The curious case of Gill Rosenberg

How an Israeli-Canadian woman went from house arrest with a hassidic rabbi in New York to joining the fight against Islamic State in Kurdistan.

By
August 14, 2015 14:48
Gill Rosenberg

Gill Rosenberg. (photo credit: BEN HARTMAN)

 
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A young Arab-Israeli waiter at a Jerusalem café bashfully asks for a selfie. Gill Rosenberg “the Israeli-Canadian woman who went to Kurdistan to fight ISIS” obliges, smiling though she seems a bit uncomfortable.

The 31-year-old Vancouver native says it’s been like this since she got back to Israel in mid-July – people asking for selfies or honking and waving as they pass her on the street, her feet barely touching the ground as she makes her way through a series of interviews with the press and meetings with politicians past and present.

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She says she left Kurdistan when the Iranian imprint on the fighting became a real danger – flying to Paris to meet Israeli-American businessman Moti Kahana, before returning to Israel a week later.

Whatever fighting she may have taken part in against Islamic State, she doesn’t seem a battle-hardened or jaded veteran. There’s an almost nervous way about her, she seems to shake some during the interview. Other than her trademark backward New York Mets cap (“Because they’re the underdogs”), she somewhat gives off the air of a nice Jewish girl from Canada, if one who looks like she could be dangerous if backed into a corner.

Rosenberg first made international news in November 2014, when reports emerged that an Israeli woman had joined Kurdish forces fighting Islamic State. The story became a sensation – a Jewish-Israeli-Canadian woman with a criminal past fighting jihadists is pretty hard to beat – and picked up steam later that month, when unverified reports surfaced that she had been kidnapped by jihadists near Kobani, the Kurdish city that was under siege by Islamic State for some time earlier in 2014.
Canadian-Israeli anti-ISIS fighter: If we don't fight them there, they'll come here

A day later she killed those rumors by posting a message on Facebook assuring everyone she was not kidnapped. Her story then disappeared from the Israeli press, until she returned in July and the Gill Rosenberg media blitz began. At the moment, she seems to still be catching her breath, staying with friends in the capital and entertaining job offers with humanitarian organizations dealing with the situation in Syria and Iraq, including a Montreal-based group she said raises money to pay ransoms for captive Yazidi and Christian girls.

Sitting at Malha Mall in Jerusalem one afternoon late last month, Rosenberg recounted how she made the decision to travel to Erbil by way of Amman in November of the past year after months of watching reports on social media of Yazidi, Kurdish and Christian women being kidnapped raped, and persecuted for their religion.

Adding that once she saw the Kurds had female fighters on the front line she decided to ship off. “We as Jews say ‘never again,’ and we shouldn’t stand by when a genocide is taking place,” she says. It’s a line she’s repeated in other interviews, but she admits her own troubled past was a factor in the decision.

Just five months before she made headlines, Rosenberg says she was still living on house arrest with a Satmar rabbi in the hassidic village of Kiryas Joel, when a New York court sentenced her in July 2014 to time served for her role in a highly-sophisticated phone-based scam run out of “boiler rooms” in Israel that bilked hundreds of US senior citizens out of what investigators believe was more than $25 million, between 2005 and 2009.

Before her house arrest, she’d spent more than four years in jail, while her co-defendants fought extradition back in Israel. A month after her court date in July 2014 she left the US for Israel, and touched down in Jerusalem, living with a friend and “just hanging out.”

She says she started applying for jobs, but like many English-speaking immigrants, her only options seemed to be telemarketing and for her that was a trigger, far too close to what she’d been doing years earlier when the scam was in full force.

Months later, she says she reached out on Facebook to a Kurdish foreign fighters group called “Lions of Rojava,” and met them in Erbil after flying in to Iraqi  Kurdistan in early November. From there she said she served for three months with the YPG, the main fighting force of the Kurdish Supreme Committee, including three weeks on the front line. Eventually the bitter cold and dire conditions on the Syrian front became too much and she left for Erbil. There she made contact with Dwekh Nawsha, a Christian militia whose raison d’être is to protect Assyrian villages from Islamic State, whose fighters control villages only kilometers away.

The admin of the Dwekh Nawsha Facebook page confirmed she served with the group just like the rest of their volunteers, but added that she did not mention being Israeli, only that she was Canadian. In her profile picture she’s shown wearing fatigues with a Dwekh Nawsha patch and on the group’s Facebook page there’s a photo of her in fatigues wearing a keffiyeh, a balaclava and a baseball cap by 5.11 Tactical gear. She says a typical day with the militia was spent on guard duty or in patrols in and around Assyrian villages like Bakufa, where she said all of the foreign fighters lived in the same house, just 2 km. from Batnaya, a village that was under Islamic State control.

“A lot of the work is just holding lines, daily firefights, up all night and sleep all day.” When asked if she worried about what would happen if she got caught, especially as a woman, a Jew and an Israeli, and about the difficult position that would have put Israeli authorities in, she said, “I never would have let it happen. Your last grenade in your pouch is always for yourself, in your worst case you’re going to hold that grenade and take yourself out with as much Daesh [Islamic State] as possible,” she said, adding, “I mean, it didn’t happen,” with a grin and a shrug belying the rather morbid subject.

Rosenberg grew up in the Vancouver area and was the valedictorian of her graduating class from the Maimonides Jewish High School in 2001. She later studied airport operations management in British Columbia before moving to Israel in 2006, at the age of 22.

She joined the IDF through the MAHAL program for overseas volunteers. She said she initially enlisted in the Karakal Battalion, the only predominantly female combat unit in the IDF, but was reassigned because she’s an only child and could not get approval to serve in a combat unit. She then decided to enlist in a search-and-rescue unit of the IDF Home Front Command, which she said seemed the most interesting option for her.

She served 14.5 months in the army and once she was out – having made aliya – she was working as part of a criminal conspiracy that would eventually see her spending years incarcerated in the US, and later, facing her life as a convicted criminal looking to reinvent herself back in the Middle East.

She doesn’t shy away from talking about her past, which seems to have played a strong role in her decision to leave for Kurdistan last year. “I think to some extent I was trying to do the right thing. I guess it’s [Syria and Iraq] the wrong place to seek redemption, but I try to make amends for my past. Unfortunately the crime that was committed, I hurt a lot of people, I still feel I have a lot to make up for.”

Rosenberg is by no means the first person looking for their second act in Kurdistan. No one has an exact figure on how many foreign fighters are serving or have served with the Kurdish forces in Syria and Iraq, but they’re a motley bunch. They run the gambit from former US and UK military personnel battle-tested in Iraq and Afghanistan, to onetime soldiers from the West who served in rear-echelon support roles and are looking for their first taste of combat, to an assortment of fighters with no prior military experience.

One of these fighters – who also made US headlines – is a former Marine from suburban Houston named Louis Park. A friend of Rosenberg’s, he served with her in Iraq and can be seen in her Facebook profile picture, in which they’re both wearing Dwekh Nawsha uniforms (and he a US Marine Corps baseball cap), against the backdrop of a barren desert landscape with fires burning on the horizon. Park said he was an infantryman in the Marines from January 2011 to mid-January 2015, and served in Afghanistan from March 1 to September 9 in 2012.

Chatting on Facebook from what he described as a Dwekh Nawsha village near the front line with Islamic State just north of Mosul, he describes how last October he was still in the Marines serving stateside when he read an article about foreign fighters going to Kurdistan to join the fight against Islamic State and decided he had the ability and responsibility to help, and missed the action anyway.

He arrived in Iraqi Kurdistan in February, and he said he’s been with Dwekh Nawsha ever since. He said he’s been in a few gun battles, but for the most part “it’s tossing mortars and DShK [heavy infantry machine gun] rounds at each other.”

He said he missed Rosenberg, whom he knew for five months and served alongside her in the village, where a small group of foreign fighters all live in the same house. Still, he said Rosenberg probably had enough, at least for now.

“People just reach their limits.”

When asked why he thinks Westerners join the fight against Islamic State, puting their lives on the line in someone else’s war, he said, “some people are called by morals or conviction, some do it for fame or to get away, some miss the action from before or want the action. Some want the purpose and reason.”

And Rosenberg?

“She said it was for redemption, to do the right thing.”

Redemption has been a long time coming for Rosenberg, and it seems she’s not convinced she’s there yet.

THE CASE THAT would eventually lead to the biggest-ever extradition of suspects from Israel to the US broke one day in a jewelry store in the diamond district of Manhattan, where a package was received on its last stop before it was to be shipped to Israel. The feds had been tracking the parcel following a series of complaints by senior citizens, who had been bilked out of tens and in some cases hundreds of thousands of dollars by phone scammers telling them they’d won the lottery or other cash sweepstakes,and would need to send a one-time processing fee to claim their winnings.

Not long after the package was seized, Avi Weitzman, assistant US attorney in the Southern District of New York, was sent by his superiors to look into the scam while on a family trip to Israel in 2008. Investigators had reason to believe that the scam’s “boiler rooms” were located in Israel, but it took time convincing Israel Police to open an investigation. Once the local cops came on board though the case picked up steam and in July 2009 11 people in Israel – including Gill Rosenberg – were arrested and began awaiting extradition to the US.

“Rosenberg and her partners in crime engaged in a heinous scam, cheating elderly Americans out of millions of dollars, without a shred of guilt or remorse,” Weitzman said. Weitzman referred to the scam as “one of the most despicable financial crimes I’ve ever seen.”

He said that calling it a financial crime is a bit of a misnomer in that it “ruined hundreds of peoples’ lives.” He described elderly people who had to move out of their assisted care facilities or were no longer able to afford their medicine. He believes that the scam “hastened some elderly victims’ death.”

In the indictment filed in the United States District Court of the Southern District of New York in July 2009 Rosenberg also known as “Roberta Schwartz” and “Gila,” is named among nine defendants, most of them Israelis, indicted for conspiracy to commit wire fraud and mail fraud through telemarketing, mail fraud through telemarketing and wire fraud through telemarketing, carried out between 2005 and July 2009.

The indictment described a division of labor that included “qualifiers,” who called the victims using the information from more than 185,000 leads they bought from brokers in the US. They would ask questions to determine if they had enough money to make the scam worthwhile. If so, they were then transferred to “salespersons” or “shooters” who posed as attorneys at a US law firm. All of the activity was overseen by managers.

Working out of two boiler rooms in Tel Aviv and a third in Eilat, the shooters informed the victims that in order to receive their prize they had to pay several thousand dollars in fees and taxes, and gave them instructions for how to send the money by wire transfer or mail to individuals and businesses in the US, Cyprus and elsewhere. After they sent the money they would be contacted again by the shooters who would convince them to send additional payments of tens and sometimes hundreds of thousands of dollars, the indictment read. At all times the calls were masked so that they would not be shown as coming from Israel. The co-defendants used fraudulent IRS tax documents, confidentiality and non-disclosure agreements and forms purporting to be from the Publisher’s Clearing House and other sweepstakes.

They would often impersonate IRS or sweepstakes officials in calls to the victims, and in some cases, impersonated FBI agents and prosecutors in follow up calls to victims who had expressed concern about the legitimacy of the sweepstakes win.

The indictment names Rosenberg specifically as having on March 11, 2009, contacted an undercover law enforcement officer, who she believed to be a potential victim residing in New York City. She told him that he’d won a $500,000 prize but would need to pay approximately $4,200 by wire transfer to a co-conspirator in Israel in order to claim it. Rosenberg plead guilty and would remain in jail for more than four years, until she was released to house arrest in November 2013, which she says she spent in Kiryas Joel, staying with the family of a Satmar rabbi who posted her bail. Rosenberg would not reveal the name of the rabbi, but said that she met him in jail, where he was a clergyman helping Jewish inmates.

On July 15, 2014, Rosenberg was brought for a sentencing hearing, where she was ordered released on time served, as well as two years’ probation for each of her three convictions. In his request for leniency, Rosenberg’s attorney David Wikstrom detailed how just after her arrest she confessed and described how one boiler room in Tel Aviv worked and testified to investigators about the different roles of her co-conspirators. One of them, Judge Loretta Preska said in the hearing, “is believed to have connections to Israeli organized crime figures.”

Wikstrom said of his client “this is a woman – now a woman – then a girl, deprived of a normal childhood, went right from what I would call an abusive parental relationship into the army, and then right to work in the scheme. She is 30 years old and never built a life for herself.”

After her attorney’s statements, Rosenberg addressed the judge, saying, “I know full well how horrible it was the damage I caused. All I can tell you is that the person I was five years ago is not who I am today.”

She spoke about how the person she was when she was arrested was the type whose way of dealing with problems was “run away from them, and I didn’t care who got left in my wake.” She said being incarcerated “forced me to face myself, and I didn’t like what I saw.”

Prosecutor Peter Skinner described Rosenberg as being less culpable than co-defendants Avi Ayache, Yaron Bar, and Matt Getto, but still more culpable than others arrested. She was a shooter and filled other roles in the scam. She would fill in for Getto at times, managing the boiler room on Hanegev Street in Tel Aviv when Getto was not available. At the end of the hearing, she was sentenced to time served and released on six years supervised release, as well as $8.2 million in restitution.

She is required to pay 10 percent of her monthly income while in the US, as well as other restrictions – including that she not possess a firearm – which Rosenberg says only apply in the US. Her release included the requirement that she leave the United States after 30 days, when that time came she headed back to Israel, and just a few months later, to Kurdistan. She says she is still required to check in with her probation officer once a month online, a requirement she says she kept while she was in Kurdistan, even when Internet access was spotty.

When she touched back down in Israel last month from Kurdistan, Rosenberg was nervous. It’s illegal to travel to an enemy state – such as Iraq and Syria (though Israeli businessmen and journalists regularly travel to Iraqi Kurdistan and are not prosecuted) – and a number of Arab Israelis have been prosecuted for traveling to those same countries in the past few years, albeit for the most part to join jihadist forces fighting the Assad regime. She says that when she arrived at Ben-Gurion Airport officers from the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) called her in for questioning in a side office, but only for 10 or 15 minutes. They took her details and released her, but according to Rosenberg they weren’t that interested in her and mainly just asked questions about Moti Kahana, and what he’s been doing in Syria.

MOTI KAHANA SPEAKS fast, talks about himself in the third person and when he describes his work history it’s best to be seated and with a road map if possible. Since Rosenberg returned to Israel, Kahana has appeared alongside her in interviews and served as a media consultant of sorts, though it’s unclear to what extent that’s been his idea or Rosenberg’s. Interview requests sent to Rosenberg on Facebook went unanswered, but after writing Kahana, a business partner named Itai arranged the meeting with Rosenberg at Malha mall and said he and Kahana have arranged all of her media interviews, helping her weather the storm of interest in her story.

A native of Jerusalem and a father of three who has lived in New Jersey for 22 years, he’s a serial entrepreneur of sorts, building a different company every few years and selling it he says, including a service that siphoned gas out of rental cars before they were sold at airport lots and a series of micro-financing initiatives involving women in the Middle East. He worked in hi-tech up until five years ago. When the Arab Spring began in 2011, he said he began sending money and cellphones to people in Libya, to help them document Gaddafi regime atrocities.

He later turned his attention to Syria when the civil war broke out there in March 2011 and began sending cell phones and helping people on the ground get access to the Internet, as he described it.

“I don’t believe in shalom, ‘Hava Nagila,’ ‘Kumbaya’ or whatever, I believe in mutual interest,” he says, speaking by phone from a café in Paris, where he said he’s working full time on “issues involving Syria.”

In July 2014, The Jerusalem Post reported how a mixed Jewish-Muslim family had fled Syria and landed in Israel, an escape facilitated by Kahana, along with the nongovernmental organization Israel Flying Aid. His name also emerged in a Tablet special feature on Steven Sotloff in June, in which he was described as an Israeli businessman involved in Syria, who claimed to know where the body of the Jewish-American journalist is being kept. He said he is still searching for the body and has been speaking to people in the know.

“Everything I do in life is for Moti Kahana – if this also helps get Sotloff home, and to get Gill Rosenberg home and get Jews to Israel, okay,” he says.

Kahana says he first heard about Rosenberg when her kidnap scare broke last year, and that he first met her in May, when he managed to convince her to briefly leave the region, flying her from Erbil to Vienna where Rosenberg said they discussed projects, including his desire to save religious artifacts from areas of Syria and Iraq that could fall to Islamic State. While there, in a moment she admits was surreal and confusing, he took her with him to the Eurovision song contest, where Kahana wrapped himself in an oversized Israeli flag and Rosenberg sat next to him in the crowd in a cocktail dress texting and Facebooking with friends back in Kurdistan.

Days after the Eurovision, she was back in Kurdistan she said. But where does Rosenberg fit into Kahana’s plans? He mentions a micro-financing firm he runs that does work in the Middle East, as well as a grandiose plan he hopes to put into effect in Jisr e-Zarka – the seaside, crime-ridden Arab village that is annually ranked one of Israel’s poorest locales. It involves renting Rosenberg a house there, where she’ll help with “women empowerment programs” and be responsible for security to some extent, saying that “if people there start shooting at each other, she’ll know what to do.” He says he’s been in talks with local leaders in the village to bring street artists from across the world to paint the walls of buildings throughout the entire village, creating what he says will be “the biggest open-air museum in the world.”

Though Rosenberg says she later told Kahana she’ll pass on the Jisr e-Zarka idea and focus her energies elsewhere, Kahana says that regardless she is good for publicity and helps draw the attention of the media.

“Of course she’ll bring a lot of publicity, would you be talking to me otherwise?”

MEANWHILE, THE HEAD of a Montreal-based charity says he believes Rosenberg would be “the perfect face” for his organization. Steve Maman, a Casablanca-born 42-year-old father of six, is the founder of the Liberation of Christian and Yazidi Children of Iraq (CYCI) that collects funds to pay the ransoms for women and children held captive by Islamic State. He describes himself as an Orthodox Jew who drives a Harley and in his day job imports exotic and vintage cars to Quebec, does some real estate and imports crystal light fixtures from Italy.

Two years ago, he said he traveled to Iraq in a hunt for exotic cars that had belonged to Saddam Hussein and his sons, and while in country met Reverend Canon Andrew White, an Anglican priest dubbed “the Vicar of Baghdad.”

Just like that, an Orthodox Sephardi exotic car collector from Montreal was in legion with a British leader of Christians in Iraq to launch a charity to help Christian and Yazidi women. He would soon start trying to recruit Rosenberg, a Canadian-Israeli ex-con and former IDF soldier, to be the face of the organization.

Maman said White built the infrastructure on the ground and with money streaming in that Maman raised in the Montreal Sephardi community – by his estimate some $200,000 – he says he was able to liberate families from Islamic State, reaching what he said is a total of 123 children since he began the efforts eight months ago.

White estimated the number at 59 girls, though he admitted that it’s very hard to get a clear picture of what’s happening on the ground in Iraq with the program. On Maman’s organization’s website there is a video purportedly of two women being returned to their family on the outskirts of Mosul on July 14 this year, as well as an image of Maman shaking Canadian Prime Minister Steven Harper’s hand as the words “there is hope” run across the screen.

The video includes a quote attributed to a Yazidi woman saying, “I have been raped 30 times and it’s not even lunchtime. I can’t go to the toilet. Please bomb us!”

Maman says funds are wired to their men on the ground who have contacts in Mosul, purchasing the release of the girls and having them transferred to a team in Kurdistan, which documents their rescue. The actual business end of the organization’s work is murky though. Maman says his group’s guys on the ground take the money for expenses and to pay brokers, and when asked if the money he is raising in the Canadian Jewish community is then being used to pay ransom money to jihadists from Islamic State, he says that he doesn’t know what they do with the money and that “it’s none of my business and how they get the girls, we have no clue.”

A minute later though, when pressed if sending money in an indirect way to Islamic State could violate Canadian law, he compares his actions to those of Oskar Schindler bribing Nazi officers to spirit away Jews during the Holocaust.

“Money buys girls,” he explains simply. In Rosenberg he says he sees an ideal face for his organization, and one who will be a boon to their efforts to get PR and raise donations.

“I told her what better face than yours on our organization, I think it will help people donate, because they already know your story and we can set up campaigns on Facebook and Twitter [using it],” Maman said, adding “if I could raise a million dollars it would help us do a lot of work on the ground.”

He said he plans on sending Rosenberg to Iraq in August, in order to start working on arranging more releases of young girls.

“The images of her helping children on the border will help too. It’ll be a massive reaction in the media,” Maman says.

Gill isn’t so sure. She said that she and the CYCI had been discussing sending her to Iraq but there’s nothing solid for now and she’s not in a rush to ship off again. She admits that her well-publicized past as a con artist could pose a problem for the organization.

“This is the one thing that scares me, that people will say yeah right, this is fraudulent or a scam. I’m not concerned about harm coming to me, I just don’t want to damage the organization because they’re doing god’s work,” she says.

By last week though, it appeared she’d made up her mind. In a hand-held video she posted on Facebook, she can be seen standing in a playground, announcing her decision to officially join the CYCI to raise awareness as a volunteer.

“You know for me, not too long ago I was given a second chance in life and the greatest thing to me would be to pay that forward and give someone else a second chance like I received,” she says into the shaky camera, before starting the next chapter in the Gill Rosenberg saga.

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