Jerusalem Cult Leader Arrested on Suspicion He Enslaved, Sexually Abused Women and Children

The suspect allegedly controlled every aspect of the lives of the dozens of women who resided with him at a religious seminary in a compound located in the capital

The former location of the Be'er Miriam seminary compound in the Sanhedria neighborhood of Jerusalem, April 14, 2015.
Olivier Fitoussi

The Israel Police arrested a Jerusalem resident Monday on suspicion that he ran a cult, which he had allegedly used to enslave and sexually abuse dozens of women and children.

The suspect, a man in his 60s, was arrested along with eight women suspected of abetting him at the Be'er Miriam religious seminary in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Geula.

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The man is suspected of having abused women and their children for a number of years. He was arrested for similar crimes in 2015, but was released after women living in the compound testified on his behalf. He was arrested Monday after women who had left the compound after studying there reported their experiences to the police.

The Jerusalem Magistrate's Court extended the suspect's detention by eight days on Monday afternoon, and the detentions of two female suspects by three and four days respectively.

The public defender representing the suspect said that the process is in its early stages, and that "the rabbi claims that this is a conflict between the women at the seminary and their families," which resulted in the past in complaints that had been filed to the police for which he has already been investigated. The suspect, he said, denies all suspicions against him and is cooperating with law enforcement.

The case began when the police received reports that dozens of women and children were living in cramped conditions at the compound. Over the course of the investigation, police collected mounting evidence that the man had absolute control over the lives of about 50 women living at the compound, punishing them and isolating them from their families and from society.

It also emerged that children, some of whom are under the age of five, were held in isolation at the compound. A police representative said that the children were dealt with roughly, and that there is evidence that the cult leader beat at least one child.

The women were forced to work in professions approved by the suspect and to hand over a share of their salaries to him. At the hearing to extend the suspect's detention on Monday, a police official said that the women in the compound "needed the cult leader's approval for every basic activity, and to consult him about everything." For example, the official said, if a woman needed medical care at the hospital, she needed the suspect's permission first.

According to the police official, women were treated well when they first entered, but were eventually distanced from their families and society once they joined the cult, where they were given lessons on modesty that involved threats, fear and physical pain. In one such lesson, the police official said, the women were forced to put their fingers into a fire "in order to understand what hell was like."

Police say that the women who were close to the suspect acted on his orders to bring more women into the fold.

In raiding the compound, the Israel Police were joined by members of the Israeli Center for Cult Victims, welfare officials, firefighters, the fuel department, municipal engineers and Education Ministry officials. Officials are providing first aid to the minors living in the compound and investigating the living quarters.

As early as 2011, ultra-Orthodox leaders in Jerusalem published strongly-worded statements against the seminary and demanded that its leader, the suspect, step down. The affair made headlines when parents of women studying there demonstrated outside its gates at its previous location in Jerusalem's Sanhedria neighborhood. The parents called on the authorities to rescue their daughters, who had cut contact with them. The police could not continue the investigation, however, as the women studying there were adults and said they wanted to remain.