The head of a chain of religious seminaries in Israel, accused of engaging in sexual abuse and fraud, is now the target of a class-action suit by members of the American ultra-Orthodox community in a Chicago court.

Rabbi Elimelech Meisels, the operator of four seminaries for post-high school girls, stands accused of having “engaged in a fraudulent and unlawful scheme to induce Orthodox Jewish parents from across the United States to send their daughters to various seminaries in Israel that he controlled under the guise of educational and spiritual development” for the purposes of “sexually assaulting these vulnerable young girls” since 2004, according to a copy of the complaint obtained by the Failed Messiah blog.

“Once the sexual assaults were complete, upon information and belief, defendant Meisels would intimidate his victims by telling them that no one would believe that a rabbi and author with his reputation would have done such a thing,” the plaintiffs wrote.

American Orthodox teenagers, both male and female, customarily spend a year or more between high school and college in an Israeli seminary catering to English-speaking students.

Aside from Meisels, figures associated with the Pninim Seminary, Binas Bais Yaakov Seminary, Chedvas Bais Yaakov Seminary, and Keser Chaya Seminary are also named in the civil suit.

While paying the more than $20,000 tuition for a year’s study is an onerous burden for many, the suit claimed, it is necessary because it “profoundly shapes and influences their marriage prospects within [the] quasi arranged marriage system” prevalent in the ultra-Orthodox community.

According to the American suit, Meisels “would threaten his victims that if they shared their story with anyone, he would draw on his vast contacts within the shidduch (arranged marriage) system to ruin their reputations and ensure that no viable candidate would want to take their hand in marriage.”

Prior to initiating their lawsuit in Chicago, those involved went to a beit din, or religious court, hoping to address the issue within the Orthodox community.

The beit din ordered Meisels to distance himself from the seminaries and sent a letter to local high schools serving as feeders to Meisels’ institutions to warn them away.

“Based on the testimony and documents received by the beit din, including the testimony by the claimants and by Elimelech Meisels, the beit din believes that students in these seminaries are at risk of harm and it does not recommend that prospective students attend these seminaries at this time,” a copy of the letter obtained by the Frum Follies blog stated.

The letter further stated that a private Israeli rabbinical court composed of Rabbis Menachem Mendel Shafran, Chaim Malinowitz, and Tzvi Gartner had assumed responsibility for the matter.

The Israeli rabbinical court subsequently assured parents of Meisels’s removal and announced that the seminaries in question were again safe to attend.

“There is no cause to refrain from sending girls to study and dorm in these seminaries. It can be confidently assumed that the distinguished staff does its work trustworthily and it will continue to educate Jewish daughters for Torah and purposefulness,” the rabbinical court stated in a ruling posted to Frum Follies.

The plaintiffs, however, alleged that Meisels’s removal was a cover-up and that the rabbi and Yaakov Yarmish, another defendant, had agreed to conduct a “sham ‘sale’ of the seminaries.”

“In fact, the seminaries were never sold to defendant Yarmish and could never be lawfully sold to defendant Yarmish based on their corporate non-profit statuses,” the suit argued.

Speaking with The Jerusalem Post, Rabbi Malinowitz said that Meisels is “out of the picture” and that the seminaries are now safe, but declined to speak further about the matter.

Sexual abuse is a ticklish subject within the ultra-Orthodox community, with religious strictures against informing on Jews to gentile authorities, tale-bearing, and causing a chilul Hashem, or desecration of God’s name. These are used by some as theological justifications for silence in the face of abuse, according to experts like David Morris, the founder of Magen, an Israeli NGO focused on abuse within the ultra-Orthodox community.

However, in this case, he said, while all those factors serve to explain why the abuse was covered up in the first place, at this point “the main [point of] contention is the interest of the seminaries in preserving the status quo versus the interest of the victims and other students who may be at risk.”

According to Morris, the Israeli rabbinical court “got rid of Meisels, interviewed some staff (but no victims), declared the seminaries safe, and hurled invective at anyone and everyone who they see as challenging them.”

“According to the Chicago beit din that interviewed the alleged victims, it was not just Meisels but members of the staff who also participated in the cover-up,” he said.

In a July 30 letter to Rabbi Shmuel Schuman, the interim chancellor of Hebrew Theological College in Skokie, Illinois, members of the Chicago Rabbinical Court stated that “certain senior staff members failed in their responsibilities toward students.”

An undated letter from the Israeli rabbinical court obtained by the Post, however, dismissed such concerns, praising the teachers at the seminaries in question for their “exemplary work.”

According to the Israelis, it is “absolutely forbidden” for any institution to attempt to convince students already registered at any of these seminaries to switch their enrollment and it is further forbidden to “defame or slander these seminaries in any matter whatsoever,” the rabbis ruled.

“Those who have involved themselves in this issue without halachic [Jewish law] jurisdiction, with the support of a frum [Orthodox] lawyer, did not hear out the principals and faculties of the seminaries in an orderly fashion, nor are they familiar with the character of the staff with whom we are dealing,” the rabbis wrote in what appeared to be a harsh critique of the plaintiffs in the civil suit.

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