Members of the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community are at odds after an elementary school principal in Brooklyn encouraged parents not to engage with their kids about sex abuse allegations involving a widely popular children’s author who killed himself once the accusations became public.
Haredi rabbi, therapist, and writer Chaim Walder, 53, died by suicide on Dec. 27 in an Israeli cemetery, where he reportedly shot himself at the gravesite of his son Meir Zvi, who died of cancer in 2019 at the age of 28. Walder’s death came one day after 22 people testified before a rabbinical court, describing an alleged pattern of sexual assault over the past two decades. After Walder’s funeral, where he was praised in emotional eulogies by respected community members, one of Walder’s accusers took her own life on Dec. 29, distraught at the whitewashing of his alleged crimes, friends said.
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Walder was one of the ultra-Orthodox world’s most popular and beloved young-adult authors, with some 80 books to his name. He established summer camps for Jewish children, and was behind the Center for the Child and the Family in the mostly Hasidic city of Bnei Brak. As a result, the insular global community of Haredi Jews has been rocked by the assault claims against him—and leaders such as Rabbi Menachem Frank, the principal of all-girls private school Bais Yaakov in Brooklyn’s Borough Park neighborhood, are under fire for a response some say will only further hurt children.
The Bais Yaakov dust-up began shortly after Walder’s recent death, when a student wrote about the situation in the school’s newsletter. After they were mailed out, the school changed its mind and immediately tried to claw back all copies of the newsletter by asking parents to return them upon receipt, a source close to the community told The Daily Beast. In response to confusion and uncertainty among parents as to what prompted the school’s freakout, Frank, who did not respond to The Daily Beast’s request for comment, sent a letter to parents in an attempt to clear the air.
“In light of the recent horror that has occurred in Eretz Yisroel in regard to a well-known children’s author, I urge you all to exercise extreme restraint when discussing this,” he wrote, suggesting that conversations about Walder could lead to “mental health triggers, confusion, feelings of betrayal, and so on.”
“Sharing these discussions with our children can definitely create deep seated damage in their precious and delicate minds…,” Frank went on. “Please recognize the danger to ourselves and our children. In truth, this subject should never have reached the ears of our children in the first place. As a community, we need to be more vigilant about what we share with our children and what we allow them to view, read or hear. We are partially the cause of this unnecessary crisis of how to support our children who are now grappling with too-much-information. Let's be more careful.”
The solution, Frank wrote in his letter, was to “remain vague and simply state, ‘We all thought he was a good guy but it appears that he may not have been very good after all. It sounds like he hurt people. But he is gone now, it’s over, let’s move on.’”
Frank said Bais Yaakov would remove Walder’s books from its library, and he urged parents “to do the same in your homes.”
On Thursday, following what Frank described as “wonderful feedback from so many parents as well as requests for further clarity,” he penned another missive explaining his position.“The focus of the letter was about both not traumatizing our children and about keeping their minds pure if we need to discuss the Walder incident with them,” Frank wrote. “We don’t talk to children the same way we speak to adults. I also do not believe that we should use the Chaim Walder horror as the platform to discuss personal safety. Rather, wait several weeks and have this talk at that time. In other words, those discussions with your children should be about them and their safety, not about Chaim Walder.”
Dainy Bernstein, who attended Bais Yaakov as a child and later taught there as an adult, has focused their PhD studies on ultra-Orthodox Jewish children’s literature in America. Bernstein, who also teaches courses on young-adult literature at Lehman College in the Bronx, said that Frank’s second letter was “still not okay.”
“The idea of, ‘Don’t use the horror of the Chaim Walder story’—this is the same thing as saying, after gun violence, ‘Now is not the time to talk about gun control,’” Bernstein told The Daily Beast. “No, now is exactly the time to talk about it.”
Bernstein, who identifies as non-binary, was “raised on” Walder’s books, they said, calling them “an extremely important part of my childhood.”
Although many ultra-Orthodox rabbis in Israel have condemned Walder, others have come to his defense in the aftermath of his death. Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel David Lau was spotted paying a condolence call to Walder’s family, and had to issue a statement of support for Walder’s victims during the ensuing uproar. Another praised Walder for his good deeds. And news coverage by ultra-Orthodox media outlets played down the allegations of Walder’s long-running sexual abuse, with one obituary calling him, simply, a “well-known writer and educator.” This lack of acknowledgement, in part, prompted Israeli activists to hand out more than 300,000 fliers across Hasidic enclaves reading, “We all believe the victims.”
Hasidic parents are scrambling to try to figure out how to deal with this with their kids, Bernstein said. Taking his books off the shelf does not stop the conversation from happening, because news of the Walder situation has exploded within the community.
“I mean, I get it that you don’t want to scare the kids,” Bernstein continued. “And they’re right, talking to children is not the same thing as talking to adults. But this letter gave absolutely no guidance on how to talk to children.”
Many people in the Hasidic community are not raised with the same critical thinking skills about the secular world, according to Bernstein. Because of this, parents who now have “an odd feeling” about Walder’s books are confused about what to do and don’t know how to figure it out on their own.
“And they’re looking to leadership, and all leadership is saying is, ‘Stop all conversation,’” said Bernstein. “Parents are turning to [the school principal] for guidance. Give them real guidance.”
The unfiltered internet is, theoretically, forbidden in the Hasidic community. In many yeshivas, going to the public library is also prohibited. But Bernstein, who is no longer ultra-Orthodox, chafed against these restrictions and learned about sex from secret visits to the public libraries around New York.
“I actually remember asking my mother at one point, ‘Is this something that’s part of Jewish marriage also, or is this just a thing that goyim do?’ I had no idea how babies were made, and I was, I think, 17 at the time when I asked my mom. Which is ridiculous.”
Today, it is becoming increasingly difficult, if not impossible, to keep that information away from those who seek it. A member of the ultra-Orthodox community who is not a Bais Yaakov parent but was slipped a copy of Frank’s letter told The Daily Beast that he “lives in a space between Orthodox and ex-Orthodox, which gives me a lot of freedom to talk about these things. And people pass me a lot of scuttlebutt.”
The source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, provided The Daily Beast with the original Bais Yaakov letter, which was emailed on New Year’s Eve as a PDF, with the title, “12-31 For Parents Eyes Only.”
“People expect this conversation to only bounce off the walls of the school,” he said. “They got used to that. They didn’t expect the internet, which is why they’re so anti-internet. They lose control of the conversation. [The letter] didn’t last an hour before it was all over the internet. But this issue goes back to literally the 1800s. Only then it wasn’t the internet, it was the Yiddish press.”
The Torah’s prohibition against gossip or speaking ill of others does not apply in Walder’s case, according to Allison Josephs, whose nonprofit, Jew in the City, works to bridge the divide between the Orthodox and secular communities. She said a prominent Hasidic rabbi, Asher Weiss, issued a declaration telling followers to “use this opportunity to expose and turn in predators,” and that “nobody, regardless of position, status, or age can be left unchecked.”
“People are actually calling the Chaim Walder case the Orthodox ‘Me Too’ moment,” Josephs told The Daily Beast. “It’s only coming a couple of years after the reckoning of larger society, which, in my opinion, is actually good news. Because the thing about the more insular parts of the Orthodox world, is that they purposely try to close themselves off from the secular world as a matter of survival.”
What most people don’t know, said Josephs, is that the Hasidic community is made up of many Holocaust survivors, or descendants of survivors.
“The fear their ancestors had of the outside world persists almost as if time didn’t pass,” Josephs explained. “When you work to keep the world out in order to survive, positive updates, like better ways of educating and handling abuse take longer to get in. But it is happening.”
As for Frank’s letter to parents about Walder, Josephs saw “some good things…in terms of, throw the books out.”
But, like Bernstein, she said she is bothered by the idea of telling parents and kids to put Walder behind them without any sort of actual reckoning.
“I sense in him this sort of discomfort like, ‘We don’t have capacity to talk about uncomfortable things, let's just move on,’” she said. “And when you shut a kid down like that, that’s when they don’t have a place to be heard. That’s when they feel voiceless in their own home… That’s not Judaism, that’s dysfunction.”
If there is a silver lining of any sort at all to this tragic situation, it’s that today’s Haredi publishing world is booming, according to Bernstein.
“I won't say that all of it is great,” they said. “But there’s lots of things that parents can give their children or teens.”
There aren’t as many books available to ultra-Orthodox kids as there should be, said Bernstein, who described them as “kind of problematic, in that they mostly teach ‘stranger danger’ and they don’t teach the fact that abusers are more likely to be family, friends, or trusted leaders. So that’s an ongoing problem.”
While the issue of Chaim Walder’s legacy is still an open question for some, Bernstein isn’t all that worried about his work disappearing from bookshelves.
“As an adult now, looking at these books, I don’t think that they are the epitome of greatness in young-adult literature that the community’s made them out to be,” Bernstein said. “I mean, these books have been lauded for years… But as a scholar of young-adult literature, I don’t think there’s as much value in them as people think.”