A 15-page indictment filed last month against a well-known ultra-Orthodox rabbi included detailed descriptions of sex crimes he allegedly committed against female relatives over many years. The indictment, filed in the Jerusalem District Court, caused an earthquake in ultra-Orthodox society.
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The affair has been covered with unprecedented intensity on news sites for the Haredi community, but most of the ultra-Orthodox media – newspapers and radio stations – haven’t even hinted that such an affair exists.
The indictment has been shared on Haredi Facebook pages and in internet forums. It has been sent out via email and WhatsApp, and has penetrated the layer that has thickened in the ultra-Orthodox community over decades, if not generations.
The dissemination of the indictment hasn’t just broken down conspiracies of silence, it has ended the automatic lack of trust against the complainants and the accuser – the Israeli government.
Everyone is talking about it on the street and in synagogues. Teachers and parents are talking about it at schools. No one can ignore it, and many people are terrified.
The Bais Yaakov girls school in Elad sent parents a note with instructions on how to be cautious against any threats. “In case of any doubt, refuse and say no categorically,” is rule number seven out of 10.
Rule nine advises girls: “Be careful of people you know or don’t know, and don’t be tempted to go with them. Even if they approach you in a friendly way, break off contact, keep away from them and tell your parents.”
The defendant has only been known as “anonymous,” but now everyone knows who the 50-year-old is. He was a “supervisor” – a mentor in a renowned yeshiva in Jerusalem for older boys, whom it seems he has not harmed.
Some of the acts described in the indictment were allegedly committed in his office at the yeshiva. His fame as a member of the elite of the yeshiva world – with family connections that reach the highest levels of the so-called Lithuanian, non-Hasidic community – was a disadvantage in this case.
The names of three sisters, his relatives, have also passed by word of mouth; the indictment describes how he allegedly raped them hundreds of times. Two were victims starting in their childhood, and the violence allegedly continued after they were married, even in their parents’ home and while they were recovering from childbirth.
These purported acts against the two sisters are detailed in wording that is painful to quote. Still, the allegations have made their way in full to huge numbers of Haredim.
In fact, the Haredi community is agitated over a number of affairs that have been made public, including an indictment against another Jerusalem rabbi for extreme violence and sex offenses against his wife and other women. Also, footage has been taken that seems to expose sex offenders in the largely ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak near Tel Aviv.
Such revelations were exposed on the Hebrew-language Thou Shalt Not Be Silent Facebook page, which has been operating for about six months to let Haredi victims of sexual abuse tell their stories and receive help.
Slowly, and many years too late, the community’s leaders are beginning to respond.
Two months ago, the police held a conference of senior rabbis from Haredi towns on “modesty and holiness in the community” in order to combat sex offenders. Programs for students have been launched in a number of schools on the matter.
These are just the first signs of people speaking out openly, but over the past three weeks the best-known Haredi websites such as Kikar Hashabbat and Behadrei Haredim have followed the “supervisor” affair closely with both news stories and opinion pieces. They have also followed three other cases of sexual assault in the Haredi community, with some of the alleged attackers coming from the school system.
“We must talk about it!” wrote Avigayil Karlinsky, one of the women behind Thou Shalt Not Be Silent. “Every time such a case is publicized is one small step in a great, blessed process of increasing awareness and bringing this burning matter to the forefront,” she wrote for the Haredim 10 website.
Karlinsky told Haaretz that the “supervisor” affair has brought her and three colleagues on the Facebook page a new wave of complaints from victims, including against “figures even more senior and better-known.”
Haredi society is opening up to the existence of sex crimes, which Karlinsky partly attributes to the programs that have been introduced in the schools. In the “supervisor” case, no rabbi has come out in defense of the accused or claimed that the charges were a fabrication, which Karlinsky says is probably due to the accessibility of the indictment.
The case of fugitive Rabbi Eliezer Berland, who fled Israel after being suspected of sex offenses, is different. In Berland’s case, the Haredi websites and media have let his followers claim that he was falsely accused. This is almost certainly linked to Berland’s standing and his followers’ influence, and maybe to the fact that no indictment has yet been filed.