Little woman, or big threat?
Sylvia Dahari's group for religious women has been denounced by rabbinic authorities as a cult. She denies everything
"I cried for days. I couldn't get out of bed. My body shivered, my head ached and I was nauseous - it was a real psychotic fit. I was struck by the realization that I let a woman humiliate me, that I was dependent on her, that my life was nothing without her. A couple of times she shouted at me in class in front of everybody, and I told myself I was being brave. I was an abused woman" - a quote from a woman who belonged to the Megirot group for religious women
It was late at night when I dared to knock on the door of the apartment in an ultra-Orthodox Jerusalem neighborhood. Inside the apartment I heard women chatting. A few long minutes later, someone came up the stairs and walked in self-assuredly, and we snuck in behind her. I thought we would be welcome there because of the black headscarf worn by my friend, an ultra-Orthodox woman from Mea Shearim.
We were the only strangers among the apparently well-acquainted members of Megirot (Drawers), a spiritual group that has attracted hundreds of ultra-Orthodox women from various locales. They were all waiting for Sylvia Dahari, sitting at the head of the table, to speak.
Last summer, after several of Dahari's followers quit Megirot, claiming it was a cult and accusing her of exploiting her followers, the remaining women became more hostile. For some reason, however, Dahari did not tell us to leave.
The hostility intensified about a month ago, after Dahari was sharply admonished by Takana, a forum of religious-Zionist rabbis and public figures, including Ofra's Rabbi Avi Gisser, Rabbi Yuval Cherlow and others.
"We are warning of the inherent dangers and serious psychological effects that Sylvia's activities may cause," the group stated on its Web site. Takana's members gathered testimony from members of Megirot concerning unhealthy dependencies that developed within the group, and alleged abuse and exploitation of authority.
Dahari refused to meet with the forum, and had not agreed to an interview since the scandalous allegations emerged. She spoke with Haaretz last week in her first public response.
"Megirot is no longer," she declared. "I don't teach anymore, there's no cult. We were doing God's work. We wanted to help the people of Israel. But enough, I quit, I give up."
Did you not harm the group's members? If not, then why did they complain about you?
Dahari: "It's all lies. Where are the facts, the data? Show me these women you say were harmed. All the complaints stem from one woman with mental problems."
Despite her claims, however, she is continuing to hold Megirot meetings.
'Our sole authority'
The class I attended in the summer was an associative sequence of Torah studies punctuated by ubiquitous self-awareness statements (who-am-I-what-am-I.) It was not impressive. But a short-statured woman at that meeting thought otherwise. She stood up and slavishly said: "My husband was so impressed by your Torah study innovations, Sylvia."
The women in the group who later complained of being used by Dahari seem to have drawn support and empowerment here. They were educated women with stable family lives and loving husbands. In hindsight, they now realize they were members of a cult, that they surrendered to Dahari's charm and were willing to sacrifice themselves for her.
Megirot uses a spiritual method that combines elements of Judaism with self-improvement principles. To start, the students must bring actual drawers from their house and lay them on the floor with a facilitator. Then they are taught the basic and unique language of the system, which includes stating mantras like: "I am a Jewish woman." At a more advanced stage, they are taught morality.
Hundreds of religious women from Bnei Brak, Jerusalem and the Jewish settlements have been seduced by Dahari's method in the past decade. Some had become devout messengers, bringing in new recruits, while others started teaching the method themselves. The money was good: Every woman paid NIS 30 per class. Dahari herself lectured every day and facilitated small groups that cost NIS 200 a person. The money apparently went straight to her pocket; she gave no receipts and made no reports to the tax authorities.
Dahari is a mother of six who once sold clothes from her home in Gush Katif, the Jewish settlement bloc in Gaza that was evacuated in 2005. Dahari, who has no formal education in Judaism or in any other field in which she has offered guidance, was pushed to prominence after her husband Avshalom Dahari was killed in a terror attack during the first intifada. Shortly afterward, she and a group of other women in Gush Katif began teaching women how to organize their houses according to the Torah. The magic of the lessons, and Dahari's charm, soon began to make waves among the settlements in the area.
"We waited three hours for her," said N., one of the key complainants against Dahari. "There was tension in the air, and when she walked in, everyone exhaled. I remember her headscarf, like a black tower. She was all in black, she looked a little ultra-Orthodox. But her face was pretty and radiant. I remember her first words, 'I am going to change how you think. Your thoughts are the products of fear and your conclusions wrong. Slowly you will disconnect from all your friends and family.' We were shocked."
Megirot was an organization in every respect. Two or three women like N. or L., another woman who claims to have been exploited, climbed the ranks and behaved like little generals. Beneath them were the regular teacher-facilitators, and below them the students. Dahari likened herself to Moses. She spoke on behalf of God.
"We worshiped her," N. said. "She was our sole authority. One by one her words demolished the institutions we were familiar with: Rabbis, medicine and psychology - they knew nothing."
"Slowly she entered our hearts and homes," said L., who worked for Dahari and was part of her inner circle for seven years. "She created a complete symbiosis between the women within her inner circle. They slept at her house. She meddled in our family matters. Once I took all the kids in the car with me to consult with her. In the middle of our conversation [with Dahari] my daughter asked for water. She shouted at her, 'How long will you keep nagging your mother? Go to the cooler.' My daughter and I were frightened. I did not get up and protect her. I was paralyzed. Now I am disgusted: Where was my responsibility as a mother? My kids said they didn't like her. That's the part I can't forgive myself for."
N. said Dahari instructed mothers to abuse their children by implementing a strict educational method that included removing rebellious children from the home and ignoring them until they repented. One woman said she locked her 12-year-old outside the house until 4 A.M. He cried the whole time. She would occasionally utter the mantras she was taught: "A Jewish boy does not cry. A Jewish boy does not talk."
Megirot peaked the year before the pullout from Gaza and the evacuation of the Gush Katif settlements.
"There was a feeling of 'us against the world,'" L. said. Before the pullout, L. and other students came to Gush Katif to help Dahari and lived in her house.
"We tried to provide a voice of realism," L. explained. "We tried to convince the Katif settlers to come to terms with what awaited them and pack. Sylvia behaved differently from the rest. She said nothing would happen, but she also was in contact with the authorities and ordered a moving van. It seemed weird to me. But I figured, she's only a human being after all."
After the Gaza pullout, Dahari spent part of her time living with her daughter in the West Bank settlement block of Gush Etzion. She tends to spend weeks on end at the homes of her close associates.
"Her moral corruption began after the pullout from Gaza," one woman, who quit the group relatively early, said. "After what had happened, she lost all restraint. Everything became permitted. Then she began to dominate the other women and lust after money and respect."
L. said she became Dahari's assistant only a year after the pullout, during the Second Lebanon War, when her husband was in the army. "For three weeks I was alone with the kids, and I had just given birth. I was worried about my husband and had a panic attack, only I didn't know what to call it. Sylvia recognized my weakness. She was the only one speaking to me then. Without noticing, I became dependent on her. But she's capricious and her mood swings made me anxious. One moment she's hugging you, a very strong hug, the next she's ignoring you like you don't exist. It makes you feel dead."
"I don't understand how I functioned. I lived a double life. I lost interest in my children and husband. I was on autopilot to keep up with her. We would hang out until dawn. My children grew up with a nanny. I wasn't there. I just wanted to be with her, and I missed her. I lost my self-respect. I would call her 20 times a day. I would get ecstatic just talking to her. She preached that the more you expose yourself, the more you advance. And I really shed my skin."
Dahari asked for - and received - for $10,000 from L. After L. quit Megirot, she sued Dahari and threatened to turn to the media, so Sylvia returned the money. Dahari began to charge more for her classes - NIS 300 up front for ten meetings. L. was charged NIS 200 per class. R., who was the group's treasurer and also left Megirot a year ago, said: "Donations to Sylvia after the Gaza pullout became crazy."
A sexual twist
But none of this upset L. or N. as much as Dahari's affair with the husband of one of her students. She told everyone he was her spiritual husband, and no one protested. She had changed. Classes began to evolve around relationships and sex. The language became permissive, with many sexual references. Dahari invited a sex therapist to a seminar held in the north. That weekend, the women were invited to visit a bed and breakfast decorated with erotic symbols.
"All the women laughed with embarrassment," N. said.
During one lecture, Dahari brought a whole chicken to show how to carve it. She said some women were afraid to touch moist objects, and that this stemmed from relationship problems.
"As she spoke, she touched the chicken in a very sexual way," N. said. "She always knew how to walk the line between the permitted and the prohibited. It was all implicit."
When Dahari felt one of her associates knew too much about her, she would cut the woman off. N., who knew everything about the money and the organization, and L., who criticized Dahari for her affair, were cut off.
"One day in class, she listed the people close to her, and did not mention me," N. said. "That moment I felt lost. Facing a blank wall. No explanation. Like a drone, I got up and walked to a side room and cried."
N. knew she had been blacklisted by the group, but was surprised when Dahari began making passes at her husband.
"It was sheer cruelty," N. said. "She would call him and flatter him. She asked him to talk about relationships in the Torah in one of her classes. I saw how she used her feminine guiles to seduce him and how he fell for it. I began going with him to classes so that I wouldn't lose him, while I sobered up even more quickly, because I realized what I had become."
N. managed to pull her husband away from Dahari's influence, and they left Megirot. Others followed them. N. and her husband went from rabbi to rabbi to warn them of Megirot, but no one wanted to take responsibility.
Eventually, the Takana forum on sexual harassment took up the issue. The story was publicized this past May in the newspaper Makor Rishon, causing an uproar among the national-religious community.
Dahari defends herself: "I don't know what they want from me. All the facts are wrong. They come and denounce me without checking. These are respectable people? Check before you talk. It's boring. The allegations against me are two years old. Megirot has not existed for the past year and a half. If I have hurt anyone recently, bring her to me and I will personally apologize. I do only good and I'm here to help, not harm. If I harmed anyone, I quit, I'm leaving. And the people of Israel will be saved from the little woman from Gush Katif."