In a rare gathering that took place Saturday night in Bnei Brak, ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) rabbis and activists spoke publicly for the first time on the issue of pedophilia in the community, providing a glimpse into how attackers and victims are dealt with.
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The assembly was convened following a wave of rumors about a “missionary cult” that was snatching children, sexually assaulting them, inciting them against their parents and even threatening to murder them. These rumors were making local parents hysterical, especially since dozens of children had complained in recent months about strangers who approached them, grabbed them and sexually assaulted them. An in-depth examination, however, showed that the panic was apparently unjustified; although there had been cases of children being assaulted, these attacks had been perpetrated by pedophiles acting alone and not as part of any network or cult.
The story is also rooted in cases that took place earlier in Jerusalem. In 2011 a number of suspects were arrested in a series of attacks on children in the Nahlaot neighborhood. Residents believed there was a wide network of pedophiles in the area who had attacked dozens of children, but an intensive police investigation uncovered no evidence of this, although there had been a few individual instances.
A few years later there were rumors of a similar network operating in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Sanhedria. In August 2016 police arrested a number of people suspected of spreading the rumors about a “missionary cult” and using them to extract hundreds of thousands of shekels from people who contributed to help stop the imaginary cult.
After similar rumors started in Bnei Brak a few months ago, activists and rabbis who intervened determined that these were groundless and that a significant number of the children’s reports could not be proven sufficiently or were outright lies.
As the Saturday assembly was called to calm frightened parents, the phenomenon of pedophilia was discussed. At the start of the conference, however, Rabbi Shlomo Levinstein, who is active in this area because of his position in the Mishmeret Hakodesh Vehahinukh (“Guardians of Holiness and Education”) organization, said, “For reasons of modesty, questions to the rabbis will be allowed only after the gathering on a private basis.” Teenagers were ordered out of the hall.
During his address, Levinstein said, “When we know who the attacker is, there is sometimes an option to deal with it in the community. We know how to do this, either through the Mishmeret Hakodesh or through Rabbi Chananya Chollak [chairman of the Ezer Mizion aid organization]. We have ways of sending people for treatment and we do so with a waiver on medical secrecy. When we don’t know who did it, we call the Israel Police.”
He added, “Our community has all sorts of sensitivities that don’t exist in other populations. When police are called, the detectives don’t know our language and can sometimes ask things that a child wouldn’t know what they want of him. Sometimes we arranged to have children questioned in Rabbi Chollak’s office, and that’s acceptable to the police. But the first thing that must be done is to protect the children – that is, to warn them not to speak to strangers and that you are the sole proprietor over your body.”
Chollak also addressed the gathering, saying, “Unfortunately, assaults on children are nothing new. Almost every week there’s an incident, in our community as well, to our great regret. There was a story in Bnei Brak a while back. Twenty-eight children were assaulted within 10 days, three of them girls who were hospitalized. I couldn’t sit in my office and I went out on ambushes with the police.”
Rabbi Yehuda Sillman, a senior rabbinic court judge, told the gathering, “This story started in the Nahlaot neighborhood in Jerusalem, where there were evil people who did terrible things and they’re sitting in jail. There’s no doubt that in various instances you have to go to the authorities, but in the current case [the rumored missionary cult in Bnei Brak] it’s clear the story isn’t credible. Hysteria and imagination work overtime in these cases and cause even worse damage – people who won’t leave their homes, children who aren’t permitted to play in the park, and more.”
Sillman added, “If there have been cases of assaults on children, they should be reported to the police, in coordination with the rabbis and activists to make sure the attackers indeed get punished and that there’s oversight so that the complaints are checked in a manner suited to the Haredi community. But there’s no need for exaggerated panic.”
In conclusion, the rabbis instructed the parents to repeatedly tell children that they shouldn’t approach or talk to strangers, and that they must explain to them that only they have say over their bodies.
“There are a lot of question marks in this case,” said Eli Schlesinger, crime reporter for the website Bechadrei Haredim, who has been continuously covering the issue of sexual assault in the community. “One city resident collected the information and gave the rabbis a document with 30 instances of assault. Rabbi Yehuda Sillman investigated but could not find evidence of a cult operating in the city.”
Yisrael Cohen, a journalist for the Kikar Shabbat website, which divulged the recordings from the Bnei Brak gathering, told Haaretz, “The rabbis and the Haredi activists work in cooperation with the police, who in certain cases look away and allow treatment within the community. The police understand that the advantages of cooperation with Haredi officials outweigh the disadvantages.”