Unfortunately, it happened again.
A prominent member of the Orthodox community, Chaim Walder, was accused of sexually abusing multiple women, two of them while they were minors.
The story first appeared in Haaretz, which reported that Walder allegedly engaged in sexual activity with two minors (ages 12 and 15) and also raped a 20-year-old woman who was his patient. Since the story broke, more than a dozen other women have come forward with similar claims.
Walder, a fixture in the Haredi community who has written more than 80 children’s books, is also a popular talk-show host and columnist.
The news sent shock waves throughout the Haredi community, and no one was quite sure what the response to this news should be. In many cases, sexual abuse allegations against rabbis and others in the community have either been swept under the rug by its leaders or have been dismissed as lashon hara.
However, this time the response was very different.
Feldheim, which published Walder’s popular “Kids Speak” series, immediately dropped the author from its ranks, and is no longer selling his books. Eichler’s Judaica in Borough Park, one of the largest Jewish bookstores in the country, also will no longer be carrying Walder’s books after its owner, Mordy Getz, publicly declared in an open letter to the community that we cannot ignore the pleas of the alleged victims.
Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu, the chief rabbi of Tzfat, ruled that one should not keep Walder’s books in their homes and schools. Radio Kol Chai will no longer broadcast his shows. And Yated Neeman is no longer publishing Walder’s weekly columns.
While this response represents an important and welcome shift in the Haredi community, it doesn’t address the need for more education and awareness about sexual predators who might permanently harm our precious children—in all our schools, regardless of their hashkafa or religious orientation, and in our homes.
Please don’t think this is only a problem in the Haredi world. In the past few years, several Modern Orthodox day schools have uncovered incidents of sexual abuse that have occurred both in the recent past and several decades ago. And while these schools have acted responsibly in being transparent with their parent bodies about the incidents, it doesn’t change the fact that our children can still be the victims of sexual predators today.
That’s why the work of Rabbi Yakov Horowitz is so important. More than a decade ago, Rabbi Horowitz—the founder and director of the Center for Jewish Family Life/Project YES—recognized that the problem of sexual abuse was destroying the lives of many Orthodox youngsters. He noticed that of the kids who were suffering the most—the ones who were involved with heroin and cocaine and who were attempting suicide—a large percentage of them were molested as youngsters.
Believing that education is the key to preventing child abuse, Rabbi Horowitz spent more than two years developing a book called “Let’s Stay Safe, “which he co-published with ArtScroll. Written by Bracha Goetz, it addresses general safety issues for children, such as staying away from strangers, fire hazards, bicycling and crossing the street. In addition, it educates and empowers our children by teaching them the fundamentals of child safety education—their right to protect their personal space, the importance of speaking to their parents regularly, and that they should walk away from any situation where they feel uncomfortable. The child-friendly book includes playful rhymes and colorful illustrations, presents the subject in a comfortable and modest way, and has been positively received by both children and their parents.
“Let’s Stay Safe” is already in more than 120,000 Jewish homes worldwide and has been published in three languages, but Rabbi Horowitz is determined to do everything he can to get the book into as many homes as possible.
My wife and I were privileged to host Rabbi Horowitz and his wife for a Shabbat several years ago, when he spoke in our community as part of an education panel—and we have been proud supporters of his efforts since that time.
Recently, I had an idea that I shared with Rabbi Horowitz, and that I am hoping can be duplicated in every community across the country. What if every Jewish day school could find a donor to purchase hundreds of copies of “Let’s Stay Safe,” so they can be distributed to parents of children in kindergarten through second grade and read to their children?
I spoke to Rabbi Horowitz about this, and he arranged to provide a wholesale price of $5 per book for anyone willing to purchase 200 or more copies of the book for their school.
My wife, Sharon, and I have purchased copies of the book for our local day school here in Stamford, Bi-Cultural Hebrew Academy, and the books are now being distributed this week to parents of children in the younger grades.
I’d love to get other donors on board to do the same in their schools, and follow our lead.
Will this completely solve the problem of sexual predators in our day schools and in our homes? No. However, I believe that education and awareness is the best remedy to address this insidious problem.
A couple of years ago, a teacher at a West Coast Jewish day school was accused of sexually molesting two female students. The case was broken after one of the young victims who had read “Let’s Stay Safe” recognized what was occurring … and spoke to her parents about it.
That’s the best endorsement for this book’s importance that anyone can make, much better than any book review.
For almost two years, our day schools have been faced with the enormous challenge of educating our children during a major pandemic. And to our great credit, we have gone through extraordinary measures to make sure that our kids remain safe during this unprecedented period.
Baruch Hashem, our children can now obtain vaccinations, which will help mitigate any health risks they might experience if God forbid they do contract the coronavirus.
However, there are many other dangers that our precious children face in the world today, such as sexual predators in our community. What we can do to help protect our youngsters is educate them about the issue and make them more aware of the risks.
Michael Feldstein is a contributing editor for The Jewish Link. He owns his own marketing consulting firm, MGF Marketing, and can be reached at [email protected]