Portrait Of An Accused Jewish Terrorist As A Young Man

American-born settler Jack Tytell is charged with multiple murders and hate crimes. A look into his upbringing in the U.S. reveals some surprises.

12/02/09
Special to the Jewish Week

His fellow students at Akiva Hebrew Day School, a Modern Orthodox yeshiva in the Detroit suburb of Southfield, Mich., had Jack Tytell pegged.

He was “creepy,” one remembered, someone with “crazy eyes.” Another recalled Tytell walking through Akiva’s halls acting out imaginary combat scenes and jumping over tripwires that existed in his head only.

As their “Last Will and Testament” in the Akiva Class of ’90 yearbook, his classmates left him an “Uzi and a grenade ... and a Valium.” 

 What they may not have known is that three years earlier, at an Orthodox summer camp in Pennsylvania, Tytell ran afoul of the camp’s no-weapons policy. Camp officials confiscated from him a collection of knives, including machetes and a “Rambo” knife, according to one of his counselors.
In late October, Jack Tytell, 37, attracted world attention as a West Bank settler who over a 12-year period allegedly committed a series of terrorist acts against Palestinian Arabs, left-wing Israeli Jews, Messianic Jews, and members or allies of the gay and lesbian community.

A father of four, Tytell was indicted for his involvement in the murder of two Palestinians — one a taxi driver in east Jerusalem in 1997, and the second a few months later near the West Bank settlement of Carmel. In addition, he faces three counts of attempted murder for allegedly rigging a bomb that seriously injured a 15-year-old boy from a Messianic Jewish family in the West Bank settlement of Ariel; for allegedly detonating a bomb that slightly injured a Palestinian tractor driver; and for allegedly placing the bomb that in 2008 lightly hurt Israel Prize recipient Professor Zeev Sternhell outside his Jerusalem home. Sternhell is an outspoken critic of West Bank settlers and their harassment of Palestinians.

Tytell was charged also with possession of weapons, production of weapons and incitement to violence. All of this earned him the nicknames “The Jewish Terrorist” and  “The Jewnabomber,” and prompted comparisons with fellow extremist American expatriates Dr. Baruch Goldstein and Rabbi Meir Kahane, as well as Yitzchak Rabin’s assassin, Yigal Amir.

Tytell’s arrest has brought scrutiny to population groups that are identified with him: settlers, ultra-nationalist religious Jews, and Orthodox American immigrants to Israel. And while much is now known about Tytell’s years in the West Bank settlement of Shvut Rachel, where he moved in 1999, almost nothing has been revealed about his upbringing in Orthodox communities in various cities in the U.S. (In fact, nearly all published reports, and even his Wikipedia page, spell his name “Teitel,” an adequate transliteration of the name from Hebrew, but incorrect.)

But in interviews with more than a dozen former classmates, camp counselors, teachers and others who knew him and his family during those formative years, a portrait is beginning to emerge of the young Jack Tytell.

Described by some as a “loner” who had trouble making friends, Tytell was on the move for much of his childhood as his U.S. Navy dentist father took the family from posting to posting. He is said to have developed a certain fascination, or even romance, with guns and weapons. But the picture is complicated by the fact that Tytell never seemed to bully anyone or exhibit any violent behavior.

And whether in his teenage years religious or political ideology helped shape him, or provided the framework for his later alleged acts, seems an open question. When he heard of Tytell’s arrest in October, Ed Codish, who taught English at Akiva when Tytell was there, wasn’t surprised, he told The Jewish Week. But thinking back to the high school kid he knew in Detroit, Codish concluded that the alleged crimes were probably “pathological, not ideological.”

It’s a characterization likely at odds with that of the Israeli police, who believe they see a pattern in Tytell’s alleged crime spree, one perhaps fueled by a hard-right, national-religious set of beliefs.

Samuel Heilman, a sociology professor at Queens College who has written extensively about fervently Orthodox Jews, said most Americans who make aliyah today “are far more nationalistic than the run-of-the-mill Israelis.” This can yield “a powerful mix of ideology, nationalism and religious beliefs” and occasionally “America’s [proclivity towards] violence,” Heilman said.

But Prof. Joshua Werblowsky, a forensic psychiatrist at the Drexel University College of Medicine in Philadelphia, sharply distinguished between “lone wolf” terrorists and members of a terrorist group. “Group terrorists are generally ‘crusaders’ for some cause, whereas lone terrorists are no more or less ideological than the average person,” he said.

Tytell’s lawyer, Adi Kedar, told The Jewish Week Monday that he does not yet know much about his client’s past. Asked if he thought Tytell’s alleged crimes were motivated by ideology or something else, Kedar said, “It’s definitely complicated.”

Kedar said, as has been widely reported, that Tytell has admitted to all of the crimes in the indictment, but the lawyer stressed that the admission does not mean that he actually perpetrated them.

Jack Tytell is the eldest child of Dr. Mark and Dianne Tytell, who have three other children: Israel, David and Rivka. Mark practiced dentistry with the U.S. Navy (he is now retired, living with his wife in Betar Illit, a West Bank settlement with a large haredi population.) The family was not initially religiously observant, although Dianne is of Turkish-Jewish origin and has a traditional and Orthodox-affiliated background. During Jack’s childhood, according to those who know the Tytells, the family began to adopt a rigorous Orthodox lifestyle and to consider eventually moving to Israel.

In order to retire from the Navy with a 50 percent pension, Dr. Tytell had to put in 20 years, during which he was subject to new postings every few years. In all, the family spent time in Miami; Chicago; Detroit; Athens, Greece and Norfolk/Virginia Beach, Va., including multiple stints in several of those locations. The family lived in five different metropolitan areas (in two countries) during the formative second decade of Jack’s life.

According to acquaintances of the Tytell family (nearly all of whom asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of Tytell’s situation), the children were afraid of Mark, as was Dianne. Mark carried himself with a military bearing, often wearing his uniform in purely civilian contexts, a practice that the military generally frowns upon.

A classmate of one of the younger Tytell children recalls Mark as “a yeller.” In terms of parental influence, Dianne once mentioned to an acquaintance, “I raised Rivka; Mark raised the boys.”

Although the parents wanted to fit in with the various Orthodox communities they joined, their transience, coupled with their relative newness to observance in general, appeared to make it difficult. They were not antisocial or non-communal, although they exhibited some social awkwardness, according to family acquaintances. They had affinities toward the more haredi end of the American Orthodox spectrum and lived in more “black hat” neighborhoods in Chicago and Detroit, but they were unabashedly Zionist. Their choice of schools for their children reflects the same ambivalence; they sometimes sent their children to Modern Orthodox co-ed schools and sometimes to more haredi single-sex schools, even occasionally switching from one school to another in the same community.

Rafi Goldmeier, a systems administrator from Ramat Beit Shemesh, Israel, and author of a popular blog (lifeinisrael.blogspot.com), was an elementary and middle school classmate of Jack Tytell’s at Bais Yaakov–Yeshivas Tiferes Tzvi in Chicago. After the arrest, Goldmeier and a number of his contemporaries attempted to piece together what they remembered of their newly infamous former classmate.

They remember that the Tytell family simply “passed through” the West Rogers Park neighborhood of Chicago, not remaining for more than two or three years. Goldmeier recalls that Tytell was a “tough kid” who took karate lessons, was physically strong and fond of wrestling, but was not a bully. One of Tytell’s classmates from Detroit, however, recalls hearing that Jack had a “hard time” in Chicago.

In the summer of 1987, the 14-year-old Tytell attended an Orthodox summer camp in Pennsylvania. One of his counselors, Ruth L., who agreed only to use her first name, clearly recalls some of the challenges that he presented to the staff. (She did not want to name the camp for fear of having its reputation tarnished in connection with the Tytell case.)

The camp, she said, had a policy against campers possessing weapons, a policy she said Tytell violated. Ruth and other counselors she spoke to after Tytell’s arrest recall that the staff contacted Tytell’s parents about the weapons — a collection that included a machete and a big-bladed, serrated-edged “Rambo” knife — and confiscated what they knew about. Ruth said after the confiscations, more weapons would sometimes appear.

The staff was concerned that Tytell had psychological problems and that he was capable of violence. They were especially worried about what might happen when they left the campgrounds for a trip. Fellow campers felt that he posed a threat to them. Socially, campers and counselors described Tytell as having been a “loner” that summer. The camp’s program included religious studies, taught by the counselors, but Tytell seemed uninterested in the classes. Nevertheless, according to both campers and counselors, he never physically attacked anyone and did nothing to warrant expulsion from camp.

After Tytell’s recent arrest, Ruth and her colleagues discussed whether they could or should have noticed the warning signs. On one hand, none of them were particularly surprised by the news of Tytell’s alleged terrorism. On the other, they knew him as a 14-year-old, not much younger than they were, and so were probably ill qualified to render a verdict. Also, he never actually acted out violently against anyone, and the counselors in fact contacted his parents about some of their concerns.

Tuvia Peri, a professor in the psychology department at Bar Ilan University and director of its community consulting service, suggested that there might be a connection between the family’s transience and Jack’s affinity for weapons.

“It is not uncommon for children who moved around a lot to feel powerless against change and to have difficulty forming relationships with other people,” Peri noted, stressing that he did not know the Tytell family and was hesitant to draw definitive conclusions. “Weapons are something that would help him regain a sense of strength and security,” Peri continued. “They would compensate for his feelings of powerlessness, especially in a military context where weapons are indeed symbols of strength.”

The recollections of those who knew Tytell during his high school years at Akiva Hebrew Day School in Detroit seem to corroborate and reinforce the profile that began to emerge a few years earlier at summer camp.

Akiva is a small Modern Orthodox school that, during the years in question, was a three-year high school (the fourth year consisted of studying in Israel) with just over 50 students in grades seven through 11.

Susann Codish, Ed’s wife and a former Akiva teacher who never taught Tytell, nevertheless recalls that “he was a scary guy” and that she made efforts to avoid eye contact when passing him in the hall. Slightly younger students there remember him as being “creepy” with “crazy eyes.” One said, “We were all afraid of him.”

Perhaps it was because of the imaginary combat scenes he would act out in the school’s hallways. A classmate of one of Jack’s brothers remembers Tytell being very mechanically inclined but nearly impossible to engage in a coherent conversation; she remembers thinking that Jack would one day wind up a recluse somewhere in Texas.

Ed Codish, who now lives in Israel, said, “As soon as I heard his name and saw his picture in the news, I turned to my wife and said, ‘I’m not surprised.’” 

It’s a sentiment echoed by several students as well.

Codish specifically remembers that one of Jack’s younger brothers was outspoken about his eagerness to kill Arabs. An acquaintance of that brother further recalls: “I remember him, at age 13, spewing venom about homosexuals. It was my first encounter with real prejudice.”

Jack, however, is not described as being particularly opinionated or ideological during high school.

Tytell did not spend his senior year in Israel with the rest of his Akiva classmates, opting to accompany his family to their new posting, this time in Athens, Greece. As a result, he never graduated from Akiva. He fell out of touch with his peers despite the fact that at least one of them made a strong effort to maintain contact. He continued to move around with his family — to Virginia and later Florida — despite the fact that most Americans his age would have left home by then. According to acquaintances, he attended colleges close to home in Virginia and later Florida. The Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported that he majored in psychology.
In late 1997 or early 1998, less than a year after he allegedly murdered two Palestinians, Tytell surfaced in the Washington Heights neighborhood of Manhattan. He introduced himself to a potential roommate, Eli Duker, as being “very right wing.” Duker told The Jewish Week that he heeded the cautions of a friend and chose not to room with Tytell.

Tuvia Peri, the Bar-Ilan professor, speculated on what could have led to Tytell’s development into an alleged terrorist. “He may have developed a particularly strong attachment to the Land of Israel because it was his first permanent home,” he said. “Additionally, when someone has a hard time developing relationships with humans, he is often likely to become very attached to something inanimate — such as the land.

“His attachment to weapons can be seen this way as well,” Peri continued. “He then [allegedly] acted out against those groups [left-wing Jews, Palestinians and gays and lesbians, for instance] that he perceived as threatening the Land of Israel, either directly or in the sense of ‘the land will vomit out its inhabitants’ because of defilement,” Peri said, citing a passage from Leviticus.

When Tytell was arrested in late October and word of his alleged terror attacks splashed across newspapers in Israel and the U.S., Ruth L., his camp counselor from 1987, thought back to one of the weapons the 14-year-old boy had with him. It wasn’t one of the knives but something more ingenious: a spring-loaded telescoping billy club, one that, like a switchblade, shot open in a flash. The counselor recalled that Tytell had a name for the billy club, affectionately dubbing it “Sally.”

When it came time for his classmates at Akiva to remember Tytell, their choice of words and images in the school yearbook is perhaps telling.

On the drawing made by seniors that appears on the inside front cover, next to Tytell’s name is an army tank, its long turret appearing at the border of the drawing. There’s also a photo of Tytell wearing camouflage, donning a gas mask and pointing a machine gun directly at the camera. A teenager playing army, or something else again?

And then there are the quotes, one in English, one in Hebrew, the Akiva students left with which to sum up their classmate. In a yearbook full of quotes by Oscar Wilde (“Life imitates art far more than art imitates life”) and Eleanor Roosevelt (“Leave some mark upon the world”), this is what appears under Jack Tytell’s name, attributed to Anonymous: “Akiva is like a bottomless pit, misery is everywhere.”

The Hebrew quote is translated, “For you have fought with God and man.” Taken from the biblical passage of Jacob wrestling with the angel — the Torah reading for this Shabbat — was it simply a clever play on his name, Yaakov? Or was it an eerie foreshadowing of the crimes Jack Tytell stands accused of committing, in his earthly fight against God and man?

Elli Fischer is a writer, editor and translator living in Modi’in, Israel.

Last Update:

12/26/2009 - 23:12

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