Life & Culture

Storyville: In the Name of the Father review - Abuse in a secret sect

Documentary about a strictly Orthodox community set up in the 1980s is an uncomfortable watch for Jews, Charedi or not


In the Name of the Father
BBC iPlayer |★★★★

Beware false prophets! The title In the Name of the Father sounds rather Christian, but it’s actually a documentary about the strictly Orthodox Breslov community set up in the 1980s by Rabbi Eliezer Sholmo Schick, also known as the Mohorosh.

He’s a father, all right, but just not to his biological son Moishe, on whom more later. From his base in America, the rabbi exerted such a hold over the community, in Yavniel, in the north of Israel that they continue to adhere to his rules, eight years after his death. They cannot envisage life outside it.

Originally made for Israeli television, the three-part series has been adapted into a 90-minute documentary for BBC’s Storyville, but I imagine the format was similar: we learn of the devotion the rabbi, a charismatic speaker who often cried when he lectured, inspired in his followers, and then we learn about of the sexual abuse suffered by the men and women who placed their trust in him.

A high proportion of the Yavniel community are former secular Jews, and many of them have been in jail. During his lifetime the rabbi framed it as a sort of Eden for repentant Jews and it is implied, though not stated, that they are responsible for much of the abuse that has taken place.

But I’d argue their only guilt is giving over their lives to the whims of one man.

As Moishe, cut off by many in the community after his father was recorded on his deathbed, calling his son a murderer, puts it: “They put their brains in their pockets.” What is clear is the absolute control wielded by the rabbi.

Closed-circuit cameras tracked members every move and they would ask him questions such as “is it allowed to own cats?” over the fax machine to which he would reply in detail.

As the programme progresses, we hear the brave and angry testimonies of those subjected to sexual abuse, which was covered up and even openly tolerated, and of children being married off at the age of 13.

We also hear girls recount how they were castigated as whores if they showed a glimpse of flesh. It’s a chilling picture of how vulnerable, hard-up people can be exploited by a charismatic narcissist.

When it aired in Israel a few weeks ago, the programme triggered national conversation about how the country’s extremist communities can be better policed.

People came forward and shared their experiences of abuse in the Charedi community and some child marriages in Yavniel have been stopped. The police are investigating others.

This is an uncomfortable watch for Jews, Charedi or not. But it’s an excellent example of how sunlight is a disinfectant.

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