Shayli Tevel cries as she prays, crying out to God, “Father, I don’t have the energy to absorb all this anymore.” The former ultra-Orthodox Jew wears a white prayer shawl and tefillin, long leather straps with small boxes attached to them containing scrolls of Torah verses.
After a decade of silence, Shayli, now in his mid-thirties, recently broke strict religious conventions and spoke publicly about how he was manipulated and sexually abused between the ages of 12 and 19 by a prominent ultra-Orthodox (or haredi) figure.
The man Shayli accuses of abusing him is Yehuda Meshi Zahav, famous in Israel as a social activist and founder of an emergency rescue service. “Everyone respected him and I wanted to be around him,” says Shayli. One of 13 siblings, Shayli often craved attention and was flattered to be chosen by Meshi Zahav.
Then, one day, Meshi Zahav gave him a t-shirt. “When he put it on me, he put his hand down my pants.”
There is no sex education class in Jewish yeshiva (or yeshivot, plural) seminaries, and Shayli found it difficult to address abuse with others. He thought about hurting himself. “I didn’t want to live anymore,” he says.
Then in her early twenties, Shayli went to the police, but the first investigation into Meshi Zahav was quickly closed. “Whenever I mentioned his name, the door closed,” he says.
But that changed in 2021, shortly after it was announced that Zahav had won the prestigious Israel Prize, considered the country’s highest cultural honor.
A newspaper published accusations of how, since the 1980s, Zahav had been using his status and power to assault women and children. Meshi Zahav denied it and, after the police opened an investigation, he attempted suicide and ended up in a coma.
But the Meshi Zahav case wasn’t the only recent high-profile sexual abuse scandal to surface among ultra-Orthodox Jews, who make up about 12% of Israel’s population.
Romi Schwartz, now 40, was sexually abused as a child and raped years later by a children’s book author, therapist and media personality, Rabbi Chaim Walder, whom she turned to for help. “He was like a mentor, a guru. The baby whisperer,” says Romi of Walder. Her children’s books were in almost every ultra-Orthodox home.
After her family arranged her marriage, at age 17, Romi still suffered from panic attacks due to childhood trauma. Her husband tried to help her by scheduling therapy sessions with Walder. Romi says she felt calm at first. “He told me, ‘I’ll be there for you’.”
But after a year, he took advantage of her confidence and the fact that she led a reclusive life. He sexually assaulted her at his bookstore and then tricked her into taking her to a hotel, where he raped her.
Despite her ultra-Orthodox upbringing, Romi now considers herself a secular Jew. He says reporting such abuse to the police would be unthinkable for many in the haredi community. “You don’t go to the authorities of the secular world, it’s forbidden.”
It was only late last year, after another journalistic investigation, that a special rabbinical court acted against Walder. The religious court found him guilty of sexually assaulting or raping more than 20 women and girls over the decades. He claimed innocence, but when the police launched an investigation, he shot himself.
It was the defensive reaction of some famous Haredi Jews that provoked an angry reaction from others in the community. Some rabbis and religious bodies reacted with silence or even criticism of the victims.
They accused those who spoke out against Walder of slander, even murder. An abuse survivor committed suicide.
Religious activist Shoshana Keats Jaskoll says she and others could not believe that Walder was still being defended and that it was his victims who were being blamed.
He says his reaction caused an “outburst” of anger and “an absolute revolution in the haredi community”.
Avigayl Heilbronn, who describes herself as a modern haredi, is part of a growing number of women trying to raise awareness in a community that shuns the internet.
She and others are distributing leaflets in ultra-Orthodox homes in Israel: more than 1 million of them have been placed in mailboxes. “These are instructions for parents [sobre] like talking to your kids about sexual abuse,” says Avigayl. “We’re not just making noise.”
A new #MeToo?
Activists compare what is happening to the #MeToo movement (me too).
They say it had a similar ripple effect, “with adults and children talking about historical and recent abuse by powerful figures, men and women.”
However, questions remain about how effectively more conservative haredi authorities can act against sexual abusers. “There’s still a long way to go,” says Manny Waks, a former Haredi Jew and founder of Voicsa, an organization against child sexual abuse in Jewish communities around the world.
“Because the culture of how the haredi community thinks is very important, and no matter what you say or do, the rabbi is everything.”
He speaks from experience. Manny grew up in a close-knit ultra-Orthodox community in Australia, and he and his family paid a heavy price when he became one of the first to speak out publicly about his childhood sexual abuse experience.
“The pulpit chief rabbi said no one was allowed to speak,” he explains. “My parents were ostracized, excommunicated.”
But Rabbi Aharon Boymel, who considered himself friends with Zahav and Walder, insists that things are changing. He says rabbinical leaders were unaware of the two men’s abuse, but admits that a culture of shame and secrecy has been “a big problem.”
“We used to sweep these things under the rug. Today there is no such thing. If someone mistreats a boy or a girl, we immediately call the police”, he says.
But it seems that not everything is so clear. “Today I know another story like that of Chaim Walder and Yehuda Meshi Zahav. Big names, important people, they stopped [o abuso] and went to receive treatment because of this story,” he says.
These comments have raised concerns among victims, who believe some abusers are still receiving treatment rather than reporting them directly to the police.
After more than a year in a coma, news broke in June that Yehuda Meshi Zahav, the man who had long tormented Shayli Tevel, had died. Days later, Shayli looked for his grave in the vast, centuries-old Jewish cemetery on the Mount of Olives. He found it in a corner reserved for those who committed suicide, seen as a violation of Jewish beliefs.
Shayli only prayed there for a short time. He left weeping but relieved. “It’s left behind,” he says. “It’s painful, but it’s over now.”
“For everyone who’s been through something like this, don’t be afraid, whatever your experience has been, whatever your child’s experience has been, talk about it,” he says. “It heals you.”
This text was originally published here.