The Haredi world is now rocked by the Chaim Walder scandal. A best-selling author (the J.K. Rowling of the ultra-Orthodox) stood accused of decades-long sexual predation.
He committed suicide at his son’s grave in December and the Israeli Haredi rabbinate has accused his victims of destroying him through a slander campaign.
It’s past time for this community to recognize the toxic dynamic it has created, where predators are protected to “preserve the good name of the community.”
Only through the intrepid bravery of a few who suffer ostracism, and even violence, do these issues see the light of day and can the vulnerable be protected from perpetrators and their enablers.
But let’s not gloat. Let’s not condemn the Haredi community for their sins because in this realm we liberal Jews are not so different.
Just a sampling here of victims who came to me for help and the predators I fought against in my years as a Jewish professional:
- A well-respected reform educator, one of the very best in our field, is not allowed to be unsupervised with students because of past “indiscretions.”
- A supervisor at a national sleep-away camp was fired for inappropriate behavior with a counselor. His Conservative rabbi’s response when the camp administration tried to take the matter further was “boys will be boys,” and a lawsuit for defamation and sanctions was threatened.
- A student dropped out of seminary and another student was forced to take a leave of absence when a member of the faculty engaged in unwanted sexual advances and threatened reprisals against them.
- A movement-oriented camp was approached for information about an incident that occurred in the early 1990s between a supervisor and one of his counselors. The camp administration was asked for a list of staff members from that summer. Both the national office and the camp stonewalled for over one year before refusing outright.
- An arranged marriage between a Hasid needing a green card and an enthusiastic young girl (a baalat Teshuva/ born-again Jew) resulted in her being raped by her husband on a regular basis. Her rabbi told her she needed to dedicate herself to the marriage. She was “removed” and a caring Orthodox rabbi forced a “get” (bill of divorce) on the brutish husband. The caring Orthodox rabbi was later forced from his pulpit for soliciting sexual favors from vulnerable women.
- A congregation threatened to leave the movement rather than have its rabbi removed for inappropriate relationships and retained the rabbi despite the best efforts of the movement’s leadership.
In each case, I was asked to help the victim. I rarely got cooperation from the community. In some cases I was vilified. No one was listening. I experienced each of them — Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative and Orthodox — firsthand as a congregational rabbi. I didn’t go looking for them — they found me.
Up until recently, the liberal movements conducted their own “search for the facts” over allegations of sexual misconduct. They had colleagues (in some cases classmates) judge their friends, acquaintances and colleagues.
Congregational leadership was loath to “go public” with allegations because it would reflect badly on their ability to attract new members.
I’ll wager that each congregational rabbi who works as a pastor has similar experiences. How they handle them varies widely. How many of them got involved?
Years ago, I was asked to “check out” a restaurant under the supervision of a Conservative colleague. Since I was known as a “real stickler” for kashrut, my approval would help their business. It was “trafe” with too many problems to fix. When I spoke to other rabbis who knew of the problems yet accepted his supervision, I was told they would rather have people who cared about kashrut eat “glatt trafe” than embarrass the colleague. The same dynamic holds true with clergy sex crimes.
There are Chaim Walders in every Jewish community — respected and protected. No one has cornered the market on these sins.
Until congregants take priority over colleagues, until loyalty to victims becomes more important than loyalty to the community, and until we stop misinterpreting the laws of “lashon hara” (gossip) and “shalom bayit” (peace in the home) to favor the predators, we will find ourselves eternally responding to their crimes, not preventing them.