It was a late August Shabbat afternoon sometime in the early 80s when my grandfather walked over to our home. It wasn’t a far walk from my grandparents’ home to our home on Georgia Ave, only a little less than ¼ of a mile. My grandfather was in great shape even into his 90s but he would rarely come to our house unannounced. We were sitting by the pool when my grandfather walked in and exclaimed to my father, “David! You need to come over. I smell smoke!” My father quipped, “Pa if you smell smoke, call the fire department.” My grandfather responded emphatically, “No, I don’t want to call the fire department. I want you to come over and check it.” My father calmly looked at my grandfather and said, “Reb Mayer, where there’s smoke, there’s fire,” and proceeded to pick up the phone and dial 911.
The walk back to my grandparents’ house was tense. In a matter of moments, we started hearing the sirens. My grandfather looked frustratingly at my father and said, “This tumult is exactly what I did not want!” By the time we arrived, there were eight fire engines and the Fire Chief himself. The neighbors were all out on their front lawns, watching curiously. My grandfather was visibly unsettled. About 15 minutes later, the Fire Chief came over to my father and grandfather and said they had found a smoldering wire behind the basement electrical panel wall. The Chief said, “It may have taken 4-6 more hours, more than likely late into the evening hours after you (the Chief glanced at my grandfather) had gone to sleep. Had you not called,” the Chief said, “this house would have burnt to the ground.”
Twenty years later the organization I worked with and loved, was hit with a horrific abuse scandal. One of our organization’s dynamic and highly respected leaders, a rabbi, was accused of verbally, physically, and sexually abusing young men and women over decades.
Although I had never seen the abusive behavior myself, six years before the scandal broke publicly, these same accusations against the rabbi were brought to my attention. The first phone message that was left on my office answering machine remains seared into my memory. Hearing the woman’s voice, a parent of a local participant and the message itself shook me to my core. I admit, the accusations were hard to believe, and they still haunt me until today.
After hearing the message, I immediately alerted my supervisors. Although I am intentionally choosing to omit the details of our organization’s response at that time, as a young administrator, I was placed in an untenable situation. It was hard to know whom to believe, and it was made more complex for me because the accused rabbi was one of my supervisors. So, I turned to the person I respected most, my father, z’l, for guidance. After describing the allegations, and our organization’s response, my father stated simply, “Where there’s smoke, there’s fire.”
It took an additional six years, but these same accusations were eventually published in an investigative report claiming that despite multiple complaints, the rabbi’s abuse had been overlooked for decades. Our national organization later admitted to “profound errors of judgment”, including failures of management. The rabbi resigned and was later convicted of abuse. Sadly, this scandal nearly burnt the organization I loved to the ground.
My grandfather was smart, insightful, and wise. Yet he was reluctant to call the professionals when he smelled smoke. The truth is, we can all relate to my grandfather’s reluctance in some way. There are consequences to calling the fire department. The fire department always shows up with sirens, pickaxes, hoses…they will invade your privacy. They will look through closets, tear down walls, look through your things, exposing all sorts of miscellaneous sundries that were meant to remain hidden. They make a mess. A big mess. There will be a scene. There will be tumult. What if it’s nothing…. what if I wasted their time? Will they be angry? Will they believe me the next time I call?
While the trauma of Chaim Walder’s victims, or anyone who has experienced sexual abuse is unimaginable, the number of people, rabbis, community leaders who now proclaim that Chaim Walder’s abusive activities had been known for decades is horrifying and disgraceful! And while Chaim Walder alone was responsible for his actions, any community leader, or anyone for that matter, who was aware of his mendacious proclivities and said nothing, and did nothing, shares responsibility for the pain and trauma of his victims. My heart sinks when I think of the deafening silence of people saying nothing. At least for some of the victims, if someone had said something, or shouted loud enough, Walder could have been shut down decades earlier and this travesty and his trail of carnage may have been prevented.
Hindsight is always 20/20. Too many painful failures have scarred precious lives, and our community once again. To my father, the response would have been obvious. Better safe than sorry. When you smell smoke, call the fire department. Maybe it is only smoke, but let the professionals sort that out.
The next time we smell smoke, we must not let our proverbial house burn to the ground. Our loved ones are inside.