Among the Haredim – those who fear God – heroes are normally rabbis: very strict religious norms and dynastic sectarian traditions leave little room for others. In this context, children’s author and therapist Chaïm Walder had managed to carve out a unique space for himself, shaken by legal proceedings for having sexually assaulted at least 22 people over the past twenty-five years. He committed suicide on Monday, December 27, at the grave of his son, who died of cancer at the age of 28.
In the letter he left, the best-selling author met his critics in the judgment court. The day before, testimonies of manipulation, assaults and repeated rapes of women, girls and boys followed at the rabbinical court in Safed, in northern Israel.
At 53, he had already published more than 80 books which, for two generations, have had pride of place on all the shelves of ultra-Orthodox children around the world. The summer camps he led focused on therapy through artistic expression. Director of a reception structure for children at risk in the ultra-Orthodox town of Bnei Brak, on the outskirts of Tel Aviv, he had diversified into family therapy: it is in this context that he seems to have encountered the most of its victims.
Desires for emancipation
He also had a significant presence in community media, including the influential newspaper Yated Ne’eman. “It was the haredi equivalent of a superstar,” explains Aaron Rabinowitz, journalist specializing in the daily ultra-Orthodox community Haaretz, and co-author with her colleague Shira Elk of the investigation which revealed the sexual abuse.
“Me too, I grew up with Walder’s books”, says Rabinowitz. It took more than two years of investigations for the two journalists to discover the acts of the author, two years which also led to the prosecution of another important ultra-Orthodox, Yehuda Meshi-Zahav, founder of the association of volunteer rescuers. ZAKA.
The two journalists are part of a new generation of ultra-Orthodox young people who no longer hesitate to leave their community to talk about its problems. The cautious urges for emancipation of the new generation and the failings of leadership during the Covid-19 pandemic, which was very harsh in ultra-Orthodox cities, are gradually pushing for change. Despite the efforts of the rabbis, young people are increasingly connected to the Internet. On social networks, they find spaces of expression that are less regimented, where the latest revelations are freely debated.
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Emotion in Israel after suicide of ultra-Orthodox rabbi accused of rape