Mind theft

Two weeks before her mother, Sara Wachsman, died at the age of 97, Goldie Maxwell came home to her Jerusalem apartment to find Efrat Gerlich and Adina Higa, two women Goldie had hired to play the piano, sing folk songs and speak to Mrs. Wachsman in Polish, positively ecstatic. “Your mother tried to talk!” the flushed, dark-haired Adina gushed. “Her words flowed like a river for 15 minutes. But we didn’t understand her.” Maribeth, her mother’s Filipina caregiver, confirmed that this had happened. Mrs. Wachsman, a diabetic who also suffered from Alzheimer’s, was wheelchair-bound and hadn’t spoken a word in three years. Yet despite the joy on the faces of all three women, Goldie was alarmed. She and her husband, Dov, had cared for her mother for seven years, ever since bringing her to Israel from Kew Gardens, New York. They’d never seen her in such a state. “She had a strange expression on her face. She looked frightened and pale,” Goldie told Ami. They immediately checked her oxygen levels, blood pressure and blood sugar. “The numbers were strange. I knew something was wrong, but I didn’t know what.” Goldie was convinced it was something cardiac-related.

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That evening, her mother was hyper-alert and had tears in her eyes. “I assumed that she had had a sudden flash of awareness and realized just how limited she was. She couldn’t walk, talk or feed herself. It must have been heartbreaking.” But upon closer scrutiny, Mrs. Wachsman seemed to be trying to raise an alarm. “She looked right at me and raised the forefinger of her left hand as a sign of warning, which completely puzzled me at the time,” Goldie said. Her mother’s attempts to communicate continued. That evening, as Maribeth later told her, the old woman whispered Goldie’s name. Unfortunately, Goldie had just stepped out of the room. Mrs. Wachsman’s death two weeks later was sudden and unanticipated. She was rushed to Hadassah Medical Center after suffering an acute cardiac arrest. Several weeks later, Goldie thought back to the day her mother had tried to speak. She invited Efrat and Adina to her apartment to see if they could shed some light on the incident. Seated at her dining-room table, the two women were just as eager to tell their story as Goldie was to listen. What they told her cut into her heart like a knife, leaving an open wound that still hasn’t healed five years later. “You mother said, ‘G-d is good,’ ” Adina began innocently enough. “Then she said, ‘Hallelukah’ in Polish. She always enjoyed when I read to her from the Tanach.” She stopped for a moment before continuing, “I also read to her from Tehillim and from the Book of Revelations.” “Revelations? Why Revelations?” Goldie asked. “Because we believe in it,” Efrat answered. “I had a revelation ten years ago.” Goldie’s heart almost stopped beating. She understood exactly what Efrat meant.

There were more revelations to come. Efrat handed her a three-page typewritten letter chronicling what she and Adina had “accomplished” over the last several months of Sara Wachsman’s life. Behind Goldie and Dov Maxwell’s backs, the two Messianic Jews had exploited the old woman’s vulnerability to get her to accept “J” as her savior, believing it would cure her of her diabetes and dementia. “I began to hope and pray for a miracle that Sara would talk and give praise to our Father in Heaven,” Efrat wrote. To make sure the miracle happened, the two middle-aged missionaries had “laid hands upon Sara to proclaim the messiah’s triumph over her life…exorcizing the demons that troubled her and prevented her from receiving blessing.” Exactly what that entailed Goldie still isn’t entirely sure. But as former Messianic Jew Noam Cohen* told Ami, exorcism, as practiced by these religious cults, is a horrific and noisy ritual involving anointing the body with oil, blowing the shofar, lighting candles and speaking in tongues— all in an attempt to rid the person of “demons” that make him physically or mentally ill. Goldie can only imagine how disturbing this was to her mother. The women’s “kindnesses” toward Sara didn’t end there. To ease her entry into their version of heaven, the two women were at her bedside in the hospital singing Christian hymns as her soul left her body, and later as she was being buried on Har Hazeisim.

The full impact of their revelations hit Goldie like a rock. She was absolutely stunned. “That night, when my mother had tears in her eyes, I think the penny had dropped,” she says. “She was trying to warn me that something was very wrong, and I didn’t understand her. She must have felt betrayed.” The irony of it all was that blond-haired, blue-eyed Sara Silverberg, born into a chasidic family, had survived the Holocaust by posing as a Polish gentile. Adopting the name Maria Mazur, Sara had found refuge in a convent with her young niece. Risking her life, “Maria” had secretly kindled Shabbos candles every Friday, after which the younger child immediately blew them out. Sara also secretly recited her Jewish prayers while the nuns were reciting theirs.After the liberation, Sara shed this masquerade and reverted to being an observant Jew. Through their actions, Efrat and Adina had blatantly attempted to override her essence. Goldie was deeply hurt and angry. Who were these women who appeared to be so dedicated and loving? How could they have taken such liberties behind their employers’ backs? And more importantly, what could be done legally to punish them? In seeking answers, Goldie became a staunch advocate for the rights of the elderly with dementia and other vulnerable minorities in Israel.

Her dogged determination helped expand the definition of elder abuse to include a new category: spiritual abuse.  Messianic Jews, Goldie discovered, don’t consider themselves Christians but fulfilled Jews whose mission it is to help all Jews find similar self-realization. They do this, according to Rabbi Bentzion Kravitz, founder and director of the Los Angeles-based countermissionary organization Jews for Judaism, by blurring the distinction between the religions. “Messianic Jews and Jews for J [two separate organizations with similar goals] don’t come out and say what they believe because they know that would taint the appeal for many Jews. They also expropriate rabbinical teachings and make believe they’re frum in order to appear legitimate.” As Noam Cohen added, deceit is a very important part of their modus operandi. For example, the director of one of Israel’s top nursing facilities serving the elderly with dementia (the facility asked not to be named) told Goldie that a group of 30 volunteers once tried to infiltrate their home-visitation program. “The director smelled a rat, asked a few more questions and discovered that they were Messianic Jews. But of course, they denied engaging in any kind of missionary activity, which is standard procedure for them,” Goldie says.

According to estimates, there are currently 15,000 Messianic Jews living in Israel. Their 150 congregations, scattered around the country, are supported primarily by Christian evangelical denominations in the US and Europe. Dozens of cases of Messianic Jews targeting the elderly are brought to the attention of Yad L’Achim, Israel’s countermissionary organization, every year; Rabbi Kravitz says that there are fewer cases in the States. Neither organization keeps statistics. But how many attempts fall under the radar? If Efrat and Adina hadn’t brazenly admitted what they had done, Goldie would not have known of their egregious behavior. Even more disturbing, Messianic Jews cannot be prosecuted for such crimes because Israel’s anti-missionary law only prohibits proselytizing minors without parental consent and offering financial benefits as an incentive. Moreover, the law is frequently flouted and rarely enforced. “They openly break the law by proselytizing to children, promising benefits, lying about their true identities and goals, and trying to exploit people in distress,” Yad L’Achim director Binyamin Kluger told Ami. “Many solid cases that were brought before the police were simply closed.” Where, then, did this leave victims like Sara Wachsman? Frustrated, Goldie started lobbying to expand the law but soon realized how futile the effort was.

That same year, 2009, MK Yaakov Margi (Shas) had proposed legislation prohibiting all proselytizing and imposing fines or jail sentences on violators, but his proposal went nowhere. Goldie feels this is due to the evangelical churches’ financial support for Israel and political clout, especially in the US. She also discovered that Messianic Jews are aggressively pursuing official recognition as an established religion. These organizations are currently considered cults and cannot perform religious ceremonies, although they do benefit from reductions in municipal taxes on their private buildings. “They claim that their civil and religious rights are being violated in order to galvanize sympathy,” Rabbi Kravitz added, “but none of it is true. In 30 years of doing this work, I never thought Israel would be as blind to the overtures of missionaries as it is today.” The missionary groups also play the anti-chareidi card in order to gain secular Israeli backing. “They criticize chareidim for not working or serving in the army,” Kluger explained. And despite several well-publicized legal victories attempting to portray chareidim as irrational aggressors pitted against peaceful, law-abiding citizens who only want to worship G-d, Kluger believes that the Israeli public at large doesn’t support them. “They have yet to be recognized as an official religion.” Adding to Goldie’s frustration was the fact that many politicians didn’t seem to appreciate why her mother’s experience was so terrible. “If you had asked my mother how she defined herself, the first thing she would have said was as a Jew.

But some secular Israelis don’t understand the depth of this identity.” She also encountered entrenched prejudice against people with dementia. Many questioned if Sara had really understood the women’s intent. “Some people believe that dementia patients have no presence at all, that they are basically not there.” Goldie wasn’t prepared to give up, but she was prepared to shift gears. The Messianic community was gaining public support, making her efforts all the more urgent. Stymied on the anti-missionary front, she resolved to pursue the matter on the basis of human rights. The issue of elder abuse had received considerable publicity since 2003, when the Israeli Health Ministry issued a directive to raise awareness; it still remains a hot-button issue. “I felt viscerally that my mother had been abused on a basic level,” she says. “Setting aside the theological argument, how could they have done that to someone so helpless?”But would others see it that way? Even though Israel had expanded the definition of elder abuse so that it was no longer limited to physical ill treatment or monetary extortion, it still didn’t include deceiving a person with cognitive disabilities in order to convert him to another faith. Goldie realized she could no longer go it alone.

An obvious choice was to reach out to Beit Melabev, the National Center for Alzheimer’s Care in Jerusalem. But before doing so, she contacted gerontologist Professor Arnold Rosin, the founder of Melabev, for his opinion. “I had met him back in 1999, when my mother was visiting us in Israel. I had asked him to assess her and was very impressed with his approach. Ten years later, when he heard my mother’s story, he immediately agreed that it was abuse. I was so relieved since not everyone had that reaction. Coming from him, it was a vote of confidence.” Others associated with Melabev concurred, saying that given the anti-chareidi climate in Israel, pursuing a human rights approach would be more effective than a frontal anti-missionary attack. This was music to Goldie’s ears. Hopeful, Goldie came to her first meeting with Melabev representatives in May 2010 armed with ambitious suggestions. First, what had happened to her mother needed to be defined as elder abuse. Next, it was crucial to alert hospitals and health-care facilities to the fact that these kinds of activities were going on, possibly under their very noses, and urge them to report any suspicions.

Furthermore, foreign caregivers had to be educated in their own language about how Messianic Judaism misrepresents both Judaism and Christianity, and why the missionaries’ strategies are so profoundly disrespectful of a patient’s dignity and identity. (Maribeth, Mrs. Wachsman’s Filipina caregiver, had even been invited to attend the Messianics’ prayer sessions. She had naïvely assumed that whatever Efrat and Adina were doing was acceptable to Goldie and Dov.) The information would then be reinforced in a contract between patients and caregivers to include a phrase about respecting the religious preferences of their charges. Even more importantly, Melabev needed to establish a database of similar cases in order to bolster its argument. However, Melabev wasn’t prepared to establish a database, something that Goldie found incomprehensible and frustrating. Instead, it focused on raising awareness in health-care communities and asked Goldie to put together a short documentary on her mother’s life. As happy as Goldie was to have their support, she felt that Melabev didn’t go far enough. Only a change in legislation would afford real protection to the elderly with dementia.

Interestingly, just as Goldie was beginning her one-woman crusade, the Edinburg-based Alzheimer Scotland organization was launching a massive online campaign to establish abuse of the elderly with dementia as a human rights issue. Two years later, in 2011, its Charter of Rights for People with Dementia and Their Carers in Scotland was endorsed by the Scottish Parliament. When Goldie learned of the Scottish campaign, she realizes that what had happened to her mother needed a legal basis in order for it to be actionable. “That legal basis had to be created, reinforced and applied in a new context. When I read Scotland’s Charter of Rights, I understood what the trajectory ought to be.” The charter isn’t a legal document in and of itself, but a restatement of existing international human rights laws. It focuses on preventing abuse and on the consequences should it occur. There was no question that what Efrat and Adina had done to her mother constituted abuse, Jan Killeen of Alzheimer Scotland told Goldie. Sara Wachsman’s wishes had to be taken into account, and in lieu of her ability to give consent, her family’s wishes had to be respected. Had the abuse taken place in Scotland, Goldie could have brought criminal charges against the two women.

Alzheimer Scotland instituted yet another safeguard. In Scotland, all service providers, both paid and unpaid, working in public facilities must be able to provide a disclosure certificate attesting that no offenses are registered against them. All employers have the right to ask potential employees to register for such a certificate. Should any offense subsequently take place, that person can be removed from the registry. With a similar safeguard in Israel, Goldie might have been alerted to Efrat and Adina’s proclivities before hiring them. She could even have launched a complaint after her mother died, warning others and possibly taking them to court. Israel, Goldie notes, has no mandatory screening for volunteers, and many health-care professionals don’t even see it an issue. Social worker Chana Persoff, who was employed by Goldie as her mother’s case manager, told Ami that when she confronted the head nurse who recommended Efrat, the woman admitted to knowing that Efrat was a Messianic Jew. In fact, Efrat had even taken one of the residents along to a prayer meeting. “If the woman wanted to go, why not?” the nurse had responded. In November 2012, Melabev, along with the Israeli Ministry for Senior Citizens, EMDA Alzheimer’s Association of Israel and Dr. Sara Alon of the Joint Distribution Committee-Eshel, held a conference on these topics with a specific focus on spiritual abuse.

The conference, entitled “Mind Theft: Breaking New Ground in Dementia, Abuse and Human Rights,” attracted 300 social workers, lawyers and directors of volunteer organizations. On the roster was James Pearson, deputy director of policy for Alzheimer Scotland, who participated by video conference. Goldie’s documentary about her mother was screened for the first time. Panelist Professor Israel Doron of the Israel Gerontological Society and the University of Haifa stated that what these two missionaries had done was a form of geneivas daas, deceitfully asserting power over their charge for their own purposes. As for the question of whether dementia patients can have their identities stolen, the answer was a definite yes. “People with dementia have awareness, insight and feelings. They feel pain and sadness.” Dr. Alon went further. When these people can no longer make decisions for themselves, any decisions imposed on them that contradict their fundamental value system and identity constitute criminal abuse. “Emotional abuse eventually leads to physical injury.

Spiritual abuse is a premeditated injury that targets the spiritual self of a human being. This goes beyond religion to the essence that transcends our material selves,” she said. The conference was successful in raising awareness in the healthcare community. What it didn’t do, though, was further Goldie’s primary goal, which was to initiate lobbying efforts for protective legislation similar to Scotland’s. Goldie feels that the Israeli political bureaucracy doesn’t encourage activism since citizens don’t have local representatives ready to take on their grievances, as they do in the US. Unfortunately, the issue continues to be ignored in the Knesset. “No one is interested in characterizing what happened to my mother as an abuse of human rights. It’s much easier to view it as a religious issue.” Meanwhile, Goldie continues to bear the emotional scars of what those two women did—not only to her mother but to her. “They attacked the essence of who I am and what I was trying to do for my mother. Dov and I devoted seven years of our lives to taking care of her. Throughout their lives my parents went out of their way to help me. The very least I could do for my mother was give her a reason to live and smile.” 

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