WILLIAMSBURG, Brooklyn — Yitzchak Kaplan, a bus driver near Jerusalem, flew to New York from Israel in mid-March, hoping to bring home a third teenage daughter who’s become a follower of charismatic Hasidic rabbi, Yoel Roth.
Kaplan’s son, Moshe, said two of his older sisters had already married into Rabbi Roth’s Breslev sect.
“We have two sisters here, and now, this is the third,” Moshe Kaplan told PIX11 News. “We have two sisters in this cult!”
We asked Moshe Kaplan why he called the rabbi’s group a cult.
“All the decisions, from all the people in this community here, he makes all the decisions,” Kaplan alleged outside the rabbi’s Skillman Street base in Williamsburg, shortly after a wedding was held under a chuppah on the sidewalk.
Moshe Kaplan said the third sister, 17, had recently arrived in New York and was engaged to one of Roth’s followers.
Rabbi Roth oversees a school on Skillman Street called Yeshiva Tiferes Hatorah and leads the Breslev Center, tweeting videos with daily inspirations.
But a recent complaint about a 15-year-old bride allegedly marrying a 21-year-old groom spurred the NYPD and Administration for Children’s Services to take a look at Roth’s religious organization.
“Our office is aware of investigations into marriages,” said Oren Yaniv, chief spokesperson for the Brooklyn District Attorney.
An ACS spokesperson told us that, by law, the agency could not comment on investigations;.
“Our top priority is the safety and well-being of New York children,” they said. “Child marriage is illegal in New York and we take allegations of child marriage and child sexual abuse very seriously.”
NYPD Detective Sophia Mason also sent PIX11 News a statement from Police headquarters:
“The NYPD takes sexual assault and rape cases extremely seriously, and urges anyone who has been a victim to file a police report so we can perform a comprehensive investigation, and offer support and services to survivors,” she said.
Under New York State law, a teen who wants to marry between the ages of 17 and 18 must have parental consent and a judge’s permission to do so. Anyone under the age of 17 can’t legally get a marriage license in New York.
But Yehudis Fletcher, a British scholar who married into Brooklyn’s Satmar Hasidic sect when she was 18, said a religious ceremony is something else.
“A marriage can be conducted in the religious environment and not registered, and that would be considered a binding, religious marriage,” Fletcher said.
Fletcher had three children, before she began the difficult process of getting a divorce within the ultra-Orthodox community.
Fletcher has studied Rabbi Roth’s speeches, which have promised his young male followers a beautiful bride if they avoid sinful, outside influences.
“There’s extreme warmth within Hasidic Judaism, a real sense of belonging,” Fletcher added. “All you have to do is conform.”
But Fletcher is concerned about complaints teen girls — and boys — are being encouraged to marry too young, as a means of addressing their budding sexuality.
“The worry about boys ‘filling their seed’ or having lustful thoughts,” Fletcher said. “There are boys who are disenchanted who are just experiencing their normal, hormonal bodies.”
“It’s often girls getting married younger than boys,” Fletcher added. “That’s a really problematic position for women… to be the vessel for men’s sexuality.”
Some local Hasidic families are afraid to go public with their concerns. One mother told me her son went from being a disciplined 14-year-old kid to coming home at 3 a.m. when he started following the rabbi. The son is now married with children and rarely sees his mother.
Yitzchak and Moshe Kaplan eventually tracked down the third daughter who’d become engaged to a Roth follower, with help from law enforcement, and brought her back to Israel.
PIX11 News tried repeatedly to reach Rabbi Roth. We went to the yeshiva twice and asked to speak to him. During one visit to the Skillman Street site, various Hasidic men took photos of our PIX11 News photographer and myself with cell phone cameras.
The yeshiva also has multiple security cameras affixed to the building.
When PIX11 News called the yeshiva, seeking the rabbi or his secretary, a woman answered the phone and took our phone number, but no one called back. We also tried reaching Roth at a phone number connected to his compound in Liberty, New York. Once again, no response.
For now, it seems, the rabbi will continue to get his message out through the power of social media.