“When you come to this kind of town and see that there is no law and you can do whatever you want, he started molesting kids here again because it was easy for him.
“It’s easy to do such things in Emmanuel.”
The wild, wild West Bank
This strictly religious, poverty-stricken settlement is one of eight ultra-Orthodox settlements that lie outside the “Green Line” – Israel’s pre-1967 border with the Palestinian territories.
These settlements are turning the perception of radical Zionist settlers on its head. Most residents are anti-establishment and anti-Zionist, believing only in the authority of the Rabbinate and rejecting the institutions of the state.
“It’s the combination of being in a settlement and being religious. It’s the wild wild West Bank, where law is a recommendation,” says Oze Rozenberg, an investigative journalist familiar with the town since its inception in the 1980’s.
“Everything we think we know – it’s barely scratching the surface.”
The gated town was founded with the dream of becoming a flourishing settlement for ultra-religious Jews. But then, according to Rozenberg, the town “fell into the wrong hands” and religious leaders stopped the push to move its more affluent members there.
“It became mafia-like, a ‘take-care-of-me-and-I’ll-take-care-of-you type situation’.”
One victim of child sexual abuse, who spoke to the Israeli media after 20 years of silence, said that, in Emmanuel, secrecy is maintained for the sake of the community, so as not to blacken the image of Orthodoxy.
“They prefer to save the community as a whole, and not deal with the individual,” said Yaakov Sela, who reported the Rabbi who molested him to the police. Yaakov had recordings of conversations with the Rabbi in which he admitted his guilt for crimes not only against him but against other, far more recent victims.
The accused escaped to London days after the press published the story. In the end, it was Sela who was punished.
“If someone speaks up, he brings the whole community down with him instead of just himself,” Sela says.
“In their opinion, speaking up, it’s the victim that threatens the community, and therefore the abuser must be protected.”
Blowing the whistle on Malka Leifer
One Emmanuel resident, who only wants to be known as Daniel, is an eccentric character. An economist and philanthropist, he lives in two converted Auschwitz railway-carts he smuggled into Israel from Germany.
But like the alleged victims of Malka Leifer in Australia, he is furious at the former Adass school principal: “It’s insane that she’s still not been charged,” Daniel says angrily.
“She carried on molesting children here after she was freed! They let her return here, to my home. To my town!”
In 2016, Leifer was on the run from Australia after allegedly sexually abusing her students during her time as principal of the Adass Israel Girls’ School. Successfully arguing she was too mentally ill to face trial, she was released from house detention in another ultra-Orthodox city.
She came with her husband and 10 children to the settlement perched on the stony hills of the northern West Bank, a place one resident told Fairfax Media was “the last stop” on the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) map.
Soon after, Daniel says Leifer, who did not disclose her past, offered to privately tutor his daughter, Sarah, in religious studies. Daniel agreed. During their lessons, Sarah says, Leifer “pulled on [my] clothes, pulled down [my] skirt… started to touch [me]”.
Incensed, Daniel hired a private investigator to capture the former principal entering children’s homes and hosting children at hers. He also recorded Leifer screaming at the neighbours for barbecuing ahead of the Sabbath.
Daniel says he saw her “grab this young-looking blonde girl, pushing her, grabbing her boobs and arse. She was all over her, crazy-like.”
Leifer, he says, would lure children into her apartment by offering them food; “troubled, disadvantaged kids” who she would offer to tutor for free, and alone.
Leifer’s lead defence lawyer, Yehuda Fried, refused to comment on the new allegations outside court during one of Leifer’s bail hearings recently, saying that he knows nothing of the sort of such “irrelevant” accusations. Until police file fresh charges, he has nothing to say.
“Everybody is busy with their own problems [in Emmanuel], but when it became Daniel’s problem, he wasn’t going to let it go,” one resident told Fairfax Media.
Daniel confronted Leifer and her husband, Yaakov, who is also a Rabbi.
“I asked him about his ‘handsy’ wife. He said: ‘She likes to touch but that’s all she does, because she’s a loving person … but we did try not to leave her alone with kids’.”
Even after the confrontation, though, Daniel says Leifer continued to contact his daughter, sending her sons to knock on their doors to fetch her. It led him to dig further into her past.
He found out what had allegedly happened to Leifer’s students at the Adass Israel school in Melbourne’s Elsternwick. Daniel passed on the recordings he had made of Leifer’s husband, who confessed on tape that he, Leifer and their 10 children were paid to leave Australia just hours after the accusations first arose. In the Australian courts, the recordings helped secure an unprecedented $1.2 million payout to one of the alleged victims.
“The issue became well known here in Emmanuel,” said one resident, “but it was comfortable for [Leifer] to manage her life here because it’s a small town where nobody looks for trouble.”
In Emmanuel, the Rabbis guard the secrets of the town. Leifer’s history was one of them.
She was told she was not allowed to teach girls, and that she would be supervised at all times by the Rabbinical committee.
“They definitely knew she did what she’s been accused of, that’s why they told her not to teach young girls, and at the beginning, she obeyed those demands,” said one source, but “things started to blow up after she volunteered to teach [Daniel’s daughter].”
The convicted sex offender who lived there is now back in jail again, accused of assault on a 12-year-old boy. It’s likely, according to one resident, that he’ll return to the hillside town once released and “nobody is going to say anything”.
According to the police’s latest crime statistics, sexual abuse is down 50 per cent in Emmanuel. “But the numbers are just cosmetic,” explained a representative from DinVeHeshbon, an organisation focusing on civil action to expose child sexual abuse in Israel.
“They don’t indicate the real magnitude of the problem. The truth is that abuse in the Haredi community is rampant … mostly because of the silence surrounding the issue. Silence enables the predators to abuse so many people over such a long period of time.”
The ultra-Orthodox Jews, known as Haredim, or, “those who tremble in fear of God,” guard their secrets closely.
There are many religious arguments used against victims to stop them going to authorities, but two of the more powerful are the accusations of speaking lashon hara (gossip) and creating a hillul Hashem, or offence to God.
“It’s the rules. Say nothing bad about a fellow observant Jew; don’t go to the police, and many Rabbis will say publicly, without any shame: ‘Don’t tell’,” Sela explains.
In the case of Leifer, another religious argument stood in the way of people reporting her: the prohibition of mesira; the taboo of reporting the conduct of another Jew to a non-Jewish, or even non-Rabbinic authority.
“The Rabbi is the only authority that they know,” said one source, adding that “in all these closed communities, it’s built into their behaviour not to report crimes to the police. The police are hopeless in this situation.”
“Add a rigid, hierarchical power structure to an insular, private community, and it equals enabling silence. It’s the perfect formula for predators,” says NGO DinVeHeshbon. “Unfortunately, Israel is extremely behind the curve when it comes to sex offender laws. We have looked into making a sex register here, but it hasn’t happened.”
“It’s still a deep dark secret among religious communities; they don’t believe a child can be raped,” says Daniel.
“But it’s happening, without a doubt – and far more than we know. Mostly fathers assaulting their daughters, but also the horrors of forced marriages, rapes. Females can’t drive. If they’re caught talking to a man, they’ll be beaten.”
‘Modesty is Beauty’
The segregation in Emmanuel between men and women is unabashed. Men and women shop at the grocery store on different days, girls and boys have separate times to play in the playground, and outside the sole restaurant in town there is not a single chair – a mechanism to prevent mixing between genders.
Emmanuel became infamous in Israel in 2010 after the High Court of Justice ruled that the strictly Hassidic Beit Yaakov girls’ school was favouring Ashkenazi (European) students and discriminating against Sephardic (Eastern) girls. The school even raised a barrier to separate them. One member of
parliament called the town’s leaders a “gang of racists”, and only under threat of a loss of government funding were the sections of the school reunited.
Posters and graffiti dot the town with the words “Modesty is Beauty”. One reads, “Dear Parents. Strengthen your daughters. In Emmanuel … do not allow your daughters to disrespect themselves and disrespect the public by riding on bicycles … The Daughters of Israel will be Modest. Dear Teenage Girls — Take upon yourself to safeguard your modesty and your honour and do not ride on bicycles. And for sure, you will be part of the coming of the Redemption!”
Daniel’s daughter Sarah stopped riding her horse and bicycle around the town the notices began to appear. And after her encounters with Leifer, Sarah left her father’s home in the town and went to boarding school in Petah Tikva, across the Green Line.
Haredi families in Israel have a per capita income 47 per cent lower than that of the general public. The Central Bureau of Statistics ranks Emmanuel in the bottom 10 in the socio-economic ranking of Israel – it’s 244th out of 255 local authorities.
Daniel says the women carry most of the burden. “They get the welfare money, for having around 10 children, and they sometimes work hard jobs simultaneously. The men do nothing, just pretend to study the Bible.”
One source from the municipality explained the ugly scene every Thursday, when “hundreds of people stand in a line trying to get free food.”
The offer of food, says Daniel, was one of the ways Leifer used to lure children into her apartment.
“It’s a forgotten place, off the radar, completely out of sight in the Israeli consciousness,” journalist Rozenberg says.
It’s also allegedly corrupt. Rozenberg has exposed illegal construction and the expropriation of a new sports hall by the Chabad-Lubavitch Hassidic movement. Emmanuel Mayor, Ezra Gershi is under investigation for electoral bribery, and in business agreements agreed to litigate in the rabbinical courts, not the civil courts which are described in documents as being “ruled by infidels”. Israel’s state prosecutor is deciding whether to indict him over the coming weeks ahead of a new round of municipal elections in October.
Gershi refused comment.
One municipal official told Fairfax Media it was similar to the Gaza Strip: “You’re raising a generation with no hope, no exit out of this way of life. I’m deeply saddened for the people in Gaza, but what about our Gaza right here?”
‘Sodom and Gomorrah’
Poverty goes come way to explaining the silence of residents when it comes to confronting wrongdoing, the official said, on condition of anonymity.
“People are so weak, they don’t have the spirit to fight. There’s a denial … it’s not Jerusalem here. That’s why Leifer came here, to avoid scrutiny, a small town where you can hide as though it’s a big city.”
Still, Daniel is determined to fight for the safety of the children of his town, where he plans to spend the rest of his days in his trailer-train.
“The Catholics went through the expose of such crimes. Now it’s our turn to address the big problem.”
Daniel says his daughter’s encounters with Leifer have changed her irrevocably. “Her childhood was over from that moment,” he said.
Leifer is currently behind bars awaiting the outcome of her extradition trial. Her lawyer is arguing – as Leifer has argued for years – that she is mentally unfit to face trial, or to be returned to Australia. That case is bogged down in the Israeli courts.
Defence lawyer, Yehuda Fried said he believed Leifer would be released at her next bail hearing on Sunday, which she has been ordered to attend despite pleading psychosis.
Daniel has no doubt that, if she is freed, Leifer will be back in Emmanuel.
“It’s Sodom and Gomorrah in Emmanuel,” he says.
“Child abuse, paedophilia… it’s rampant.”
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