A federal lawsuit filed over sexual assault allegations tied to Rabbi Elimelech Meisels of an ultra-Orthodox community in Chicago, follows similar allegations brought before rabbinical courts in both Chicago and Israel, so called “beis din” courts.
The federal allegations involve that Meisels, who runs Israel-based seminaries for girls, is a sexual predator, according to The Chicago Tribune. The federal lawsuit was filed by the parents of female students who seek tuition reimbursement given allegations against Meisels that include that, for 10 years, the rabbi recruited young women from cities such as Chicago to attend his Israel-based seminaries “under the guise of educational and spiritual development.” The lawsuit also accuses the rabbi of “developing mentor-mentee relationships with girls,” and bringing them on late-night coffee meetings, then sexually assaulting the young women. Meisels does not face any criminal charges, The Chicago Tribune noted.
Prior to filing of the lawsuit, a Chicago beis din heard the allegations against Meisels, ruling that, based on testimony—including testimony from Meisels—and documentation, the beis din believed “students in these seminaries are at risk of harm and does not recommend that prospective students attend these seminaries at this time,” the lawsuit indicated, according to The Chicago Tribune.
Because of “loshan hara,” also known as “evil tongue,” the ultra-Orthodox are not permitted to speak ill of others; therefore, parties involved in the lawsuit declined to discuss the matter, according to their attorney. Meanwhile, a parent not involved in the lawsuit agreed to discuss his family’s experience with Meisels on the condition of anonymity, wrote The Chicago Tribune.
His daughter, who just graduated high school, was scheduled to spend a year at one of four Meisels-run seminaries in Israel. Tuition runs approximately $20,000, plus living expenses. The family felt the expense was a good investment that would enable their daughter to move on to her next life stage of marrying and creating another observant home. The lawsuit states that, for Orthodox Jewish girls, a seminary experience in Israel “profoundly shapes and influences their marriage prospects,” The Chicago Tribune noted.
The family learned of the Chicago beis din ruling against Meisels as they were preparing for the young woman’s trip. Now, parents seeking reimbursement are not receiving answers from seminary administrators, according to the lawsuit and class action status is being sought by these individuals. What’s more, The Chicago Tribune reports, parents seeking an alternative program are now confused following an Israeli rabbinical court ruling July 25 in which it sided with the seminaries. The Israeli rabbis stated that, “there is no cause for concern” at the seminaries, and note that “it is absolutely forbidden” for other seminaries to offer potential students the opportunity “to switch to their institutions.”
“The ultra-Orthodox are in the larger world, but not of the larger world,” said Samuel Heilman, a professor at City University of New York, and an expert on the ultra-Orthodox community known as the Haredim. The community live under strict obedience of hundreds of rules. “The social bonds of the ultra-Orthodox community are loshan hara, the seminary and the matchmaker,” said Michael Salamon, a clinical psychologist whose practice is near an ultra-Orthodox community, according to The Chicago Tribune. A matchmaker—shadchan—is needed due to the very stringent separation of the sexes in the community and must introduce an eligible man to a suitable woman. “There’s a crisis,” said Rabbi Yitzchok Wolf, a Chicago-area matchmaker. “There are more girls looking for husbands than boys looking for wives.”
This is where the seminary program is critical. By enhancing a young woman’s credentials, “Parents are convinced a daughter must go to the right seminary,” said Rabbi Wolf. In fact, the federal lawsuit quotes from Meisels’ acceptance letter: “Your choice of our seminary ensures you the wonderful benefits of gaining from our marvelous faculty and staff as you prepare to build homes and lives that reflect the centrality of Torah.”
According to JPost, the lawsuit accuses Meisels of having “engaged in a fraudulent and unlawful scheme to induce Orthodox Jewish parents from across the United States to send their daughters to various seminaries in Israel that he controlled under the guise of educational and spiritual development” for the purposes of “sexually assaulting these vulnerable young girls,” since 2004. “Once the sexual assaults were complete, upon information and belief, defendant Meisels would intimidate his victims by telling them that no one would believe that a rabbi and author with his reputation would have done such a thing,” according to those bringing the lawsuit. Meisels “would threaten his victims that if they shared their story with anyone, he would draw on his vast contacts within the shidduch (arranged marriage) system to ruin their reputations and ensure that no viable candidate would want to take their hand in marriage.”
Individuals associated with the Pninim Seminary, Binas Bais Yaakov Seminary, Chedvas Bais Yaakov Seminary, and Keser Chaya Seminary are also named.