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6 flee Satmar sect

Michael Landsberg of the Jewish Agency for Israel (l.) with a member of the Nahari family at JFK. The family was safe in Israel last night after alleging they were duped by members of Satmar community.
Six Jews from Yemen who claim they were being held against their will by ultraorthodox Satmars in a village upstate were in Israel last night after making a daring escape, Israeli officials said.

Na'ama Al-Nahari and five of her children were smuggled out of the mostly Hasidic hamlet of Monsey, in Rockland County, with the help of the Jewish Agency for Israel, which helps Jews move to the Holy Land.

"They were in a scary situation," said Dalia Kirinsky of the Yemenite Jewish Federation of America, a social service group that also has helped the family. "They had to get out of there."

Nahari's husband, her older children and other family members remain in New York but have been in touch with social workers and are hoping to be reunited with their kin in the Israeli town of Rehovot.

There was no immediate response from the Satmar leadership in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

An Israeli government official said Satmar leaders do not sanction the cruel treatment of the Yemenis, and believe the Naharis were oppressed by "rogue members of the sect."

State police in nearby Monroe, N.Y., said they were unaware the family was in trouble because nobody had made a complaint. "We will look into this," an investigator said.

The Naharis were among 70 Jewish families that fled the Arab nation six years ago with the help of Satmar operatives, Israeli officials said.

"The Satmars promised them this 'golden land,' but the Yemeni Jews found themselves in more of a Yiddish-speaking shtetl," Michael Landsberg of the Jewish Agency for Israel said.

Surrounded by Satmars and isolated from mainstream America, the Naharis told social workers they were treated like indentured servants. They said their Satmar "watchers" took them to fund-raisers and forced them to talk about the hardships they endured in Yemen - then pocketed the money, according to the Yemenite Jewish Federation.

"When I visited the Nahari family, they were living in subhuman conditions," said federation President Ephraim Isaac. "They were practically held as hostages."

A plan to spirit the Nahari family to Israel in December was short-circuited when two of the children vanished just as the family was about to leave for the airport.

They turned up unharmed a few days later at the home of a Satmar neighbor who said they had been taken on a "play date," Landsberg said.

The second escape was launched on Wednesday. Nahari sent her youngest children out dressed in school uniforms and told a neighbor she was going to visit her ailing father. A few blocks away, they ducked into a waiting van and were driven to Kennedy Airport and their flight to Israel, Landsberg said.

Originally published on June 4, 2004

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