'Those children were animals'
About a month ago, M. came to the Sarah Herzog Hospital in Jerusalem to visit her young son (the court has prohibited the publication of their names). For a year now the boy has been lying there unconscious and on a respirator. His mother has been under arrest ever since her son was hospitalized and the revelation of the child abuse - among the most shocking this country has known - by members of Elior Chen's cult, on his instructions if not with his participation.
Chen's wife, Ruth, recently broke her silence, just before she traveled to Sao Paolo in Brazil, to where her husband fled and was arrested. Now he is awaiting the decision on Israel's request to extradite him. In a telephone conversation from Brazil, where she was staying until not long ago with Satmar Hasids, she denied the accusations against her husband. "We're being persecuted," she said. "The press likes to lynch ultra-Orthodox people especially if someone is called a rabbi."
Of the abuses - "corrections" in the cult's terminology - she says they were educational methods. "Those children were animals. They behaved like wild beasts. They were uncivilized and rude. We made human beings out of them. They had had a faulty upbringing. Children who after they ate would get up to play, without saying a blessing. They were expelled from school. Except for one boy, they didn't want to learn. We tried to rehabilitate them. My husband is a gentle soul who wouldn't hurt a fly. We're not people who hit."
The affair came to light a year ago in March 2008, when M.'s 4-year-old youngest son was rushed to Hadassah University Hospital, Ein Karem in an unconscious state. At that time the mother was already at the hospital, sitting at the bedside of another son, only a year older than his brother, who was suffering from burns. The coincidence aroused the suspicions of the welfare personnel who were called in, and she was arrested on suspicion of abusing her children.
Two days after the arrest, Chen fled to Canada and his wife joined him. He was later arrested in Brazil.
Under questioning, M. told the police that it had been Chen who ordered the carrying out of "corrections in the children, the purpose of which is to exorcise the demons and ghouls from the children." The "corrections," she explained, were intended "to help the child overcome and change his bad characteristics."
The systematic abuse detailed in the indictments includes beatings and burns, forcing the children to eat excrement and binding them with handcuffs and ropes. In one instance, they put one of the children in a suitcase, with his skullcap stuck in his mouth so he would not be able to scream.
M., who was not aware of the details of the abuse, believed at that time in Chen's special powers and did not doubt him for a moment. The connection between them began in 2000 when M.'s husband, D., joined Chen - who called himself a rabbi - and his three disciples, who are also charged with abuse: Avraham Kugman, Shimon Gabai and Avraham Mascalchi. Later, D. fell out of favor and Chen saw to separating him from his wife. M. moved into Chen's apartment and even married him in an improvised ceremony.
Due to a court order, it is not possible to interview the mother or anyone else involved in the affair, but at Chen's apartment in Betar Ilit documentation was found that details conversations between him and his disciples in 2005. The conversations centered around miraculous acts, healing and magic supposedly performed by Chen, and a lot about his relationship with M. The conversations were written down as questions and answers, sometimes with the disciples asking and Chen answering, and sometimes the other way around.
"I had difficulty breathing," wrote M. "My chest hurt unbelievably. The rabbi told me to take my urine and smear it on my chest and this was very, very effective, and also to take a lemon and smear it on the place and also warm bread, which were less effective, and in the end everything felt better, thank G-d. G-d will strengthen the saintly rabbi's hands and continue to help the entire people of Israel."
In a conversation about the fate of M. and D., apparently one of the disciples asked: "In the matter of my rabbi and teacher's feelings toward M., and the matter of D.'s passing away - is this supposed to happen the way it came to my rabbi and teacher in his thoughts, that D. will give a get [bill of divorce] and go to a distant place where he will commit suicide?"
The answer: "There is truth in this."
Question: "Is there rejoicing in heaven about the way the matter is progressing between the rabbi and M.?"
Answer: "There is great rejoicing in heaven."
Question: "What does the rabbi's wife [Ruth Chen] feel about the matter of M.?"
Answer: "She has suspicions."
Question: "Should my rabbi and teacher get married to M?"
Question: "And what about her husband, D.?"
Answer: "He will pass from the world."
In the police search of Chen's home in April, 2008, heating stoves, a hammer and knives were found that according to the suspicions were used in some of the abusive acts. "Don't you have a knife in your home? A hammer? A heating stove?" responded his wife Ruth. "Are these signs that anyone was abusive? We helped the family, we took care of them in all innocence," she lamented.
"They lived with us, and with us they found refuge from their crazy father. Their father is insane. My husband tried to help him in all innocence. The father would go to cemeteries all the time to prostrate himself on the graves of saints. Then he ran away. His wife was left without means of support. They stayed with us for a month and a half. Who gave food to those children? I did. Who checked them for lice while their mother was going around the stores outside? Me and my husband."
"Our educational method was the personal example of my husband, a cultured and supportive individual who radiates light. For 24 hours a day we gave those children hugs, kisses, love - as though they were our own children. We hardly got any sleep. The whole day was spent caring, preparing food, laundering and tidying the house. Me and my husband and friends ... everything pleasantly and joyously. Here it works in a loving way."
Of M., she says: "She was a very good friend of mine. I still love her. But she came too far into our lives."
And of the husband, D.: "From the moment he came into our house I hated him. He came as a friend and made himself a student, but he was a betraying and loathsome student. How my husband tried to bring about domestic harmony, and they have brought a holocaust down upon us."
When visiting her son at the hospital, M. has already learned to ignore the stares at her and her retinue: lawyers and police who accompany her from the Neveh Tirza prison. On entering the room, she picked up her son who lay there limply and took him in her arms. For about two hours she sat with him in an armchair and sang Sabbath songs to him.
"She doesn't let herself break down near him, or cry. She is totally focused on taking care of him," says Dvora Atia, her lawyer, who was present during the visit. "Maybe it is difficult to hear this, but she is a loving mother."
Nevertheless, even after she was arrested, for many months M. was still under the influence of Chen, who had ordered the abuse, and she defended him. Last week, however, a month after the visit to her son, she signed a plea bargain to the effect that she would testify against Chen and his followers. In the wake of her consent, the number of charges in her indictment has been reduced from 21 in the initial indictment to six in the amended version. She is no longer charged with active involvement in the deeds together with Chen's disciples as she was initially, but only of not having prevented the abuse, and accordingly she can expect a lighter punishment: a prison sentence of five years.
The details of M.'s testimony in the context of the plea bargain are still confidential, but the prosecution is convinced that by means of her testimony it will be able to base the evidence against Chen, which will bring about his extradition. M., apparently, is now changing her attitude toward him and is prepared to testify against the man whom, to herself, she called "my Lord Messiah the king."
Attorney Reuben Bar-Haim, who is representing M. together with Atia, says that "absurdly, she believed in all innocence that the deeds that were being done to her children, by him or at his command, were done for their benefit, to exorcise demons and ghouls from them."
And indeed, the initial information about the affair was provided by the children, not by her. Hours of talking with a psychologist, the shock of the encounter with prison and the distance from Chen have proven effective. As her frequent rocking back and forth over her prayer book ceased, and her Breslav garb was replaced by a denim skirt, she realized the seriousness of what she had done.
In the deepest sense, the meaning of the plea bargain is the realization that her sin was silence and concealment, and her "correction" is in speaking out and revealing the abuse of her children. All this was possible only following a process of freeing herself from the spell of Chen, of whom, Atia is convinced, she has also understood she is a victim. In the past, says Atia, she asked to testify from behind a screen, so that she would not have to face him. "Today she is not afraid of him."
Attorney Ariel Atari, who is representing Chen, has said that "If the mother testifies truthfully, Elior Chen can rest easy. If she decides to lie - if a trial is held, I would estimate that her lies will be easily revealed and Chen will be acquitted."
Attorney Avigdor Feldman, who is representing Avraham Krugman, has refused to comment, while attorney Yehudah Shushan, who is representing Avraham Mascalchi, says that his client's involvement was minor, adding that the procedure "is unworthy from the legal perspective in light of the fact that the child's testimony was conditioned on him not testifying against the mother, which in effect forced the state to arrive at a plea bargain with the mother."
Attorney Yair Nehorai, who is representing Shimon Gabai, has said that in his opinion "it appears that it will not be possible to avoid a request to have many of the witnesses who already testified testify again and, in a certain sense, to reopen the trial."