The Yeshiva Rabbi Sexually Assaulted Him – Again and Again. Now He’s Talking

Haaretz [Tel Aviv, Israel]

February 21, 2023

By Josh Breiner and Chaim Levinson

One of Rabbi Efraim Tessler’s victims describes how it all happened: The private lessons, touching, accusations, dependence – and the agreement involving the rabbi’s son, deputy minister Yaakov Tessler, to buy his silence

Aryeh has trouble counting the number of times he’s been sexually assaulted. It happened so many times and with such frequency that there is no point trying, he said. For a year and a half it was routine, part of normal weekday happenings at the Damesek Eliezer Vizhnitz Yeshiva in Jerusalem. The serial attacker was the head of the yeshiva, Rabbi Efraim Tessler.

“He would walk around the study hall in the morning and tell me ‘come up’ or ask me to wake him up in the afternoon because he slept in a bed in the office,” Aryeh (a pseudonym to maintain his anonymity) told Haaretz. “He would undress, I would cause him to ejaculate and immediately after that we would go learn the daily halakha” in Jewish law.

For years Aryeh tried to repress the trauma, which was alive and kicking in his memory; it had been the reality of his life from age 14 to 16. Over a decade has passed since the first time he was in a sexual situation forced upon him by the rabbi. He never went public with his claims and even received a small amount of money not to speak out. But last month, after Haaretz reported that Tessler had been fired in 2016 from his position as head of the yeshiva due to a number of complaints alleging abuse similar to what Aryeh experienced, something changed.

‘He told me he’d heard that I had been sexually involved with the yeshiva boys. I told him it wasn’t true. And after a couple of times he told me he had a way to determine this, ‘according to Kabbalah,’ on my penis.’

The reported complaints didn’t lead to an indictment, only an internal arrangement within the Vizhnitz Hasidic group brokered by the rabbi’s son Deputy Culture and Sport Minister Yaakov Tessler of the United Torah Judaism party, who was then a member of the Ashdod city council. Tessler was first elected to the Knesset in 2019, and has previously served as an aide to then-Health Minister Yaakov Litzman.

Aryeh also knew that Yaakov Tessler was involved – from the agreement he had signed himself. “Yanki,” Yaakov Tessler’s nickname, “was always on the line to dictate what to write down and what not to write in the silencing agreement.” He encountered the name “Yaakov Tessler” many times over the coming years.

Aryeh, now in his late 20s, is finally breaking his silence. Last week, with the aid of the Magen nonprofit organization that assists victims of sexual abuse in the Haredi community, he turned to the Jerusalem District police and told his story, which still falls within the statute of limitations for such crimes. He’s telling his story here, too.

Describing the small details of the personal trauma he suffered by the man he had trusted, Aryeh speaks rapidly and clearly. “It was impossible to say ‘no’ to him. He had authority, he was the decision-maker in the [Vizhnitz] Hasidic community, the man whose hands you find yourself in. If he decided to kick you out of the yeshiva, you were out.” This fact sticks out as part of the beginning of Aryeh’s story of abuse.

‘It was impossible to say ‘no’ to him. He had authority, he was the decision-maker in the [Vizhnitz] Hasidic community, the man whose hands you find yourself in.’

Aryeh recalls events, but not always their dates, and certainly not exact days. The story’s timeline is full of vivid memories, and it is not always clear which event came before which. Did one traumatic incident overshadow the previous one – or maybe the next? Aryeh began studying at the Damesek Eliezer Yeshiva, for boys aged 13-16, in the Har Nof neighborhood of Jerusalem in about 2009. This is the famous yeshiva of the Vizhnitz Hasidic court – its flagship yeshiva, which was then run by Efraim Tessler. Back then, Tessler already had a supreme standing in the Vizhnitz community, the third largest Hasidic group in Israel, and was close to the Admor of Vizhnitz, the “rebbe” and spiritual leader of the community, Rabbi Yisrael Hager.

Not long after the school year began, Aryeh’s father was summoned, along with another relative, for a talk with Rabbi Tessler. Aryeh is in danger of being expelled from the yeshiva, they were told, because he is not proficient enough in one of the commentaries of the Talmud. It was a sort of warning, preparing the ground for what came next. “Tessler wanted to show that he had control over me, that he had kept me in the yeshiva by his grace.”

During the following school year, Aryeh’s father was invited again to meet with the rabbi. “Then Tessler told him the only option was to get me a private tutor, that I needed someone serious, and he offered himself,” said Aryeh. “My father agreed immediately. What’s better than the head of the yeshiva in all his glory teaching your son?” But the offer also came with a price: about 2,000 shekels ($560) a month. “It was a lot of money and my father already lived modestly, but what won’t you do for your son to stay in school?”

‘He began to put it into my head that I had a problem and couldn’t have children, and he turned it into a sort of treatment for my ‘problem.’ I was a 15-year-old boy, didn’t know anything about the world of sexuality.’

Aryeh’s father paid for the private lessons, which took place “in the women’s section, which looked over the study hall.” This close relationship granted Aryeh a sort of status in the yeshiva, and included an exemption from a number of classes. But mostly it was a cover for a long chapter of sexual abuse and assault, said Aryeh. At first, “he asked me to come to him in his office, for me to wake him up.”

After some time of this, Tessler began with the accusations. “He told me he’d heard that I had been sexually involved with the yeshiva boys. I told him it wasn’t true. And after a couple of times he told me he had a way to determine this, ‘according to Kabbalah,’ on my penis. I didn’t know how to respond. Suddenly he stripped me, grabbed my penis, groped it and looked, and then let me go. That’s where it started.”

Still locked inside

Aryeh described Tessler’s office in great detail, as if he just left it, and as if many years had not elapsed since he’d been inside it. The disorderly table, the computer next to it, the location of the bed – and the door. The minute it closed, he remembers with exactness, it was impossible to open from the outside. In some ways, he’s still locked inside even now.

It was standard routine for a year and a half. At least twice a week, again and again, he went to Tessler’s office. “After a few times of him touching me, he told me ‘Listen, it seems to me that you have a problem. I play with your penis and it doesn’t get hard.’” This statement was of great importance as far as Aryeh was concerned.

“He began to put it into my head that I had a problem and couldn’t have children, and he turned it into a sort of treatment for my ‘problem.’ I was a 15-year-old boy, didn’t know anything about the world of sexuality, and I began to develop dependence on him, as if only he could help me.” Aryeh never dared bring the matter up with others; he trusted the rabbi. “At that stage, he would touch me two or three times a week. He would touch me so I would reach an erection.”

As part of the agreement, which Haaretz has obtained, Rabbi Tessler was obligated to pay Aryeh 100,000 shekels. This was the “price tag” for the dozens of sexual assaults and acts of sodomy, said Aryeh.

It was always a part of the private lessons, said Aryeh. On one occaision Tessler gave him pills, which he said were for treating attention and concentration problems. An hour later Tessler started touching him. “At some point he told me ‘it could be that if you play with me, it will give you an erection.’ We would go up to his office, he would undress and take off my pants. And he was disgusting, repulsive, and I was bound to him and afraid. I was a whirlwind of emotions,” said Aryeh. “I touched him until he came and then he would let me go. I realized that to end it he needed to come as fast as possible.”

The forced sexual relations were not always the same, and they did not always occur in one place. He doesn’t remember all the instances, not in detail. “There are entire incidents erased for me. I remember flashbacks from him all the time, flashes.” But some he remembers very well. For example, the time Tessler undressed him and they went to the bed in his room naked together for an act of sodomy. Another time he was invited to visit the rabbi’s house.

“During one of the vacations from the yeshiva he called me and told my parents I should come study with him during vacation too. We went to his synagogue and then we went to his house.” This incident is burned into his memory: He remembers the house, the living room, the kitchen, the bookshelves filled with religious texts, the shabby sofa on which he was forced to carry out the sex act. Not very long afterward, Tessler sat shivah in his home: “My father wanted for us to go and console him. I ran away from there,” Aryeh said.

In the house of the dayan

Aryeh was 16 when he completed his studies at the yeshiva in Jerusalem. He was scarred, and the sexual assaults continued to accompany him through the years. He suffered poor mental health and required a number of treatments. “I had a feeling that in this respect I’m messed up, and that Tessler was right.”

This feeling stuck with him for months after that, until he chanced upon a story on an anonymous blog on the internet, posted in April 2016. The story, about a young yeshiva student who received private lessons from Rabbi Tessler and underwent a series of sexual assaults, sounded familiar to him. Aryeh realized that he was not Tessler’s only victim and understood that he needed to talk about it.

Aryeh turned to a relative and shared with him what he had gone through. “He was shocked.” On his advice, Aryeh turned to a person in the Haredi community who dealt with sexual abuse, and later connected with a rabbi who began helping him. At this stage, they decided to move up the ladder and approach the Admor of Vizhnitz himself, who knew Tessler extremely well. “I told the admor everything and he gave me the feeling that he was with me. I felt that he was there for me and he told me: ‘Sue him in [rabbinical court].’ He told me to do something. To this day, I feel he’s with me.”

Aryeh did not turn to the rabbinical court, but chose a sort of internal agreed-upon process in a house in Bnei Brak, where a senior and well-known dayan, a rabbinical court judge, lived. Going to the law enforcement authorities was not on the table. “There is a way of doing things that works in the Haredi community. You don’t run to the police, otherwise they would shun me and I would be the bad person.”

The session in the house was held in June 2017. “The dayan was there and his son took the minutes, and a representative of Tessler was also there,” Aryeh remembers. Tessler did not come himself. But this proceeding – whose main goal was to end things far from police investigation rooms – featured another actor, Yaakov Tessler, who was by then already a key figure in the Vizhnitz Hasidic community. Tessler junior was in telephone contact with his father’s representative, sources involved in the affair said.

This semi-litigation process ended with a document, written in small and compact handwriting, which said the two parties stated “this agreement comes to clarify the truthfulness of the matter and the story of the acts, and it makes no decision in favor of one of the parties.

In addition, the two sides commit to preserve total silence so nothing will become known to anyone about this agreement.” As part of the agreement, which Haaretz has obtained, Rabbi Tessler was obligated to pay Aryeh 100,000 shekels. This was the “price tag” for the dozens of sexual assaults and acts of sodomy, said Aryeh. “At the time, I didn’t see it as silencing me. Then I didn’t know how damaged I was, how much my soul was damaged.”

Aryeh was given the money in five cash payments, brokered by a different rabbi who has been helping Aryeh over the years. This rabbi was not necessarily the only one involved, said Aryeh, and “Yaakov Tessler handed over the money at least once.” Another person who was involved in transferring the money said this was true, too.

Bypassing the police

These proceedings, which were conducted in secret, were supposed to divert the spotlight far away from Rabbi Tessler, and certainly to prevent a criminal investigation. He paid a price within the Vizhnitz community, as Haaretz reported in January.

In 2016, he was dismissed from his position as the head of the Damesek Eliezer Yeshiva after the leaders of the Vizhnitz community received information about Tessler sexually abusing a number of students. But this dismissal from his position – which was explained as being for “health reasons” – was just sweeping the affair under the thick carpets in the corridors of the community’s leadership. Efraim Tessler still gives private lessons to children and still receives the same respect he did before the affair, said Aryeh.

Nonetheless, in 2016, the Jerusalem District police received information that while he was the head of the yeshiva, Efraim Tessler committed sodomy and other sex offenses against at least four young men. The police opened an investigation and in November 2017 Tessler was arrested on charges of performing acts of sodomy on minors aged 14 to 16, non-consensual sodomy and indecent acts. Tessler remained silent. The rabbi was ordered to stay away from the yeshiva and the complainants, with his son acting as a guarantor.

One of the teens told the police his story and the police held a confrontation between the teen and Tessler in an investigations room – where Tessler chose to remain silent. In the end, no indictments were filed. People with knowledge of the details of the case said that to this day they don’t understand how this series of events could have led to such a result.

A police official told Haaretz it was very difficult to contact the teens involved. “Every place we turned to, we found that they had gotten there before us and closed that door. We understood that someone was pressuring them not to talk,” said the police official. The police closed the case in 2018, at the same time Efraim Tessler was dismissed from his post at the yeshiva.

Aryeh admitted that he too didn’t want to talk to the police, even when they initiated the contact – “I didn’t cooperate.” But today the situation is different, and he is willing to conduct a confrontation with Tessler, who he says ruined his life, whether with the Admor of Vizhnitz or in a police station. “On the outside he looks like a saint, but he destroyed my life and the lives of others. I want to confront him about what he did to me. I want this man to sit in prison. I’m not willing to keep silent any longer.”

The trauma of the experience persisted even after the signing of the agreement. Tessler, according to the deal, is forbidden from coming near Aryeh, but this was never honored in practice. Once, Tessler went to festive event held by the Hasidic community which Aryeh also attended, and another time Tessler went to pray in the synagogue where Aryeh usually worships.

Aryeh turned to figures in the Vizhnitz community to no avail: No sanctions were imposed on Tessler. “I saw over time that I wasn’t able to function. I began psychological treatments with my wife and we were forced to take out loans and get help from the community. We returned to the rabbinical court and asked for the [injuring party] to pay [the costs], but they said the dayan wasn’t willing to reopen the agreement.”

Since then, Yaakov Tessler has used his power to prevent Aryeh from from being fully rehabilitated. Two years ago, Aryeh approached the Admor of Vizhnitz with a request for help finding a job. Hager instructed another senior community leader to help Aryeh, but a short time later he was turned down. Yaakov Tessler was involved in it, alleges Aryeh. “Even today, after all we went through, he continues to trip me up. I realized that he doesn’t understand how much his father hurt me. For them I’m something that doesn’t exist.”

These feelings are part of why Aryeh wishes to reopen the affair, along with his attempts to rebuild his life. Aryeh hopes Tessler will be tried and sentenced to prison as a result of renewed police investigation. His speaking with the media was a last resort, he said, after he felt all the doors had been closed to him inside his own community, in spite of his situation. He said he isn’t interested in any further financial compensation, but in two goals: For Tessler to request forgiveness and for the Haredi community to know his “true face.”

“I know there are others like me who were harmed by him. I’m not the only one,” said Aryeh. “On the outside, he walks around like a saint, but inside he’s an [evil person] who to this day doesn’t even have the courage to look me in the eyes. [I want] for him to feel fear and shame, not me.”

Throughout our interview, Aryeh spoke calmly. His face doesn’t give away anything of the storm raging in his mind and soul, or of the huge emptiness it caused him. “Inside I’m empty. I don’t have any of the spirituality I had. He destroyed my life and his son helped him silence the affair. I felt I was part of a deal, which they pulled off, and I was silenced. Every time I see his picture in the newspaper I rip it up,” said Aryeh.

The Magen nonprofit organization, which is helping Aryeh, said “This is a shocking and terrifying complaint that we are calling on the authorities to investigate until it is concluded, and to file an appropriately harsh indictment on the matter.

“We are certain and believe that the community wants to remain protected and safe for everyone, so we will continue to fight vigorously against the conspiracy of silence. We stand with the brave complainant and call for others who were harmed to be courageous and ask for help,” said Magen.

Efraim Tessler could not be reached for comment.

Yaakov Tessler’s office responded: “The deputy minister was never involved in any of the events described and did not take part in any such arrangement or any other, as far as any existed, as they claim. In [Haaretz’s] previous story you caused pain and slanderous injustice against the deputy minister, you harmed his good name in an irreversible manner while attributing to him acts that never happened. We hope you will not deepen the superfluous and unnecessary harm you caused to the deputy minister concerning actions that he was not at all involved in.”