Further heart-rending, stomach-churning sexual harassment allegations emerged last week about Chaim Halpern, a Charedi rabbi from Golders Green. On Israeli television, a young woman courageously came forward with an alleged recording of Halpern’s advances and efforts at intimidation. Halpern maintains his innocence and says that the recording is someone impersonating him.
It has been nearly a decade since accusations of sexual assault were first levelled at the then-Rabbi. Charges were later dropped. But during that time, senior rabbis from within the Charedi community, notably Rabbi Shimon Weingarten and Dayan Chanoch Ehrentreu (then head of the London Beth Din), wrote a letter publicly denouncing Halpern. They argued passionately that he should no longer be trusted in any communal capacity.
Initially, despite Halpern’s extensive and loyal familial network, the community responded with relative unity. Charedi schools, organisations and charities dropped his endorsements, and the Union of Orthodox Hebrew Congregations — Britain’s umbrella organisation for Charedi Synagogues — asked him to step down from their presiding rabbinate. Many families that had previously sought his advice recoiled and joined the rabbis in his condemnation. This was a time of shock and turmoil for London’s frum community, which was forced to grapple with accusations about the very fabric of its network. Halpern’s synagogue membership reduced significantly. But shockingly, it did not close altogether.
The rabbis spoke. Yet many would not, or perhaps some could not, listen to their warnings. As the charismatic leader and his core supporters dismissed the claims and continued as normal, the controversy died down. Halpern’s community regrew during the months and years that followed. He continued leading prayer services, teaching Torah and conducting ceremonies.
His most hardcore supporters fought back against the rabbis who had spoken out, harassing those who had raised their voices.
Most disturbingly, Halpern was still offering counsel to synagogue members. As Rabbi Shraga Feivel Zimmerman, head of the Federation of Synagogues in London since 2019, said in his virtual broadcast last week, these core supporters maintained the context which led to these distressing recent allegations. But more than that, the supporters’ behaviour perpetuated a culture of confusion, with mixed messages from some senior figures as to how the community should respond to the sex abuse claims (which were never subject to criminal proceedings).
Thinking about sexual abuse in general, if there is one characteristic experience of survivors of sexual abuse beyond the pain, humiliation and emotional damage that accompanies other types of abuse, it is confusion. Contrary to what many people think, sexual abuse is usually not something that occurs in dark alleyways by strangers in balaclavas. Quite the opposite; it is most often perpetrated by people with whom the victim is familiar or even likes and admires. The violations are often accompanied by grooming, manipulation, and displays of affection, some of which are flattering at first. Sadly, around one third of sexual abuse is committed by family members.
The confusion for the victim is intense as they are unable to point to the wounds like a victim of physical abuse can point to a bruise or a broken arm. It is compounded with feelings that they were somehow to blame and did not refuse loudly enough or strongly enough. And because, in healthy relationships, physical intimacy is an extension and expression of love, the confusion becomes murkier than ever.
The damage done by confusion alone can take years to untangle. That is why the support given to those who have come forward with accusations needs to be clear and uncompromising, with lines drawn with certainty. Their experiences and the pain of being violated needs to be deeply validated, without shame. The reactions of those around them is key in this.
When any form of intimate violation has been committed, those who dismiss it perpetuate the victims’ confusion about the point at which affectionate language and behaviour crosses a clear line and is wholly transgressive, perverted, destructive and dangerous. They maintain the murky narrative of how and when an abuse victim is allowed to stand up and speak out against misconduct. They reinforce the survivors’ shame. Who knows the true extent of the damage of misplaced loyalty.
It is comforting that our rabbis are showing leadership and are standing up to predatory behaviours. Wherever possible, those coming forward with claims of sexual abuse need more than support. They need validation, protection and clarity.
Chana Hughes is rebbetzin at Radlett United Synagogue and a family therapist