JERUSALEM — The women tattooed his name and portrait on their bodies and gave their children his name – Savior.
They spoon-fed the bearded, one-time healer as if he were royalty, brushed his shoulder-length white locks, sent him text messages when they were ovulating and slept with him at his bidding.
They turned over wages and welfare payments to him and lived in cramped, rundown Tel Aviv apartments with the children they bore him. According to police, he fathered some of his own daughters' children.
The man, 60-year-old Goel Ratzon – whose first name is Hebrew for "Savior" – is now sitting in a Tel Aviv jail, suspected by police of enslaving a cult-like harem of at least 17 women and 37 children. Ratzon, who's lived this way for two decades, denies any wrongdoing, his lawyer says.
Ratzon's alleged crimes and unconventional lifestyle have gripped Israel and become newspaper and talk show fodder.
How he managed to lure so many young women and live this way so long in full view of authorities remains a mystery. While cult leaders like Jim Jones, who led hundreds of followers in a 1978 mass suicide in Jonestown, Guyana, claimed messianic status, Ratzon did not.
"I'm not their Messiah, I'm not their savior. I'm just good to them," he said in a rare interview to Israel television last year.
Police, however, said they swooped down on Ratzon when the children were at school because they were afraid their mothers might hurt them if they were at home at the time.
According to police, his lawyer and testimony from the women, Ratzon kept tabs on his "extended family" through closed-circuit TV, and fined them for violating rules that included modest dress and a ban on unauthorized telephone calls.
"He doesn't live like you or me. He lives differently. And the fact that the women accepted it and were part of it gave him the legitimacy that it was OK, that it was good for them," said his court-appointed lawyer, Shlomzion Gabai.
Police broke up the harem on Jan. 12, taking the children and women to various shelters. Police investigating him on suspicion of enslavement, rape and incest have until Friday to charge him or else his detention runs out, Gabai said.
In an Israeli television documentary aired last year, Ratzon said the women were drawn to him because he was "perfect" and had "all the qualities that a woman wants."
But Asher Wizman, a private investigator who said his company was hired by two sets of parents to extricate their daughters from the clan, told The Associated Press that Ratzon preyed on troubled young women.
Some of his women invited sisters, cousins and friends to join the harem. Ratzon would go trawling for others in two busy Tel Aviv malls, Wizman said.
He said a private investigator he sent to infiltrate the harem was badly shaken after her first encounter with Ratzon.
"He looked her in the eye" for about 90 seconds, "and she felt like she was losing control, it was a kind of hypnosis," he said.
The investigator, who spend a month inside the clan, reported to Wizman that the women "talked about Ratzon as if he were a god and the biggest honor is to spend the night with him," he said.
Now pried from his grasp, the women seem divided over whether they were enslaved or living an extraordinary way of life with a unique kind of man.
Dvora Reichstein was taken into the fold four and a half years ago when she was 22, unmarried and pregnant with another man's child. From day one, she said, life with him was "like living in a prison" – but she had nowhere else to go.
"Today, I'm free to wear jeans, talk to my parents, meet friends, buy myself a cup of coffee without getting Goel's permission," said Reichstein, who had a "Goel" tattoo peeking out over her black turtleneck in a photo published in the Yediot Ahronot daily.
"I'm not the same woman who just a month ago sent him an ovulation SMS saying, 'I want to remind you that I'm ovulating, and if it works out, I'd very much like to be with you and carry your seed in my womb. Love you forever, your wife-slave,'" she wrote in an account of her life with Razton published by Yediot Ahronot.
In interviews with Israeli media, other women spoke warmly about Ratzon. But they also acknowledged there might have been something awry about the arrangement.
Shari Horowitz, a 30-year-old who studied mechanical engineering, lived with Ratzon for 11 years. Like others among his women, she cleaned houses for a living, donned the neck-to-toe garb that met his definition of modesty and wore a wedding band – though neither she nor the others were legally married to Ratzon.
Horowitz told Channel 2 TV that Ratzon was an "amazing" and fascinating man. But when pressed, she allowed that the life she lived could indeed be characterized as "enslavement."
A 36-year-old woman who identified herself only as "T" told Channel 2 that Ratzon was "very loving, supportive, concerned." But she didn't deny the incest allegations, saying she wasn't aware of the goings-on in all the apartments.
The women gave their accounts to Israeli media reportedly in exchange for compensation. Attempts to reach the women independently were unsuccessful, except for a woman listed in directory assistance as Dvora Reichstein, who asked for money when contacted by phone. The Associated Press does not pay for interviews.
Police had been aware of Ratzon for years, but said they couldn't make any allegations stick until three of his women brought new complaints to welfare authorities over the summer. That sparked a seven-month investigation that led to his arrest.
Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld described the conditions in the women's apartments as "really terrible," with mattresses on the floor and as many as 10 women and 16 children crammed into a three-bedroom flat.
Police suspect Ratzon's clan is even bigger than they know. Gabai, the defense attorney, says Ratzon claims to have more than 30 women and nearly 100 children kept in various apartments in the Tel Aviv area – along with one legal wife who is not part of the group.
The attorney says he doesn't work, and Reichstein said he lives off the money the women give him. Women said their children's names are variations on his own, like "Tikvat Hagoel," – the savior's hope – or "Tiferet Hagoel," the savior's glory.
Evidence against Ratzon includes hundreds of computer disks he kept in the Tel Aviv flat where he lived alone and took his women for sexual encounters, police say. A surveillance system allowed him to monitor the goings-on in a Tel Aviv building where he kept multiple apartments, they added.
Police allege Ratzon kept a rule book with penalties for violations like not reporting whereabouts. Gabai denied the rules were applied. But Reichstein said she was once fined the equivalent of $135 for discussing her sex life with Ratzon with another of his women.
Reichstein said she was lonely, unwed and waiting to give birth in the hospital when she first saw Ratzon. He had come to visit a woman in the next bed who was expecting his child.
"From that moment on, I didn't stop wanting him. I wanted warmth and love," she wrote in her Yediot Ahronot article. "He was everything I never had."