Cleared for publication: Rabbi Tomer Rotem, Chabad's envoy to Quito, Ecuador, was abducted and held hostage for five days in the South American capital. He was eventually released, unharmed.
News of the abduction was placed under a gag order, which was lifted on Thursday.
Rabbi Rotem told Ynet that back in July, he had received a call from a man who introduced himself as the "head of an Israeli yeshiva," and told him that one of his students was a former Ecuadorian now living in Israel.
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The student, Rotem was told, was the acquaintance of a wealthy elderly Jew who was on his deathbed, and "wanted to donate all his worldly possessions in favor of Chabad's good work."
According to the caller, the Chabad House in Quito was in line for a one million dollar donation from the man's estate," Rotem said.
The caller asked about the work done at the Chabad House in Quito and Rotem confided in him that the donation money would enable him to buy the building.
"After that conversation, he would call several times a week," the rabbi said. "He asked me to send his lawyer a detailed plan of how we would use the donation money, and said he would have his son make sure the money was delivered to us. I was just grateful for the godsend."
International man of mystery
Rabbi Rotem told Ynet that he attempted to find out more information about the caller, but to no avail.
"I tried Googling the rabbi who called me, but didn’t find anything. I didn’t find that suspicious, though. He said he was an elderly man who didn’t know much about the internet."
What little trepidation Rotem felt was put at ease when a local attorney contacted him as promised, to coach him ahead of his meeting with the "benefactor."
"She told me to meet her in Manta (in Manabí Province) and that I would leave for the meeting from there. She definitely sounded like a legalist."
Rotem's confidence grew when a plane ticket waited for him at the local airport – as promised. Little did he imagine the flight he was about to embark on would be land him in the midst of a fight for his life.
The Rotem Family (Photos courtesy of Chabad House Quito)
Held at gunpoint
Rotem said he was met at the Manta Airport by a man who told him that the meeting's location had been changed to Puerto Lopez, which is where many people buy vacation homes.
After a two-hour ride, the car stopped. "The next thing I know, two masked men are pointing machine guns at me," Rotem said. He recognized a third man standing nearby as someone he had helped in the past, and had a falling out with.
He was bound and gagged and subjected to a series of violent interrogations: "They kept asking me how much money I have, and beating me. They threatened me with a knife, threatened to make me eat pork."
Rotem said he was subjected to hours of brutal integration. His abductors threatened his family as well, and also threatened to bury him alive.
"I kept pleading with him – we considered him family once. But he wouldn’t listen."
In the course of the first night, Rabbi Rotem was forced to record a ransom tape. For the next for days, he said, he kept pleading with them, trying to reason with them and "using Jewish reasoning, even though none of the three guards were Jewish. I told them – no one leaves this world with out being held accountable for his actions.
"It was hard, but eventually I could see that they were opening up to what I said," he told Ynet.
Rotem's abductors moved him several times in an attempt to cover their tracks – keeping him bound and blindfolded at all times.
The ransom demand was sent to his wife, Rivkah, who had the local police and the Israel Police Latin America Liaison by her side, when it arrived.
"She was coached every step of the way and we're grateful for the Israeli police's assistance," he said.
All well that ends well
During the five-day ordeal, the local police were camped in and around the Rotems' home in Quito.
After five days, Rotem said, his abductors changed their demands, asking the ransom cover only the "abduction costs," which amounted to $10,000. Rotem was released shortly thereafter, after promising he will pay the money himself as soon as he got home.
"This is a miracle. It's unprecedented that a man is abducted and released unharmed without paying a penny in ransom," he told Ynet.
Under police supervision, the rabbi met with his abductor to pay the ransom. He taped the meeting, which led to the Israeli perpetrator's arrest.
The man faced a lengthy indictment, which includes multiple counts of abduction, extortion and hate crimes. The suspect has a criminal record which includes international drag trafficking.
With the horrid ordeal behind him Rabbi Rotem still finds it hard to believe: "Abductions are rare here. They really only happen to the super-wealthy, which we are not. We helped him before – I guess he was after the Chabad House money."
Following the abduction, the security around the Chabad House in Quito has been substantially increased.
"We have guards 24/7 now. We remain open to all and all Israelis and Jews are welcome here," he stressed. "Donations would be welcome. We just want to keep doing good work."
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