The Chaim Walder saga that has unfolded over the past weeks has created upheaval across the Jewish world, as it must. Walder was one of those profoundly sick people who built trust in order to exploit it in manipulative and destructive ways, shattering an entire community’s sense of trust.
There has been a flood of responses to this tragedy. Some of those responses demonstrate a severe lack of understanding of sexual abuse, highlighting the work that remains to be done on abuse prevention, discovery of victims, and response to perpetrators. And many voices have spoken clearly to the issue, bringing to the fore the growing number of individuals who can be turned to and organizations that are doing real work in this critical area.
There is much to say and even more to do. Here we will make only a few critical points:
1. Our primary duty – as parents and siblings, friends and neighbors, educators and communal leaders – is to provide for the safety and security of those around us and to protect them from those who would inflict harm. A critical component of that responsibility is to create an environment in which victims of abuse feel comfortable speaking up and receive emotional support and comfort from the community, enabling them to rebuild a sense of trust and belonging.
2. The Walder case is a true horror, featuring a major public figure – a rabbi, educator, therapist, popular author, and media personality – egregiously violating the trust placed in him. The headline-grabbing story demonstrates the fallibility of our leaders and builds the essential awareness of our need to maintain personal safety in all contexts and relationships.
But we may not allow this moment to pass without increasing awareness of the more prevalent and hidden incidence of sexual abuse between siblings, family, and peers. These are the stories that occur far more often but due to their narrower scope and lower profile rarely create a headline. As a result, we tend to be far less educated about this danger, leaving us less vigilant in detecting it and less receptive to claims that it has occurred.
3. While the Orthodox community has made meaningful – though clearly insufficient – progress in the realms of prevention of abuse and discovery of its victims, our community has made less progress regarding the perpetrators. Effort after effort is stymied by competing pressures. As Moshe Rabbeinu discovered in his first forays into communal life, while it may be easy to defend a Jew from an external aggressor, the opposite is true when Jews threaten each other. In those situations, voices will be raised that paint the aggressor as the victim, with biases and loyalties clouding what should be a clear sense of justice.
We must be clear and unequivocal that incidents of sexual abuse must be reported to the relevant authorities, and that our absolute priority is the health and safety of victims and the prevention of further victimization. Our priority is not the perpetrator or his family.
There is much work that our community needs to do. We need to use this moment to begin to get more of that work done.