CHICAGO (CN) - A rabbi in charge of four Orthodox seminaries in Israel sexually assaulted girls in his charge, and threatened to ruin their marriage prospects if they reported him, the girls' parents claim in a federal class action.
Gary Miller and six other named plaintiffs sued Elimelech Meisels, Rachel Slanger, Peninim of America, Yaakov Yarmish, Tzvi Gartner and four subsidiary Jewish seminaries in Jerusalem, on Monday in Federal Court.
"From approximately 2004 until the present date, defendant Elimelech Meisels 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," the complaint states. "In truth, defendant Meisels' true aim was to fraudulently and unlawfully take thousands of dollars from each of these parents and to induce these girls, by telephone, mail, wire and other means, to travel thousands of miles outside the United States and away from their parents for the purpose of sexually assaulting these vulnerable young girls."
Orthodox Jewish children are traditionally sent to study the Torah for one year after high school in Israel. For girls, their attendance at a seminary "profoundly shapes and influences their marriage prospects within a quasi arranged marriage system known as the Shidduch (translated literally as Introduction) system," the complaint states.
"This influence is so important that it causes Orthodox Jewish parents to save money for years in hopes of being able to afford the annual tuition that regularly exceeds twenty thousand dollars ($20,000)."
The defendant seminaries, part of the Bais Yaakov class of seminaries, are classified as Ultra-Orthodox, and girls are expected not even to physically touch a man outside of marriage.
But the parents say Meisel was not the devout rabbi he held himself out to be.
"Defendant Meisels, like many other sexual predators, preyed on the vulnerable. He did this by developing mentor-mentee relationships with girls and exploiting these relationships to lure the girls into late night coffee meetings and other private settings and then sexually assaulted them," the lawsuit states.
"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.
"Moreover, upon information and belief, defendant Meisels would threaten his victims that if they shared their story with anyone, he would draw on his vast contacts within the Shidduch system to ruin their reputations and ensure that no viable candidate would want to take their hand in marriage.
"It was widely known within the administrative staff of the seminaries that defendant Meisels was regularly taking students to late night private meetings - a fact itself that is forbidden and known as 'yichud' according to the Orthodox Jewish law and tradition. However, certain still unknown co-conspirators within the seminaries were also aware that defendant Meisels was sexually assaulting the girls and assisted defendant Meisels by actively and passively concealing the assaults."
In July this year, a Jewish religious court, the Chicago Bais Din, heard testimony from several of Meisels' alleged victims, and issued a ruling stating that it believed students at the defendant seminaries were "at risk of harm," according to the complaint.
"News of this decision sent shockwaves to the prospective parent bodies of the Seminaries," the complaint states.
It continues: "Defendant Meisels agreed with defendant Yarmish that they would conduct a sham 'sale' of The Seminaries where defendant Yarmish would claim that he now owned the Seminaries and would claim to the class plaintiffs that these institutions were safe for their daughters. The conspirators hoped that this scheme would force class plaintiffs into leaving their daughters in The Seminaries even though that they were not safe because the conspirators would withhold their tuition deposits."
For the last two weeks in July, according to the complaint, Yarnish, Slanger, Gartner "and other still unidentified coconspirators then engaged in a flurry of written correspondence and telephone calls with the class plaintiffs to try to convince them that the Seminaries were under new ownership and were now safe. The sought to draw on defendant Gartner's status as a rabbi in Israel and the status of two other unnamed co-conspirators to perpetuate their fraud and assure the class plaintiffs that the Seminaries are safe. ...
"On July 24, 25, and 29, 2014, upon information and belief, defendant Gartner and unnamed co-conspirators had meetings in Israel about how to best cover up the fraudulent and unlawful scheme alleged herein and continue to deprive the class plaintiffs of their money by perpetuating the illusion that defendant Meisels is no longer affiliated with the seminaries," the parents say.
They seek class certification and punitive damages for racketeering, fraud, breach of contract, emotional distress, conspiracy and conversion.
They are represented by Shneur Nathan with Hale Law in Chicago.