Chaim Walder case prompts Charedim to ask questions like never
For his victims, Chaim Walder’s apparent suicide added injustice to their existing tragedy. The allegations of sexual abuse he faced will never be heard in rabbinical or civil court.
But in the most socially conservative Jewish communities, where so often there is a reflexive instinct to cover things up and look the other way, awkward questions are being asked – particularly by children.
Walder, a hugely popular children’s author and self-described therapist, was barely a month into his self-declared exile from public life when his body was discovered in a cemetery in Petah Tikva.
Get The Jewish News Daily Edition by email and never miss our top stories Free Sign Up
All indications are that he took his own life with a handgun over the grave of his son.
For many in the strictly-Orthodox community, both in Israel and beyond, this had been a man with celebrity status: a popular columnist, radio show host and public speaker. His books for children were the mainstay of countless homes and schools.
But at the end of last year an investigation by Haaretz revealed several women had accused the 52-year-old of abusing them as children. One of them was referred to Walder for therapy.
She told the newspaper he initiated a sexual relationship with her when she was 13. “He is smart and manipulative. He did it very slowly so as not to stress me out,” she said.
Walder always denied everything, although he did resign as a newspaper columnist and halt all projects so that he could – as he put it – fight the allegations.
But the fact is that he was a figure in Israel’s Charedi community, which guards itself fiercely against outside scrutiny. There has been no #MeToo-style campaign.
Even at Walder’s well-attended funeral, there were attacks on the journalists who exposed the allegations – one elder accused them of murder, another said Walder was “taken from us” – while others paid tribute to his achievements
Yet sections of Judaism’s most Orthodox communities are still being forced into an awkward conversation about sexual abuse – forced by the very children who read his books and have now found them confiscated.
The Haaretz team that meticulously reported the original allegations against Walder is now speaking to teachers at Israeli strictly-Orthodox schools, where frequent assemblies are being held to help children talk through their feelings and understand what to do when an adult abuses his position of trust.
David Lau, Israel’s Ashkenazi chief rabbi, last week issued a call for all “indecent acts or harassment” to be reported to the authorities and not to hide them.
Few community leaders are demonising Walder directly, but a conversation has begun where once it would have been unthinkable.
A sign, perhaps, that attitudes are changing.