The testimony of a courageous young woman has brought an end to a bizarre cult in Jerusalem where women were routinely abused by their polygamist husband who punished them by shaving their heads, making them stand naked outside in subzero temperatures and beating them with rods.
Haaretz.com is reporting that the young woman first called the Israel Center for Cult Victims in mid-May of this year to say, “I live in a Jerusalem collective. I’m not certain, but I think it’s a cult.”
The woman, whose identity is not being released, told authorities she first came into contact with “D”, the 55 year-old polygamist who ran the cult, when she was 18 years-old. She encountered a group of D’s wives and children on the streets who were begging for alms and expounding on his teachings. They believed he was a kind of tzaddik (righteous man) and prophet. At the time, no one told her he was a polygamist who was married to seven women, but merely exposed her to his teachings.
Typical of most cults, she only knew a few of the women at first and was gradually introduced to the “family” with occasional trips to the house. As she began to fall more and more under D’s spell, other tactics were used to slowly cut her off from her job and family.
According to her lawyer, Ami Savir, once she was under D’s control, she underwent a “lengthy process of brainwashing and deification” by D and his wives, who portrayed him as the direct heir of Rabbi Nachman, the founder of Bratslav Hasidism. Soon she became like all the other women in the cult, controlled by their misguided faith in D who was able to control them by administer beatings, threats, humiliation, and rape,” Savir said.
By intimidating women with the idea that he was chosen as a great spiritual and religious leader with special supernatural and mystical healing powers, he would behave very gently at first toward newcomers to his bizarre family. He would make many demonstrations of his great powers and charisma until the woman came to accept him and his wives. But as soon as they agreed to move in and became part of his “family,” D would change completely. According to court records, he would often become violent and enraged, cursing the women and threatening them and their families with terrible tragedies.
It was not until the woman began to be the recipient of beatings and to witness acts of abuse and sexual licentiousness, that she began to plot her escape.
“One day, she was subjected to half an hour of [D.’s] blows,” Savir said. “She saw him whip one of the women with a rod, and also witnessed incidents like a woman who dared to nod off while he was speaking being put into an ice-cold shower and then sent outside to dry off in the freezing cold. For a lengthy period, one girl went around with a shaven head as a punishment and was permanently barred from participating in meals, because she was ostracized.”
The woman’s first few attempts to leave ended with her being convinced by the other women to return.
“The enticements were spiritual,” said Rachel Lichtenstein of the Israeli Center for Cult Victims. “He would tell her, ‘don’t forfeit your salvation. Salvation will be here any minute.’ That’s something that happens in all cults.”
The woman finally succeeded in leaving the cult about six months ago, and is currently in counseling. Her testimony led to a raid of the house by police with D and several other members of the “family” being indicted last week on a variety of serious charges.
It may seem as though only the vulnerable can fall into the grips of a cult, but that’s not true. In Wednesday’s blog I’ll detail the results of a “test” conducted by a former cult member who went out into the streets of Berkeley, California and was able to persuade many “normal” people with typical cult recruitment tactics.
Photo by Olivier Fitoussi is of “D” during his arraignment last week.