As more accusations of sexual misconduct against former ZAKA chairman Yehuda Meshi-Zahav keep pouring in from both men and women, voices within the ultra-Orthodox community are trying to distance themselves from the veteran first responder, likening him to disgraced U.S. financier Jefferey Epstein who became notorious for grooming minors for his own pleasure.
The sheer amount of accusations leveled against Meshi-Zahav and rumors that his alleged actions were an open secret within the community raised questions about the functioning of the sector's modesty patrols — vigilante gangs that act to enforce a code of modesty among the Haredi public through violence and intimidation.
In Jerusalem's Mea Shearim neighborhood, where Meshi Zahav was raised and spent most of his life, these groups usually refrain from turning to authorities in cases of sexual misconduct as they do not recognize the State of Israel. But they don't turn a blind eye, either.
A member of one such group, called the Committee for Preserving Our Camp's Purity, spoke to Ynet on condition of anonymity and said that Meshi-Zahav's deeds were well known across the neighborhood, but the conventional communal systems did not know how or could handle him.
"Meshi[-Zahav] was a despicable man and everyone in Mea Shearim knew it," he said. "Everyone's been talking about it since I was born, and I personally know names of people who have slept with him. It's no secret. We're talking about loads of people.
"For him, everything goes – women, children, boys and girls, and if animals could talk and tell their stories, I've no doubt we would've found out he was playing around with them too. Everything that moves, essentially."
"Everything that is surfacing now is just the tip of the iceberg," he added. "All the things we know have yet to reach the media. Not only did he do things himself, but he also forced others. I remember a story where he went to a matzah bakery and groomed young boys who worked there ahead of Passover so they would have intercourse for his enjoyment. He was truly the Haredi Jeffrey Epstein."
'The Haredi community has undergone a profound change'
The Committee operates in Jerusalem's ultra-Orthodox population centers and cooperates with police, in many cases encouraging victims of sexual offenses — including within the anti-Zionist factions that refrain from cooperating with authorities — to file complaints against the perpetrators.
In the past, however, such cases would have been dealt with behind closed doors, with modesty patrols members physically assaulting sexual deviants until they agreed to seek professional help while the community would care for the well-being of victims.
The Committee member further told Ynet that despite the group's best efforts, Meshi-Zahav continued with his mischiefs.
"Rabbis and spiritual leaders knew very quickly about his deeds, they warned him and threatened him — but he simply ignored everyone. When we decided enough was enough, our plan was to simply castrate him.
"One time, our activists managed to locate an apartment in the Ramat Eshkol neighborhood where he did what he did," he further told. "A bunch of guys from the modesty patrol broke in and caught him red-handed — but Meshi managed to escape. He was a heartbeat away from being served a beating where one gets circumcised.
"That was his last day in the ultra-Orthodox community. After catching him with what they had caught him with, he realized he had nowhere else to go. He then fooled the Israelis, presenting it as 'a disillusionment from a zealous ideology' and as 'rapprochement with Zionism and the state', building a career off of this — but everybody in Mea Shearim knew the real story and what got him out of here."
The Committee member noted that such incidents could only have happened in the past, in an era when the community's spiritual leaders refused to cooperate with law enforcement agencies. Since then, he contended, the ultra-Orthodox community has undergone a profound change in everything regarding sexual misconduct.
"Today everything is out in the open, and there is no chance in the world that such a case would not reach police and that they wouldn't deal with it."