In early November, Amy Neustein called the Voice with a message about her brother, an Orthodox Jew who owns a number of buildings in Inwood and Washington Heights.
“My brother,” she said, “is a slumlord.”
Neustein said she was overcome with worry: The tenants in her brother’s building were living with rodents, lead paint, and no heat or hot water. The situation there had become so dire, she explained, that local politicians had declared their support for the tenants, who are largely Spanish-speaking, and her brother, Joshua Neustein, had become a notorious figure in the local Spanish-language press.
Neustein also explained that she has long disliked her brother; a few years ago, she changed her last name so that it would be pronounced Neu-stine instead of Neu-steen to distance herself from him. Vouching for her credibility, Neustein also pointed out that she’s an author and an activist-at 51, she’s a veteran of many crusades.
She first came to prominence some 20 years ago over a lengthy custody battle for her young daughter, who she claimed had been sexually abused by her ex-husband. After the court disagreed and awarded the father custody, Neustein became a public figure and a symbol for other women who felt they were harmed by the family court system. She went on to co-write From Madness to Mutiny: Why Mothers Are Running From the Family Courts-and What Can Be Done About It, which was published in 2005 by the Northeastern University Press, and is now editing Tempest in the Temple: Jewish Communities and Child Sex Scandals, due out in March by Brandeis University Press.
Despite the time that has passed since her custody case was in court, Neustein’s experience is still cited by women’s groups as a prime example of bias against women in the family courts. One of her biggest supporters was Governor David Paterson, then a state senator, who became known as an advocate for women and held several hearings on Neustein’s behalf. Neustein has built a career in part on talking about her experiences and advocating for other cases involving women fighting for custody of their children after accusations of child sex abuse.
“My schedule is crazy,” Neustein wrote in an e-mail, explaining that she was in the final stages of editing Tempest. But she wanted to talk about her brother.
She said she had compelling information about what Josh Neustein was putting his tenants through. And, yes, she acknowledged that it was unusual for a sister to accuse her own brother of something so damaging-and especially to do so by going to the press.
But Amy Neustein has long had a complicated relationship with the media. That became plain as we learned about her brother’s buildings-and plenty more about Amy Neustein herself.
The part about her brother wasn’t hard to check out. Josh Neustein is a notorious landlord, particularly among working-class Dominicans.
In May, the Spanish-language newspaper El Diario published a front-page story titled “Hispano Contra Goliat” (“Hispanic Versus Goliath”), reporting that a contractor said he was owed thousands of dollars and six years of back pay by Neustein. Another news story referred to a lawsuit filed by tenants, which pointed out that the city had been forced to make 11 emergency repairs to 78 Post Avenue, a Section 8 building owned by Neustein, over the past two and a half years.
When we arrived at 78 Post Avenue in early November, the locks on the doors were broken, so that any visitor could stroll in (at the time, Neustein was under court order to replace the doors).
Manuela Ceballos, 44, has lived in the building for 20 years, calls everyone mi amor, and speaks with a thick Dominican accent. She works for the Board of Education, where she spends her days fielding parental complaints.
Ceballos swung open the door to her first-floor apartment, where she lives with her three teenage children. The apartment was a small oasis in the grim surroundings: Full curtains hung over the windows, hiding metal bars; in the living room, plush armchairs surrounded a large flat-screen TV. Ceballos’s daughter, Perla, was filling out boarding-school applications in the bedroom she shares with two teenage brothers. Perla wants to go to boarding school because she’s sick of the sound of gunshots in the courtyard behind her window.
“This place is clean because I live here,” Ceballos said, explaining that she’d replaced every tile, light fixture, cabinet, and sink by hand when she moved from an upstairs apartment a few years ago. “Before, there were drug dealers here.”
Tenants at 78 Post Avenue describe the security of the building as precarious and say the maintenance is terrible. Many say that as recently as a few months ago, drug dealers would come from the Bronx to conduct business in the building-and when the courtyard got too cold, they simply moved in to the central lobby. In some apartments, pipes and bathroom walls are leaking water. A couple of days a month, tenants resort to taking showers with water boiled on the kitchen stove. A year before, tenants got together and painted the faded facade of the building at their own expense.
In addition to the lawsuit by Ceballos and 39 other tenants, and the case outlined in the El Diario story, Neustein has been involved in numerous personal injury lawsuits: He had to pay $750,000 to a worker who fractured his knee when he slipped on dog urine on the stairs, and another $527,000 to a tenant who slipped on construction equipment. Eleven years ago, Neustein settled a lead poisoning case involving two children in the building who suffered developmental problems after inhaling paint flakes.
When he was contacted by the Voice, Neustein said, “There are some buildings that are newsworthy to write about. But this one is not,” referring to 78 Post Avenue. He attributed the negative news stories there to one disgruntled tenant, presumably Ceballos.
Margarita Adames, whom everyone knows as La Vieja-“the Old Lady,” even though she is only 60-is a home-health aide who lives on the fourth floor. She, too, is a party to the current lawsuit. She says her teenage son and two other children in the building continue to suffer from learning disabilities from lead poisoning that was the subject of the lawsuit 11 years ago. Adames demonstrated that the moldy pipes and the exposed bathroom wall leaked every time she turned on the faucet.
Sitting on her couch in a nightgown, Adames pointed to a plastic bucket that she keeps near a window. “When the dealers start making noise out front,” she said in Spanish, “I boil the water and pour it over their heads!” She and Ceballos slapped each other high fives and laughed.
Ceballos said that Amy Neustein had reached out to her and had shown a great deal of concern for the situation at 78 Post Avenue, even though at that time, she had never actually been there.
“I want to meet Amy Neustein,” Ceballos said. She paused and then said with emphasis, “She really doesn’t like her brother.”
Amy Neustein lives in an upscale condominium near Fort Lee, New Jersey, where she moved after she was forced out of her previous residence, another high-end condo in Edgewater, New Jersey, for starting a tenants’ rights lawsuit against the co-op board.
A meticulous researcher, she was very prepared for the meeting. On her desk, she had stacks of court documents with information about her brother. Her co-author, an attorney named Michael Lesher, had come by to help provide explanations of legal matters.
Neustein possesses a doctorate from Boston University in sociolinguistics, and when she isn’t writing books, she is editing a trade journal called the International Journal of Speech Technology, which focuses on things like voice-recognition software. She is also on the editorial board of another publication, the Journal of Child Sexual Abuse. She has wispy reddish hair and calls herself a “bleeding-heart liberal.” She speaks very quickly and can become overwhelmed with feeling at just a moment’s notice.
“When I learned about the lead poisoning, I started to shake,” she says, visibly trembling. “Devastated is an understatement. The ground just came up beneath my feet. I just said, ‘I am my brother’s keeper.’ “
She and her brother grew up in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, in a house a few blocks from the shore. Their father was an Orthodox rabbi who taught contract law at City University and, she says, was too busy in the community to spend much time at home.
Neustein paints her brother as a malicious person, saying that his cruelty toward her began at age two, when he pushed her off a tricycle. But some family members say the two weren’t always at odds, pointing out that Josh offered to help during her custody battle-something she denies.
Their current falling-out, Neustein says, occurred when their father died in 2002. She says her brother changed the locks at the Brighton Beach house and has barred her access to it ever since (she’s suing him for access to a large collection of her papers that she says are still in the house). She claims that her brother forged their father’s signature to keep her out of the house, and an NYPD expert she hired agrees with her that the signature is a forgery. Josh Neustein denies that the signature is fake.
Neustein insists that she doesn’t have a personal vendetta against her brother. She’s simply motivated by a desire to protect the tenants from a landlord who possesses what she calls a “sadistic” streak.
Josh Neustein, for his part, tells the Voice: “Go into any family, and there are problems. People do things for whatever reasons.”
Her desire to help others, Amy says, comes from her own experience of oppression when she lost custody of her daughter and had to fight a losing battle to get her back. “I’ve been an activist all my life,” she says. “I know what oppression tastes like firsthand. I know what it’s like to be disenfranchised.”
We were learning quickly that Amy Neustein was rarely far from the center of a dramatic fight.
In her opening remarks at a tenants’ forum at Rutgers University in May 2007, she introduced the condominium case that had resulted in her being forced from her previous place of residence by saying: “I’m living under a cloud of tyranny that is so dark and forbidding that I’m kind of restrained as to what I can say today.”
She was referring to a battle with the co-op board, in part over their inaction in fixing leaky roofs.
Amy Neustein lost custody of her daughter, Sherry Orbach, in October 1986, just months after she accused her husband, Ozzie Orbach, of sexually abusing the girl. Orbach had filed a custody suit for Sherry a few weeks prior to Amy’s allegations.
Between August 1987 and 1992, the case was featured in more than 30 television and radio programs and in more than 60 editorials and news articles. In 1988, Amy appeared on the shows of Geraldo Rivera and Sally Jessy Raphael, and on CNN. The year before, Time featured her in an article about women who had lost custody of their children. Congressman Jerry Nadler, who held a hearing on her behalf, called it a cover-up, saying, “No case is more galling.” A senior aide to David Paterson, then a state senator from Harlem, said she had never witnessed a greater travesty of justice. Major Owens, the chairman of the House of Representatives Subcommittee on Select Education, said he was concerned that the Neustein case represented “a massive, tragic failure of the institutions which are charged with protecting innocent children.”
At the center of the case was something Neustein’s mother claimed to have seen: Orbach moving in a way that suggested he was rubbing his daughter inappropriately. The girl, then six, was sent to the Ohel Children’s Home, a Jewish foster care agency in Brooklyn, for two years. But after hearing testimonies from multiple experts, the court determined that the grandmother’s testimony was faulty and that Sherry had been coached to make her own false allegations of abuse. (Psychologists pointed to evidence of coaching in statements by Sherry that were simply impossible for her to witness, such as how her father, a doctor, mistreated patients in the hospital, or beat her mother while Sherry was still in the womb. Only one of at least six psychologists who interviewed Sherry thought she might actually have been abused.)
In 1988, custody was given to Orbach. Around that time, Sherry became anorexic. She weighed 44 pounds, which was severely underweight for an eight-year-old girl. Neustein continues to claim that Sherry’s anorexia was a result of the abuse she was suffering in her father’s home. (Her father had been concerned enough about Sherry’s weight loss to seek his own medical advice.)
One day, in 1989, Neustein broke visitation regulations and whisked Sherry to the pediatrics center at Kings County Hospital. It was a last-ditch attempt, she says, to save Sherry’s life. (While doctors agreed that Sherry was emaciated and malnourished, and some said she was in danger of dying, a Kings County pediatrician concluded that Orbach hadn’t been neglectful of Sherry by keeping her at home. Orbach also tells the Voice that he had been advised against hospitalizing Sherry: Her weight wasn’t low enough to require it, and many anorexics resist treatment if hospitalized against their will.) Because Neustein had violated custody regulations when she took Sherry to the hospital, the court suspended visitation permanently. Neustein hasn’t seen her daughter since.
When Neustein hospitalized Sherry, a columnist at USA Today wrote, “Little Sherry Neustein is crying out for help by starving herself to death.” The New York Post contributed a number of “Save Sherry” columns as well.
Following the hospitalization, Neustein continued to publicize her case, and many women’s rights groups championed her cause. She claimed she was not allowed to bring experts to testify in court and that the judge was hostile to any allegations of sex abuse (Orbach was never prosecuted for abuse). To prove her point, she gave the Voice some photographs of Sherry in poses that she called “child erotica.” (To an untrained eye, however, the poses don’t look out of the ordinary for a girl of that age.)
Three years after she lost custody, Neustein says she learned that Sherry had recently lost 11 pounds. She called on Paterson and Nadler to hold a press conference, and they agreed. Paterson also wrote a letter to the Justice Department, asking the agency to look into the case.
“Every doctor I spoke to said, ‘Kidnap her,’ ” says Neustein. “I said, ‘I can’t do that.’ So the next best thing was a press conference.” She adds that if that press conference hadn’t happened, Sherry would not be alive today.
At the conference, advocates for Neustein showed four-year-old pictures of Sherry suffering from anorexia, but a relative of the Orbachs showed more recent photos of the girl dancing and looking happy at her recent bat mitzvah.
Veteran NPR reporter Margot Adler attended the Paterson press conference and later produced a piece about the case for All Things Considered. Adler recalls the entire experience as being disorienting, especially considering the different ways Sherry was being portrayed: “The kid was totally mute. She was described on the one hand as a kid who was emaciated and anorexic, and on the other, she was having a bat mitzvah, dancing.” She added, “The more I found out, the more I said, ‘Whoa, this is a little weird.’ “
Many observers expressed frustration that no one could access information about the case beyond what was provided by either side-and for years, no official with direct involvement was permitted to speak on the record (except for a Legal Aid worker who testified that her superiors showed open dislike for Amy). Ozzie Orbach himself refused to speak to the media about the case. He did, however, send thousands of pages of court documents to Paterson and many journalists. (As did Amy.) His sister, Fran, who has remained close to Sherry over the years, and [Amy’s brother-in-law] Martin Berger, often spoke in Orbach’s stead.
The courts, meanwhile, repeatedly ruled in Orbach’s favor. But Neustein was just as repeatedly the victor in the court of public opinion. The Voice itself published a piece supporting her, which was co-written by Lesher, who would go on to co-author From Madness to Mutiny with Neustein.
“Amy came to me-as she came to everybody-and her story was pretty compelling. And I think I wanted to believe her. . . . I was a feminist . . . and here was a woman whose daughter was taken from her and . . . thrown into foster care,” says NPR’s Adler, who recalls combing through mountains of information in order to report the piece. “I did this story 15 years ago. And at the end, all I could say was, ‘I don’t know who is right in this.’ By the end of the story, I really didn’t have a clue. But, boy, did they mess up their lives.”
The case continues to be seen as a landmark of injustice by some women’s rights groups. On May 12, 2006, the New York Chapter of the National Organization for Women, which has long supported the Neustein cause, sent out a press release in commemoration of Childless Mother’s Day, which opened with the line, “As in the case of Dr. Amy Neustein, women are charged with ‘child neglect’ on the sole ground that they believe their child has been abused.” In the same year, Neustein was presented with a Woman of Valor: Lifetime Achievement Award from the Battered Mothers Custody Conference held in upstate New York.
Taking into account the long time that has passed since the case first made headlines, however, the Voice asked Neustein about the current location of her daughter, whom she has not seen in many years.
“All attempts at reconciliation have failed thus far,” she replied in an e-mail. “I don’t know Sherry’s whereabouts other than a Google search which has her last (and possibly current) position in Philadelphia. . . .”
Today, Sherry Eve Orbach is 28 years old. After graduating with joint degrees from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Public Policy and Columbia Law School in 2007, she now works as an attorney at the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia.
Four years ago, when Neustein and Lesher began to receive publicity for their book, From Madness to Mutiny, Orbach suspected that a new series of stories would be written about her childhood and the allegations that she’d been sexually abused by her father.
So she finally decided to speak out about the case on her own. In an article published by the Jewish Press, Orbach denied that she was ever abused by her father.
“Although I have not seen my mother, Amy Neustein, in 16 years, I remember her clearly,” she wrote. “I remember, on one of my rare visits to my mother’s house in Brooklyn, watching her softly stroking her hair with an antique silver brush as she gazed at herself in her bedroom mirror and wondered out loud whether she was pretty enough to be famous. I remember my mother sitting with me on the plastic-covered couch in my grandmother’s country home at age five as if it were yesterday. We had been rehearsing for hours. She would begin by telling me a sordid and false story about my father, such as a detailed account about how he had molested me or about how he had thrown me violently against a wall. She then instructed me to repeat the story word for word until she was satisfied with my rendition. At the time, my father had indicated he would be filing for custody. My mother warned that if I did not tell these lies to the judge, I would be taken from my grandmother. After my mother lost legal custody, I visited her once a week. During these visits, my mother used to tape record me and pose me for pictures in order to gain material for her next media performance. I fought back in the only way I could. Once, I chased her around a table in an attempt to snatch her tape recorder.”
The piece was immediately questioned by other Jewish publications. The Jewish Voice and Opinion openly doubted that Orbach had actually written the piece. Lesher also publicly claimed that the “Sherry Orbach” who had written the piece was an imposter. (Privately, however, he wrote Orbach an e-mail asking her to reconcile with her mother.)
The mainstream media that had followed every development in the case years earlier, however, didn’t take notice. Neustein’s book was published to favorable reviews, and she has continued to advance her career.
The question lingered: Was it Orbach who had written the Jewish Press piece claiming that she had been coached as a young girl?
The Voice arranged to meet Orbach recently at a vegetarian restaurant in the East Village. Soft-spoken and slender, she was accompanied by her fiance, Jon Lachman, whom she met while completing her master’s degree at Harvard two years ago. Almost immediately, she handed over her driver’s license.
“A lot of people have told you that I’m not who I say I am,” she said.
Why, we asked, had she finally gone to such an obscure local journal with information that, at one time, was a prime-time television case? She said that she’d spent her adult life avoiding publicity, and it was still humiliating to speak publicly about her experiences.
“I hoped that the story would fizzle out and that, if I had a difficult childhood, I could have a normal adulthood,” she says. “The way [my mother] has been able to resuscitate the story is by putting herself as a leader for other victims. I don’t think she cares about the people she claims to represent.”
Orbach says that her mother had confronted her with very disturbing, sexually explicit information as a child, and that had led her to be afraid of her father and, at one point, to corroborate the sexual abuse-a reaction that was described in legal testimony. But when she moved in with her father after foster care, she began to realize “that he was a decent guy,” and the longer she was away from her mother’s home, the more she felt what she’d been told by her mother was irresponsible.
Sherry remembers visitations from her mother as very painful experiences. Around the time when Orbach developed anorexia, she would do anything to not be in her mother’s presence, including scratching herself and screaming. “Throughout my life, my mother was always filming and taping me and taking pictures of me and telling lies. It was profoundly embarrassing. I felt victimized during each visit. She wanted to use me to get the media’s attention,” Orbach says.
Orbach was asked if her father’s strategy of never talking to the press (until he recently spoke to the Voice) had made the situation worse. “My mother has dominated the airtime. She has sought a lot of media attention,” Sherry responded. “My dad’s tactic is a ‘No comment’ tactic. He didn’t want to engage. He knew it was profoundly humiliating to me.”
Two years ago, when Neustein was invited to be on Nightline to comment on the case of a prominent Orthodox rabbi who was accused of sex abuse, Sherry called the program and complained, explaining that her mother’s supposed expertise on sex abuse was based on a false case-namely, her own. Roxanna Sherwood, a producer at Nightline, tells the Voice that Orbach’s objection did lead to a discussion among the show’s producers, but ultimately, Sherwood found Neustein’s research to be credible, and because she was not going to speak about her personal story, there was no reason to not have her on the program. “Her research was solid and vetted thoroughly. For us to take her research and not give her a nod wouldn’t have been fair,” says Sherwood.
In 2006, Orbach also reached out to the National Organization for Women, which has been a staunch supporter of Neustein’s version of events. She asked a friend who worked with NOW to send the organization’s president, Kim Gandy, an e-mail discussing Orbach’s side of things. She hasn’t heard back.
“The court saw the truth. But in the court of public opinion, it’s quite the opposite,” Orbach says. “I’ve been skeptical of the media for a long time, especially when, as an adult, I tried to intervene. I would try to tell people that I wasn’t victimized the way my mother said I was. And I expected that what I said would give reason to pause and investigate.” Orbach also complained to the lead counsel for the University Press that published Neustein’s book, but was told the book was “not a memoir”-even though references to the custody case are sprinkled throughout it.
Neustein, for her part, says she hopes that she can reconcile with her daughter by attending therapy sessions together. But Orbach says that as long as Neustein continues the allegations of abuse, she does not trust her mother: “Of course I would have liked to have a real mother, but I would prefer to have no mother than to have a mother who exploits and victimized me.”
After dinner with Orbach, the Voice asked Amy Neustein about her daughter’s complaint that she seeks publicity for its own sake. Neustein responded that she actually wants to put the story of her own custody battle behind her so she can focus on her expertise in speech technology. She insisted that she isn’t a “media hound,” but that, on multiple occasions, she has little choice but to seek the spotlight.
That was true in this case, she pointed out, in regards to her brother, the landlord, who is locked in a battle with Dominican tenants of modest means who just want a decent place to live.
“You need media,” she said, “when you are suffocated and oppressed and no one will listen to you. The only way out is freedom of speech.”