W hen the documentary film Name of the Father aired in Israel a few weeks ago, it led to dozens of phone calls from men and women who had suffered sexual abuse in a Charedi community — and spurred national debate about how the country’s extremist communities can be better policed.
Now the three-part series, which details the rape, violence and child marriage that have taken place in a Strictly Orthodox Breslov community, has been adapted into a documentary for BBC’s Storyville. And it’s a harrowing watch.
In the 1980s, the Brooklyn-based Rabbi Eliezer Shlomo Shick, also known as the Mohorosh, set up his own town in Yavniel, in the north of Israel.
A charismatic speaker who often cried when he lectured, he mainly populated it with former secular Jews. Many of them had been in jail and had converted to his cause. Eventually, around 400 families lived in the town.
From his main base in America, the rabbi kept a tight control on his community. Closed-circuit cameras tracked members' every move, and they would write letters to him over the fax machine that he would answer in detail.
He succeeded in making every member of the community feel connected to him and when he died, in 2015, they continued to adhere to his rules. To this day, the ill-educated and poor community that is fed by the town’s soup kitchen, cannot envisage life outside it, says the film’s director Bat-Dor Ojalvo.
She stumbled across Yavniel while working on another programme exploring rape and how the Israeli police deals with the crime. “I soon realised we were looking at a cult,” she tells me.
When the first episode of the programme aired in Israel, Ojalvo got a phone call in the middle of the night from the Mohorosh’s only son Moishe.
He’d been cut off by many in the community after his father was recorded, on his deathbed, calling his son a murderer. “He said he wanted me to hear the whole truth, from his perspective,” says Ojalvo.
It was the first of what would be five years of transatlantic calls between them, as Ojalvo pieced together her film, which features Moishe and other former and existing members of the Yavniel community. “For the first 18 months, I didn’t’ trust him,” she tells me.
“I said ‘I’ll check every piece of information you give me. And if I find out you are a liar, it’ll be on television.’ ”
Moishe is compelling to watch. He grew up being treated like a hero simply because of who he was, but as he tells his story, we learn that his father always made him feel inadequate. Far worse, he did nothing to stop him being sexually abused by the son of another prominent rabbi.
Through Moishe, Ojalvo slowly found other former members of the community who shared heartbreaking stories of sexual assault, of rape and of being married off at the age of 13. In the programme, girls also recount being told they were whores if they showed a single bit of flesh.
“It was a very emotional experience to record what had happened to these people but they said to us, ‘we don’t have a voice so please shout for us,’ ’’ she says.
As payback, the director and her team received frequent death threats with assurances that people knew where she lived and also the names of her children.
One Yavniel leaver featured in the programme had their house set on fire.
The more she learned about the community, the more disgusted Ojalvo became, she says. “In some ways it simplified the story for me. There are sex abusers in that community and they are being protected.”
After the series had finished, she got a phone call from an elder in the community.
“I asked my husband to record the conversation because I was sure the man was going to say he was going to kill me,’ she recalls. ‘But he told me, ‘I am standing with you and I would like to tell you that one of my great granddaughters was sexually abused.’
“I didn’t tell him that it was likely to be many more than one, or that I knew one of his daughters had also been sexually abused as she had also rung me.’”
Since the series aired in Israel, some child marriages planned by the community have been stopped. But for Ojalvo and her colleagues, what is required now is wholesale change from Israeli authorities. They have been working closely with them, she says.
“There is no point in just going after the children who are being pushed into marriage,” she says. “You have to go for the head of the snake.”
‘In the Name of the Father’ is on BBC4 at 10pm on May 16, and on the BBC iPlayer after transmission.