Their personal exodus

Three Jerusalemites describe their recent journeys to freedom – one from depression and debt, another from a domineering husband and the third from a manipulative cult.

Shadow of women 521 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Shadow of women 521
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Passover has several themes, but one stands out: freedom. In Jerusalem has gathered the personal testimonies of three residents of this city, who each experienced the loss of their freedom. Their stories illustrate how easily this can happen and how fragile one’s condition may become when one loses even the most elementary control over his or her own life.
In two of the cases, only outside intervention enabled these people to recover their dignity, their freedom – their lives. But in the end, each succeeded in retrieving his or her life, and beginning it anew, with the help and support of associates, friends or relatives.
Through their experiences, which they have agreed to share, each has gained a more profound understanding of the meaning and importance of freedom.
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When Melanie Steiner made aliya in May 2005, she was sure the best part of her life was ahead of her. Born in Johannesburg, South Africa, to a wellto- do Jewish family, she decided to move to Israel, feeling it was the right thing to do.
“I was sure I would be happy here,” she says with a sigh. “I was a Zionist, I wanted to build my life here, and that included of course marrying and raising a family with an Israeli.”
Steiner, 27, says she still believes in that dream, but meanwhile, she says, “it has first been a nightmare that just ended. I’ve just regained my freedom, and realize now how precious it is.”
As a single immigrant who established herself in Jerusalem, she wanted to meet someone who could fulfill her dream of raising a family. After a first relationship that ended suddenly, leaving her heartbroken, she says she only wanted to meet someone else as soon as possible, “to alleviate the pain.”
A young, handsome Israeli then appeared in her life, bestowing on her lots of the attention and tenderness she needed so much. Within a few weeks, she was sure she had found her soul mate, and announced to her parents she was planning to marry him.
“My parents were in shock,” she says. “They came here immediately, met him and didn’t like him right from the beginning. They saw right away things I was blind to, that this man was only after my money, assuming that as a girl alone in the country, I would be an easy target – which I indeed was.”
Despite the strong opposition of her parents (her father refused to attend the wedding) the marriage went ahead as planned. But things quickly began to unravel.
Her husband, it turned out, was not a hi-tech executive as he’d claimed, but a telephone operator. But that was nothing compared to what followed.
“It turned out he had a very bad relationship with his own family, because they probably knew about his plans [to find himself a young, innocent heiress] and didn’t approve. Right after the marriage, he quit his job, and my hell began.”
Her new husband refused to let her out from under his thumb for a minute, decided everything for her and rapidly disconnected her from the rest of the world.
“I have two sisters, who are married and live in the country. When I told them about the situation, they said immediately that it was not normal, that that had nothing to do with married life, but I was so naïve, I thought that’s the way it should be, though I was not happy about it.”
Within a few months, Steiner’s life changed radically, but not in the way she had dreamed about.
“My time was counted in minutes. I was allowed to live on a tightly controlled schedule – I was then studying and began to work. I couldn’t be even minutes late getting to university or to work and back.”
When not at work or at school, she says she was never left alone even for a minute.
“It took me time, but I finally realized it was not normal; we lived in my apartment, that I bought with my parents’ support and money, while he didn’t work, spent my money and controlled my life.”
After a few months under these conditions, she understood that she couldn’t live that way, and decided to run away. One morning, while her husband was busy, she took her wallet and her mobile phone and escaped to her sister’s house in Herzliya.
But that was only the beginning of a new nightmare.
With the support of her sister, Steiner asked for a get, or divorce, which her husband refused to give her. Before the rabbinical court, he argued that he loved her and was ready to forgive her for leaving their home, and asked for a reconciliation. He sent her flowers as a proof of his love for her.
When he began appearing at her sister’s house, Steiner decided to ask the court for a restraining order. He continued to live in her apartment and refused to leave it.
By then, Steiner was on the verge of a breakdown and went back to her family in South Africa, where she stayed for two months.
“When I came back, I finally managed to get him out of my apartment, through a court order, but he still refused to give me the get,” she recalls. It took her another year and a half to obtain the divorce, and it came at a high price.
“He had a plan right from the beginning, to get my money through marriage, and he was not about to back down, so I had to pay for my freedom,” she says. Steiner, who understood that according to the laws of the rabbinical court she had no chance, was ready to pay, but her parents were furious and refused.
While she was still trying to figure how to get out of this misery, she heard that her husband had attended a Shabbat event for singles, presenting himself as single. It took more time, and Steiner says she had to find another solution for the money, and she agreed to pay the $45,000 he demanded, in addition to the money he used while they were living together and the use of her parents’ flat.
“I had no choice, I went to Mavoi Satum, got a lot of help and support – emotional and professional – from them and it was clear that without paying the price I would have remained his prisoner for life.”
This year, Steiner says she feels that the words of the Haggada about “redemption and freedom” speak to her personally, as if intended specifically for her.
“I truly feel as if I have achieved a personal geula [redemption] she says. “Even the dayan [rabbinical judge] present on the day I received the get told me to rejoice, that it was a real ‘Purim miracle.’ ...That’s how I feel now, toward the coming festival of Passover – for the first time in my life I feel what it means to be free.”
Sarah (not her real name) was born to a traditional family in Switzerland. She had a normal, happy childhood, and by the time she was 18 she knew one thing – that she wanted to move to Israel and live in Jerusalem. Her parents tried to persuade her to wait until they were ready to join her in making aliya, but Sarah was not ready to wait and exactly two months after her 18th birthday she moved to the holy city.
Her first decision was to enroll in university, but it was her second that was to have a greater impact on her future life – she decided to become more religious and became close to a group of young olim (immigrants) from Europe who seemed to provide the kind of atmosphere she was seeking.
But what seemed at first like a nice group of young Jewish boys and girls reconnecting with their Jewish traditions quickly became something else. A “leader” soon emerged, recalls Sarah, 43.
“He was very charismatic, had a profound influence on us, and except for one boy, who refused to act as he required us to and eventually left the group, we were all under his magnetic influence.”
She was soon invited to join the rest of the group, young olim who had already been here for a while, and they all moved into two large houses in one of the northern neighborhoods of the city. The next step was to persuade her to leave the university, which she did, without at first telling her parents. Then, slowly but surely, as was the case with the rest of the girls in the group, she was required to spend more and more time inside the large house.
“Most of the time we listened to Torah lessons, given by our leader’s mother, mostly on modesty and about how bad and impure the outside world was. She would explain to us that in order to do the right thing as Jewish girls, we had to stay there and do what they knew was best for us.”
Sarah, still enchanted by the new world revealed to her, became the “best” student. One evening, a few weeks later, she was called in for a personal talk with the mother.
“I was flattered by this, I was expecting some compliments on my studies,” she recalls. But the conversation (indeed, after a few compliments), started to take a very different turn. The woman told her that in return for her serious approach to the teachings and her modesty, she had been chosen to be the first to be married – to a boy in the group.
“Before I really realized what it meant, I was presented to my future husband and the wedding took place less than a month later. My parents were not allowed to attend, because of their bad [secular] influence and she [the leader’s mother] told me that from now on she was my mother. I was so bewitched that it seemed logical to me.”
Soon after, Sarah was to discover the sad reality behind her new condition. She was not allowed to leave the house where she lived with her new “mother” and the group leader.
She had to clean, cook, wash and serve the mother and the leader, and was not allowed to speak on the phone with anyone. Her conversations with her parents took place under their control, and she had to attend lectures given by the leader, behind a curtain that hid her, as a woman, from his eyes.
“I didn’t really love my husband, we hardly spoke and I was beginning to miss my family, and after a while, I realized that I was losing the initial enthusiasm I felt toward that kind of life.
When I said I wanted to take a leave and go visit my family, they reacted with anger, accusing me of being unfaithful and warning me that I would endanger my soul by doing so.”
That first time, they managed to persuade her to stay, but when she received the news that her younger sister was engaged, Sarah decided this time she would go. To her shock, it was only then that she discovered she was a prisoner. She was refused the right to travel, and she was told that her husband had the right to prevent her from leaving the home. She didn’t go, and her parents, who were already angry with her due to her marriage and her new life, severed ties with her. She slowly realized she was in fact alone and in the hands of a cult.
Today, Sarah is free of the cult, but it took her over five years, and terrible suffering, regarding which she declines to give too many details, to leave the group. Most of these years she says she was a kind of slave, working all day long for the leader’s family, not getting any money and treated even worse from the moment she said she wanted to divorce her husband, whom she hadn’t chosen freely.
“Officially I was free to go, but in fact I was a captive because I didn’t know anyone here. I underwent a terrible brainwashing; I was sure that outside it was only criminals and danger, and I was too afraid to leave.”
Sarah eventually managed to reconnect to a family member, who waited for her somewhere in the city and rescued her from the group.
Today, Sarah has remarried and has a son. She works and has friends around her, and her family made aliya and are close to her.
“Now I understand how precious and fragile is freedom,” she concludes.
Last Purim was the first time in six years that Yigal Pearl, 32, felt he could again breathe normally. Two days before the holiday, he says, he felt miracles still happen, and that one had just changed the course of his life. Tonight, when Pearl and his wife, Meitar, sit at the Seder table and recite the Haggada, he says that the message of freedom the ancient text contains will have new meaning for them.
Pearl, a young and once very successful hairstylist, was, until not so long ago, on the verge of losing it all, including the will to live. At 23, the Jerusalem-born Pearl was already the owner of a very fancy and well-known salon in Tel Aviv, frequented by some of country’s big celebrities.
But then, he says, “Two weeks before my wedding, my thenfiancée canceled everything and left me heartbroken.”
Crushed, he couldn’t focus on anything, stopped working, neglected his clients, and finally decided on the spur of the moment to leave everything behind and go abroad for a year.
But his condition only became worse.
Back in Israel, he made attempts to get some of his clients back, but quickly gave up, fell into a deep depression and cut all his social and family ties.
“Even my family abandoned me. They didn’t believe in me anymore – everyone around me was hurt by my attitude, nobody understood what I was going through. It was hell on earth,” he says. Things kept getting worse, and within a short time he says he was completely alone, and had to take out bank loans to survive.
Since he couldn’t keep up steady work, his debts grew, with no signs he might be recovering from his depression.
“By the end of the second year since all this began, I was totally alone, with no work, no money, no social contacts, and the depression was just deeper and deeper. I saw no hope at all,” he says.
At 27, instead of planning his future, he had already borrowed hundreds of thousands of shekels from the bank, and had no idea how he was going to repay the debt. When the bank began taking legal action, it looked like the end.
“And then the first miracle happened, just like in a fairy tale,” he recalls, shivering with emotion.
Pearl met a young woman who was ready to listen to him, who believed him when he said that he was not a crook and that he wanted to work, but just felt too lonely and weak to face life’s realities.
“For the first time in a few years, somebody seemed to trust me, and believed me when I said that I wanted to get out of this situation, but just couldn’t do it alone,” he recalls.
Meitar, the young woman, herself a hairdresser, remained at his side and helped him through every step of his psychological recovery. Pearl began to work again, retrieved clients, began making some money. Things were looking better, but there was no way he could repay the huge sums he owed the bank.
“It looked as if, once again, all these efforts were going to sink in front of my eyes, and there was a serious risk I was slipping back into depression, out of despair at not being able to pay my debts. I felt the rope tightening around my neck and it was frightening. There was no solution on the horizon.”
The bank took him to court, and at the first session, he almost collapsed in front of the judge, trying to explain his situation.
“That was the second miracle,” he says with a big smile. The judge believed him and decided to give him some time, and suggested he go to Yedid, a non-profit organization that runs special programs for such cases.
Pearl went to see them, not knowing who they were or how they could help him. Within a few days, his many debts were consolidated into one sum, recognized by the court, a first step that reduced the stress, and a proposal was made to transform the debt into a loan on easier repayment terms, including a substantial reduction of the total amount.
“I felt as if someone had just lifted me by the hair out of sinking into the ocean at the very last minute,” he says. “I really felt like someone saved by miracle, as if my life had been given back to me, and it gave me all of a sudden, for the first time in years, since that nightmare had fallen on me, the strength to take over and manage my own life by myself.”
By then, Pearl and Meitar, who had meanwhile become his wife, were both working. He had begun to work in one of the fanciest salons in one of the most elegant hotels in the city, and he could prove to the bank that he had a steady income.
“I went to talk to the bank manager. I asked for a loan that could cover all my debts, which I repay on a monthly basis. It’s quite a lot of money, but I can do it, and for the first time in over three years I can raise my head, I respect myself and I feel free. That’s real freedom – I have a loan that I can repay, I can see the end – I will pay it off within five years, and I already feel free again.”
Where to get help
MAVOI SATUM Established in 1995, Mavoi Satum has since been the leading voice for agunot (“chained women” – women whose husbands have disappeared and who cannot remarry according to Jewish law) and mesoravot get (women whose husbands refuse to grant them a divorce) in Israel.
The non-profit organization provides these women with both legal representation and psychological assistance.
There is no civil marriage or divorce in Israel; the religious judges (dayanim) in the state-run rabbinical courts are the sole authorities when it comes to marriage and divorce, and base their decisions on an inflexible interpretation of Jewish law. Divorce proceedings often drag on for years.
According to Mavoi Satum figures, one out of every five Jewish women seeking divorce is unable to freely exit her marriage. To facilitate the process for hundreds of women, the organization strives for the establishment of the first private Orthodox rabbinical court in Israel. The creation of such rabbinical courts (headed by rabbis from the national- religious stream) might break the ultra-Orthodox monopoly on Jewish law through a broad-minded, egalitarian and unbiased court system.
Approximately 3,400 women join the ranks of agunot and mesoravot get each year. Mavoi Satum has helped more than 500 women attain their freedom by providing them with legal representation in the civil and religious courts. Over the years, the association has helped thousands of women to obtain their get (religious divorce) and rebuild their lives, and has also provided comprehensive social support to individual women.
Recently, Mavoi Satum initiated legislation in the Knesset to ensure that rabbinical courts enforce existing laws under which husbands who refuse to give their wives a get serve jail time, and also make recalcitrant husbands liable for damages for keeping their wives trapped in unwanted marriages. Such sanctions include a prohibition on leaving the country, confiscation of bank accounts, revocation of drivers’ and professional licenses, and as a last resort, arrest.
Website: YEDID Established in 1997 to promote social and economic justice, Yedid, a non-profit organization, has gained widespread appreciation for its community work and empowerment achievements throughout the country.
Yedid’s mission is to enable Israelis to become self-sufficient and engaged members of society. The organization operates through a nationwide network of 16 citizens’ rights centers and satellites, staffed by a teams of professionals and expertly trained volunteers including lawyers, businesspeople and social service practitioners who donate their time and effort alongside former clients seeking to assist others just as they were helped in their time of need.
This unique model helps people help themselves through four innovative and interrelated channels – Social, Economic and Legal Assistance, Community Empowerment Initiatives, Grassroots Community Organizing and National Advocacy for Policy Change. The association provides free individual and legal assistance for any citizen who needs such support.
According to its figures, in 2010 Yedid staff and volunteers assisted in 32,090 client interventions (client visits, phone calls, accompaniments) for a total of 23,195 new clients. Volunteers, professional staff and lawyers helped these individuals and families navigate the bureaucracy and advised them on benefits the were eligible for and services they needed.
One of Yedid’s flagship programs is its Family Budget Management training course. In 2010, the association ran 16 groups for 281 adults enabling them to manage their personal and family finances. In 2010, 213 young adults participated in 11 groups of financial management training.