Having survived his father's Haredi cult, Aviad Ambash looks to the future

He grew up in a sadistic cult and was subjected to abuse together with his mother and siblings daily. He moved from shelter to shelter for years after his father, a convicted sexual abuser and polygamist, was arrested in 2011. But against all odds, Aviad obtained his high school diploma, completed his military service, and is looking forward to studying economics, and one day, building a family.

Israel Hyom/September 13, 2022

By  Michal Yaakov Yitzhaki 

"For the first time in my life, I am all on my own. No framework, no one telling me what to do. The brain almost has a chance to relax and then – boom. Everything I've been through in life starts to come up, and I understand that my real struggle is only beginning now."

These are the words of 22-year-old Aviad Bartov Ambash, one of the 18 children of Jerusalem cult leader, convicted sexual abuser and polygamist Daniel Ambash, whose life, in a way, has just begun.

At the beginning of August, Aviad finished his military service. As is customary among discharged soldiers, he should be planning his trip abroad, but instead, precisely now, after surviving 11 years in the sadistic cult where he was subjected to physical and mental abuse daily, the trauma has begun surfacing, and he knows he's got a long way to go to heal but is more determined than ever.

"If in the past I lived to survive, today I understand that I work to live. This is what keeps me going. This is my personal victory, and no one can take that away from me."

Aviad and I meet at a private villa used as a lone soldiers' home in Herzliya, where he's lived for the past three years while serving in the IDF. "Now that I'm no longer a lone soldier, I have to find another place to stay," he says, visibly nervous.

It was not easy to gain Aviad's trust and persuade him to an interview. After everything he's been through, he is cautious and vigilant. He only agreed to be interviewed in a place and at a time that suited him, without compromise.

The home is shared by 18 soldiers, all of whom have complex life stories, although all agree that Aviad's is the most unthinkable of all.

When he opens the entrance gate, I meet a smiling blonde, blue-eyed young man, with a physique befitting of a fighter, and nothing in his appearance would ever give away what he's been through in life.

We sit down and Aviad begins to share his life story, and the mind boggles at the horrors but marvels at the perseverance and victory that manifested at the funeral of his father, who served nine out of his 26-year prison sentence, before dying in June of an apparent heart attack.

"I remember I heard about his death on social media. I came across a post about it and for a moment I was shocked. I didn't know how to react. At first, I didn't think of going to the funeral, but someone, who I turn to for advice occasionally, told me to go see him get buried. She said I should get closure. Although, I did not agree to say Kaddish [mourner's prayer] over him, nor to tear the shirt as a sign of mourning.

"For me, I proved my victory over him when I stood over his grave with my arms folded and my head held high. That's when I felt the victory. He couldn't break me or subdue me. I think I even had a smile on my face when I saw his wives, who in my opinion are still his captives, crying."

Aviad was born in 2000 right into the Ambash sect's horrors. His mother, Esther, came to Israel from the US at the age of 19, and was in a particularly vulnerable state. She joined the sect after several divorces, with four children, three of them from different fathers, and had cancer.

Daniel Ambash came from a secular family. He was born in France as Daniel Mamboush and was a ballet dancer. He married, became a father, and divorced, which is when he changed his last name to Ambash, which in Hebrew is an acronym for "I believe in complete faith." After meeting his second wife, the family immigrated to Israel, and Ambash began to study the teachings of Rabbi Nachman of Breslav. When Esther, Aviad's mother, joined, Ambash and his second wife already had 10 children.

"Of course, I don't remember my first years in the sect, but my brothers tell me that a few months before I was born, my mother was moved to another place so that they wouldn't know that she was pregnant with his child. One day she came back with a bag in her hand, and I was in it. Every time I cried, they told my brothers I was a cat. So that they wouldn't associate Ambash with me, they listed me on the birth certificate as Aviad Bartov, which is my brother's last name, who was born before my mother joined the cult."

Aviad's brothers remember the time he was born as one of the worst periods. They kept moving from accommodation to accommodation, having first lived in Romema, Jerusalem, then the Givat Shaul neighborhood, and later Lifta and Tiberias. Soon, Ambash married four more women, all of whom obeyed him completely. On several occasions, he punished those with impure thoughts – of which he was the judge – with whipping.

Electrocuting private parts as well as hands and feet was a regular practice, as well as punishment by starvation, confinement while naked, indecent acts, dunking in the toilet or Ambash's private jacuzzi, as well as severe beatings.

The first time Aviad was starved he was not even two years old. His sister recalled that one day, Ambash asked him to kiss a note with Rabbi Nachman's words on it, and when Aviad didn't, he removed his bed from the room, locked him in, and forbade anyone from entering to feed him.

"Based on what they told me, I didn't even understand what giving a kiss meant, and I didn't understand what he was asking from me. He tried to kill me and starve me to death already then. After a few days during which I cried non-stop, so I was told, my sister took the opportunity when he left the house for a moment to sneak in a bottle of milk for me. Because of the pressure, she forgot the bottle next to me. When he came back and found the bottle, he beat my mother and my sister. I do not doubt that if it wasn't for my sister, I wouldn't be alive today."

The older Aviad got, the more severe the punishments became, and no one in the family was immune to the abuse.

"As long as father was calm, everything was fine. Father would play his instrument, and we would dance next to him, but every day or two or so he would get angry."

Q: What made him angry?

"Almost anything. We were punished daily, so much that half of the instances I don't even remember anymore. Only now, years later, some of them are starting to resurface in my dreams. If we laid on our stomachs, we would be punished to eat bread and water until further notice. He claimed that lying on the stomach was causing sperm emission. Once, when I was six years old, while we were praying, he slapped me on the face so hard that I flew backward. He claimed I wasn't really reading, only turning the pages. Who can even read at the age of six? Sometimes he ordered me to massage his legs and back all night. Sometimes I would fall asleep in the process, and he would wake me up with a slap. My brother told me not long ago that Ambash would order me to put my hands out and would tase me.

"Now that I think about it, I've just remembered that he would force me to stand with my arms up and standing on one leg for hours, or an entire day or do push-ups. Can you imagine a seven-year-old doing push-ups for hours on end? I once lit a match and the bench we were sitting on caught fire. He dragged me to the bathroom and waterboarded me. I felt like I was suffocating and drowning. I have no idea how I survived.

"And you know what he enjoyed the most? Because the last name on my birth certificate was Bartov, he would always ask me defiantly, 'So are you Bartov or Ambash?' And like a stupid kid, time and again I would say 'Bartov,' because that's what I knew I was, and I knew I wasn't supposed to lie.
"That would always lead to murderous beatings and whippings. More often than not, if someone 'misbehaved,' he or she would be laid down naked on the ground, and the mothers and siblings would hold the legs and the arms, and the rest would strike. And when one of my siblings 'misbehaved,' we would do the same to him. It was a terrible feeling. We didn't want to do this, but had no choice."

Q: Did you try to run away?

"Daniel had control over us psychologically through fear. The gate of the house was never locked, and in fact, at any given moment we could have left, but dared not. The fear was paralyzing. He would manipulate us with threats about the World to Come [in Hebrew, Olam Haba]. And psychological punishment was more frightening than being whipped. He would come to me while holding a Torah scroll and say, 'Swear to God that you love me,' and I would swear."

Q: Were you never exposed to the outside world?

"Sometimes father would send us to collect donations, and he would always tell us that all people live a lie, and only we live the truth. We believed him, we didn't know any other way."

Q: And were there any moments of happiness in this hell?

"I remember two instances. Once, when I was seven, I climbed a tree, fell, and broke my arm. I knew that father really didn't like us going to state institutions lest they start asking questions. Fearing his reaction, I kept my fall a secret. Just imagine, I chose the pain over a broken arm rather than face my father's reaction.

"When my mother found out, she secretly took me to the hospital and got me some sweets. That is the sweetest memory I have from that day. It was fun... until we went home. The second we walked in, my mom was dragged by the hair into the bathroom and beaten, and so was I.

"Another time, my sister and I were both punished and spent time together in a warehouse outside. I remember we played together, but when one of our mothers came in, she was very frightened. These are the two most pleasant memories from my childhood."

Ambash's sect kept operating undisturbed for 15 years. However, in 2011, the police started to surveil him after a woman whom he recruited to the cult managed to escape.

On July 4th that year, Ambash was arrested, as were six of his wives and grown children. His underage children, including Aviad, who was not even 11 at the time, were scattered across shelters throughout the country.

"My father loved to document everything. Every punishment, every ceremony and every abuse was filmed and kept on tapes in a black suitcase, which he would carry everywhere. On that day, he felt that the police were closing in on him. We were then in the north, he took the boys to pray at the graves of the righteous, and he told the women to make a bonfire and burn all the recordings. I remember it was already dark outside, and all of a sudden we were surrounded by police cars. I was blinded by the lights and didn't understand what was going on."

Q: Did you understand at the time that that would be your way out?

"Not really. I fought the police and just wanted them to leave me. Don't forget that I thought the life we lived was a life of truth and that everyone else lived a lie. I didn't know any better. I didn't understand yet that we were living a lie.

"They took us to Jerusalem. All the brothers were dispersed to shelters across the country. I was sent with my older brother to an ultra-Orthodox one. In the first few hours, I still thought we would become a family again. I didn't understand what I was going for."

Q: How was the first night outside the sect?

"Shocking, because I didn't understand what was going on. Nobody explained to me that everything I'd known in my life was not normal. Every night I would wet the bed. I remember that the first thing that amazed me was that I didn't get beaten and that I had my own bed, which was only mine.
"For the first time in my life, I studied in a classroom. My knowledge of reading and writing was extremely basic, and I was unable to break free from the routine of life that I was used to in the cult. The fear of Ambash's punishments was so ingrained in us, that every time I raised my voice a little, I would immediately put my hands on my head and say: 'Sorry, sorry, I will repent.'"

Aviad struggled at the shelter, being alone for the first time in his life and surrounded by other children. When he was interrogated by the police, he did not cooperate and continued to claim that his father was righteous. When his brother Elisha, a year younger than him, arrived at the same shelter and began to be bullied, Aviad came to his aid and got into trouble because of it.

"Elisha was born with one hand shorter than the other, and the kids would make fun of him. I couldn't stand by. As a punishment, they would put me in a break room. After years of being punished in a warehouse or the attic, the break room did not bother me at all."

A year later, Aviad still couldn't acclimatize and was sent to a shelter in Bnei Brak, which did not go well either.

"At that time, I was angry at the whole world. In fact, it was only there, around the age of 12, that I realized for the first time that I had been living a lie. This realization shook me, and I didn't know how to deal with it. I felt that I had a beast inside that wanted to unleash rage on everyone, but also inside me was the real Aviad, who just wants peace, quiet and calm.

"I remember going up to a high floor and wanting to kill myself. One of the guides talked to me and managed to calm me down. Following the suicide attempt, I was sent to a psychiatric hospital for three weeks. And even there, instead of understanding what I was going through, they would constantly send me to a break room. As if everything I've been through in life wasn't enough."

When Aviad was released from the hospital, he was transferred to a shelter in Jerusalem for four months.

"That place was for youngsters who had nowhere to be, a kind of transitional place until they found a permanent place. There I got involved with the wrong kids, I started drinking alcohol and smoking hashish. Try to imagine a child, who has not yet turned 13, doing bongs all day long."

Q: Where were your siblings and mom at the time?

"For five years I didn't see my brothers on a regular basis. We were separated, and every time I would escape from one of the facilities I would manage to locate some of them and meet with them. I have no idea how I knew where they were. I prefer not to talk about my mother, but there was a time she visited me."

Until the age of 14, Aviad stayed in Jerusalem, feeling lost and never seeing his family. He was later sent to a shelter in Haifa, and from there to Tel Aviv and later Beersheba. He was rejected from all these places.

"These two and a half years, I wandered from place to place. I learned to get by everywhere. I had a backpack with a pair of socks, a shirt, pants, and a toothbrush. That was all I had in life. When I wanted to get away from the shelters, I would sleep on benches in public gardens or in abandoned buildings. I would steal food to eat because I had no choice. I had to survive."

In 2014, Aviad arrived at Shanti House, an Israeli NGO working with at-risk youth with branches across the country. His time at the organization was not easy either, for although it is said to have helped thousands of youngsters, an investigation in 2022 revealed its educators used unacceptable methods as well as punishments that include isolation, bullying and even covering up a sex scandal.

But for Aviad, Shanti House became a home, and those living there and founder Marioma Klein became family.

"The first time I approached Marioma and asked to be accepted into Shani House, she turned me down. She probably thought that my life story was too difficult and that maybe it would be better for me to be in a foster family, but I persisted.

"After two weeks I asked again, and she agreed on the condition that I speak to her every week and she would decide whether I could continue to stay or not. Another condition she had was that for my first seven months in the house I would not leave it at all. At first, it didn't bother me, because I had nowhere to go anyway, but later it did because it's not like I was on house arrest."

Aviad joined a Shanti House in southern Israel and shared a room with five other youngsters. He had his own bed again and a closet, and took up his studies.

"I studied one day a week, and the rest I worked odd jobs: at a supermarket, at a convenience store, and even at a burekas stand. Suddenly I had money. I bought a cellphone for the first time in my life, and I finally felt that I had a family and that I was loved. Marioma was like a mother to me. She made me feel like I was her favorite. She even wanted to fly me to the US for a fundraising trip for Shanti House. The counselor was like a father to me and the instructors were like my big brothers."

Unfortunately, Aviad's idyll did not last long. He soon discovered that Shanti House was a great place until something did not sit well with Marioma. The disturbing events described by the teenagers in the investigation are also what Aviad experienced firsthand.

"Shanti House is great until the punishments come. These are excessive punishments, which I don't think are part of a normative education system."

Q: For instance?

"If we didn't do the dishes, they would take them away. I remember times when we would wash the plastic milk bottles and drink from them. Once Marioma told me to share my life story in front of everyone or I would be expelled, and in the end, I did. And it didn't end there. If, for example, I made a noise in the room, they would take my mattress outside and tell me that that day I had to sleep outside. If I fought with one of the guys, I was forbidden to talk to the other residents, and they were forbidden to talk to me. There was no predetermined time limit, it was up to Marioma to decide. Sometimes it lasted days, and sometimes even a month.

"Once I fought with a friend and Marioma ordered for us to be handcuffed to each other for a few days. Does that sound like an acceptable education method to you, handcuffing two people to each other for a few days?"

Q: And what happened if someone didn't listen?

"Marioma would expel them. Sometimes even in the middle of the night, when she knew they had nowhere to go. She threw me out many times. But one time I couldn't take it anymore and ran away.

"One of her favorite punishments was banishing students to the outside studio, where no one was allowed to talk to anyone. After three days like that, I ran away. For two months I lived on the street until I finally returned."

Q: During this time, did you ever see a professional?

"There was someone I occasionally spoke to, but it wasn't really confidential. He would always tell me that I could tell him everything because the meeting was confidential, but in practice, he would tell Marioma everything. For example, one of the rules was that sexual relations between students were forbidden. Once I told the therapist that I was having a relationship with one of the girls, and this information automatically reached Marioma.

"She got so angry as if we were talking about incest. One day Marioma told one of the girls that she was acting like a slut, and that when she grew up she would become a whore. One of the boys, who was friends with that girl, complained to the instructor. The instructor – of course – told Marioma, and suddenly in the middle of the night we were all woken up, and she called all the instructors to reprimand the guy who dared to speak against her. The next day they kicked him and the girl out."

Q: It's reminiscent of how your father acted, don't you think?

"I try not to define, but Marioma had control over everyone, and everyone did what she wanted. The feeling is that they want you to always be loyal to Shanti House. If they think that you won't stick with them through fire and ice, they will kick you out or bully you or order the rest of the students not to talk to you, even after you leave. They haven't been allowed to speak to me for three years now. After I turned 18, I began a relationship with one of the counselors, and Marioma kicked me out and told me never to speak to the guys. And that continues until today."

Q: Are you mad at her?

"There is some anger, but I can't forget all the good things she did for me. She showed me endless love, cared about me, and really wanted me to succeed, only her method was problematic. They say the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and that's how it is with Marioma. She gives love, but also causes so much pain that it's no longer worth it."

Aviad stayed at Shanti House for almost five years, three of them in the branch in the desert and close to two years in Tel Aviv. Despite what he went through there, it gave him the strength to tackle his next goal: to join the IDF.

"For me, joining the military was another step on the way to becoming a normal guy, and the army is part of the norm. It's something I've always wanted to do, and I knew I wasn't going to give up."

After countless committees, and conversations with mental health professionals and recruiters, Aviad was finally recruited.

After completing a seven-month preparatory course he enlisted in July 2019, making his way to combat service in the Golani Brigade's 13th battalion.

"When I was a child in a shelter, I heard about these elite units and since then have wanted to enlist, to join these units, and in the end, I succeeded. I can't describe to you the feeling of pride when I finally got the brown beret."

Q: How did you manage the military discipline?

"At training, everyone really helped me and accommodated me. Many of the soldiers who are there come with a difficult life stories, and the staff understood me. When I got to Golani, it was already more difficult. I couldn't always accept the fact that a young commander would come and shout at me, or tell me what to do, certainly not after everything I've been through in life."

Two months after enlisting, Aviad was kicked out of Shanti House and moved to Herzliya to the lone soldier's home. During his military service, he also completed his studies for a high school diploma.

"Just imagine, I had hardly ever studied a day in my life, and suddenly I had to sit down to study subjects such as mathematics, English, and literature. It was a very challenging time, but I was determined to succeed and got great grades."

Q: You did better than some students who study all 12 years in school.

"I just knew I had to catch up. I know there will always be gaps in terms of personal and cultural knowledge, but I don't let that stop me. In September, I will continue my studies at Levinsky College."

Q: What are your plans for the future?

"To tell my life story, which I have already begun doing. I want to be independent and maybe work in the financial field. But right now, my dream is to study for a bachelor's degree in business administration and economics."

Q: Are you in touch with your siblings?

"With most of them. Each one is trying to survive and is busy rebuilding his life. Just last week we went together to a music concert and sometimes we eat out together. With everything we've been through in life, I know they'll always be there for me."

Q: Do you see yourself getting married in the future and building a family?

"Absolutely. I am busting my ass off just so that I can buy an apartment. I want to have a wife, who would also be my friend, and four children so that I could give them everything that I was not."

Q: And what would you say to other children whose experience is similar to yours?

"First of all, to tell as many people as possible about their situation, and that life is stronger than anything else. A friend once told me that in order to make sense of things, they has to be mayhem first. I feel that I am slowly starting to make sense of my life. If after everything I've been through I can stay optimistic, anyone can. It might sound strange to people to be doing this on my own, without family or someone having my back, but if I can succeed, anyone can. I fight every day with a knife between my teeth, and I believe I will succeed."

Chairman and lawyer of Shanti House, former judge Alon Rom, said in a statement, "Aviad arrived at Shanti House in 2014 and stayed there until 2019 – five full years. Shanti House treated very successfully at-risk and youth who chose to receive help. The CEO of the association, Marioma Klein, who was awarded the Israel Prize, has chosen to respect Aviad's privacy and dignity and not to respond to the allegations. This is neither her way nor the way of Shanti House."

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