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After Texan who posed as Hasid charged with sex crimes, son charged with abuse too

A man in Texas has been charged with sexual assault and human smuggling, months after his father, who posed as a Hasidic Jew with a “unique family” of nine adopted sons, was arrested for a slew of sex crimes.

Hayim Nissim Cohen, 39, fabricated his Jewish background and used the fake persona to help him adopt nine boys. He paraded the family on social media and in the news, receiving glowing coverage from Jewish and mainstream US media outlets.

Behind the sunny facade, however, he allegedly sexually abused some of his own adopted sons and a foreign exchange student who stayed with the family.

He was arrested in March on 11 charges of child sexual and physical abuse and remains in custody.

His eldest adopted son, Avshalom Cohen, 22, was arrested last month and charged in Houston with felony sexual assault of a child. He remains in police custody and his lawyer did not respond to a request for comment.

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Avshalom Cohen sexually assaulted one of his younger adopted brothers in 2020, according to charging documents, an accusation that surfaced while investigators questioned his father’s alleged victims.

Avshalom Cohen allegedly coerced the victim into sexual abuse, and bribed him with nicotine vapes and energy drinks. The victim also feared repercussions if he refused the advances due to the threats inside the home, he told investigators.

In a separate incident, Avshalom Cohen also violently beat one of his younger adopted brothers who had been arguing with their father. Avshalom, who was 20 at the time, intervened in the argument, shoved the smaller child to the ground, beat him into submission and insulted him, saying, “That is what you get, you little ass kid,” according to charging documents.

Investigators have also determined that father Hayim Cohen kept the children locked in their rooms at almost all times before his arrest, except for the two eldest. The younger children were only allowed out of their rooms once or twice a day to use the bathroom and to eat a single meal. On social media, Hayim Cohen said the children were home-schooled.

After Hayim Cohen’s arrest, his six adopted sons who were still minors were transferred to Child Protective Services. The elder three sons, including Avshalom Cohen, were already adults.

Avshalom Cohen was also arrested earlier this year for human smuggling in a town in Texas next to the border with Mexico. He was found driving a van transporting eight undocumented migrants, and in possession of a firearm and fake police badge, local media reported.

Hayim Nissim Cohen and his nine adopted sons in a photo posted to their family Facebook page in 2021. (Facebook; used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

Hayim Cohen’s arrest earlier this year garnered widespread attention due to the family’s prior media presence and unusual composition, and exposed a lack of oversight by state authorities and a private company that placed exchange students in the suspect’s home, critics said. The case also fed into antisemitism and perturbed the local Houston Jewish community.

Cohen presented himself as a single Hasidic man, and he and his adopted sons chronicled their lives as a religious Jewish family on social media and on a website he hosted, branding themselves “Our Unique Family.” The family’s TikTok channels had hundreds of thousands of followers and videos with more than 5 million views. Videos showed the children dancing, doing skits, cooking kosher food and celebrating holidays.

The family also received fawning press coverage from local media and Jewish news outlets in recent years.

Evidence, however, indicates that Cohen fabricated his Jewish background and that of his adopted children, who he claimed were all born Jewish.

He claimed in interviews to have been born into the Jewish community and grown up speaking Yiddish as a Hasidic Jew in New York City, but legal documents and school records showed that he was born Jeffrey Lujan Vejil and raised in Odessa, Texas. A member of Houston’s Jewish community said Cohen did not actually speak Yiddish.

Cohen legally changed his name multiple times, and used a series of aliases, including some Jewish names, eventually landing on Hayim Nissan Cohen.

There is no evidence he converted to Judaism and he never claimed to have converted, except when he requested to adopt a Jewish name in court.

He also contradicted himself in various interviews when describing his sons’ and his own Jewish background.

The discrepancies were first reported by Za’akah, a New York-based group that combats sexual abuse in Orthodox Jewish communities and has been tracking the Cohen case.

Cohen also said that all of his adopted sons were born Jewish, but a lawyer who viewed the adoption records said this was false, and that none of the children came from Jewish families, but that Cohen had them take on Jewish identities after adopting them. The lawyer said Cohen had used his false persona as a rabbi to win people’s trust and respect, and facilitate adoptions.

Cohen told media he began the adoptions while he was working as a social worker and was contacted about two Orthodox boys in foster care. He claimed he had started to help the boys by bringing them kosher food, and later adopted them.

“Once I got licensed to adopt, I became a go-to adoption destination for Orthodox boys in the foster care system,” he said in a 2019 interview.

A member of Houston’s Orthodox Jewish community told The Times of Israel earlier this year that Cohen had approached the community around 2010 with a complex backstory about his Jewish identity.

Orthodox community members quickly realized Cohen was a fraud and shunned him for his deceit, but he had moved to a neighborhood associated with religious Jews in Houston, and presented himself as Orthodox at secular Jewish events, where he was able to pass himself off as Hasidic. He did not appear to be a member of any synagogue. Several Jewish communities in Houston said he was not affiliated with them and an Orthodox rabbi in the city said that as far as he knew, Cohen was not connected to any congregation.

Hayim Nissim Cohen’s mugshot from his arrest in February 2023. (Harris County District Attorney’s Office)

It’s unclear why Cohen became fixated on Judaism in the first place. A rabbi from the lone synagogue in his west Texas hometown of Odessa said he had no knowledge of the case.

Cohen also allegedly faked medical problems to generate sympathy and dodge legal punishments, and appeared to be connected to several scams. He also has a criminal record for several theft misdemeanors.

Cohen’s claim of being Jewish has been picked up by white supremacists, with online posts linking his crimes to antisemitic tropes about Jewish deviance.

Cohen’s arrest received widespread coverage in US and international media, but most news reports about his case, and those about his son’s arrest, do not note that the father fabricated the family’s Jewish identity.

It’s unclear how Cohen was allowed to adopt nine children, as well as host multiple foreign exchange students, one of whom he allegedly also abused. At one point there were 11 boys and Cohen in his four-bedroom house. He never reported having an income-producing job and at one point listed his workplace as a “foundation” and his profession as “rabbi.”

The case came to light after one of the sons called into a podcast anonymously to describe the abuse, and said authorities had repeatedly investigated the family, but had not taken any further action. Investigators were able to identify the caller by details he revealed during the podcast.