Condoms and tikkun olam: An Orthodox woman strives to aid sex workers in Prague

World News

PRAGUE (JR) — Not long after she puts away her silver Shabbat candlesticks and home-baked challah, Yael Schoultz walks through a cavernous hallway, and up a set of gray concrete stairs. Past a door, she finds a group of heavily made-up women in red and black G-strings and spike heels, listlessly beckoning men for sex in return for cash.

Schoultz, 43, spotted about 30 women at the Prague brothel floating from room to room in various states of undress — negligees, see-through bras — with accents as varied as their lipstick shades. Some are smiling, some appear bored as they play games on their phones, others are trying to woo potential clients with a simple, “Come have a good time, come to my room.”

It’s a typical Saturday night post-Shabbat routine for Schoultz, an Orthodox Jewish South African who recently launched L’Chaim, an organization dedicated to helping sex workers in the Czech Republic.

Schoultz and her colleagues engage the women with friendly banter about health and the weather, careful not to interrupt those with customers. The L’Chaim volunteers collectively carry a few hundred free condoms along with high-end soaps and hand-crafted bracelets.

“The girls always ask for extras for their friends,” Schoultz said.

Schoultz, who has been visiting Czech brothels since she moved to Prague in 2011, is not a mere purveyor of gifts. Her goal is to establish a rapport with the women she meets so that they can leave the business of sex work if they so wish. And her Jewish faith is a core driver of Schoultz’s quest to provide a better life for the sex workers.

“Some of the women have been trafficked,” she explained, referring to the term governments and human rights advocates use to describe a contemporary form of slavery. “There are girls who were tied up for days and raped, even by the police. Some might seem to be in the brothel voluntarily, but not really, because they owe a lot of money on a debt and feel sex work is only way they can pay it back.”

Dressed in black from head to toe, in what a fashion magazine might describe as modest goth, Schoultz is a veteran of global anti-trafficking efforts. A few decades ago, while teaching English in South Korea, Schoultz volunteered for an organization that was trying to stop the trafficking of North Korean women to China. At the same time, she was getting a master’s in theology and wanted to move to Europe to get her doctorate, which was possible at Prague’s Charles University.

“When I got to the Czech Republic, I started looking for people who were working on the trafficking issue and found three women: a Catholic nun and two Protestant missionaries. All of them were in their 60s,” Schoultz said.

Schoultz asked if she could join them in their visits to brothels.

“I just went in and started talking to women, about really anything. Language wasn’t a barrier because most sex workers speak English,” she recalled. “But it was a bit weird walking into these places with a nun in full habit.”

After a few months Schoultz began to feel uncomfortable — not with the sex workers, but with her philanthropic colleagues’ proselytizing and “religious agenda.”

“I wasn’t interested in giving out Virgin Mary medallions,” she said.

Schoultz, who teaches English at an international school in Prague, started her own informal volunteer group to help sex workers in 2012, while also embarking on a deeply personal Jewish journey.

Although she believes her father has “Jewish ancestry,” Schoultz was brought up in a Protestant home. Still, she long maintained a deep interest and connection to Judaism which intensified when she pursued her studies in theology. For several years, she regularly attended Orthodox services at 13th-century Old New Synagogue and volunteered for the Prague Jewish Community’s social services department before completing an Orthodox conversion in 2020 with Israeli rabbi David Bohbot. She has now begun her master’s degree in Jewish Studies at the Ashkenazium in Budapest, a division of the secular Milton Friedman University operated by the Hasidic Chabad-Lubavitch movement.

“From the beginning when I knew I wanted to make the conversion, Orthodox Judaism was something I agreed with theologically, it is where I felt most comfortable,” said Shoultz, who describes herself as Modern Orthodox.

Rabbi Dohbot praised Schoultz’s dedication. “This work she does is noble, and isn’t that what most big religions are based on? Showing love and respect for others?” he said.

Schoultz completed an Orthodox conversion to Judaism in 2020. (Courtesy of Schoultz)

Last year, Schoultz achieved another transitional milestone: obtaining Czech government recognition of L’Chaim as a registered nonprofit.

Although L’Chaim is a secular organization, Schoultz sees her work through the lens of tikkun olam, the rabbinical command to repair the world.

“I feel like as a Jewish person, you’re supposed to bring light to the world,” said Schoultz. “And the sex industry is very dark, because even if you choose to be a sex worker, it’s not a job that anybody really enjoys as the customers are often drunk or abusive.”

“It might sound strange, but I feel very connected to Hashem when I am in the brothel, because he is there for me, and for these women too,” she added, using the preferred Orthodox Hebrew term for god.

Schoultz’s co-volunteers, who are mostly not Jewish, are aware of her commitment to the faith.

“After Yael started getting serious about Judaism, she found her path, she was more complete and found her purpose,” said Natalia Synelnykova, who worked with Schoultz to launch L’Chaim. “Everyone would say that their friends are unique, but I have rarely met someone who is so human-centered as Yael, and that is definitely linked to how she sees Judaism.”

Schoultz named her new organization L’Chaim — to life, in Hebrew — as a message to those she seeks to help.

“We want the women in the brothels to have a life because a lot of them feel like they don’t have any life, like they’re barely making it,” she said.

There are about 100 brothels in Prague, according to media reports, and roughly 13,0000 sex workers in the Czech Republic, of which about half are thought to be single mothers. Although sex work is legal, pimping is not, so the brothels operate in a murky legal area that legislators have been trying to address for decades.

Once a hotspot for human trafficking, today the Czech Republic has a relatively low rate of human sex slavery according to government statistics. But Schoultz said the numbers are misleading.

“No one really knows how many trafficked women there are in the country,” she said.

A U.S. State Department report praised the Czech Republic’s efforts to limit trafficking but also noted that the country is more focused on prosecutions of criminals rather than on helping victims. Their stories stay with Schoultz.

“I meet many Nigerian women who may not be locked up in a room, but they are locked up by Juju,” she said, referring to a form of “black magic” that some Nigerian traffickers reportedly use to scare women into prostitution.

She also counsels “Romanian girls who are initially romanced by men that turn out to be traffickers.” A man will have many women he calls “wives,” and each one has a baby with him, “The women give him all their money to support the baby who he keeps as a form of collateral in Romania,” Schoultz said.

(Shoultz turned down JR’s request for contacts of sex workers she has helped, noting that this would violate L’Chaim’s promise of confidentiality).

The Czech Republic’s leading anti-trafficking organization, La Strada, takes a different orientation towards sex work than L’Chaim, focusing on it more as a legitimate profession that should be organized and regulated.

“We believe women are fully able to decide for themselves if they want to be sex workers and our goal is to provide safety for those who do so, to help them organize, fight stigma and have the rights of all other workers,” said Marketa Hronkova, La Strada’s director. La Strada defines trafficking strictly as those who are physically coerced or blackmailed into providing labor.

Hronkova said there are many sex workers who choose their profession willingly and that it is patronizing and often damaging when those who say they want to help focus exclusively on “pushing women to exit a path they have chosen, as if they have no minds of their own.”

The alternative to sex work, for a single mother, can often put her in an even worse financial situation, she noted. “Our goal is to make sex work safe, not to get women to stop doing it,” said Hromkova.

Concerning L’Chaim, she said as long as its aim was listening to women, and not making them feel ashamed, it could be helpful. La Strada already cooperates with another Czech organization, Pleasure Without Risk, which maintains a neutral stance towards sex work and provides women with access to testing for sexually transmitted diseases as well as counseling.

L’Chaim’s goal, Schoultz explained, is to identify who might be trafficked and provide them with the confidence and practical resources to rebuild their lives. But since getting access to the women requires earning the trust of brothel owners and managers, L’Chaim doesn’t advertise itself as an anti-trafficking group.

“We show up as providing support to women in prostitution, that gets us in the door,” she reflected. L’Chaim has about a dozen volunteers.

It can take Schoultz six months of relationship building before she finds out what brought the client into sex work.

“We start by talking about her kids, talking about her dogs,” said Schoultz “and eventually their stories come out, many involving abuse, trauma and mental health problems.”

She estimated that at the 13 or so brothels she regularly visits in Prague and Brno, at least half the sex workers were not there on a fully voluntary basis.

In the future, Schoultz hopes to create trafficking awareness campaigns and help the customers of sex workers recognize the signs that a woman is working against her will.

The brothel owners are not always pleasant to deal with, Scholtz acknowledged.

“At one place an owner came behind me and kissed my neck on the back of my neck. It was really creepy,” she said.

And despite her modest dress, or tznius, in keeping with her Orthodox values, she said she was pursued by a brothel customer to participate in “group sex.” She fended him off calmly by explaining that she “offered services, but not those kinds of services.”