Nine Breslav members of alleged cult being held

Police: Worst case of domestic violence in decades; Leader had ‘total mental control’ over group; 15 children placed in shelters.

Rape victim (photo credit: Judy Siegel-Itzkovich)
Rape victim
(photo credit: Judy Siegel-Itzkovich)
In what police and social workers are calling the worst case of domestic violence in decades, three men and six women from an alleged Breslav Hassidic cult – well-known for dancing in Jerusalem streets – were arrested over a week ago in the capital and in Tiberias.
Fifteen children were placed in shelters around the country, police announced on Tuesday morning as a gag order was partially lifted. The identities of the group members are still under a court-ordered media ban, but it was made known that investigators have been treating the adults – especially the women – as both abuse suspects and victims.
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The arrest was carried out in cooperation with the Jerusalem police, the Ministry of Welfare and Social Services, and the Jerusalem municipality.
The cult has been in existence for more than 10 years, but it was only over the past two that the violence increased in frequency and severity.
“This is a disgusting case that crosses all red lines, but unfortunately it is not the first time that the Israeli public has encountered abuse of this kind,” said Welfare and Social Services Minister Moshe Kahlon on Tuesday. He was referring to the case of Goel Ratzon, a Tel Aviv cult leader who was arrested in January 2010 for abusing his 17 wives and 39 children.
Police and social workers familiar with the case in Jerusalem described severe physical, emotional and sexual violence that landed several of the children in emergency rooms, some of them numerous times.
The group moved often and the children were taken to different hospitals to prevent questions about possible abuse, with claims that broken bones were from falls or other accidents.
The leader of the cult was not legally married to the six women but maintained sexual relations with all of them.
Another of the men arrested was described as the leader’s assistant, while the third had ostensibly been chosen to continue the cult.
“It’s very clear that they were in a framework that controlled every aspect of their lives, including their thoughts,” said Menahem Vagshel, deputy director of the Ministry of Welfare and Social Services.
Vagshel said that every day, each woman would hold a “confession” or “judgment” session with the head of the cult, where she was required to share all of her thoughts. If she had any negative thoughts, she was forced to undergo cruel sexual or physical punishment.
When police raided the apartment in Jerusalem, they found stun guns, electric cables and wooden rods, in addition to the diaries of several of the women, which will be used to help build the case. The three men are expected to be indicted on Wednesday on multiple counts of sexual abuse, child abuse, slavery, rape and imprisonment.
The 15 children were not enrolled in school, instead being “educated” at home. Many of them learned to play musical instruments, and the “family” regularly performed together, sometimes in concerts that drew hundreds of people, especially from the Breslav sect.
The leader of the cult came under investigation a year and a half ago when one of the young girls complained to social services about sexual abuse. When she refused to testify, the state attorney was forced to close the case for lack of evidence.
The breakthrough came after the cult head’s seventh “wife” broke away from the family after a year and a half of living with the group. Six months later, she urged social services to investigate alleged abuse. An undercover investigation began on July 4.
The Ministry of Welfare and Social Services defended its actions, despite having heard allegations about the group more than 18 months ago.
“We were looking into them, but it’s legal for a man to live with multiple women,” Vagshel said.
Though polygamy is illegal, police and the ministry can break up a family only if there is proof of abuse.
“If we could have entered beforehand and avoided the violence, we would have been more successful,” Vagshel said, although he denied that authorities had “failed” the women or the children.