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Israeli ultra-Orthodox society breaks silence on sexual abuse

The apparent suicide of popular writer Chaim Walder, suspected of years-long sexual abuse, may generate a real change inside the ultra-Orthodox society and break the code of silence.
An undated image of Chaim Walder.

Ultra-Orthodox author Chaim Walder was found dead Dec. 27 in a cemetery in the city of Petah Tikva, an apparent suicide. His death came after several Israeli publications accused him of sexual abuse of girls, of boys and of women who sought his help and counsel. More specifically, it came one day after the rabbinical court in Safed reportedly heard 22 testimonies describing alleged sexual assault by Walder over a period of more than 20 years. Following the media investigation last November, Walder resigned from his job as a senior correspondent at the opinion newspaper Yeted Ne’eman, and apparently committed suicide last week by shooting himself over the grave of his son. 

The affair has sent enormous shockwaves through the ultra-Orthodox society. Contrary to other such cases, this time it wasn’t possible to sweep it under the rug. Within ultra-Orthodox society, Walder was  among the most eminent authors. Over the years, he had written about 80 books, which appealed to all audiences: men and women, adults and children. 

And children grew up with him. He was perhaps the first writer who succeeded in touching the hearts of ultra-Orthodox children and inspiring emotional candidness. He established the Center for the Child and the Family in the ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak and was behind many children's summer camps that carried his name. His initiatives won fame and success just because they had the “Walder” brand. Indeed, even a program that introduced — for the first time in history — the topic of protection from sexual abuse to ultra-Orthodox schools was formulated and implemented by him.

In this situation, it’s no wonder that the entire ultra-Orthodox public is experiencing trauma. It has never confronted a similar situation. Paradoxically, in this affair, Walder’s voice was missing, the voice that could have made sense of the picture or at least guided parents in responding to children’s questions.

Walder was given a respectful funeral, with the participation of senior municipal figures. Attorney Dovi Weinroth, a close friend of Walder, in his eulogy attacked the journalist who exposed the incidents. Then, on Dec. 30, Weinroth posted a retraction where he lauded the journalist for his revelations. ‘’I am not writing a post, but am writing a post-trauma,’’ he noted. Chief Rabbi David Lau came to comfort the family after the funeral. Harshly criticized for the visit, the next day published a letter of apology. 

Confusion continued on other levels as well. Ultra-Orthodox educational institutions received a detailed document that cautioned them not to publicize “evil language” (a religious concept of libel), while at the same time, teachers have been told to encourage children to report abuse.

All this occurred along with reports that a woman who was sexually abused by Walder had committed suicide. Her family claimed she took her life because of what she perceived as the exaltation of Walder and the attempt of ultra-Orthodox leadership to gag accusers and prevent them from making additional revelations. 

The ultra-Orthodox community is currently at an entirely different place than it was just days ago. Although there are certainly attempts at silencing, the Walder affair is forcing parents to talk with their children about issues they did not talk about before. The topic that was taboo for many years, is suddenly being discussed

Every ultra-Orthodox home had many books by Walder. After the revelations, many parents chose to remove them, but then they had to explain to their children. For those who haven’t removed the books, the name Chaim Walder on the book covers has become a constant reminder. Contrary to many other ultra-Orthodox writers who used pen names, Walder was a pioneer in writing under his own name. 

Under the surface, a rumor mill is raging, which might bring to light other such incidents. The ultra-Orthodox convention that “we know how to take care of our own” rather than involving law enforcement has suddenly been undermined. In the present reality it would be very hard to reach the truth about Walder, especially since a police investigation won’t be started. Nevertheless, judging by the change of attitude within the ultra-Orthodox community, we should expect in the near future for children abused to tell out loud their stories and rattle the lives of those who hurt them.

How will this happen? These days there’s talk of establishing an ultra-Orthodox Forum (similar to the “Restitution” Forum among the national religious sector) to which complaints could be directed. Even before anything is official, rabbis and teachers are now undergoing training with the goal of locating abuses.

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