Sexual Assault Allegations Rock an Israeli Hasidic Community

The son of Rabbi Yaakov Aryeh Alter, leader of Ger Hasidic community, has been accused of abusing male yeshiva students over years ■ Sect, which denies allegations, did not notify authorities and paid a large sum to prevent publication

Haaretz, Israel/December 22, 2019

By Aaron Rabinowitz

For years, S., a member of the Ger Hasidic community, has been trying to forget his memory of events in the room of Rabbi Avraham Mordechai Alter, the son of the ultra-Orthodox sect’s admor, or leader, Rabbi Yaakov Aryeh Alter. Even after S. married and became a father, he didn’t tell anyone.

“They don’t talk about such things in Ger,” he said. “It’s not talked about. Our biggest disgraces are things like that. No one tells. No one talks.”

S. and another Ger member told Haaretz that the younger Alter sexually assaulted them about two decades ago at the Ner Yisrael yeshiva in Jerusalem. A number of sources describe a cover-up of the incidents that allegedly took place over years and were known to at least one senior figure in this influential Hasidic community in Israel.

The admor and his son reject the allegations, and refused to respond further.

The admor only received information years later about the assaults his son has been accused of. The admor, one of the most important leaders in the ultra-Orthodox community, ordered that his son be removed from the yeshiva, but the case was not reported to the authorities and no assistance was offered to the complainants.

Meanwhile, the Hasidic community reportedly paid hundreds of thousands of shekels to ensure that the details would not become public.

The complainants told Haaretz that they feared the price to be paid if their identities were disclosed. “If my name gets out, that would personally endanger me,” one said. The second added: “I can’t endanger myself and my family. I have nightmares just thinking that maybe my name would come out.”

The younger Alter, who is now in his 60s and is the eldest of five sons and four daughters of the admor, had special status at the yeshiva. He did not have an official position, and his duties amounted to giving a lesson on the Torah portion of the week, but he was surrounded by an aura, S. says. “He was considered a very spiritual figure. Everyone looked up to him.”

As S. put it, “It happened when I was about 16. He called me to his room at the yeshiva, locked the door and told me to come near him. First, he caressed me. After that he began with affectionate slaps and pinches on the cheek .... I didn’t understand what was happening to me, what he wanted. I didn’t suspect a thing.

“He began to talk, and again and again got closer and closer. I didn’t understand. I didn’t suspect a thing until he unbuckled my belt. I was shocked. I thought to myself, ‘What’s this?’ He opened it harder. I didn’t let him. He said, ‘Let me, let me.’ He tried to pull down my pants. There was no chance that I would let him. I fought. I was shocked and shaken up.”

S. says he tried to get out of the room but the door was locked and Alter had the key.

“He made me swear that I would never tell about what happened there,” S. said. “I had no choice, so I agreed. He told me: ‘What do you think? What did I do to you? What did I want? What was it?’ I responded, ‘I have no idea. I don’t know,’ and he replied, ‘Does it seem like something to you? Do you suspect something?’ I said, ‘No, nothing. Everything’s okay.’ And then he let me go.”

S. kept his promise. About a year later, he heard about a student at the yeshiva who said he had been assaulted by the rabbi. He looked into the rumors and the student told him that he had been a victim of a similar act.

In addition to the weekly lesson that the younger Alter gave, he studied with the yeshiva students and would have conversations with them. On orders from the admor, the yeshiva’s directors set aside a room for him.

A. is another student who says he was sexually assaulted. “Studying with him was a great honor. One time he locked the room, called me to him and tried to grab me. I managed to escape,” the student said, adding that he had been afraid to discuss this because the rabbi’s father was the admor.

He says he also did not entirely understand what had happened. “I was afraid, but I also didn’t get what it was. It didn’t occur to me what he wanted exactly.”

Later, when A. returned to studying with the rabbi, Alter was more successful with an attempt at sexual assault,  A. said.

“He locked the door and grabbed me ‘there.’ The key was in the lock,” A. said. “I opened it and ran away hysterical. He ran after me, but I got to one of the [disciplinary] supervisors and told him what had happened. He tried to calm me down and give me encouragement.”

A. says the supervisor contacted him the following day and told him that he had consulted with a leading figure in the Hasidic community, Avraham Yosef Ihrenstein, who was responsible for matters involving modesty. A. says the verdict was that the incident could not be talked about.

“Ihrenstein told the supervisor to order me to cut off contact with Alter and not tell a soul about it,” A. said. “I understood from talking to him that I was endangering myself if I talked about it, that the admor’s son was holy. I felt threatened.”

He said he interpreted the threat as spiritual as well – he would also suffer harm in the afterlife. “I kept quiet and didn’t tell my parents, friends or anyone at the yeshiva. It bothered me terribly,” A. said. Even after A. got married he told no one. He says the incident affected his relationship with his wife; he wasn’t able to have a sexual relationship with her.

A. has since stayed away from the younger Rabbi Alter, while S. says he has never spoken to Alter about his suffering.

“He can pass by me and me by him and it’s as if we were invisible. There’s no contact between us. As a young person, this lie pained me,” S. said.

“How is it that the world holds him in esteem and honors him? On the inside, he’s a person like that who’s capable of doing such things, and on the outside he’s the son of the admor who we’ve been taught is the holiest thing. It’s not rational.”

Discipline and modesty

The Ger Hasidic movement was founded in Poland 160 years ago. It is the wealthiest Hasidic sect in the world and is considered the most extreme when it comes to discipline, modesty and sexual relations. The admor’s influence in Israel extends beyond the Hasidic community, especially on issues involving religion and state.

The Ger movement is represented in the Knesset by Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman of United Torah Judaism’s Agudat Yisrael faction. Litzman has been a close associate of the admor for many years and is thought to take direction from him.

Following the establishment of Israel in 1948, Rabbi Yisrael Alter, the current admor’s uncle, set strict rules on marital issues. The printed code is sold in the Ger community under the title “Yiddishkeit” – a term for a Jewish way of life. The rules include a ban on a husband and wife walking on the street together or calling each other by their names. There is also a demand that their sexual relations be kept to a minimum.

In Poland before World War II, and before Yisrael Alter became admor, he delved into the subject. He surrounded himself with counselors dubbed “commandants” or “speakers” and put them in charge of teaching the strict rules to yeshiva students, including older married students.

When he was appointed admor in Israel following the death of his father, and after Hasidism was rebuilt after losing so many adherents in the Holocaust, he applied the strict rules on the community.

The hierarchical system that Rabbi Yisrael Alter, who was also known as the Beit Yisrael, imposed meant assigning a monitor to every married yeshiva student from his wedding day. The monitor accompanies him through the early years of married life, teaching and counseling him. Most importantly, he also tracks and supervises him.

But the teaching of “Yiddishkeit” begins well before that. In the past, every bar mitzvah boy was received by the Beit Yisrael for an initial conversation. Now the teaching begins when the boy is 7. And every Hasidic school has someone responsible for the teaching of marital relations. Following the initial conversation and until the student marries, the subject is refreshed at a meeting every six months.

“They explain to the children that the site of the [sexual] union cannot be touched or looked at,” said one source in the Hasidic community. “They make clear to the children how holy and important it is. There is no need to talk about interaction with girls at all. It’s instilled from birth. The children see at home that there is no actual connection between the parents. When the father addresses the mother, he signals to her with a ‘psst.’”

Another source in the community says that discussing sexual relations is also taboo among Ger yeshiva students. “Anyone who would raise such a subject would be permanently kicked out of the yeshiva,” he said. “They don’t talk about it under any circumstances. You would never consider doing that.”

The warnings are of a religious nature, he says. “They tell the children, ‘If you do something on this subject, the Almighty will hate you and you won’t be worth anything.’ From the Ger standpoint, that’s Judaism. It’s more serious than violating the Sabbath. If you’re tainted by it, it’s the end of the world. It’s the most serious transgression.”

A tale of extortion

Ihrenstein heads the system of commandants, and was appointed when Ger Hasidism was headed by Rabbi Yisrael Alter. He coordinates the activities of dozens of marriage monitors, who receive preferred treatment from the admor. 

Ihrenstein denies that he told the complainants to remain silent and rejects the allegations that the current admor’s son committed sexual assault. The younger Alter remained at the yeshiva all those years.

“They’re total nonsense. It never happened at all,” Ihrenstein said. “He didn’t do anything with any male student, didn’t harm anyone. It’s a total lie. He’s a righteous Jew. No male student will say that he touched him, and anyone who says that is lying.”

About a decade ago, an investigation by the Hasidic community into similar allegations found that Avraham Mordechai Alter only “came close” to the students but did not touch them in inappropriate places, Ihrenstein said.

“There are people here who are looking [to hurt] Ger Hasidism,” he said, referring to the split in the Hasidic community in recent months. He also warned that a newspaper article about  allegations would harm the person Ihrenstein called “the apple of the admor’s eye,” presumably his son.

But a source in the Hasidic community who requested anonymity says that when the admor learned of the allegations against his son, he sent a close associate to look into the matter, an effort that included the complainants themselves. He says that the harm the complainants speak of was not recognized and they did not receive treatment or support from the community.

The source adds that the admor was angry at Ihrenstein for not briefing him about the complaints, even though he believed them to be false; the admor then shunned Ihrenstein for weeks, though the two are currently on good terms.

The allegations are believed to have reached the admor about a decade ago. One associate privy to the information threatened to disclose it following a dispute between the two. “The admor was under crazy pressure,” the source said.

“A man came to him who presented himself as an intermediary and said that a major report was about to be published on the case. He explained that the story could be quashed for a payment of 300,000 shekels [$86,000] to the reporter.”

The sum was sent to the intermediary, without contacting the reporter, the source said, adding that the admor approved the payment. Sources with knowledge of the case differ on whether the article really existed and whether an intermediary could have fabricated the claim about the report and pocketed the money.

After the investigation requested by the admor was concluded, the admor transferred his son from the Ner Yisrael yeshiva in Jerusalem to a Hasidic institution on Ralbach Street in the city. He also ordered that the matter remain among the small group of his associates who had knowledge of it. Months later, in 2010, Ner Yisrael was closed down on the admor’s orders.

A former student at the yeshiva who suffered no harm says the allegations about Avraham Mordechai Alter were known to the supervisors at the yeshiva, who did not warn the students.

“One day, I brought lunch into his room and on leaving, a supervisor spotted me and yelled, ‘Why are you going in there?’” said a student who asked not to be named. “I didn’t understand what he wanted from me. I had thought it was a privilege. They didn’t tell us we couldn’t enter.”

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