Column for Jewish News January 7 2022
To subvert a phrase, it is a truth not universally acknowledged that a man in a position of power may all too often abuse that power.
This is a story of voices, men’s voices and men’s voices, and no, that is not a typo. Because there are very few women’s voices in this story and those that are heard are quickly silenced.
This is the shocking and deplorable story of a man who was at the top of the publicity tree in the strictly-Orthodox world, who came crashing down to earth when his repellent behaviour came to light. This is the story of a renowned Charedi children’s author, Chaim Walder, who exploited his success – his books were in thousands of strictly-Orthodox homes across Israel and the diaspora – by sexually abusing young women and children. He also had a regular newspaper column and a radio programme.
When it became clear that as important a figure as the Chief Rabbi of Sfat, Shmuel Eliyahu, believed that over a period of 25 years – 25 years! – Walder had indulged himself by sexually abusing women, young boys and girls, Walder first refused to attend the Sfat Bet Din for a hearing, then threatened Chief Rabbi Eliyahu.
Finally, however, he committed suicide, shooting himself at the graveside of one of
his sons who had died from cancer.
And here is where the other men’s voices come into play. For every one such as Chief Rabbi Eliyahu and other members of his Bet Din, who accepted the damning testimony of the brave women and children who came forward to say what Walder had done to them, there were just as many ready to make excuses for him.
First there were the men who arranged to have Walder buried in a cemetery alongside a whole host of perfectly innocent people, rather than an area reserved for suicides. Then, despite all evidence to the contrary, a whole slew of rabbinical names came forward to denounce Walder’s detractors for their “public shaming” of him, adding that their actions were “worse than murder”.
Sanitised eulogies were published in Charedi newspapers and, perhaps worst
of all, the Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel, David Lau, attended the family’s shiva, giving the clear intimation to those who seek to parse such actions, that in his eyes, Walder was not guilty. Lau, incidentally, is almost an exact contemporary of Walder’s, aged 55 to Walder’s 53, so perhaps he felt an obligation to defend a member of his own generation.
And among all the hubbub of men’s voices, there was a single woman’s voice. A 24-year-old woman, one of Walder’s victims, committed suicide in the days after his death. Shifra Yocheved Horovitz, sick with despair, believed she would never get justice after seeing Walder mourned so publicly.
The rabbi of a well-known girls’ school in New York advised parents thus: “We all thought he was a good guy but it appears he may not have been very good after all.
It sounds like he hurt people. But he is gone now, it’s over, let’s move on.”
Conversations about what had happened, this rabbi opined, were partly to blame for the situation itself – one more appalling way of absolving Walder yet again.
In all the flurry of words that followed Walder’s death, I read one horrifying sentence that made me wonder on what planet are his defenders. It was from the reporter who first published the allegations against him, back in November.
He wrote: “In conversations with people from Jerusalem’s most extreme strictly-Orthodox neighbourhoods, I repeatedly heard: ‘Not one boy here hasn’t been assaulted’”.
Is this the new normal?