It's hard to tell who is crazy, but who is evil is sometimes quite clear.
Michael & Yoni
Abuse of power by "men of God" — the current scandal in the Roman Catholic Church is only the most recent example — forms the timely context for the following article, which was privately commissioned several years ago and has never before been published. The tale of Yoni Morris also describes the sad paradox that by insisting on what is good and right, we sometimes hurt those we most want to protect.
Early in the morning of June 22, 1997, Jonathan (“Yoni”) Morris, age 40, an American-born citizen of Israel, was found dead by police at the bottom of a poorly fenced building excavation in the Givat Shaul section of northern Jerusalem. Morris, who suffered from severe mental illness, had walked out of an open ward at the Kfar Shaul Mental Health Center, where he had been temporarily hospitalized, between 5 and 6 a.m. and had either fallen or thrown himself off the lip of the 15-meter-deep excavation.
Since Morris was known sometimes to hear voices urging him to destroy himself and had attempted suicide at least once recently, the authorities labeled it suicide. The family held a memorial service in New York, and then Yoni’s father flew to Israel for his funeral and his burial on the Mount of Olives. Many people had known and liked Yoni — he was a local “character” familiar as a beggar in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City and nearby neighborhoods — and his funeral drew 200 people, with eulogies delivered by local rabbis. And that was that.
But Yoni’s death left unresolved the drama which may have led to his death. According to Michael Avraham, Yoni’s caregiver for three years, Yoni had been emotionally manipulated and physically abused by a rabbi he loved in the Jewish Quarter. For two years or more, Michael had fought unsuccessfully to force the rabbinical authorities to confront the problem and to help extricate Yoni from his bondage. But the rabbis and the religious community that Yoni trusted and loved had, according to Michael, betrayed him.
Yoni was an odd-looking guy about six feet tall, with unkempt hair and side-curls. He walked slightly hunched over some of the time, often grinning, with movements that were sometimes jerky — all effects of his medications on him. He carried a ragged book of Psalms in one hand, a begging cup in the other.
Just another psychotic panhandler — and yet, according to many who knew him, Yoni was special. He talked to people, blessed them, hugged them, cheered them up or woke them up. Loving and direct, he had a warmth inside him that communicated itself even to people who thought they didn’t want to be bothered.
Over and over, those who knew him describe Yoni as kind, entertaining, good-hearted, loving, positive. “He saw nothing bad in anyone except himself,” one friend puts it.
“He was the sweetest, sweetest person I ever encountered,” remembers a teacher whose self-healing workshop Yoni attended, “a person who was pure love and filled with excitement. He didn’t seem either manic or depressive but wonder-eyed
. I’ve never experienced a human being like that. I felt that my life had crossed the path of a really great soul.”
“Yoni was intensely
alert,” recalls Aish HaTorah’s Rabbi Avraham Goldhar, who befriended him soon after he arrived in Israel. “He was different and aware
. You definitely felt you were in the presence of someone special, a great soul clothed in unusual garb.”
“Yoni had a whirlwind personality and incredible energy,” remembers a local rabbi. “So you might expect a caretaker who was calmer, who would be a center of tranquillity for him. But Michael is also a whirlwind. His apartment in the Old City had big murals on the wall and yellow couches. At the Western Wall, on Shabbat, Michael would wear a purple king’s robe, with his pants tucked into his cowboy boots, and he had long hair. He was wild — wild in a creative way — but he was also sensible and could deal with Yoni’s incredible energy. The love between Yoni and Michael was very clear.”
Yoni’s trouble began when he was 17 — erratic behavior, severe depression, the beginnings of a belief in a grandiose destiny. The onset of mental disease in a young person of promise — Yoni was bright, articulate, academically motivated, with a lively interest in theater and literature — is not uncommon, and it is unexplainable. Shortly after he began college at NYU, Yoni had a breakdown and was hospitalized for the first time.
The prognosis was not good. His condition, some combination of schizophrenia and manic depression, did not respond well to medication; doctors told his family that he would likely be institutionalized for much of his life.
Yoni’s parents, who had divorced when he was young, were Jewishly identified but assimilating. Yet at some point in his 20s, Yoni began to feel intensely drawn toward Judaism, the Holocaust, Israel. His tastes were for Orthodoxy, especially Chasidism, and Rabbi Meir Kahane’s messianic Zionism.
By that time, Yoni had already begun to imagine that he was, or could be, the Messiah, as yet unrevealed but sent by God to redeem the Jewish people through his own suffering. The idea gave meaning to his inner pain and explained to him the torments he felt from being so separated from the world and the ecstasies of feeling so totally connected and blessed.
Against his family’s wishes, he ran off to Israel, where he believed he could “experience God with the greatest intensity.” This was how he recalled his departure in an autobiographical sketch he wrote later:Lacking money for plane fare, I had gone home to my apartment in White Plains and prayed all night reading Rabbi Meir Kahane books. The money in the bank had disappeared . . . I went to the City Bank terminal hoping to get my air fare. . . . I pushed the code word ‘LINDY,’ and out of nothing $600 appeared. . . .I had asked God to provide me with plane fare. He answered my call. . . .
Jonathan Morris came off an El Al flight carrying a suitcase full of books and headed for the Old City of Jerusalem. He was entering the myth he had invented for himself.
The Diaspora Yeshiva has long been known for its outreach to Jewish seekers with little or no religious training and its toleration of unconventional behavior. The yeshiva’s students formed a laid-back community of Orthodox former hippies and spiritual wanderers. It was a place where someone like Yoni — lost, spiritual, wildly glad to be “home,” deeply needy in so many ways — might find a place for himself.
Someone like Yoni, perhaps — but not Yoni. A psychotic is not an easy person to have around. Yoni’s energy was insistent and unmodulated. He acted like a child — his moods unpredictable, his mood swings sometimes frightening. When he was on a high, he could take you along and make you high with him, but he might spend whole days unutterably depressed, unable to function.
Even his physical presence was problematic — he seldom bathed and didn’t clean up after himself; he was sometimes so heavily medicated that, when he ate, the food would fall down his chin. He demanded a lot of attention and he needed serious care. The Diaspora Yeshiva was a fluid, accepting environment, but Yoni couldn’t be normal enough for it.
But he found at the yeshiva the man and mission that would form his life from then on, a rabbi who taught at the Diaspora Yeshiva and who later became active in outreach work elsewhere in the Jewish Quarter. The rabbi befriended him, taught him bits of Torah and bestowed on him the profession of shnorrer, a collector of charity.
For the next six years, while he lived in a psychiatric halfway house, its fees paid by his physician father, Yoni spent his days begging on the street, a fixture of life in the Old City.
Michael Avraham — born Michael Andrew Frank — first met Yoni in September, 1994. Michael was 30 years old, and his background was well-matched to Yoni’s. His parents too were divorced; his family too was Jewish but assimilating; “Reform minus one,” he captions it. He too was creative, a musician and composer. And he too was by nature erratic, a wanderer and searcher who had come to Israel out of an enthusiast’s intuition that it was his true home.
In America, he had dropped out of the prestigious Berklee School of Music. “I don’t do well,” he says, “in regular classroom situations.” In Israel, he picked fruit on a kibbutz for a few months and then gravitated to the more spiritual environment of the Old City’s Jewish Quarter. He tried out the Aish haTorah yeshiva, but he still wasn’t adept at regular classroom situations. "I didn't conform,” he acknowledges.
Meanwhile Yoni, after six years, had been thrown out of his halfway house and was living nowhere. He slept in the library at the Diaspora Yeshiva, in synagogues in the Jewish Quarter, in friends’ houses. He had no situation at all.
Aish haTorah Rabbi Avraham Goldhar brought them together, and they set up experimental housekeeping in an apartment in the Jewish Quarter, supported by Yoni’s father.
It did not take long for Michael to become aware that, through Yoni’s great pleasure in collecting tzedakah
, he was being manipulated and enslaved. While Michael was trying to relieve Yoni’s suffering, someone else was using it to enrich himself.
Yoni worked obsessively at begging, asking alms “for needy families” in the area around the Central Bus Station from about 7 a.m. till 10 or 11 at night. On Fridays he worked till just before Shabbat and usually went out again on Saturday night for a few hours more. Full of energy and with rich blessings on his tongue for both those who gave and those who didn’t, Yoni pulled in anywhere from $30 to $100 a day, six days a week.
He didn’t keep any of it, giving all the money he collected to “my rabbi,” who insisted that this part of their relationship remain secret. Sometimes the rabbi appeared very early in the morning outside Yoni’s window in the Jewish Quarter, calling him to begin his day’s work, scolding him for being lazy or late.
Yoni would hurry, and not only because he loved his rabbi. Begging — his rabbi taught him — was an apprenticeship for his ultimate role as the messiah. More than that, the amount of tzedakah
he collected had very direct effects on Jews. “When you don’t collect enough, there are terrorist attacks,” his rabbi taught him. “Jews die because you’ve been lazy.”
To speed the Redemption and save the lives of Jews, Yoni even gave his rabbi the birthday and Chanukah checks his parents sent him. “Yoni,” his rabbi taught him, “it’s your fault the Holy Temple wasn’t rebuilt at Rosh Hashanah — you didn’t collect enough.” The rabbi even called him “Ben-David,” to remind him who he was — Son of David, seed of Jesse. “If you collect enough tzedakah
, you’ll be anointed,” he assured Yoni.
Yoni knew it was true. “The events in Israel were commensurate with the tzedakah
I was collecting,” he explains reasonably on a tape Michael made when he finally convinced Yoni to talk about it. “I kept Israel out of war,” he informs the microphone. And he proves it: “There were no major wars while I was collecting tzedakah
Yoni didn’t tell anyone about this part of his relationship with his rabbi; only Michael and a few close friends knew. According to Yoni, his rabbi, who by then worked for Heritage House, a religious outreach center in the Jewish Quarter, was especially concerned to keep the relationship from Rabbi Meir Shuster, the director of the institution. His rabbi also instructed Yoni not to write to his parents about collecting tzedakah
, and if they met in public, the rabbi acted as if he hardly knew Yoni. “He said we had to meet in secret,” Yoni said.
If his rabbi complained that he hadn’t collected enough on a particular day, Yoni would go out again late at night to collect more. His minimum quota was 100 shekels a day, about $30 then; later his rabbi raised the quota to 120.
Yoni believed that his rabbi was distributing the money to the poor. Not only is there no indication that this was true, but the rabbi ultimately denied ever having received any money. Altogether, Yoni begged for nearly ten years. At an average of, say $60 a day, Yoni’s rabbi got about $200,000 tax-free to help with his household expenses.
To Michael, the money was the least of it. Let the rabbi have the money — who cares? But how to understand the cynical manipulation, the bullying and betrayal of a defenseless, sick person who loves you, by a representative of Torah?
“He was the greatest Torah scholar I ever met,” Yoni says calmly of his rabbi.
He was also, according to Yoni, physically abusive.
“He threatened to beat me if I didn’t bring enough tzedakah
,” Yoni reports on tape, sounding as if he has at last reached a small island of clarity. “He terrorized me — he hit me on many occasions.” The rabbi would slap him hard across the face with his hand or use a belt on his body when he did not bring enough tzedakah
. “He said I was saving Jewish lives by being hit,” Yoni said. The rabbi’s wife told Yoni, “Your job is to suffer.”
Can this be true, or is it Yoni’s invention? A psychotic street beggar is not the best witness for anything. Yoni was a guy who heard voices telling him that he deserved to die, that he was wicked, responsible for the death of Jews, a homosexual. When the voices ordered it, he stripped off all his clothes in public — once he did it at the Western Wall. Yoni had spent nearly as much time in psychiatric hospitals as outside them.
Still, there were other witnesses. People had heard the rabbi telling Yoni that there was “weeping in heaven” when he failed to go out collecting. Michael, early in his stewardship of Yoni, says he heard Yoni in another room being hit by his rabbi, who explained that such treatment sometimes “brought Yoni out” of a particularly disturbed mood. And then there were the tapes Yoni made describing it all. Yoni might be psychotic, but he wasn’t dishonest. “Yoni never lied,” says a friend.
For Michael, it was a torment to see someone he cared for so much — someone he was responsible for and had come to love — manipulated and abused. He’d had some success in getting Yoni to eat regularly, make his bed, bathe, help with shopping; Yoni even began to wear cologne that Michael bought him. This abuse was something Michael could not handle on his own, but he believed that in a community devoted to justice and holiness, such a situation would not be permitted. So he urged Yoni to allow him to go to the appropriate authorities.
Yoni now was torn between the two people for whom he cared the most. His rabbi told him that if he collected enough tzedakah
, he would save Jewish lives and be anointed the messiah; his dear friend Michael told him that he was being tricked and harmed.
Finally, Yoni agreed that Michael could do what he thought right, but Yoni himself would himself not say anything in public against his rabbi.
Michael went to Yoni’s rabbi. He went to Rabbi Meir Shuster, the director of Heritage House, who passed him along to Rabbi Avraham Edelstein, the institution’s executive director. He went to the rabbi of the Jewish Quarter, Avigdor Nevensthal. He went to another prominent rabbi. He told them that an injustice was being done — by a rabbi. He brought papers, tapes, he even brought a witness to conversations between Yoni and his rabbi.
“They swept it under the rug,” acknowledges Rabbi Meir Weiner, a teacher in the Jewish Quarter, who officiated at Yoni’s funeral. Michael tells complicated stories of the runaround he got — dismissals, deflections, outright refusals to intercede, referrals to other rabbis who refused to get involved; he got “deceptions” all around, Michael says.
Rabbi Avigdor Nevensthal, rabbi of the Jewish Quarter, has a reputation as a kind and competent man. At first, after a lot of vehemence by Michael, he wrote a letter “strongly advising” Heritage House to transfer Yoni’s rabbi away from the Jewish Quarter. But, says Michael, he “reneged.”
More precisely, as Nevensthal explained later, he had no way of proving Michael’s allegations, which Yoni’s rabbi denied. Certainly Yoni was not a reliable enough witness, Rabbi Nevensthal said, to be believed over a respected, prominent rabbi with eight children. And even Michael — “Well,” Nevensthal said, “I heard he called himself a ‘prophet.’”
Yes, it was on a calling card he was using, Michael admits. “It was a joke,” he says. But these rabbis were not the sort of men to find such jokes funny. “I always thought that prophecy had been removed from the world,” Rabbi Nevensthal remarked mildly, with tone.
Indeed, Michael too was not a witness they could trust. In his frustration and fury, he acted like a madman himself. He banged on tables. He shouted at Rabbi Nevensthal that he was an incompetent and should resign. He threw a glass of juice in Yoni’s rabbi’s face and screamed at him, “You’re scum.” The authorities had some reason to feel that Michael Avraham, rather than Yoni’s rabbi, might be the problem.
So they swept it under the rug — or, maybe, they took care of it while carefully avoiding its full meaning. In the end, Yoni’s rabbi was forced to sever his connection with Yoni and to stay away from him. In the autumn of 1996, while Yoni was briefly hospitalized, his rabbi read to him, before witnesses, a statement resigning as his rabbi and assuring Yoni that Yoni was not an “evil sinner” and that his “collecting or not collecting” tzedakah
had caused no terrorist attacks or deaths.
The statement could be understood as a tacit admission of Michael’s accusations — or it could have been just a final kindness to a deluded soul. (The rabbi left Yoni’s hospital room immediately after reading his statement. He did not make eye contact with Yoni or touch him, according to Yoni’s taped account later. “He didn’t even shake my hand,” Yoni said sadly.)
No formal action was taken against the rabbi. Contacted by telephone, the rabbi, saying that the whole situation had been “very difficult” for him, refused to talk about it.
Rabbi Avraham Edelstein, executive director of Heritage House, emphasizes that nothing was ever proven. He points out that no one ever brought criminal charges, though a criminal case was possible if the allegations were verifiable.
Heritage House, he explains, satisfied itself that the “rabbi in question” — out of delicacy he doesn’t use the man’s name, though we both know it — had not worked with Yoni under the aegis of Heritage House; that wrongdoing, if there was any, took place on the man’s own time.
“There was no provable breach of employee ethics that would have rendered him unfit to continue to serve at Heritage House,” he asserts in bureaucratic language. Moreover, the rabbi was barred from any further contact with Yoni. We took care of the situation, Rabbi Edelstein says.
And without quite articulating it, he sows the seed of this question: What point is there in publicizing all this? Even if something could be proven, so what? Yoni is dead now. If a man who has a wife and eight children were to lose his job, would that serve justice or make the world a better place? If the project of connecting young Jews to their heritage were damaged, would that help Yoni? Is there a purpose in giving the Reform and Conservatives more ammunition to hurl at the Orthodox, the goyim
more gossip to spread about the Jews? Even Yoni did not want all this made public — he loved his rabbi and wanted to cause no harm. Whose side are you on, anyway?
A teacher in the Old City who knows the situation agrees. “Yes, I think it happened as Michael tells it. But why wash the dirty linen in public? The rabbi in question, he’s also a nobody. Leave it alone.”
Even Yoni’s father was never interested in making an issue of it. The victim is gone; the accused was stopped and will be watched now. Everything has returned to normal, and the system can continue on its path, doing the good it does and always being, like any system, partly blind to itself. Maybe leaving the matter alone is true wisdom.
But wait. Yoni wasn’t the only one “emotionally raped,” Michael objects. The pain of it lives on in him, and Michael wants revenge against those who did evil or ignored harm.
“Not revenge,” he corrects himself, “I want justice.
” He wants them all to face themselves; he wants the world to know. Armed with the truth and an innocent’s insistence that the hand do what the mouth says — that the community of Torah live up to its claim to justice and holiness — he wants those who claim to be wise to see past the clothing and manner of someone like Yoni, or someone like himself, all the way to the heart of things.
But rabbis are human. When Michael yelled at Rabbi Nevensthal, when he pounded on another prominent rabbi’s table, when he threatened the rabbis at Heritage House, when he hurled juice in the face of “the rabbi in question” — did he expect a warm welcome? He was dressing at that time in bright orange suits, “with earrings all over the place,” remembers a friend. “He must have looked to them like the gay liberation parade.”
But more painful, perhaps, than his bruised ideals and disappointment in the religious community, is Michael’s awareness that even if he was completely right, he may have been wrong. The tzedakah
collecting was a manipulation, an abuse and a lie, but Yoni loved it. Yoni needed it. Maybe it kept Yoni alive.
Michael believes that the rabbis were indifferent, incompetent, unjust — but he knows that Yoni might still be alive now if he had not tried to help; that Yoni may have died from being forced to face a truth he couldn’t bear.
After Yoni’s death, Michael devoted himself to Yoni’s memory. He visited and cared for Yoni’s grave, arranged for the memorial stone, collected and protected the writings and other papers Yoni had left behind, and even began to adopt certain mannerisms and habits of Yoni’s. He let his sidecurls grow long, kissed every mezuzah he passed, made sure to give tzedakah
to every beggar on the street, began to hug and kiss people hello and goodbye, as Yoni had done.
Michael believes he made contact through Yoni with a spiritual greatness, a way to live seamlessly in the world, loving, caring and awake. He is preserving Yoni’s heritage in his own life.
It seems fitting, then, to let Yoni have the final words here, in a poem he wrote eight days before he died:
All the Jews
Are going to parties
Where they bless each other...
Cynicism is extinguished...
The eternal Shabbos
Is upon us.