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Song of Sorrow

For 23 years, Howard Nevison's magnificent baritone filled the posh sanctuary of Temple Emanu-El. But the music ended with Nevison's arrest in February on the stunning charge that he had sexually abused his young nephew. It's a case that has put an entire family on trial.


Not long after their son started kindergarten, Henry Nevison and his wife, Jacqui, documentary filmmakers who lived on the Main Line in Philadelphia, started worrying about him. Once a smiling, outgoing child, over time he had grown increasingly nervous, withdrawn around other kids, inclined to complain about vague stomachaches and body pains. But low-grade worry turned to full-blown panic when Joel (not his real name) came storming downstairs one November afternoon in 1997 in the grip of a desperate fit, crying inconsolably. Joel, then 8, had covered his face with a white mask made of underwear he'd ripped up. Across it, he'd scrawled with a black Magic Marker, I'M A BITCH, I SUCK, I'M A LOSER. When Jacqui tried to persuade him to take it off, he refused. "I'm bad," he told her. "I don't want you to see my face."

Joel's parents were as baffled as they were horrified. Almost a year would pass before they'd come to understand the source of his demons, a year in which their curly-haired boy was frequently suicidal and obviously terrified. In therapy over the subsequent months, he slowly started revealing the torments he'd endured at the hands of his own family. He'd been sexually abused by his uncle Larry (his father's older brother, who confessed in 1999 and is currently in prison), and also by Larry's adult son Stewart, who pleaded guilty and served a year before being released on parole. Finally, the boy charged, he was sexually abused by his uncle Howie (his father's oldest brother, fourteen years Henry's senior).

Uncle Howie is better known to New Yorkers as Cantor Howard Nevison, part of the rabbinical hierarchy at Congregation Emanu-El, the city's most prominent Reform Jewish synagogue, for 23 years. In the early-morning hours of February 20, police arrested him in his Upper West Side home. On April 17, a preliminary hearing will determine whether there is enough evidence for the case to go to trial. He is contesting the charges. "Howard Nevison is innocent, and we are confident he will be exonerated," says his attorney, Ralph Jacobs.

These accusations are very different from the suddenly ubiquitous stories of priests molesting parishioners. This is strictly a family affair. Whether or not Howard Nevison is guilty -- the prosecution's three-year delay in bringing charges against him could severely undermine the case, according to experts -- the charges comprise a tragic textbook example of what psychologists call intergenerational transmission. When Larry confessed to detectives that he had abused Joel, he also claimed that Howard had sexually abused him when he was young. Stewart says his father molested him when he was a boy. Most remarkably, Henry told detectives he believed his son's charges because, as a boy, he too had been abused by both Howard and Larry, and in much the same ways: Larry gently, and Howard violently, with penetration, pain, and threats. Howard Nevison has denied those accusations, too.

Three days after Howard Nevison was charged with sexual abuse, Emanu-El's associate rabbi, David Posner, eased into his Saturday sermon with a joke. How is Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, he asked soberly, like the upcoming festival of Purim -- a day of colorful masks and costumes and make-believe? The punch line: It's the day when people dress up and pretend to be real Jews. No one laughed. "It's a distasteful joke," he acknowledged apologetically to the scattering of people in the cavernous, chilly sanctuary.

The congregants at Emanu-El -- New York's swankest synagogue, with a Fifth Avenue address; a powerful, well-connected board; and a membership of 10,000 -- can be famously casual about religious observance, even by the standards of the Reform movement, Judaism's liberal branch. Its spectacular stained-glass rose window and five-story-high limestone buttresses lend it a cathedral-like air: Our Lady of Emanu-El, some members call it fondly.

On that Sabbath, however, the members who gathered might well have been seeking spiritual guidance on a particular matter. If so, they were disappointed. Rabbi Posner never addressed Nevison's absence -- at least not directly. He talked instead about the terrible precariousness of fate, how Purim's tale depicts national heroes and enemies of the state switching places with dizzying speed, then back again, all in a matter of days.

But for Nevison, the blow had been coming for years; the cantor first learned he was a suspect not long after Joel's parents initially approached the police in 1998. Linda Fairstein, former longtime chief of the New York district attorney's sex-crimes-prosecution unit, says she's "stunned" that it took so long to file charges against the cantor. "I've never heard of that," she says. "It's quite extraordinary that people who already gained the trust of a child for the prosecution of relatives couldn't then also elicit his consent in prosecuting another one at the time."

Why the delay? Joel, according to the Pennsylvania district attorney bringing the charges, was too afraid to testify against the cantor, allegedly the most terrifying of the three men accused of molesting him. In the affidavit of probable cause that resulted in Howard Nevison's arrest, the boy describes him as "a big man with a mean, powerful voice and frightening glare," who threatened to kill him if he spoke up.

That characterization bears little resemblance to the man known to Emanu-El's members, most of whom describe him the same way: private, but gracious and understated. "He's a teddy bear," says one woman whose sons were bar mitzvahed at Emanu-El, one recently. "This is not a man who's a scary person."

"He's worked with many young boys preparing for their bar mitzvah, and everyone just loves him," says Joan Salomon, an artist and former member of the music committee who helped select Nevison for his job. She's convinced, she says, that "Howard is as innocent as I am."

The day the allegations broke, the news spread instantly. "All my friends e-mailed me back, and they all said the same thing: Oy vey," says Iris Fishman, an Upper West Side mom whose daughter was bat mitzvahed at Emanu-El last year. Fishman says she immediately grilled her daughter about whether the cantor had ever behaved inappropriately with her. She got a DefCon Level 10 eye-roll in response.

Some parents were outraged to learn that the temple leadership had known since 1998 about an investigation of the Nevison family yet continued allowing the cantor to meet with boys and girls preparing for their bar mitzvahs. ("Hideous" is how one Upper East Side attorney, whose child is in nursery school, describes Emanu-El's handling of the affair.) Vicki Weiner, a spokeswoman for the temple, responds that the leadership did "due diligence" at the time and felt comfortable keeping him on. They were then unaware, Weiner says, that his two younger brothers had accused Howard of sexual abuse.

"Cantor Nevison had alerted a select few officials that something was going on, but this was a family matter," says Weiner. "We were told that his brother and nephew were being investigated, but he was never charged, and there was never any formal investigation. He told us there had been some questions about him, but that was it." In fact, responds Risa Vetri Ferman, the Montgomery County sex-crimes prosecutor on the case, the investigation began in October 1998 and was "official, formal, and ongoing" until the cantor was arrested in February.

For much of their marriage, Henry and Jacqui lived in a quaint white house with a wraparound porch, two dogs, and a third-floor office for their small film-production company. Staff members came and went; the couple bickered and made up; Henry hammed it up for employees, trying to boost morale as they pulled together projects like an earnest ten-part educational series about Native American history.

Although Jacqui and Henry remain close, they separated in October. Now Henry lives and works alone, mostly editing military histories, cutting and pasting, trying to make sense of the mayhem.

"Nothing prepares you for this," he says, perched on a couch near the front door. Heavyset, like his brother Howard, Henry has small, sneaker-clad feet, a mustache that's just shy of walrus, and glasses just shy of arty. Still reeling from the extent of the exposure his brother's arrest got in New York, he points to an oversize Sony TV that dominates a corner of the room. "We anticipated that it would be big, but nothing prepares you for the fact of your dysfunctionality becoming national news."

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