Special Shas Court to Hear Complaints Against Netivot Sage

A special court convened by Shas spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef will meet Sunday to handle complaints from four women against Rabbi Yoram Abergil of Netivot. The wives of Abergil's students have complained of explicit threats from the rabbi against their families, harassment against them and their husbands, and conversations including intimate suggestions under the guise of advice to women, that could be considered sexual harassment.

Five weeks ago, testimony from the women and their husbands reached Netivot chief rabbi Pinchas Cohen, who says he transmitted the accounts to Yosef and the Chief Rabbinate, who decided to establish a special court to handle the matter.

The women and their husbands, as well as several former students who came forward as a result of the incident, indicate that Abergil tyrannized the students in his adult yeshiva: anyone who failed to kiss the rabbi's hand a number of times a day was suspected of betrayal or accused of speaking badly of the rabbi, and lost funds from their stipend at the end of the month. The plaintiffs report that when they left the adult yeshiva or took their children out of the rabbi's educational institutions, they began receiving angry phone calls from the rabbi, who cursed them.

One plaintiff said that when she decided to withdraw her children from the institutions, the rabbi told her "this was our last chance and if we didn't reregister the children, we would be punished and he would haunt us in this world and the next."

However, the most problematic complaints entail Abergil's conversations with students' wives. One woman says the conversations became intimate during the period when she hoped to conceive. "He asked me things about women's bodies and intimate relations." When she expressed displeasure, he threatened "if you leave me you will be reincarnated as a dog."

When the matter became public in Netivot, where "Rabbi Yoram" is considered a sage, slanderous posters about accusers and counterattacks condemning Abergil appeared across town and on synagogue gates. A poster published in Abergil's name, which he later renounced, hinted at the future. "I will not forgive or pardon those who lend their hands to this terrible plot >mfu< and suborned perjury from adulterous women," the poster stated.

The students married to the plaintiffs and their associates were dismissed from the yeshiva immediately. The complaining families were threatened both over the phone and in person and one student says he was beaten by the rabbi's followers. One woman started getting daily sex calls. The plaintiffs say all the incidents were reported to the police.

On November 2, Abergil gave a fiery speech at his synagogue calling on his followers "to take a stick and hit until the p erson ends up in intensive care. Those who harm us, should they die nothing will happen - we will be rid of evil."

The next night, three of the families left Netivot in fear for their lives. Abergil recanted the comments and published more conciliatory messages later. But the families, who say they continue to receive threats from Abergil's followers, move from safehouse to safehouse. One family, under threat, signed letters retracting their charges.

Rabbi Yoram has a large following - either due to his charisma or due to the relatively large NIS 1,700 monthly stipends - and in a town with fierce competition among sages, Abergil's institutions thrive. Abergil's secretary Erez Reuven reports that the network in Netivot includes 16 pre-schools, a girls school, a boys yeshiva, a small yeshiva and several yeshivas for adults.

The November 2 speech was direct incitement. It was secretly recorded by an anonymous student and conveyed to the police. "If you hear someone talking >mfu< take a table and throw it straight at his face and crush all his bones."

"If you have a prayer book - throw it at him, if you have a shoe - throw it at him, if you have a stone - throw it at him." That night, the courtyard where the complaining families lived were filled with the rabbi's followers.

On Sunday, the special court will hold a hearing at which only the plaintiffs will be present. The procedure raises the question of why leading rabbis hastened to investigate the matter. An ultra-Orthodox journalist says this is not the first time complaints against Abergil have accumulated. A rabbinical tribunal investigated similar complaints a decade ago about dubious conversations with women on sexual matters. "The compromise at the time was that he would not accept women for lessons or advise women in private >mfu