A Jerusalem man who was arrested Monday on suspicion of running a cult in which dozens of women and young children lived in exploitative and slave-like conditions was named Tuesday as Aharon Ramati.
The 60-year-old self-described rabbi, who runs the Be’er Miryam seminary, is also suspected of sexually exploiting the women, Hebrew-language media reported.
Ramati was ordered to remain in prison Monday for seven days.
Police said the community operated for years in the Bukharim Quarter, in Jerusalem’s city center, under the guise of a women’s seminar. In it, some 50 women lived in a state of overcrowding, deprivation and poor sanitation. Many had children — a total of about ten — aged one to five, who were held in seclusion within the compound on a regular basis.
Authorities said the leader of the suspected cult controlled the women’s lives with absolute authority, isolating them from their families and society at large and punishing them for transgressions through various means. The women were employed in jobs approved by Ramati, and some of their wages were transferred directly to him.
Eight women who were arrested, along with Ramati on suspicion of helping him run the cult, have not been named. Four of them have been remanded for four days, three were remanded for three days, and one was released to house arrest. They are all suspected of conspiring to commit a crime, and some are suspected of sexual harassment and assaulting a minor.
During Monday’s court hearing, a police representative said: “What happened at the seminar was not Torah-learning. The girls learned to obey the cult leader. They invited women to Shabbat meals. The rabbi knows how to talk to women. Slowly they scared them and separated them from their families. Part of the money that came from the girls was used to buy a car for the cult leader.”
“They had to ask him for permission for everything and consult him over every simple action,” he added.
The police official alleged that the arrested women took an active part in abusing the victims.
“They humiliated them,” he said. “One of them would regularly put their fingers in the fire to ‘simulate hell.'” In another case, he said, one of the female suspects forced a hot pepper into the mouth of one of the victims.
Ramati was arrested in 2015 over similar suspicions but was subsequently released after members of the alleged cult testified in his favor.
Monday’s arrest came after a number of women who left the community came forward to testify against the man and following months of a clandestine investigation into the community.
Ramati has rejected the accusations against him.
“Nobody believes this is true,” he said outside the court on Monday, adding that the kids found in the house were “maybe my grandchildren who came for a visit.”
Asked whether the women and children had been held in slave-like conditions, he retorted: “That is beyond nonsense, it’s ludicrous.”
“The previous time they also accused me of running a cult,” he said in court, addressing journalists. “They are just searching for headlines. This is nothing. For them, anything to do with the ultra-Orthodox world is a cult.”
Complaints of the goings-on at the compound stretch back to 2011, when relatives of women living there complained to police. But authorities were reportedly powerless to intervene as the women were adults and insisted they were there of their own free will.
At the time, ultra-Orthodox community leaders published giant notices accusing Ramati of using unacceptable educational methods and cautioned parents against sending their daughters to study there.
Following Ramati’s arrest, police said more women have come forward to file a complaint, and more arrests are expected in the case, a police official told the Ynet website.
Police forces raided the compound Monday morning accompanied by welfare officials and representatives of the Israeli Center for Victims of Cults.
Hagit Peer, head of the Na’amat women’s advocacy group, called the case “horrifying.” She said it was “inconceivable that such a nightmare community should exist in Israel, under the radar of the authorities, with dozens of women and children exploited horribly.”
She called for a thorough probe “to find potential systemic failures that enabled this ongoing crime.”