The strictly Orthodox community has responded to allegations of sexual abuse by one of its greatest authors, Chaim Walder.
Walder, a therapist, known for his activism on behalf of children in the Charedi community as well as his popular children’s books Kids Speak, is being accused by dozens of women of sexual abuse some 20 years ago when they were teenagers.
Haaretz first published its investigation in Hebrew but within the week there was an increase in allegations, all of which Walder strongly denies, then a groundbreaking decision by Eichler’s to remove Walder’s books from sale. Within days other bookstores had done the same.
Many – myself included – are marking this as a moment in history for Charedi sex abuse victims, the action taken by book shops just would not have happened a decade ago.
It is a commendable move to safeguard our children. Yet Eichler’s was the only entity to issue a considerate statement. Feldheim, the publishers of Kids speak consulted with Daas Torah (rabbinic authority) before issuing a brief statement that included: “We do not judge and sincerely hope he will be able to clear his name”. This suggests that if there was no public pressure or scrutiny, they would not have paused Walder’s book sales.
As word spread across the strictly Orthodox community the comments started flooding in. “Innocent until proven guilty” was the assertion and, just like that, goal posts were moved.
Innocent until proven guilty is a legal principle applicable in a court of law. It is a contradictory argument for a community with strict rules on not reporting sexual abuse to the police. I am not asking for everyone to become judge and jury. I am asking that the goal posts are not further moved in order to appease valid discomfort when hearing of such allegations.
We need to sit with those feelings of discomfort and be proactive to prevent future harm from happening, whether that is speaking with your own children, educating ourselves on the impact of sexual abuse, supporting someone that has disclosed allegations or requesting our schools and shuls do better. Instead, we have an abundance of investigators discrediting allegations and projecting their discomfort.
One of the biggest obstacles to change is mentality. Over the past two weeks days I have witnessed friends and acquaintances suggest ideas they perceive to be helpful, such as, a prominent rabbi should issue a statement that they have personally interviewed the women or that a Beis Din should be established to examine the evidence.
While they may be perceived to be well-intentioned, these ideas question the validity of the women. If the Charedi community wants to wait until it is proved in a court of law, then we should start supporting the women in whatever way they need to ensure they are actually able to even make it to court. Yet the Charedi community have a habit of intervening before such cases get to court, whether it be via keyboard warriors, shul gossip, or actively penalising women who make allegations.
I implore those in the Charedi community to stop dissecting the allegations and instead focus on creating a supportive culture for sex abuse victims. Going through the criminal justice system is another form of trauma. Let’s not add to the trauma to suit a narrative.
Creating a supportive culture starts at home. Let go of those myths and stereotypes we hold and instead be open to the idea that anyone can be a victim or perpetrator.