Several major Jewish organizations have come out in support of victims of sexual abuse within the Orthodox community following the death of haredi author, therapist and accused rapist Chaim Walder.
The Rabbinic Council of America (RCA), a leading North American Orthodox rabbinical organization, issued a statement over social media expressing concern and support for the victims of Walder's abuse.
"This high-profile case reinforces the reality that our community, like all others, is not immune from the scourge of abuse," RCA president Rabbi Binyamin Blau said in a statement. "We call on everyone to protect and support victims and hold perpetrators accountable. We recognize that the allegations were not adjudicated in court, yet the reports to rabbis and the press are credible and substantial."
"Those in positions of leadership must create an environment in which victims are encouraged and feel safe to report abuse, and must promote public awareness and discussion of credible allegations of abuse," RCA executive vice president Rabbi Mark Dratch said.
On Thursday, Chabad.org released an article about eight things people who were victims of sexual abuse as children should know. This list was meant to remind these victims that they were not alone, the abuse was not their fault, their pain and feelings are real, healing is possible and they should be able to find someone to tell and get help.
On Wednesday, Israel's Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau issued a statement that victims of sexual abuse should bring their complaints to relevant authorities and are obligated to do so.
“These acts must be uprooted and eradicated completely. In any case when there is a hint of an indecent act or harassment, there is an obligation to complain to the authorities in charge of these issues, and not hide it,” Lau said in a statement released by his office.
These statements come following the apparent suicide of Walder, who was facing accusations from dozens of posssible victims alleging that he had sexually abused women, young girls and boys in his position of power and authority.
The Walder sex accusation scandal, first revealed by Haaretz, rocked the haredi world, given the accused's status as a popular children's author and therapist who was seen by many as a reliable authority figure in precisely these kinds of situations.
The reaction to the allegations against Walder has been watched closely for signs of a shift in the Orthodox community’s approach to revelations of sexual abuse at the hands of respected rabbis and community members. While the Orthodox community has long tended to sweep such allegations under the rug, that trend appeared to be shifting in the days following the allegations against Walder.
The accusations saw his books dropped by his publisher, Feldheim Publishers, and dropped from retailers like Eichler's and the Osher Ad chain. His regular column in the Yated Ne'eman daily paper and radio show on Radio Kol Hai were both suspended.
Harsh criticism also came from Safed Chief Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu, who had called on people to stop reading his books and had summoned Walder to the beit din.
However, after Walder's apparent suicide, the fierce backlash began to spread in the haredi world. His shiva was attended by many prominent haredi figures, like David Lau, and the initial reports of his death in haredi media largely refused to mention any allegations against him and instead praised him for his good deeds in life.
Harsh backlash also came from many rabbinic figures, most notably Rabbi Gershon Edelstein, one of the foremost leaders of the non-Hassidic haredi (Litvak) community in Israel, who went so far as to say that those who accused Walder of sexual abuse were guilty of murder.
“It is clear that the great pressure he was under led him to lose his sanity and kill himself. This is called murder,” he said in a statement.
“Even if the melamed [teacher] feels that he has a view on the matter, it is critical to transmit to children only the viewpoint of the Torah and to cry out about how dangerous it is to publicly embarrass other people. They should be told that evil people slandered him and publicized the slander everywhere until he was embarrassed to show his face outside and became mentally deranged to the point that he killed himself.”
This has caused many to worry that the reactionary backlash is triggering a crackdown against sexual abuse victims coming forward, often under the guise of preventing "lashon hara."
On Thursday, a young woman had died of suicide. As confirmed by Israeli news outlet Makor Rishon, the woman, named Shifra Horovitz, was one of Walder's victims and had taken her own life following Walder's own suicide.
Her funeral was held later the same day.
In light of Walder's death, ZA'AKAH, an organization fighting Child Sexual Abuse in Orthodox communities, has opened a one-off hotline via Whatsapp for anyone struggling with the news, though they are not a crisis line and are not equipped to deal with immediate crisis calls.They can be reached by messaging 888-492-2524. They have further increased staffing following Horovitz's death
In Israel, the ERAN suicide hotline can be reached by dialing 1201.
This is a developing story.
Shira Silkoff and Shira Hanau/JTA contributed to this report.