Three suspects in Jerusalem cult indicted

Jerusalem, Israel - The three central defendants in an Orthodox Jerusalem cult were indicted in the Jerusalem District Court on Wednesday, in a case police and social workers have called the worst abuse they have seen in decades.

Nine members of the cult, a well-known polygamous Breslav family based in Jerusalem, were arrested last week. Three men were taken into custody, and six women, along with 15 children, were placed in separate shelters across the country.

The media gag order placed on the story was partially lifted on Tuesday, but many details, such as the identity of the family and the exact nature of the abuse, are still under a blackout.

According to parts of the indictment made available, the head of the cult was indicted on multiple counts, including slavery, physical, sexual, and emotional abuse of minors, unlawful imprisonment, indecent sexual acts, sodomy, rape, serious violent crimes, and indecent assault. One of the other men, who most often carried out the abuses, was known by nicknames of “Satan” and “Evil Inclination.” The third man has connected himself to at least one episode of sexual and physical violence.

The cult was headed by the main defendant, who was in relationships with all six of the women, and assisted by two other men.

The main defendant had “complete mental control” over the women and the children, according to the indictment. The family lived off donations gathered from dancing behind the Breslav van blasting religious music or begging in the streets while doing educational outreach about their particular sect of Breslav hasidut, which held that the spirit of Rabbi Nahman was embodied in the grandfather of the main defendant, Rabbi Yisrael Oddesser, who died several years ago.

On a daily basis, the women and children were subject to “confessions” and “judgments” which included horrific punishments, including imprisonment, starvation, physical and mental abuse, humiliation, sexual abuse, and severe violence. In a police raid of the cult’s main home in Jerusalem when they were arrested, police found stun guns, electric cables and wooden rods. According to the indictment, the defendant’s daughters were subject to the harshest abuses, most of them sexual.

The 15 children were not enrolled in school, instead being “educated” at home. Many of them learned to play musical instruments, and the “family” regularly performed together, sometimes in concerts that drew hundreds of people.

The arrest was carried out in cooperation with the Jerusalem police, the Ministry of Welfare and Social Services, and the Jerusalem municipality.

The cult has been in existence for more than 10 years, but it was only over the past two that the violence increased in frequency and severity. Social services had visited the family’s home a number of times in the past two years but were unable to find any clear evidence of abuse.

Though polygamy is illegal, living arrangements such as the Jerusalem cult cannot be broken up unless there is definite presence of physical, mental, or sexual abuse.

A breakthrough in the case came a few months ago, when the defendant’s seventh wife, who had lived in the house for a year and a half, broke away from the family. Six months later, she turned to the authorities with a harrowing story of sexual and emotional abuse.

“The regime that took place within the ‘family,’ and the defendant’s absolute subordination of the women and the children, arose by virtue of the defendant's charismatic personality and spiritual qualities attributed to him,” the indictment said.