Shraga Schlachter went from operating five brothels to giving lectures about sex addiction and training hundreds of therapists in the ultra-Orthodox community
It’s a gray wintry morning on a main street in the town of Givat Shmuel, adjacent to Ramat Gan. Two ultra-Orthodox women walk by tranquilly with a baby stroller. Tucked in behind a rundown shopping center, without a sign, is the entrance to Ora, an institute for couples and family therapy. A Haredi woman is at the reception desk. From one of the treatment rooms in the corridor behind her, the voice of Avraham Fried, a renowned Hasidic singer, can be heard: “If just a short time ago we were distant, now comes great relief, there’s crying and laughing because it’s a connection of souls, it’s a true bond, and warm, fine feelings accompany me.”
Crowded into one of the therapy rooms are 15 women of various ages, together with their teacher, Rabbi Shraga Schlachter. Their lips form the words of the song they hear but, heeding the prohibition on singing in the presence of a man, no sound emerges from their throats. “How good, how good that we met, what am I without you, together we were deeply moved…”
When the song ends, the American-born rabbi declares that the course on “treatment of addiction and couples therapy” has ended, and he invites them to offer their feedback. Thrilled, the women gaze at him with shining eyes. For quite a while, each woman speaks with impressive openness about the personal process she underwent with the aid of Schlachter, whom they refer to in the third person. Most of them took the course, which met weekly over a period of two months, in order to boost their knowledge and equip them with professional tools for their work in education and therapy among the religiously observant population. The meeting comes to an end, the rabbi invites each participant to receive a certificate and suggests that they buy his novel, “The First Day of the Rest of My Life,” which is about a yeshiva head who suffers from a serious addiction to sex and how he has coped with his obsession.
Schlachter cautions them about the book’s explicit sexual content. One of the older women chuckles and says that they’ve already learned in the course how to contend with that. Another woman wants to know why Schlachter’s name doesn’t appear as the author. He explains that because of the book’s sexual nature, his rabbi advised him to use a pen name.
For over a decade, Schlachter has worked as a couples therapist specializing in treating addictions, principally sex-related, whose clients are from the Haredi and national-religious communities. The people seeking his help suffer from a wide range of addictions, but the majority are addicted to sex – which is not a marginal phenomenon among the ultra-Orthodox, he tells Haaretz, adding that his patients come from all the sects within that community, even the most conservative, such as the Ger Hasidim.
As his book indicates, Schlachter himself was long addicted to sex and for some time even supported himself both as a prostitute and as a pimp. It’s clear from his introduction that he has the qualifications to recognize sex addiction when he sees it. “The definition of a sexual addict is: a person whose life and thoughts are managed by strong and uncontrollable sexual stimulation and urges,” he writes. “These stimulations only intensify over time and induce the addict to do deeds that are harmful to himself and to his milieu, to the point where he neglects his commitments. Instead of changing his ways, however, he sinks increasingly into his addiction.”
‘The former Shraga’
Schlachter is a controversial figure in the religious world in Israel, and is perceived at times as something of an alien presence. But his clinic here in Givat Shmuel is always busy, and he lectures and conducts workshops across the country. “I have trained more than 600 therapists,” he says. “I hope that through them, I am exercising a positive influence on Haredi society. I may have a different voice, but in their heart people know it’s an important voice. Because of the life I’ve led, I feel sufficiently confident to represent this place. In my mind’s eye, I constantly see the former Shraga.”
He was born in 1972, the eldest child of a young ultra-Orthodox couple in Brooklyn’s Borough Park neighborhood. When he was 7, his parents decided to abandon their successful family optician business and immigrate to Israel. From an urban life in New York, they were thrown into a lonely existence in the then-new, ultra-Orthodox community of Kiryat Ye’arim, also known as Telz-Stone, west of Jerusalem, and adjacent to the Arab town of Abu Ghosh.
Shraga Schlachter in his youth.
The family prospered. His father’s disposable dishes business did well, and Shraga turned out to be an outstanding student, with many friends. But as his bar mitzvah approached, everything changed. His grandmother Shandy, an important anchor in his life, died from ALS (aka Lou Gehrig’s disease), a terminal, degenerative disease of the nervous system. Schlachter, who after her death began living and studying at a yeshiva in Haifa, harbored a sense of loss and intense loneliness.
“I was angry at God,” he recalls. “I was furious with him. I didn’t understand how he let her die like that, like a dog. I had a notebook in which I wrote questions, such as why do people suffer, all sorts of things like that, and I went to the rabbi and hurled my questions at him. He shouted at me, ‘Questions like that are not asked. You need to realize that there are things we do not understand.’ I was ashamed that I had even dared to ask.”
Schlachter lost interest in his studies and began skipping classes to wander around Haifa. His vulnerability was evident and was soon exploited, he says: Another yeshiva student, a year his senior, took him to his room. “He touched my private parts and said: ‘Look how you do this and that.’ I was a very innocent boy then. I didn’t know what sexuality was, didn’t know about sex, didn’t know about anything. He revealed the whole masturbation thing to me.”
From Schlachter’s perspective, the other student fulfilled a psychological need and helped him with his pain and inner torment. The physical satisfaction and immediate emotional response from the mutual masturbation electrified him. Naively, he shared the new discovery with a friend, but their conversation was overheard by one of the yeshiva’s rabbis. “The next day, in the middle of a Gemara class, my rabbi and the supervisor suddenly entered and said: ‘Schlachter – out!’”
That episode turned his life upside down: For having had sexual contact with a fellow student, he was expelled from the yeshiva, and his father made his life miserable, sending him to a psychologist in the community to undergo conversion therapy to rid him of any homosexual urges. Back home in Jerusalem, tensions mounted, until Schlachter felt compelled to escape and start a new life – on the street.
At 15, still dressed like a Haredi teenager, he started to roam the streets of Jerusalem: “I didn’t know what I was getting into. I didn’t know the city beyond the school I was attending and another few neighborhoods. A boy I knew taught me the streets, the alleys off Ben Yehuda Street downtown. There were a lot of movie theaters there then. It was an amazing experience to enter a dark hall and simply to escape from all the pain outside. I started going to movies obsessively. At that time, religious people didn’t go to the movies; there was a taboo against it. Those who did, hid their hats and jackets in a bag. We went in after it was dark and left before the lights came up. Those who were caught were automatically expelled from their yeshiva.”
With the after-dark hours devoted to the big screen, Schlachter’s days were devoted to survival, he says: “We would steal money at the mikveh [ritual bath] and in synagogues. In the mikveh, people disrobed and went to shower, and I would take their wallets and leave. We got by on 50 shekels a day for food and a movie. I knew I had to survive, it didn’t matter to me how or by what means. I did whatever I could.” Each night he would have to improvise a place to sleep.
Street life was challenging and intense, but Schlachter says he preferred it to living with his parents, who had effectively disowned him. One day, a friend suggested that he go to Tel Aviv with him. “He told me that movies were screened all night in Atarim Square. He knew that was like a dream for me.”
Schlachter, who’d never set foot in the seaside city, got his hands on the cash in a tzedaka box and boarded a bus for Tel Aviv. “I got to Atarim Square – it was love at first sight. There was a restaurant there called The Milky Way, where they showed movies in a loop – Bruce Lee, Schwarzenegger, ‘Snooker,’ ‘Charlie and a Half’ [popular Israeli films],” he says, recalling that to keep warm at night, he would squat in dressing rooms on the beach and wrap himself in tablecloths that he stole from the restaurant.
Schlachter, in his youth.
On some occasions, he and his friends went to movie theaters near Tel Aviv’s old Central Bus Station that screened porn films. “We’d come in, sit down, masturbate or not. Fall asleep on the seat. We would keep waking up because some old codger touched us, so we would get rid of him and go back to sleep. It became a sort of routine. In the evening we went back to Atarim Square.”
It may sound like an extremely difficult adolescence, but Schlachter himself says now, “It was the most beautiful period of my life. For the first time I was breathing fresh air. To come from where I did, from a place of very great suffering, to arrive at a place of freedom, the seashore. It was amazing.”
For some time in his late teens, Schlachter went back and forth between the bus station and Atarim Square in Tel Aviv and the pedestrian mall in central Jerusalem. Occasionally he got into scuffles with the police and was taken into custody, where he says he fell victim to sexual and other assaults. To make ends meet, he offered sexual services to men and women he met in the street or in public lavatories. In some cases he became a client – buying a few fleeting moments of warmth and human contact with prostitutes. Very quickly life on the street and his obsessive and ongoing plunge into the world of sex became the essence of Schlachter’s life, consuming all his time and energy. He relentlessly pursued the next sexual thrill and started to show what he describes now as symptoms of addiction.
It was not until he was in his mid-20s that Schlachter decided to try to fight his urges and return to the straight and narrow. “I felt that I needed a place to feel like family and decided to try to go back to the yeshiva,” he says. He enrolled in Jerusalem’s Machon Meir yeshiva, which is affiliated with the religious-Zionist movement, and at first it seemed to be working: His parents resumed relations with him and he was an outstanding student. “I know how to learn Gemara. After all, I know it from childhood. I was raised on it.”
He even met a young woman, to whom he proposed marriage. She accepted. His hope was that his studies and engagement would act like a wonder drug to heal his wounds. His father, delighted that his son was getting his life in order, was happy to pay for a luxurious wedding.
Schlachter: “It was four days before the wedding. The hall was booked, relatives were flying in. I call my fiancée, and suddenly she doesn’t answer. I talk to a girlfriend of hers and she tells me, ‘Look, the wedding is off – her mother sent her to the United States, she decided that this match doesn’t suit her.’”
The woman’s family had heard about Schlachter’s past and canceled the wedding, without bothering to inform him. Just when his life seemed to be stabilizing and the relationship with his father was improving, things fell apart. In despair, he quit his studies, left home, and returned to the street, where he tried to support himself by prostitution. This time, he didn’t only subsist, he turned it into a full-fledged business. With three more friends, exiles from Kiryat Ye’arim like him, he rented an apartment in Jerusalem’s largely blue-collar neighborhood of Kiryat Hayovel.
They published an ad in Yedioth Ahronoth for “short-term dating” services. “All kinds of men showed up and we slept with them for 200 shekels. That went on for two to three months. There was money coming in and I also enjoyed the interaction. I like people and I like sex, and things went well. Then we decided to bring in a girl and receive people as a couple, as if she and I were together – so we would make more money.”
He called a firm that provides sexual services for advice, and was told that the going price for a threesome was 1,500 shekels. “Fine, I said, excellent. That day we made 3,000. In the evening the pimp who was working with us asked me, ‘What about tomorrow?’ I said, ‘Tomorrow, too.’ Suddenly our pockets were bulging with cash. And then we asked ourselves why we needed to work at all.”
Schlachter stopped being a sex worker himself and became a sort of subcontractor, ordering female prostitutes from pimps who would work for him in his apartment “around the clock.” Soon a second apartment was needed. “It was quite a problem to find a place,” he recalls now. “We had to find neighbors who wouldn’t be bothered, and a congenial landlord. The religious facade naturally helped us.”
Schlachter was now a full-fledged pimp. “Most of the time I believed I was providing a service to people who needed it. I saw it as something that was perfectly all right. I saw plenty of harsh things, but I constantly tried to see the other side, the humane side. One wants a fantasy of some kind, another wants a fantasy of a different kind, but everyone’s looking to be ‘contained’ in different and diverse ways.”
Yes, but in this case the “containment” is at the expense of a woman you are responsible for exploiting.
“Look, today I wouldn’t be involved with anything related to exploiting women like that. But at the time I felt privileged to be in that place. I never thought I was better than the women. It was a job. I didn’t belittle anyone. I never slept with anyone who worked with me.”
How do you think that period influences you as a therapist today?
“That was my Ph.D. in therapy – those streets and those places. I saw people in all kinds of situations and spoke to them and analyzed them, without them realizing that I was analyzing them. People often go to prostitutes in order to talk about their lives. They ostensibly come to have sex, but actually they come for those moments when a woman ‘contains’ them without being judgmental.”
An objectionable law
Paying for sex is illegal in Israel, and the Knesset recently passed a law imposing a fine on buying sex or even being present in a place that is used for prostitution. Schlachter says he opposes such legislation. He believes that the prostitutes themselves will be harmed by it.
Do you see prostitution as something legitimate? A profession to which people come by choice?
“It’s clear that the people who arrive at such a place have not led a regular life. But they made a choice about their life. I refuse – as one who experienced hard things in life and also as a therapist – to see these people as victims. There is no field that is only bad, no field that is only good. And that is true not only of prostitution.”
At its peak, Schlachter was operating four brothels in Jerusalem and another one at an apartment in Tel Aviv. Many of the clients were from the Haredi community, he says. He became aware of the hypocrisy of the important rabbis who visited his establishments. “Distinguished friends of my father came to me for services. Just to see their faces…! Those were formative moments for me. I felt that they were being punished for their hypocrisy. In the past they threw mud at me and today they were coming to be serviced.”
But with the expansion of the business came troubles: Police raids and arrests became routine events. “Investigations, handcuffs, arrests, releases. It was very unpleasant. But the real danger, it turned out, did not stem from the police or the law,” he recalls, adding that one evening he heard a prostitute screaming in pain. He burst in and found a client flogging her with a whip. He immediately threw him out.
“She called her pimp, and of course I apologized, but it didn’t help. There is no such thing [as ‘I’m sorry’] in that world. It was my responsibility.” The pimp threatened to kill Schlachter.
That episode prompted him yet again to change course. He decided to enroll in another yeshiva, this time Aish HaTorah in the Old City of Jerusalem, in a rabbinic-ordination program; he immersed himself once more in the Gemara familiar to him since childhood. But shaking off his old habits proved difficult. “I would meet people online, and all day long I busied myself with fulfillment of sexual fantasies.”
He decided that only marriage would be able to extract him from his plight, and so he went to a matchmaker known for her success with the Haredi community’s “rotten apples”: “That’s how I met the woman I was married to for 20 years – until we were divorced. She was newly observant, an amazing person. She knew everything, that I had been involved in prostitution and lived on the street. I thought that if I married a Haredi woman I would be able to disconnect from everything that had been before.”
The plan appeared to have worked – Schlachter seemed to have normalized his life. His wife became pregnant with their firstborn son and in 1999 he completed his rabbinical studies with marked success. “They wanted me to be the rabbi of a community abroad – a job with excellent conditions, with everything,” he says, but he realized that he wanted to devote his life to working with young people who, like him, had lost their way. He told the yeshiva head that he wanted to help foment a deep and meaningful change in Haredi society.
The rabbi gave him his blessing and Schlachter embarked on his new path. Despite his lack of professional credentials, he established an organization called Hazon (Vision), in Jerusalem, and recruited psychologists and rabbis, who set up a training program .
“The idea was not to build hospitals under the bridge, but to repair the bridge – when youths begin to show distress within [organizational] frameworks, to be there just before they fall. Which is not the way it happened with me. If there had been someone to listen to me, I would have been saved. It became my life’s mission to change all that.”
Rabbi Israel Gantz, a leading figure in the community, was appointed president of the organization; Schlachter was involved in its day-to-day management. He undertook frequent fund-raising missions to the United States. At the same time, however, he became increasingly troubled.
Schlachter: “When I was abroad, I suddenly had this switch in my brain – I wanted sex, clubs, one or two women every night. Like a junkie. To try to overcome these urges, I traveled with a friend and asked him to keep me in check. But in the end I had to shut down the organization. I told the rabbi I was resigning for personal reasons.”
He had come to the realization that he had not rehabilitated himself after all the years on the street and in the sex trade: “The obsession with sex interfered with the management of my work and my life. I went to a psychiatrist in the community. He said he would give me ‘castration’ medication, a periodic injection that makes your sex organ like putty, and psychiatric drugs that reduce your desire and obsession with sex.”
Despite his deep despair, he rejected the proposal. It was then, as he was about to turn 30, that Schlachter finally felt the urge to undergo therapy himself. This he did with Danny Brom, a clinical psychologist and founding director of the Jerusalem-based Israel Center for the Treatment of Psychotrauma. Prof. Brom has been his therapist ever since, as well as his professional consultant.
“In our first meeting he said to me, ‘Shraga, you talk about addiction as something negative, but look how it ultimately saved you.’” In a sense, the addiction was like a defense mechanism that protected him from pain he could not cope with.
“Those words, says Schlachter, “still resonate in my head and they are my credo as a therapist.”
Schlachter studied at the Y.N.R. College in Jerusalem, which trains therapists for work in the Orthodox and Haredi communities. For a number of years, he took courses in couples therapy and psychotherapy, afterward specializing in addictions. “It doesn’t matter where you studied, what’s important is to know what you’re doing,” he says. “People who come for therapy want to know that they’re in good hands. What matters is who you are and how and with what tools you work. We hear all the time about assaults by therapists who have diplomas. It’s not just sexual assaults, there is also financial exploitation, emotional exploitation – there are so many kinds of exploitation. I personally was acquainted with quite a few of them.”
Angels of destruction
As in other communities, sexual addiction among Haredim has probably always existed, but developments involving the internet, which allows for increased access to pornographic content is confronting them – and others – with new challenges. Says Schlachter: “Every addiction develops because of a deficiency. Guilt feelings heighten the need to escape into addiction, and thus a vicious circle is created. Addiction is not related to one’s religious background, but within the religious public there is a strict prohibition on ‘spilling one’s seed’ and there is a lot of fear-mongering related to that. Those tactics and prohibitions are part of the fuel that fuels addiction. One of the arguments is that the sperm that are wasted become angels of destruction and strike at a person after his death. The scare tactics and the judgmental attitude are translated into guilt feelings that intensify addiction. The dissonance Haredim experience from addiction is more severe: On the one hand, they want to be ethical and moral; on the other, they are doing something that’s prohibited.”
According to Schlachter, who sees masturbation as healthy and normal, addiction to sex in the Haredi community is not essentially different from that in secular society, both in terms of the scale of the phenomenon and its various manifestations: for example, visiting prostitutes, participating in sex parties, having extramarital affairs and engaging in voyeurism. In some cases the sexual activity becomes obsessive within the marital framework, where the wife is cajoled into conducting frequent and unhealthy relations, in order to fulfill the husband’s fantasies. And, as opposed to addiction to alcohol or drugs, for sex addiction, generally, total abstention is not a solution. One of the basic requirements of a husband, according to halakha (religious law), is to maintain conjugal relations with his wife.
The usual way of dealing with problems of this sort in the Haredi community, says Schlachter, is by treating the symptoms: “The Haredi public and its leaders are afraid to deal with the root of the problem. They’re busy smashing cellphones and restricting internet access, as though that will prevent the phenomenon [of addiction to pornography and purchased sex]. Well, you can block cellular devices as much as you like, but you can’t block the emotional urge behind the phenomenon. If you block it here, it will emerge there; block it there, it will manifest in a different place. Addiction cannot be prevented without addressing its root.”
To some extent, however, Schlachter’s own therapeutic approach is the antithesis of that concept. Initially, he encourages his patients to adopt a positive approach toward their addiction. “I put my patients through a process of becoming aware of the good that’s in addiction. Addiction is born of pain, and it helps the psyche cope with that pain. In therapy we talk about the ‘profits’ and ‘dividends’ that stem from addiction. That helps reduce the guilt feelings… This is an important preliminary process, which is essential for making further progress.”
Thereafter, Schlachter says, he tries together with his clients to uncover the emotional deficiency that initially gave rise to their addiction. “What characterizes a sex addict is the great need for containment,” by which means acceptance as they are, with their particular emotions and needs. “People who are addicted to sex suffer terribly and their life is filled with fear. For them the world is a threatening place, and they accept the sense of containment with the same obsessiveness they develop toward sex.”
Most sex addicts are male, which is true not only in the Haredi community, he explains, but in any event, if the addict is in a relationship, therapy must involve both partners, whether straight or gay. “Let’s say I have a couple in therapy, and that the man had a difficult childhood. The moment he is exposed to his wife’s sexuality, he vents all his frustration and emotional neediness on her. For years, he will use her as his sex slave, and she agrees to dance this dance with him, because she herself lacks a strong emotional anchor. If she had come from a healthy place, she probably would have set limits. In therapy of this kind, an equal amount of work is done on her emotional world, on the source of dependence.”
How do you define successful therapy?
“I teach my students that the gauge of success in this therapy is not whether we completely solve the problem for the patient. What needs to be asked is whether we succeeded, through therapy, in improving the patient’s quality of life by even a millimeter. The goal is not to redeem the patient from his addiction; the therapist must not come with an agenda. The goal is to succeed in building confidence and to create an emotional anchor for the person. To say that success in therapy is a black-and-white thing – no. That’s not how I see it. If I help the patient to reduce his guilt feelings, to accept himself and build that emotional anchor, I have no doubt that this will also subsequently impact the need to escape into addiction.”
What made you want to tell your story to the public?
“It is part of me. It was accompanied by a great deal of pain. There was terrible loneliness. Let me put it this way: I wish I had never gone through all this. But having done so, I want to leverage it as effectively as I can – in my work, in my interview with you, and in general. It’s a great privilege for me to share my journey with others.”
Schlachter, who today is 47, divorced his first wife, and a few months later met Yael Elenhoren. The two were married last year, and today live in Zichron Yaakov. Yael, who is secular, is an organizational and economic consultant, and she’s involved in managing Schlachter’s workshops and lectures. His story will also be heard as part of the “Israel Story” Hebrew podcast, hosted by Mishy Harman on Army Radio.
“I’ve been married almost a year,” he says, “and I feel no need to be with anyone else other than my wife. I say this as a given, not because I got over myself or tried to do so. Because things are good. I think time has done its work. My work as a therapist has healed me, it’s a very great gift. Helping other people has helped me to help myself.”