahrzeit (anniversary of death). Six years since he failed to return home, sparking a desperate search which ended in the discovery of his harrowing murder.

After following Levi Aron, an Orthodox Jewish man he met on the street, to his car on his walk home from camp, Leiby was eventually taken to Aron’s home. Close to 36 hours after Leiby went missing on July 11, 2011, police were able to identify Aron and discovered the gory crime scene at his apartment.

This month, the Arons are in the news once again. Tzvi Aron, the brother of Levi Aron, was found dead in his home on Friday June 2. His death remains shrouded in mystery as an autopsy was inconclusive and speculations have included homicide, suicide, and an overdose. This suspicious death has received little coverage in the Orthodox Jewish press and the question as to whether or not the Jewish community is any better able to confront crime remains.

The murder of Leiby Kletzky was the focus of my master’s thesis. I was struck by the diverse comments posted online following articles that covered the case. While comments following mainstream media news articles expressed horror and sadness about the loss of a young innocent life, comments posted on Orthodox Jewish news websites, often following the very same mainstream media news articles, raised the issue of sexual abuse. People suggested that Aron had killed the boy because he had sexually abused him during the hours they were together, even though no evidence of sexual abuse was presented.

Sexual abuse is not something that is often discussed in Orthodox Jewish public forums, especially not six years ago, and I wondered what topics of conversation arose for the Orthodox Jewish community following the murder. Building on insights from functionalist theory and the literature examining insular groups, I considered whether and how the crime was functional to the community.

I found six themes in the 1,303 posted comments following 28 articles about the case on Yeshiva World News and Voz Is Neias, websites catering to the Orthodox Jewish community. They include Levi Aron, about the murderer and why he committed this crime; The Murder, about what happened from the time Leiby approached Aron to the time that Aron was arrested; The Case, which explored the investigation and court process; Punishment, about Aron paying for his crime; Preventative Measures, about how to keep the community and its children safe; and Orthodox Judaism, pertaining to the shared religious affiliation between readers and the victim and perpetrator.

Comments highlighted how the community dealt with the murder of one of their own at the hands of one of their – by reminding themselves of their faith. In this way, the crime united readers who came together to discuss its impact. They drew comfort from their religion and expressed anger towards Aron. They classified Aron as deviant by comparing him to serial killers and separated him from the camp of Orthodox Jewry. They also discussed the boundaries between themselves and the outside world, especially the media, police, and lawyers. In these comments lay expressions of a shared morality, or the collective conscience, which is consistent with the views of Durkheim and Erikson about the meaning communities hold for individuals. For example, comments were often framed with an eye to the Torah’s interpretation of the topic, such as the Torah view on punishment and forgiveness.

However, community members discussing the crime were divided on three specific points. Traditional responses to communal problems, such as mental health and sexual abuse, were debated. People also questioned the ability of communal authorities to respond to crime, including Shomrim, the Orthodox Jewish patrol service, and rabbis. And while it was suggested that the crime had paved the way for change, not everyone agreed that change was feasible or even necessary.

The Orthodox Jewish community reacted to this crime in similar ways that other insular groups have when crime has impacted them. Readers accepted the murder as part of God’s plan, they discussed the silencing and shaming of victims of sex crimes, as well as the covering up of crime in the community. This is consistent with the dark figure of crime which represents crimes that are not reported. As in other groups, non-reporting can occur out of concern with how outsiders will perceive the group or because reporting crime can lead to division in the community, eroding the solidarity that is key to group survival. And in some cases, authority members use religious texts to enforce the non-reporting of crime.

The dark figure of crime tells us that we will never know the true crime rate, especially in insular groups where crime data is difficult to collect for many of the above reasons. But it does not mean that we should stay silent when crime occurs.

Continuing to talk about crimes within is crucial. In addition to bringing us together, it can help shed light on some of our very darkest corners.

About the Author
Guila Benchimol is a PhD candidate in sociological criminology at the University of Guelph. Her research and advocacy focus on crimes committed in religious communities and on sexual violence. She is a research assistant at the Centre for the Study of Social and Legal Responses to Violence and a Wexner graduate fellow. Guila brings over 10 years of experience as a Jewish educator to her current work and she is a consultant for Jewish institutions on their community safety and protection policies.
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