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Walder suicide, reactions shake communities

JERUSALEM — On Friday morning, Dec. 31, most of the people bustling through Beit Shemesh, a town in central Israel with a large Orthodox population, were getting ready for Shabbat. Shoshanna Keats-Jaskoll had a different mission.

Nearly 350,000 flyers expressing support for victims of sexual abuse were distributed in Orthodox communities across Israel by a group of volunteers on Dec. 31, 2021. (Shoshanna Keats-Jaskoll)

Keats-Jaskoll was handing out flyers with messages of support for victims of sexual abuse, in a public display of solidarity at the end of a wrenching week in many Orthodox communities.

At the beginning of the week, Chaim Walder, a celebrated haredi Orthodox children’s book author in Israel, died by suicide after being accused by numerous children and young women of sexual abuse.

Then, on Dec. 30, one of Walder’s alleged victims, Shifra Horovitz, also died by suicide, her friends saying she had been distraught by the response to his death. In some haredi publications, Walder was venerated after his death.

For Keats-Jaskoll, a cofounder of the Israeli advocacy organization Chochmat Nashim and for many other Orthodox Jews, the litany called for a coordinated, public response.

So she, who is Orthodox but not haredi, and a network of haredi activists and volunteers printed 350,000 flyers and passed them out in haredi areas before Shabbat.

Most of the reactions she got were from mothers thanking her for sharing her message, she told JTA.
But one man told her he didn’t know anyone who had been hurt and questioned why she was giving out the flyers.

“I think this is really hard for haredim, when you’re told to trust leadership and there’s a real cognitive dissonance: something is wrong, the leadership should be saying something, if they’re not saying something maybe it’s not true,” Keats-Jaskoll said.

The flyers offered information about the rabbinic court that heard testimony against Walder, quoted rabbinic sources about the seriousness of sexual abuse and answered questions about why allegations first reported in secular media should be trusted in religious communities.

Since the allegations against Walder first appeared in November, the case has taken an unusual trajectory in the Orthodox world. After Eichler’s, a Jewish bookstore in Brooklyn, announced that it would stop selling Walder’s books in response to the Haaretz investigation, many other repudiations of Walder followed.

But after Walder’s suicide, in a number of haredi schools teachers reportedly spoke to students about Walder’s suicide as an example of the dangerous effects of lashon hara, or speaking negatively about another person.

At Walder’s funeral, Dov Weinroth, a lawyer and friend of Walder, called out the journalists at Haaretz who first published the allegations against Walder as “murderers.”

In the days after Walder’s death, multiple haredi Orthodox publications published obituaries of Walder that ended with the phrase “may his memory be a blessing” while failing to mention the allegations against him.

Yet, social media gave rise to a different kind of reaction in the Orthodox community: photos of Walder’s books in the trash and poignant accounts of difficult conversations between parents and children about abuse and what constitutes inappropriate touching.

A social media campaign Monday, Jan. 3, generated a flood of complaints to haredi magazines about their coverage.

The crowdfunding campaign to print a second run of flyers has raised nearly $70,000 in just a few days.

“There’s a dissonance between how people are responding in their homes and the way the institutions are responding,” Keats-Jaskoll said.

There are signs that the dissonance is having an effect on traditional institutions. After being criticized for visiting Walder’s family, Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau called for victims of sexual abuse to come forward. Dov Weinroth, too, made an about-face, apologizing for criticizing the reporters who broke the story in a Facebook post last week that urged readers to “believe the complainants.”

“I picked up the phone and called Aaron Rabinowitz,” Weinroth wrote, referring to one of the Haaretz reporters who broke the story about Walder. “Truthfully this was the first time, and for a simple reason: to apologize. At the end of the day, I had never spoken with him, but I got up at the funeral and demeaned him.”

Rabbi Natan Slifkin, author and director of the Biblical Museum of Natural History in Beit Shemesh wrote:
“The fact that Walder, clearly emerging as a horrific predator, was glorified after his death by important charedi rabbis and politicians and newspapers, while those who attempted to scream about the dangers are being branded as evil gossipers who drove him to his death, is just too much for many people in the charedi community,” Slifkin wrote on his blog Rationalist Judaism.

An editorial in Mishpacha magazine’s Hebrew edition spoke directly about the topic of sexual abuse.

“They [the victims] are not the guilty ones. They are not the abusers,” the magazine wrote.

“To them we say in the name of the entire haredi community: our hearts are with you. We support you and we believe you, unconditionally. And we will do everything in our power as a community to build a safer and purer world for you.”

For Keats-Jaskoll the fallout from the Walder case is a watershed moment.

“I think COVID helped with that, I think seeing what happened with COVID with leadership denying what was happening with COVID and watching people get sick and die, it kind of took a lot of people and shook them up and say maybe our leadership doesn’t know everything,” she said.

“We just can’t wait for the next suicide. We just can’t wait for more people to kill themselves to know that this is a massive crisis.”

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