The moment #MeToo rocked Israel’s extreme Orthodoxy

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BNEI BRAK, Israel – For the ultra-Orthodox public in Israel, he is a charismatic blend of soul healer, role model and media star.

So it came as a huge shock when Chaim Walder, a renowned and distinguished author of children’s books, commentator and counselor for children and families, was accused of sexually assaulting and abusing women. and children.

Come a few months later Touch about the sexual abuse allegations against Yehuda Meshi-Zahav, another prominent, though less well-liked figure in the ultra-Orthodox community, some of whom have described the Walder incident as a moment #MeToo for Haredim, the Hebrew term for Orthodox extremists, means those who tremble before God.

Avigayil Heilbronn, an activist with a strict religious background, has long campaigned on behalf of ultra-Orthodox victims of sexual abuse and describes himself as a “new” or modern Haredi, a feminist with a more liberal attitude.

“Abusers are running away in fear,” she added, as more victims are moving forward.

The episode not only reflects the deep cultural conflict between Orthodox and secular Israelis, but also the growing divide between the growing number of modern Haredim, like Miss Heilbronn, who interact on social networks and are more open to the outside world, and people are still resistant to any form of intrusion or exposure.

The first allegations of abuse against Mr Walder, 53, appeared in mid-November of an inquiry of the secular newspaper Haaretz, rocking the radical world of Orthodoxy.

In late December, a special rabbinic court convened by chief rabbi Safed, a town in northern Israel, said it had heard convincing accusations against Mr. involved 22 women and girls, with some testimonies coming from the accusers themselves. , and added that the Torah views such acts of soul destruction as murder.

The accusers remained anonymous, but the court said their cases were likely just a small part of Mr. Walder’s “dishonest conduct” over decades. It calls him to repent.

Instead, in another chaotic situation, on December 27, the same day police said they were opening an investigation, Mr. Walder committed suicide by his son’s grave. He left behind a handwritten letter threatening two rabbis who had come forward against him with a “trial of the Torah in heaven” and protesting his innocence.

But Haredi society is complex and the revelations have generated a backlash. At first, a few leading rabbis seemed to focus on the guilt of Mr. Walder’s rumors and public shaming, essentially blaming whistleblowers for his death. grandfather.

Ultra-Orthodox fringe activists, Mrs. Heilbronn, among them, have responded with a highly unusual campaign to raise awareness of Haredi about sexual predators and to support groups victim. Over time, the rabbis who supported Mr. Walder fell silent as other respected rabbis publicly denounced him.

The question remains how quickly or deeply the more entrenched Haredi community can act to eradicate abusers given the chilling impact victims can feel from Mr. Walder’s suicide – that in itself is considered a violation of Jewish religious beliefs – and it is still taboo to be explicit about anything to do with sex.

Haredi’s publications allude to the Walder episode with words like “volatility” while trying not to mention his name and largely ignoring what he is said to have done.

“Why? Because we are a conservative website,” said Yanki Farber, a reporter for Behadrei Haredim, a leading ultra-Orthodox digital news platform based in the city of Bnei Brak. “We don’t write publicly about suicide or pedophilia, so we didn’t write about it. Parents, please rely on us to filter the news.”

A Haredi publication, the magazine Mishpacha, wrote an editorial denounce who looked the other way. And like other Haredim working in the media, Mr. Farber wrote his own feelings Facebook post condemned the rule of silence which he said was intended to protect young Haredim from sexual problems but in fact ended up protecting rapists.

Mr. Walder lives and works in Bnei Brak, the Haredi Fort located just east of Tel Aviv. In addition to writing and publishing books for children and adults, he runs summer camps for children and founded the Center for Children and Families based in Bnei Brak. He was employed by the town hall of Bnei Brak for many years as the manager of that centre.

He was the recipient of the Israel government’s Defender of the Child Award in 2003.

His children’s books can be found in most Haredi households. The 14th volume of his popular series “Kids Speak” was published recently with the endorsement of leading rabbi Haredi.

Unlike Mr. Meshi-Zahav, who was already a no-brainer in the Haredi neighborhoods where he grew up, Mr. Walder is beloved by the community, which adds to the surprise.

Mr. Meshi-Zahav also attempted to take his own life in April after allegedly assaulting men, women, girls and boys, and remained in a coma. He has denied the allegations.

Both men have avoided a full police investigation and possible trial. According to members of the public, very few Haredi women go to the police to report abuse, generally lack trust in state agencies and fear of information being leaked to the media. official.

Israeli police said they were aware of their reluctance to file a complaint despite their best efforts to investigate with the utmost care, adding that they alone were authorized to handle criminal cases. such thing.

But Ms. Heilbronn founded an anti-abuse grassroots organization six years ago where victims can start sharing their stories, starting with a Facebook page. It is named “Lo Tishtok“Hebrew means” You will not be silent. ”

Ms. Heilbronn said a complaint about Mr Walder was filed the first month, but the woman involved said she was unable to act because she had signed a non-disclosure agreement with him. After three years, “Lo Tishtok” became a person under the auspices of Magena Haredi help center whose activists have been instrumental in assisting accusers of Mr. Meshi-Zahav and Mr. Walder.

After Mr. Walder was publicly accused, he resigned at Bnei Brak town hall, and a Haredi newspaper and radio station dropped his weekly column and regular talk show. Two rabbis in Haredi have publicly called for their books to be taken off the shelves. A famous bookseller in Brooklyn, Eichlers Judaica, speak it will no longer carry his books even though they are bestsellers.

After Mr Walder’s massed funeral, where supporters sent him off, anti-abuse activists set up an online crowdfunding campaign and volunteers distributed about a million leaflets in Haredi communities around the country, expressing support for the accusers and including quotes from respected rabbis.

One of those who sent the eulogy later apologized for it.

At Bnei Brak this month, however, it became clear that the broader campaign on the issue of abuse had only a limited impact.

Leaflets from the campaign were strewn across the yard or trampled underfoot. Bookstores still prominently display Mr. Walder’s children’s books. One bookseller said he received no complaints; another said it was just good business.

On busy Rabbi Akiva Street, few people were willing to talk about the Walder case and those who would speak declined to be identified.

Malki, 34, a mother of seven who works in an accessories store and gives her name only, said Mr Walder’s suicide has raised suspicions against him, and there are others like him. like you. But since he is no longer in this world, nothing is clear, she added.

She said she told her children the whole time to be on the lookout for strangers and to let her know if anything unpleasant happened to them.

But with about half of the Haredi public now having at least some access to the internet, Mr Farber, a reporter for the Haredi news site, said the community had “sobered up” and no longer needed rabbis for they know what’s going on.

Israel Cohen, a leading ultra-Orthodox political commentator who lives in Bnei Brak, said the fall has found some common ground with the #MeToo movement. Mr. Meshi-Zahav and Mr. Walder are famous enough to be compared to the likes of Harvey Weinstein or Jeffrey Epstein, he said.

But Mr. Cohen warned that real change would have to come from within, through the rabbis and pure Haredi organisations, rather than through the work of activists on the fringes of this world.

Despite the efforts of the police, the radical Orthodox community liked to solve most of its problems internallyevade state intervention and suspect outside authorities.

Finally, Cohen said, rabbis have the ability to set up a forum to address complaints of abuse in the community.

“In my view, the faster the better,” he added. “But to see how things work in Haredi society, it can take time.”

Sound made by Kate Winslett and Tally Abecassis. The moment #MeToo rocked Israel’s extreme Orthodoxy

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