Hasidic comedian interviews convicted child sex offender, receives polarized response

Follow up interviews with experts on sexual abuse apply a critical lens to the perpetrator’s story

Mendy Pellin tweet

Jul 28, 2023 3:10 PM


A Haredi comedian launched his new podcast series this week by interviewing a convicted sex offender. The interview sparked a conversation among leaders and experts about how best to discuss abuse issues, and best practices for preventing and reporting abuse.

Comedian Mendy Pellin is a member of the Chabad Lubavitch sect, and typically posts YouTube  videos about Siri snafus, stand up routines, and beards. In launching his new podcast series No Joke, on Tuesday he posted an interview with a convicted child sex offender, whom he identified as “Gershon,” without revealing the abuser’s last name. Shtetl can report that the man is Gershon Selinger, a former teacher in various Hasidic schools who was convicted in 2015 of sexually abusing a 6-year-old in 2008.

Selinger is listed as a registered sex offender with the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services

The graphic 80-minute interview has provoked a divided public response, with some criticizing Pellin’s focus on an abuser, instead of his victims and the consequences of his crimes. Pellin posted two additional interviews alongside the first, with experts who cautioned against absorbing the abuser’s account uncritically.

The interview covers issues related to Selinger’s history as a child sex abuser and his recent treatment. Speaking dispassionately, with a stoic expression, Selinger detailed his abuse of several minors in addition to the child whom he was convicted of abusing, his predatory tactics, and a guilty plea deal that sent him to an 18-month inpatient therapy program in Minnesota, which he said made him aware of the “different experience” of the “person on the other end,” referring to his targets. The interview also documents Selinger’s family life – he is married with six children – and his fraught relationships with community members and institutions.

Selinger, who said he grew up attending a Belz yeshiva and described frequenting the Crown Heights community, reported that he began molesting at age 14, targeting a female relative. It was the first of several predatory relationships he perpetrated over the course of more than a decade, often under the guise of “play” or “affection,” or while children were asleep. 

After one of Selinger’s victims reported his abuse to Crown Heights community leaders, and Selinger confessed, they reported him to police. Rather than spend time in prison, he accepted a plea deal requiring him to spend eighteen months at Alpha Emergence Behavioral Health in Minnesota, an evidence-based treatment program for sex offenders. He paid the $80,000 fee with the help of crowdfunding. While Selinger said he is not “healed” from attraction to children, he described measures he takes to limit his interactions with children. He claimed therapy has given him useful tools and that he believes his role is to manage himself and to “use an appropriate outlet, which is largely my wife, to get the pleasure that I need.”

Pellin asserted that his purpose in publishing the interview was to break widespread “denial” of child sexual abuse and to “protect children” by heightening public awareness of the issue. While the comedian offers quips in his introduction – “because some topics only a comedian can handle,” he jokes – Pellin maintains a serious tone throughout the interview itself. 

Pellin’s choice to post the interview received a mixed response. Zvi Gluck, CEO of Amudim, a resource center for victims of sexual abuse and other emergencies, thanked Pellin on Twitter. Some commenters worried that Selinger’s publicity would agitate traumatic wounds for sexual abuse survivors.

Elad Nehorai, a writer of Hasidic background, told Pellin that posting the interview was “a mistake” and that “victims and experts need to be uplifted and abusers need to be completely sidelined.” To that, Pellin said, “I've put out many videos of professionals and survivors but there's still so much denial in this community,” adding, “This has already woken up so many parents I've been getting messages from.”

Rabbi Josh Yuter encouraged people who didn’t plan to watch the Selinger interview to instead watch the other two videos Pellin posted, in which Pellin gathers experts’ responses to his interview.

The first response features Pattie Fitzgerald, a public educator on child sexual abuse prevention and founder of an organization called Safely Ever After

“I think it’s fine that you are interviewing him and that he’s on camera and that you’re showing the actual face of what a child predator looks like, particularly for the religious community,” Fitzgerald told Pellin, but “The problem I had with the interviews was that I thought he was trying to paint a very sympathetic picture of himself and that the average parent who may not know about child sexual abuse may feel bad for him and that this is going to water [the issue] down a little bit.” 

Both she and Pellin’s second expert, psychologist Michael Salamon, who has worked on the prevention and treatment of child sexual abuse in the Orthodox community, observed that Selinger exhibited narcissistic traits. Selinger repeatedly expressed feeling it was difficult for him to register others’ needs or interior states or to see them as equal to his own. Fitzgerald noted that Selinger often qualified his statements of responsibility, often engaging in “victim blaming” and “community blaming,” and that he did not express remorse in the interview. Salamon said Selinger rationalized his behavior, and that doing so is a practice common among abusers.

Salamon doubted whether Selinger told the “complete story,” emphasizing Selinger’s admission at the end of his account that his attraction to children “is something [he] will eternally need to manage.”

The efficacy of sex offender treatment programs is a subject of ongoing clinical and forensic discussion. A 2009 review of scientific literature cited by the Department of Justice found sexual recidivism rates of 10.9 percent for treated offenders and 19.2 percent for their untreated counterparts. Statistics like these can be misleading, Salamon told Pellin, because so many cases of abuse go unreported by victims due to intimidation, internalized shame, and fear of social backlash.

Asked what advice he has for parents who want to prevent their children becoming sexual offenders, Salamon said to avoid fear-based or guilting language, to speak frankly about body privacy and managing impulses, and to monitor any concerning situations. Parents can protect their children by teaching them correct terms for private parts and that there are “no secrets in the family.” They should watch out for any individual who spends too much alone time with kids. For survivors, he had a clear message: “Make sure you get the right kind of therapy as quickly as possible. Go out and get the help you need.”