By Ron Grossman, Tribune reporter
Email – RGrossman@tribune.com
A federal lawsuit alleging that an ultra-Orthodox rabbi who runs seminaries for girls in Israel is a sexual predator offers a rare look into the most traditional branch of Judaism, where a young woman’s religious education can prove key to finding a good husband through a matchmaker.
The allegations raised in the lawsuit, filed this month in Chicago, have already been brought before rabbinical courts in Chicago and Israel. The courts —known as beis din — came to contradictory decisions on the accusations against Rabbi Elimelech Meisels.
The lawsuit was filed by parents of girls who want their tuition money back in light of allegations against Meisels. They say in the suit that the rabbi for 10 years recruited young women from Chicago and other cities to his seminaries in Israel “under the guise of educational and spiritual development.”
Meisels is accused in the lawsuit of “developing mentor-mentee relationships with girls,” taking them on late-night coffee meetings and sexually assaulting them. Meisels, who could not be reached for comment, does not face any criminal charges.
A few weeks before the suit was filed, a Chicago beis din heard the allegations against Meisels. The body ruled that, based on testimony (including from Meisels) and documents, it believed “students in these seminaries are at risk of harm and does not recommend that prospective students attend these seminaries at this time,” according to the lawsuit.
Given the strictures of a religious prescription known as loshan hara (evil tongue), which forbids the ultra-Orthodox from speaking ill of anyone, parties to the lawsuit declined to talk about the matter, said Shneur Nathan, their attorney.
However, a parent who is not a party to the lawsuit agreed to talk about his experience with Meisels as long as his name was not used.
His daughter, a recent high school graduate, was scheduled to spend a year at one of four women’s seminaries in Israel operated by Meisels. With a tuition of about $20,000, plus living expenses, sending her would deplete the family’s savings and mean taking out loans. His wife volunteered to work extra hours.
But the two of them thought it worthwhile. For a girl in their community, a year at an Israeli seminary has become a sort of finishing-school experience; it separates childhood from the next stage of life, finding a husband and setting up her own observant household. As the lawsuit notes, for Orthodox Jewish girls a seminary experience in Israel “profoundly shapes and influences their marriage prospects.”
In the midst of making her travel arrangements, they learned of the Chicago beis din ruling against Meisels. When the man and his wife told their daughter why she wouldn’t be going, the young woman was deeply upset, her father said.
Parents seeking refunds have been unable to get answers from administrators at the seminaries, according to the lawsuit. The named plaintiffs are seeking class-action status to cover damages, said Nathan, their attorney.
Meisels did not respond to an email request for comment or to a phone message left with the U.S. office of his seminaries.
Parents scrambling to find an alternative Israeli school for their daughters were further stymied when an Israeli rabbinical court issued its ruling on the case July 25 and sided with Meisels.
According to the Israeli rabbis, “there is no cause for concern” at Meisels’ seminaries. In addition, the Israeli court said that “it is absolutely forbidden” for other seminaries to offer Meisels’ prospective students the opportunity “to switch to their institutions.”
If the federal lawsuit goes to trial, jurors will have to sift through claims and counterclaims connected to a lifestyle virtually unknown to outsiders, even to other Jews.
“The ultra-Orthodox are in the larger world, but not of the larger world,” said Samuel Heilman, a professor at City University of New York, who has written extensively about the ultra-Orthodox.
In Hebrew, they’re called haredim, “tremblers.” The men have long beards, and ritual fringes trail out of their shirts; women wear ankle-length dresses and keep their hair covered after marriage. They live in strict obedience to 613 prescriptions — plus so many extrapolations made by ancient commentators, medieval rabbis and contemporary sages that it could take a lifetime to master the literature.
Not just rabbis, but all men who make that intellectual effort, command enormous respect in the ultra-Orthodox community.
“The social bonds of the ultra-Orthodox community are loshan hara, the seminary and the matchmaker,” said Michael Salamon, a clinical psychologist with a practice near a largely ultra-Orthodox community outside New York City.
The matchmaker, called a shadchan, is necessary because of the strict separation of the sexes. So a third party has to introduce an eligible man to a suitable woman, a responsibility that’s gotten harder lately,
“There’s a crisis,” said Rabbi Yitzchok Wolf, a Chicago-area matchmaker. “There are more girls looking for husbands than boys looking for wives.”
That demography, Salamon notes, puts a premium on polishing a young woman’s credentials, if she is to be introduced to a pious and scholarly man. “Parents are convinced a daughter must go to the right seminary,” he said.
The federal lawsuit quotes from Meisels’ acceptance letter: “Your choice of our seminary ensures you the wonderful benefits of gaining from our marvelous faculty and staff as you prepare to build homes and lives that reflect the centrality of Torah.”
Both supporters and detractors of Meisels agree that his is a charismatic personality. The lawsuit alleges that Meisels “threatened his victims that if they shared their story he would draw upon his vast contacts within the Shiduch system to ruin their reputations and ensure that no viable candidate would want to take their hand in marriage.”
The accusations leveled against Meisels have sent shock waves through the ultra-Orthodox world. “The whole tapestry of their lives is tightly woven together,” Heilman said. “So one thread coming loose threatens to unravel the whole thing.”
The fact that the members of the community came forward could mark a turning point, said Nathan, the attorney who filed the civil case. There is even a chance that the question will be aired in open court because of a handful of parents who, by putting their names on a federal lawsuit, challenged loshan hara.
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