The Crusaders Fighting Sex Abuse in the Underbelly of Israel's ultra-Orthodox Community

The practice was simple: If you don't speak about sexual violence, it doesn't exist. Then these three started a Haredi awareness revolution

Nati Toker
Nati Tucker
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The founders of 'Lo Tishtok': Tzviki Fleishman, Avigail Karlinsky and Racheli Roshgold.
The founders of 'Lo Tishtok': Tzviki Fleishman, Avigail Karlinsky and Racheli Roshgold.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi
Nati Toker
Nati Tucker

Jerusalem in late 2015 was a place marked by fear. It was mainly fear of lone wolf terrorists with knives, but Avigail Karlinsky thought it time to explain something to men: Maybe they weren’t used to constantly being alert, warily looking left and right for attackers, but women were. “I hereby tell you that a woman walking in the street alone at night walks just like that,” the 28-year-old Karlinsky, who is ultra-Orthodox, wrote on Facebook. “Every woman knows what I’m talking about. There isn’t a single one who doesn’t.”

Publishing a post like that in October 2015 was highly unusual in the Haredi community. Sexual violence isn’t a topic for conversation, certainly not something to be spoken about out loud. It turned out she had touched a very sore nerve.

“I wasn’t prepared for what happened after I posted that,” says Karlinsky, who belongs to the non-Hasidic (Lithuanian) ultra-Orthodox community. “I had entered a vacuum so immense in the Haredi community that everybody who had anything to say about sexual harassment, a personal story or somebody near them – everybody came to me. Dreadful stories started to pour in. I was inundated. It affected me physically. For two weeks I was just sick. I couldn’t stand on my feet.”

After recovering, she asked some people for help to set up the Facebook page “Lo Tishtok” – “Thou Shalt Not Be Silent.” The page marks a revolution in the ultra-Orthodox world. The magnitude of the drama set off by Karlinsky, with two partners, Tzviki Fleishman and Racheli Roshgold, who are also Haredi, is hard to comprehend.

It took them time to understand it, but there is an ultra-Orthodox underbelly, the three say.

Until Lo Tishtok, the practice in the Haredi world was simple: If you don’t speak about it, it doesn’t exist. As a topic, sexual predators was not talked about. Even serious cases were concealed, handled and resolved within the community. The established media of the ultra-Orthodox world does not discuss it and neither do the schools, at least until recently.

But the internet is the ultimate force. For the first time in ultra-Orthodox history, those behind Lo Tishtok could conduct a dialogue directly with people in their community, beyond the watchful eye of the establishment.

Karlinsky, Fleishman and Roshgold spend hours each day running their Facebook page. Sometimes people send their hair-raising stories to their personal inboxes, and they post them online for others to read. Sometimes they meet with the victims and sometimes try to persuade them to file a complaint with the police. They also publish pictures and video clips, including difficult-to-watch ones of ultra-Orthodox men sexually abusing teenage girls or children. The purpose is for the community to identify the men and give their details to the police.

If Lo Tishtok has an overarching purpose, it is to increase awareness among Haredim. There are community organizations and rabbis whose job is to help people with problems, but Lo Tishtok is sick of sexual assaults being handled silently, behind closed doors. For instance, some incidents culminate in supervision for the attacker, or exile from the community.

“We want to give the victims back their pride,” says Karlinsky. “We are increasing awareness of sexual assaults and giving the victims the feeling that they have nothing to be ashamed about.”

Lo Tishtok became involved in the case of a 14-year old boy who had been attacked by the head of his yeshiva.

“There were rabbis who stopped us from handling complaints,” the student wrote in rhyme (in Hebrew) on the Facebook page. “An innocent boy around 14 years of age the sound of study rises and penetrates the room / I am in my bed, my limbs are paralyzed / while the hands of the representative of God violate my body / his cold hands take my hands and put them in his trousers / my wounded soul wants to shriek / my blood boils on the floor here is the fire and the wood, and I am the sacrificial lamb / where are you, Lord, as my soul and body rise.”

The yeshiva, in the ultra-Orthodox West Bank settlement of Modi’in Ilit, had an excellent reputation, but underneath its leader’s elegant suit lurked a pedophile. He would summon boys to his chamber, strip them and molest them. Some people in the city who knew; a number even confronted him, but the abuse continued.

When a 14-year-old who had suffered greatly at the hands of the rabbi decided to speak up, the head of the yeshiva used every manipulation in the book to control him, even taking the boy to a psychiatrist to have him declared mentally unfit. The boy felt confused and bereft, until coming across Lo Tishtok – whose organizers took him to the police. Then the extent of the rabbi’s misdeed with other children came to light. The head of the yeshiva fled abroad, but then returned. The chief rabbi of the city realized that it was necessary to act decisively and involve the police. The rabbi is now facing serious charges.

The lack of awareness creates perfect conditions for criminal activity to flourish, says Roshgold: Sexual predators in an ultra-Orthodox city simply aren’t under threat. She points out that there are Haredi pedophiles who, when caught abroad, simply move to Israel, knowing they’ll be safe from prosecution. “There is no awareness of what is prohibited and what is permissible,” she says. “We have to start an awareness revolution.”

A Jerusalem woman who had been raped for years by her brother-in-law didn’t go to the police for fear of hurting the family. Lo Tishtok consulted with a rabbi on whether to go to the police, and his answer was that the man has atoned, so there is no need.

But the silence goes farther. “We had a case of mothers who met every day in a public park, who told us about a man hurting the children there. They all knew each other but never talked about it among themselves,” says Roshgold. The group intervened to connect the mothers over their complaints, which were about the same man.

Their shared goal is so important that the people behind Lo Tishtok, men and women, cooperate despite coming from all over the ultra-Orthodox political spectrum – no trivial thing. Karlinsky is a married student with two children. Fleishman, 27, is affiliated with the Hasidic Chabad movement and is studying for an M.A. in psychology. For him, this is a mission comparable to Chabad’s practice of providing Jews around the world with kosher food. Thirty-year-old Roshgold, a nurse at a center for sexual assault victims, comes from the rigid Gur Hasidic sect and is also studying for a master’s degree.

Ultra-Orthodox rabbis claim that simply talking about sexual assault increases harassment because it gives people ideas.

Karlinsky: “Studies from around the world show that there are more sexual attacks in closed hierarchical communities modest women don’t get raped less. That claim is factually untrue.”

Roshgold: “Many rabbis understand the gravity of the problem, some also talk with us and encourage our activity.”

Karlinsky: “There were grave cases where the rabbis blocked us from acting. In one case a woman lodged a complaint and the rabbis said we were committing the sin of humiliating another person for our own gain in another case, by the time the rabbi permitted filing a complaint, the pedophile had fled the country.”

Roshgold: “Others don’t ask the rabbi whether a child with a cut should be taken to the doctor, and in cases of sexual injury, the rabbis shouldn’t be the first point of call. This is about saving lives.”

There is an opposite argument, that since the religious community has no outlet for release, there are more sex crimes.

Fleishman: “Sexual urges and sexual violence aren’t even on the same scale. They are not connected. Sexual violence is on the scale of a disease, hurting the other, criminal activity.”

Letter from a daughter to her father, from the Lo Tishtok Facebook page: ”You are so weak and despicable / You have compassion, but only for yourself / For only didn’t you manage to protect the girl you brought into this world / You hurt her yourself! In the worst way possible / There are no words to describe your cruelty, wrapped in compassion / You are the scum of the human race / I have mercy and compassion. Even towards you! How absurd.”

Not all secular rape victims go to the police, but they at least know it’s an option. Ultra-Orthodox victims may not know that, Karlinsky says. Lo Tishtok can introduce them to the possibility but the police officers and Haredim don’t speak the same language. The police has been trying to recruit Haredi investigators, but difficulties remain. An ultra-Orthodox boy who tried to file a complaint completely shut down when the female detective insisted on full details of the assault and said the word “penis,” Roshgold relates. “You have to know how to talk with Haredim,” she says.

Lo Tishtok intends to train people to help members of the ultra-Orthodox community handle the interaction with the secular authorities, and ultimately, adds Fleishman, to establish a crisis center, with outreach to the Haredi community at large.

While recommending police involvement, the group respects the victims’ right to settle the cases in a different way. For instance, one woman agreed to accept financial compensation from a public figure who abused her.

That enables him to go on hurting others.

Roshgold: “When a victim arrives, the paramount thing is their well-being if a victim gets money, who am I to tell her what to do? Sometimes they only come 25 years after the event and all they want to do is share it.”

Fleishman: “That’s part of the strategy. To return control to the victim. Nobody tells them what to do. The whole experience of rape is a loss of control, so we don’t force them to file a complaint.”

All three work as volunteers for the time being, devoting about three hours a day to Lo Tishtok’s operations. But they also spring into action when needed, for instance if a person calls in crisis at three in the morning. “By seven he may have changed his mind, so you have to work at odd hours,” says Roshgold. They are planning a fundraising drive to expand activity. “We are just three,” says Karlinsky. “We need social workers on salary and people who can do things that for now we’re somehow managing to handle.”

They know they’ll pay a price for their activity. Fleishman says he knows his son won’t be accepted to a heder (a religious elementary school). Roshgold had been attacked as a child by a family friend. Her mother rebuked her for publicizing it in an interview on Army Radio. She told her mother that she has nothing to be ashamed of; if anything the man who hurt her should be ashamed. She says she isn’t afraid and is ready to pay any price. “If they spray-paint the walls of my home, I’ll kiss the vandalized walls. Even if they kill me, I want it written on my gravestone what price I paid for doing this.”

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