Where are they now? / A former slave reclaims her life

A survivor of the Goel Ratzon cult gets used to freedom after 12 years spent serving the self-styled guru and polygamist, now on trial

Haaretz, Israel/May 20, 2013

There is nothing about Yaffa to indicate that this confident, charismatic woman with flowing, honey-colored hair spent most of her adult life in captivity.

Almost nothing.

Under her sleeve, etched deeply into her skin, is the name and image of the man whose every command she obeyed for 12 years: Goel Ratzon.

"I felt he had the power to save or destroy me – I didn't even dare think thoughts that could challenge him," says Yaffa, one of 21 women and their 49 children who lived with Ratzon in his south Tel Aviv compound. (Yaffa is not her real name – there is a court ban on publication of the names of all the women and children involved in the case.) Ratzon, a 62-year-old self-styled guru and polygamist arrested in 2010, is still on trial for multiple charges including rape, sodomy and enslavement

The women who served the white-bearded man they called their "Goel" ("savior") have spent the last three years trying to rebuild lost lives.

Yaffa is one of the luckier ones. "I had a place to go back to," says the youthful-looking woman in her thirties.

After spending over a month in a shelter for abused women, Yaffa returned to live in her childhood home.

Hers is a life interrupted – she left home as a teenager to be with Ratzon and returned there 12 years later, a mother of several children.

"They look just like him," she admits but says that does not bother her. "They're my children."

The youngest ones have no memory of life in the four-story building in Tel Aviv's rundown Hatikva neighborhood where Ratzon housed his entourage. "But my oldest one sometimes draws pictures of him and writes: ‘Goel, the Evil One. I miss, you Dad.'"

Yaffa moved in with Ratzon right after she finished high school and, in order to please him, got herself dismissed from the army by taking an overdose of pills. Only then did her parents discover that she was no longer a soldier.

"He made us choose between our families and him, so I cut off ties with my parents," recalls Yaffa, who attributes her attraction to Ratzon to a combination of factors: a difficult home situation, loneliness, a deep spiritual hunger and Ratzon's magnetic pull and manipulative techniques. She heard about him through a high school classmate whose mother was involved with him.

"There were stories about his spirituality and how he had cured women of cancer. Later, we also learned to fear his power – we believed he could cause us or our children to die," she recounts.

Like the other women, Yaffa worked 12 hours a day cleaning neighborhood houses, eventually handing over the money she earned to Ratzon. She abdicated all control over her life. "We had to text-message Goel to ask permission to go anywhere – even to the supermarket or pharmacy.

"The ultimate crime was to look at or talk to another man," says Yaffa, who like the other women wore only long, loose clothing, including turtlenecks, to completely cover her body.

One of the lesser known sides of Ratzon – a Yemenite Jew who grew up in the Hativkva neighborhood – was his ambivalent feelings towards his people, says Yaffa.

"He used to say that the Nazis were better than the Jews because the Nazis at least knew how to take care of their own people. He regarded the Jewish state as racist, and claimed that as Yemenites he and his family had undergone the equivalent of a Shoah in Israel and that the maabarot (immigrant camps) were ghettoes."

"He used to say that his offspring were a pure race."

Ratzon insisted that all his children be given names that were variations of his own, Goel.

Yaffa's parents attempted to rescue her from the compound. Once, her family hired a private detective. Another time, her father showed up with a crowbar and tried to force open the door of her apartment. Ratzon convinced her to file a complaint against her father with the police. "Those efforts only backfired," she sighs.

It took a complex, highly-coordinated operation of police, social workers and cult experts to bust the compound on January 12, 2010.

"I don't care what happens to him now," says Yaffa, one of the many women who testified against him. She has since renamed all her children, dropping their Goel-derived first names.

With time, she hopes to totally erase the last mark of her captivity, the faded tattoo on her arm that bears his image.

In her new life she worked with children at a day care center and now volunteers at the Israeli Center for Cult Victims. She also acts as a consultant to a number of authorities that deal with at-risk youth and abused women, and sometimes lectures on her ordeal.

Most of all, Yaffa says, she is learning to be free. "Just to sit in a cafe whenever I want with whomever I want is such a liberating experience. This Passover I said that only someone who has lived in captivity – in my case, emotional slavery – can fully appreciate what it means to be free."

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