Chaim Walder case triggers TENFOLD increase in abuse survivors seeking help
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Chaim Walder case triggers TENFOLD increase in abuse survivors seeking help

EXCLUSIVE: The horrific case of the paedophile Israeli author has encouraged members of the Charedi community to open up about their own experiences

Stephen is the Jewish News' Foreign Editor

The books of Chaim Walder that used to take pride of place have been binned by readers and recalled by publishers around the world. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90
The books of Chaim Walder that used to take pride of place have been binned by readers and recalled by publishers around the world. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90

A Jewish charity working with victims of sexual abuse in the UK has reported a tenfold increase in the number of serious cases it is handling since the crimes of paedophile author Chaim Walder came to light.

Migdal Emunah, the charity for abuse survivors run by Yehudis Goldsobel, has had up to 100 inquiries since the crimes of Walder (pictured left) were revealed, while 20 past victims came forward requiring advanced assessment and support over the December holiday period alone. The charity said it would typically have seen only one or two during this period.

Walder was an acclaimed Israeli children’s author, rabbi, therapist, educator and media personality whose 80 books include the Kids Speak series, which has been translated into English and Yiddish.

Since late December, however, Orthodox Jewish households and schools in the UK have been throwing Walder’s books in the bin, while Jewish bookstores such as Divrei Kodesh in Edgware say its stock of his titles has been cancelled and recalled by Lehmanns, the UK’s biggest distributor of Jewish books, based near the Orthodox community in Gateshead.

Chaim Walder (Wikimedia Commons)

A talk show host and columnist, Walder was one of the Charedi world’s most prominent voices on children’s issues who managed the Center for the Child and Family in the largely Orthodox city of Bnei Brak. He killed himself on 27 December.

Six weeks earlier, Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz published allegations by several young women that Walder had sexually abused them from as young as 12, one in a hotel in Ramat Gan where he took her to celebrate her having her first period.

The allegations grew to include sexual assault against both boys and girls, including molestation and rape. Some said he assaulted them while they were under his care as a therapist, often sent to him in a state of mental and financial distress.

In December, the Safed Beth Din in Israel heard from 22 victims either directly or through their counsellors. Walder refused to appear.

The rabbis heard a recording of him threatening a victim before she gave testimony and,on 26 December, they found him guilty of molestation and rape.

“We know it’s had an impact in the  UK because of the numbers coming to us  for help,” said Goldsobel. “They’ve been  triggered by it [Walder].”

She said that, despite being on leave, the charity’s staff undertook “about 20” serious case assessments over Christmas, “compared to one or two normally over the same period, when things typically dip”, adding: “We also had up to 100 calls and enquiries.”

Goldsobel described those calling as “people in crisis”, saying: “Some of the  cases that have come in over recent days  are among the most horrific we’ve had to deal with in recent years.

Yehudis Goldsobel

“These are people who may have overheard a discussion or read about it in a magazine.”

One Orthodox source, speaking on condition of anonymity, said: “Within our synagogue, I’m aware of how the Walder case has led to two people in the same family having the courage to tell their other family members what happened to them when they were young. People are definitely talking about it [child sexual abuse] more now. Some people obviously feel able to talk about things for the first time, which is a good thing.

“I’m not surprised that charities such as Migdal Emunah are seeing their numbers go up.”

Eli Spitzer, a headteacher at a  Charedi school in London who speaks on podcasts on current affairs of interest to the strictly-Orthodox community, said Walder had been “a moment of reckoning” in Israel and beyond.

He said the fact that so many Charedi news outlets and magazines had covered the allegations levelled at Walder and addressed the issues that arose was virtually unheard of and “adds fuel to the conversation and keeps the conversation going for longer”.

Eli Spitzer

Across the UK, many Charedi schools have expunged Walder’s books from their libraries, said Goldsobel and Spitzer, but there was no direction to do so from  Jewish educational umbrella bodies  such as Partnerships for Jewish Schools (PaJeS) or Chinuch UK.

Goldsobel called for “leadership” from Jewish educators.

“We’re past the point of statements,” she said. “We need action – workshops, signposting tools, training for teachers and headteachers. And no more mixed messages.

“It’s not mesirah [one Jew reporting the misconduct of another] or lashon
hara [derogatory comment] when it  comes to protecting children and
young people.”

Partnerships for Jewish Schools  director Rabbi David Meyer said Walder “has obviously shaken the Orthodox world”, but believes that the UK is better placed to deal with it in some respects.

“Sadly, in the US and Israel, some tried to defend or excuse his actions, and this included in some schools,” he said.

“The situation in UK schools is  very different. Every registered school
across our community understands the importance of safeguarding and child protection.

“It is the first responsibility for every headteacher, and irrespective of Ofsted’s inspecting this area, it is seen by all as  a priority.”

Rabbi Meyer added that those working with children in the UK are “checked through the DBS [disclosure and barring service], and school leaders are attuned to potential dangers”, but he also acknowledged that Walder would not have been flagged by DBS because he had no prior convictions.

Rabbi David Meyer

“There are certainly lessons to be learnt, but in the main these are
lessons we have already learnt and are  communicating to schools repeatedly,” said Meyer.

“I don’t think there is a need for us to be making public statements about the case… The broader issue is one of safeguarding and child protection. It is embedded in our school culture.”

The case of Walder “certainly reinforces the message to school leaders and parents that, sadly, today no space is necessarily a safe space,” added Meyer.

“It is why the teaching of consent has become so important.

“The role of parents is also essential and they should have an open dialogue with their children, and be keeping  a careful eye on them to see any  changes in behaviour that may be a  cause for concern.”

Prolific abuser was eulogised after death

The horrific and prolific child sexual abuse committed by Israeli children’s author, rabbi, therapist, educator and media personality Chaim Walder was disgusting enough on its own terms, but several factors made
it worse.

To begin with, he was a counsellor working with vulnerable children who established a network of kids’ summer camps and was even given the ‘Defender of the Child’ award by the Israel National Council for the Child.  Feted by Israeli prime ministers, he could certainly be said to have achieved Charedi A-list status.

Disgusting became disturbing when safeguarding experts pointed out that thousands of Israeli children have written letters to him over the years, outlining their innermost secrets and fears. One commentator suggested that some of the children in Walder’s stories are likely to have been based on his victims.

Perhaps the most insidious aspect of this horror show is that Walder designed one of the first programmes covering ‘protection from child sexual abuse’ for use by Israel’s strictly-Orthodox schools. It was like putting a fox in charge of the safety of the chickens.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, after he killed himself – denying his victims their right to see him stand trial – he was eulogised by some influential people, including Bnei Brak’s mayor. Even Israel’s Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau publicly sat shiva with his family, having photos taken, before a backlash saw him backpedal.

Israel’s Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau

In Walder’s obituary, Charedi news site Behadrei Haredim made no mention of the allegations against him, nor of his suicide, adding: “May his memory be an honoured blessing,” a sign-off typically reserved only for the great and the good.

Worse, the senior Orthodox Rabbi Gershon Edelstein said  Walder’s accusers were “guilty  of murder”, while Rabbi Zvi Tau  criticised the Beth Din ruling.

Israeli journalist Anshel Pfeffer described Walder’s funeral as “a ceremony to clear his name”.  Seeing all this, one of his victims – Shifra Horowitz – killed herself a few days later.

 

How Charedi press responded to crimes

Revelations of child sexual abuse committed by Israeli children’s author Chaim Walder are only the latest example of similar crimes committed by well-known strictly-Orthodox Jewish men. However, analysts say media
reaction in this case has been different.

This week’s front page

While in the past, Charedi outlets would typically not have covered the allegations, or even – as in some cases – published interviews with the defendant’s lawyers, London-based headteacher Eli Spitzer said Charedi
press coverage of Walder’s case was “remarkable”.

Speaking to Jewish News, Spitzer said: “They realised that this was not the time to play politics or PR, that it was serious and that it needed a proper internal conversation.

“It took a few days, but [the Hebrew version of] Mishpacha was first out of the blocks, with a proper introspective editorial. They basically called it what it is and said we needed to take a good hard look at ourselves, that we needed to believe victims, that we needed to listen, that we can’t whitewash their testimony, and so on.

“Others soon fell in line. Ami Magazine went further. It put Rav Shmuli Eliyahu [of the Safed Beth Din, which investigated Walder’s crimes and heard from victims] on the front cover. I mean, even some of the people who admit that this issue needs to be dealt with are quite resentful of him.

“Leading Charedi news website Kikar HaShabbat removed all his articles from the archives. Its editorial went close enough to acknowledge that the way abuse allegations have been handled is simply not good enough and needs to change.

Chaim Walder

“That every Charedi news outlet felt pressure to address it, for me, was one of the most remarkable things.

“They preach to their choir, these outlets, and certainly aren’t accountable to secular Israeli opinion. It speaks to the sheer scale of it. There’s always a very carefully choreographed dance between publisher and reader, so it’s instructive in terms of the feelings of readers and the community as a whole that they covered it. They usually only publish things they think their readers want to read.

“Their agendas are very much set by their readers. Rarely if ever would they risk alienating them.

“The fact they’ve covered it indicates that their readers know it’s big, it can’t be ignored and the publications have responded to that.”

 

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