ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 138

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He was born Jeffrey Vejil; case stokes antisemitism online

Texan who posed as Hasidic Jew and adopted 9 boys charged with sexually abusing kids

Suspect changed name to Hayim Cohen, fabricated Jewish backstory, courted media attention and allegedly assaulted minors over years, raising questions about ignored red flags

Luke Tress is a JTA reporter and a former editor and reporter in New York for The Times of Israel.

Hayim Nissim Cohen and his nine adopted sons in a photo posted to their family Facebook page in 2021. (Facebook; used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)
Hayim Nissim Cohen and his nine adopted sons in a photo posted to their family Facebook page in 2021. (Facebook; used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

Authorities in Texas have charged a man with a slew of sex crimes after he apparently fabricated his Jewish identity, adopted nine boys, paraded his “unique family” on social media to hundreds of thousands of followers and allegedly abused a number of children.

The case has revealed a lack of oversight by state authorities and a private company that placed exchange students in the suspect’s home, critics said, and has stoked antisemitism and perturbed the local Houston Jewish community.

Hayim Nissim Cohen, 38, was charged last week with eight offenses including injury to a child under 15, sexual assault, aggravated sexual assault of a child, and continuous sexual abuse of a child, adding to several charges against him from earlier last month, and a separate abuse case in 2019.

Cohen, who was born Jeffrey Lujan Vejil,  has been charged with 11 felonies by seven complainants in total and is being held in a Houston jail. His attorney did not respond to a request for comment.

The latest charges came after one of Cohen’s adopted sons made an anonymous call to an advice podcast in early February seeking help. He told the BlindSkinnedBeauty podcast that he had been abused and raped by his father since the age of 11, shortly after he was adopted.

“I became concerned immediately and just like I had to do something. That was my immediate feeling,” said one of the podcasters, Twaiyah Paynes. “I said, ‘We’ve got to keep this kid talking, we’ve got to keep him on the phone.'”

The podcast hosts implored the boy to contact police, and brought a former law enforcement officer onto the live call, but the boy expressed fear about reporting his father and skepticism about the legal system.

The boy refused to provide identifying details and said he was calling from a “burner” phone using Wi-Fi to conceal his identity. After the call, Paynes spent the next two days attempting to find him based on a few clues he had divulged, eventually tracking down the family online, she said.

The podcasters reported the case to authorities, who determined the boy had called from Cohen’s home via his IP address, court documents said.

Hayim Nissim Cohen’s mugshot from his arrest in February 2023. (Harris County District Attorney’s Office)

He initially denied to police that he had made the call, but acknowledged that he had when his voice was played back to him from the show.

Shortly after, a number of other children reported ongoing abuse to police, who had opened an investigation.

The criminal complaints also said Cohen beat the children with a belt and doused them with pepper spray, causing injuries, and threatened them with injury and death. The allegations date from 2018 until last month.

Cohen had already been charged in 2019 with felony indecency related to allegations he abused a Spanish exchange student he had hosted at his home the year before. Cohen had been released on bail in that case, which was revoked after the latest charges were filed last month.

The Texas Department of Family and Protective Services said six of Cohen’s adopted sons who are still minors have been transferred to foster care.

A history of lies

Cohen presented himself as a single Hasidic man, and he and his adopted sons chronicled their lives as an ultra-Orthodox Jewish family on social media and on a website he hosted.

The family’s two TikTok channels have over 310,000 followers and have videos with over 5 million views. The family also had a YouTube channel, a Facebook page, and some of the boys had their own social media accounts. The family has not posted since Cohen’s arrest last month and did not return a request for comment.

The Cohens received fawning press coverage from local news sites and Jewish media, including Houston Family Magazine, the Jewish Herald-Voice, the Jewish Press and a local Fox news affiliate.

Evidence, however, indicates that Cohen fabricated his Jewish background and that of his adopted children, whom he claimed were all born Jewish.

He claimed in interviews to have grown up speaking Yiddish as a Hasidic Jew in New York City, but legal documents show that Cohen was born Jeffrey Lujan Vejil in Odessa, Texas, in 1984. An individual with the same name graduated from Odessa High School in 2005, and a newspaper article the same year placed him in the city.

He legally changed his name multiple times in 2009 and 2010, eventually landing on Hayim Nissim Cohen. He has used “many different names and aliases,” court documents said. Some of his other names or alleged aliases include Chaim Nissim Vejil, Gabriel Jeffrey Vejil and Gabriel Rosenburg.

There is no evidence he converted to Judaism and he never claimed to have converted, except when he requested to adopt a Jewish name in court.

In Judaism, the surname Cohen is meant to denote priestly heritage, and would rarely be adopted by an Orthodox convert.

He contradicted himself in different interviews when discussing how many of the boys were native Yiddish speakers and how many spoke Hebrew. He also gave varying accounts of his background, claiming to have grown up in different Hasidic movements in New York City, and sometimes calling himself a rabbi.

The discrepancies were first reported by Za’akah, a New York-based group that combats sexual abuse in Orthodox Jewish communities and has been tracking the Cohen case.

Cohen also said that all of his adopted sons were born Jewish, but a lawyer who viewed the adoption records said this was false.

None of the children came from Jewish families, but Cohen had them take on Jewish identities after adopting them, said Sherry Chandler, who is representing the exchange student Cohen allegedly abused in a civil lawsuit. Pictures of the children online showed them with long sidelocks and in traditional Hasidic clothing.

“He would profess to be a rabbi and said he adopted all these Jewish children from other Jewish families. He said the first two kids were Jewish and their parents died in an automobile accident,” Chandler said. “They’re not Jewish, the dad committed suicide and the mother had her parental rights terminated due to drugs, alcohol and neglect.”

“He changed their names in the adoption process and had them grow their hair and dressed them. He claims they speak Hebrew or Yiddish but I don’t think any of them do,” she said. “He’s clearly not a rabbi. I think he woke up one day and said, ‘I’m Jewish,’ and went to Dallas County and had his name changed.”

A member of Houston’s Orthodox community said Cohen first showed up around 2009 or 2010. Cohen variously said he came from different Hasidic communities in New York City and Jerusalem, including at one point claiming to have been part of a family rescued from Yemen by the Satmar Hasidic movement, apparently to explain his complexion. He said he had moved to Houston for medical treatment and never claimed he was from Texas.

“He had obviously done a ton of research but I just got kind of a weird vibe about it,” said the community member, who asked to remain anonymous for privacy.

The Orthodox community quickly realized Cohen was a fraud. In one instance, he claimed to speak Yiddish, but was unable to converse with a Yiddish speaker.

“He claimed to have lived in Borough Park, and claimed to have lived in Mea Shearim,” The community member said, referring to religious neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Jerusalem. “He claimed he was one of those guys who throws rocks on Shabbos, but he doesn’t speak a word of Hebrew or a word of Yiddish.”

“He showed up and claimed some references and assumed no one would check. One of the rabbis checked the references in New York and it didn’t check out,” he said.

“This guy made up a whole backstory,” he said. “He’s a very smart guy. This guy is a Ted Bundy-level sociopath. He’s very intelligent, very conniving, very manipulative.”

Scams, fake medical problems and antisemitism

Cohen was shunned by the Orthodox community for his deceit, but had moved to a neighborhood associated with religious Jews in Houston, and presented himself as Orthodox at secular Jewish events, where he was able to pass himself off as Hasidic. He did not appear to be a member of any synagogue. Several Jewish communities in Houston said he was not affiliated with them and an Orthodox rabbi in the city said that as far as he knew, Cohen was not connected to any congregation.

Cohen may have arrived in Houston from the Dallas area; his 2010 name change was made at a Dallas County courthouse. In 2009, a woman in Dallas suburb Grand Prairie said she and members of her church had been scammed by a man named Luis Lujan posing as a rabbi.

The Houston Jewish community member, who knew Cohen around the time of the incident, said the man pictured in coverage of the theft appeared to be Cohen, and his appearance in the area fit with his move to Houston shortly after. The scammer’s name matches Cohen’s original middle name and some of the aliases he has used.

Cohen also allegedly faked medical problems to generate sympathy and avoid legal consequences.

One of his sons said in a legal complaint that “everything [Cohen] does is fake,” including only using a wheelchair in public and in front of visitors, and deliberately coughing in court to feign illness.

Cohen was released on bond in his initial abuse case after telling the court he was in hospice care for a terminal illness. In photos from the family home, he is pictured wearing an oxygen mask, which the boy also said was fake. Chandler said he appeared to have spit up fake blood in one legal proceeding.

In 2020, one of his sons set up a GoFundMe campaign seeking donations for medical expenses, without specifying the condition, raising over $2,000.

Cohen said in interviews that the family lived a “Hasidic lifestyle.” He also said the family had blended different strains of Orthodoxy to accommodate the boys’ varying backgrounds, in a possible explanation for discrepancies in its practices.

It’s unclear why Cohen became fixated on Judaism in the first place. A rabbi from the lone synagogue in his west Texas hometown of Odessa said he had no knowledge of the case.

Cohen’s claim of being Jewish has also been picked up by white supremacists, with online posts linking his crimes to antisemitic tropes about Jewish deviance.

Hayim Nissim Cohen in a YouTube video he posted to his family’s channel in 2020. (Screenshot/YouTube; used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

Afraid of retaliation

Cohen and his adopted sons regularly posted online about their family life, but many questions remain about Cohen’s personal goings-on, how he adopted the boys and the conditions in his home.

On TikTok, the boys, some of whom are now adults, danced to Jewish music, celebrated birthdays, cooked Jewish food such as kosher funnel cake, showed off their pet snake and discussed online antisemitic harassment. Cohen did not appear in recent videos.

On YouTube, they showed off their homeschooling set-up and in media interviews, Cohen presented the household as a “unique family” that was thriving and giving back to the community through donations. He appears to have kept the children largely isolated at home.

His son who called into the podcast said the children participated in a volunteer program at a local police facility, but that it was all part of Cohen’s strategy.

“The officers were not told about [the abuse] because the mask that we put on is damn near invincible,” the boy said, adding that Cohen controlled the boys through fear and bribery.

The boy said there had been eight investigations by Child Protective Services, but Cohen coerced the children into lying about the abuse. At one point, one of the boys ran away from home and was returned by law enforcement. Cohen said he had been sleepwalking.

The son who called into the podcast said he feared he would not be believed if he reported the abuse, because he had previously denied it to law enforcement, and he thought his other brothers would not testify against their father. He said he planned to go to authorities once he turned 18.

He told the podcast that Cohen planned to send him to Israel “because my father wants me to go and stay in a place where he could take control basically of my income and stuff,” without elaborating.

The boy said Cohen had caught him telling people about the abuse online and in retaliation broke the boy’s phone, deleted his social media and took $200 he had saved in an app.

“I’m also afraid of retaliation,” he said. “I’m too scared to say it’s happening.”

“My number one fear was that I would be tried for lying to them, and I guess assisting since I kept it a secret,” he said.

At a hearing for Cohen last week, Harris County District Attorney’s Office prosecutor Janna Oswald said authorities had investigated several claims of abuse over the years but never had enough evidence to file charges.

“This was a household of boys that were extremely abused and neglected, groomed. They were threatened. They were in fear of their safety,” Oswald said. “That mask, along with the children’s inability to find their voice yet, allowed the abuse to go on for a long time.”

It’s unclear how Cohen was allowed to adopt nine children, as well as host multiple foreign exchange students. At one point there were 11 boys and Cohen in his four-bedroom house.

Cohen had a criminal record for several theft misdemeanors around 2006 and never reported having an income-producing job.

The family solicited donations and gifts online and appeared to have sponsorships on social media, including with Jewish companies. Cohen received stipends for fostering children, but how he covered the family’s expenses is unclear.

It’s also unclear why there was not a thorough investigation after Cohen was charged with abusing the exchange student in 2019. The Texas Department of Family and Protective Services said details of the case are confidential under the law.

Chandler and her client are suing the company that placed the exchange student with Cohen for gross negligence and other offenses. Cohen allegedly lied about his criminal background, faked his references in his application for the program by listing phone numbers for himself and his sons, and fabricated other information. Cohen denied the allegations.

Chandler said Cohen used his religious image as a cover, comparing him to priests who abused children. In his application to host the exchange student, he listed his profession as “rabbi” and his place of work as a “foundation.”

“I think that when someone portrays themself to be a rabbi, a priest, someone in the clergy, there is an immediate respect or trust,” said Chandler. “I think people trust rabbis and trust priests and that trust was defiled and I think that he felt he could hide behind that persona.”

“Why he chose an Orthodox Jewish persona, I don’t know. I would not even begin to understand that, but I will say that for some people it is a very different culture and so there may be less questions about some of the things that were maybe different on their face, because a lot of people don’t understand the Orthodox Jewish faith,” she said.

Chandler believes Cohen managed to foster the first two children, then adopt them, without going through a proper background check, giving him credibility and allowing him to “piggyback” on the additional adoptions and exchange students.

“He’s been allowed to float through the adoptions, the fostering and the foreign exchange student process with no verification of anything,” she said.

Cohen told media he had been working as a social worker when he was contacted about two Orthodox boys in foster care. He claimed he had started to help the boys by bringing them kosher food, and later adopted them. He also adopted at least one pair of siblings together.

“Once I got licensed to adopt, I became a go-to adoption destination for Orthodox boys in the foster care system,” he said in a 2019 interview.

Cohen was also eager to have exchange students and the company that finds homes for them viewed him as a lucrative host since they were paid per student placed in the US. The foreign exchange industry is largely self-regulating, and the foster system lacks proper oversight, Chandler said.

“These state-run organizations for foster and adoption, there needs to be better oversight. This is a horrible, extremely sad and tragic situation but it’s not the first and it’s not going to be the last,” she said. “A lot of people assume wrongly that if someone was put in foster care that family was properly vetted. That’s not necessarily true.”

The children’s fate now is also uncertain. They have no family support of their own since they were adopted and Cohen did not have a family network, and are re-entering an overburdened foster system.

Paynes, the podcaster, said she has kept in touch with the son who called into her show.

“He’s really lost right now and he’s hurting,” she said.

She has offered to foster some of the boys herself, saying, “I want them to be healthy again and live properly.”

“It’s going to be a lot to heal from. These kids were all adopted from difficult situations and they were taken in by somebody who had a nefarious purpose,” said Asher Lovy of Za’akah, the advocacy group. “These kids are starting from nothing and it’s going to take a lot of resources, a lot of professional help and intervention to set these kids on a course where they’re going to be able to heal and have a good life.”

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