Haredi author and educator Chaim Walder was found dead in a cemetery near his son’s grave on Monday in what is suspected to have been a suicide. Walder was facing multiple allegations of rape and sexual assault of minors since a Haaretz expose last month.
Walder was a well-known author of children’s and young adults’ books in the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) world. His series Kids Speak (in Hebrew, Yeladim Mesaprim al Atzmam) has sold more than two million copies in communities across Israel and the Diaspora. The first book in the series became one of the top five best-selling books in Israel of all time.
He was accused of raping minors and young adults, all of whom he met in his line of work as a therapist and children’s author. Last month, two anonymous women spoke to Haaretz and shared their accounts of their experiences with Walder. A third anonymous account from a 20-year-old woman was also shared.
Following the news of his death, Safed Chief Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu, who had been presiding over a beit din (rabbinical court) regarding the alleged sexual abuse suffered by victims at the hands of Walder, released this statement: “It is too bad he chose this path. We had offered him the option to fix what he had broken, to apologize to his victims, to change his ways, to ensure that no more women would be harmed. We send strength to the many victims in these difficult times. Their lives precede his life.”
Twenty-two people have come forward to testify before the beit din, Haaretz reported Sunday.
Based on the evidence of the testimonies, which have since been examined and determined to be in line with other testimonies and evidence, Eliyahu, one of the leading figures in the fight against sexual assault in haredi communities, summoned Walder to his court. Walder declined, saying the outcome of the case was predetermined before his version of events was even heard.
A beit din can be established for a variety of reasons, and it is generally comprised of three rabbis who are required to be experts in relevant Halacha. In this instance, serving alongside Eliyahu were Rabbi Reuven Nakar and Rabbi Aharon Yirchi.
While rabbinical courts are generally established for matters pertaining to Halacha, such as conversion and kosher slaughter, they can also be established for civil affairs, such as in the case of the allegations against Walder.
Although the beit din has no legal power in this instance, as it is outside of the powers granted to them by the state (conversion, marriage and divorce), decisions made by the court hold immense significance and influence in haredi society.
Walder was accused of exploiting young women who came to him for therapeutic treatment.
In the testimony shared with Haaretz, Talia (not her real name) recounted the first time she met Walder at the age of 12, more than 20 years ago.
Upon meeting her, Walder told the girl that she was “very mature” and that he liked the way she looked. “He was very smart and manipulative,” Talia told the newspaper. “He did it very slowly, so as not to stress me out.”
Over time, these overt comments became more explicit, and Walder would ask her frequently if she had begun menstruating yet, repeatedly over several months, Talia said. When she reached the age of 13 and began menstruating, Walder began to engage in full sexual intercourse with her, she said.
“I remember the trauma afterward,” Talia said in her testimony. “
THE COURT heard testimonies from the victims themselves and reviewed relevant documents and recordings of Walder, all of which seemed to corroborate the allegations of those testifying.
“We are not judging [Walder] based on a newspaper article,” Eliyahu clarified in a Facebook post. “We have received a lot of evidence. All of those involved in this matter have been in contact with therapists and professionals who have testified before us that over the years many people who had been hurt by Walder came to them. I know these people well. They are completely credible, and their testimonies match what was published in Haaretz.”
The earliest testimony against Walder dates back 25 years, and the most recent is from six months ago. All allege that Walder’s attacks on his victims would take place in his bookstore in Bnei Brak, his office, his car or in various hotels.
Among the testimonies given in court and shared with the publication was one woman who alleged that while she was working at a haredi summer camp, Walder forcibly assaulted a camper under her care. She also testified for a woman who had been raped by Walder after coming to him seeking treatment.
Others alleged that women who had been assaulted by Walder during sessions had been asked to sign nondisclosure agreements to make sure they stayed silent about their experiences.
Evidence was also presented of both a 12-year-old and a nine-year-old allegedly assaulted by Walder, one at his summer camp and the other after coming to him for treatment.
Other evidence presented and later reported on by Haaretz focused on a consensual affair between Walder and a married woman.
In a recording, Walder can be heard urging the woman, who admitted to having the affair, to take back her confession and conceal evidence relating to him from the beit din.
“Come and learn something,” he can be heard saying to the woman. “In life, everything can be concealed... even if they were to present a photograph of me next to you, I would deny it. I would say it was photoshopped. I will never admit to it, never.”
Walder urged the woman to retract her testimony of the affair, telling her to say her husband threatened her into reporting a fake event. Nevertheless, the woman continued to relay her version of the events in front of the court. As heard on a recording, Walder threatened the woman, saying he would end his own life.
“Listen to me, if this is publicized I will shoot myself,” he said in the recording. “Let this be clear to you, and don’t have any doubts. This would mean the end of my own life.”
Since the allegations were first reported in Haaretz almost two months ago, many people in haredi communities worldwide have taken action to remove his books from their stores and shelves, and he has been dropped by Feldheim, the publishing company he worked with on his Kids Speak series for many years.
Both Israeli supermarket chain Osher Ad and American Jewish bookstore Eichler’s have removed his books from their shelves, and his weekly column in the haredi Yated Ne’eman newspaper and his radio talk show were indefinitely suspended.
Walder continued to deny the allegations against him, with his representatives saying he passed a polygraph test as evidence that he is telling the truth.
“We will make it clear that a self-appointed court that decides a person is guilty and only then invites him to tell his version is a sham court to which truth is foreign and the rules of justice do not apply,” Walder’s representatives said in a statement. “Our client will not give up, and he is ready to fight for his good name until the end.”
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.
They can be reached by messaging 888-492-2524.