A victim in every home
Six years after the abuse apparently ended, residents of a Haredi moshav have finally begun to testify about the alleged sexual attacks of two male residents on the community's children. Those who complain are being shunned.
On an afternoon toward the end of May, at Komemiyut, an ultra-Orthodox moshav near Kiryat Gat, everything seemed normal: Dogs barked, a donkey was braying in the distance and little Haredi boys recited their "aleph-bais" in reedy voices in the heder (religious kindergarten). But beneath the surface, there was tense anticipation. Fear that the moshav's secret would be discovered.
The police suspect that over the course of many years, children and teens were sexually abused by one of moshav's residents, Shimshon Walzer. For some two decades, according to the suspicion, the suspect acted freely - and there are also claims that some of Walzer's victims have gone on to abuse other children, younger than themselves.
An undercover police investigation of Walzer went on over a period of many months, and led to the additional suspicion that some of the victims were also abused by another person at the moshav. About a month ago, an indictment was filed citing indecent acts and sodomy allegedly committed by that person, who was a minor when most of the crimes attributed to him took place - between 1998 and 2004. Since then, he has been released to house arrest.
Walzer, however, has not been indicted, since in April he flew to the United States to raise money for the moshav's Talmud Torah (elementary school ) and synagogue. Apparently, when he realized the noose was tightening around him, he preferred not to return to Israel and even missed his son's wedding in Bnei Brak on May 26.
The State Prosecutor's Office decided recently not to request an extradition order from the U.S. against Walzer - in part due to the fact that some of the offenses are no longer prosecutable, under the statute of limitations. During the course of the investigation, conducted by the central unit of the Lachish police force, testimony was taken from dozens of victims as well as from moshav officials, including the community's rabbi, the Talmud Torah principal and members of the locale's governing council. Most of the witnesses denied that the two had committed sexual abuse.
Insofar as is known, up until the police stepped in, no complaints about the alleged acts had been filed with the welfare authorities. MK Danny Danon (Likud ), chairman of the Knesset Committee on the Rights of the Child, wrote a letter in June to Social Affairs Minister Isaac Herzog, asking him to examine "how it is that welfare personnel were not involved, and why the many victims were not and are not being afforded treatment by the welfare authorities." Danon believes that the affair is "a matter of criminal negligence and neglect on the part of the authorities that have failed to treat those involved, both the welfare authorities and the enforcement authorities." His letter has not yet received an answer.
'Defilement that prevails'
Moshav rabbi Mendel Mendelson declined to answer questions from Haaretz. The wife of the Talmud Torah principal, Rabbi Haim Knopfelmacher, said on his behalf that he submitted to police questioning "because there's no choice, but we will not cooperate with the press." Members of the community council whom we contacted also refused to respond.
Komemiyut was established as a cooperative farming village in 1950, but today only a small number of its members raise crops or livestock. Neglect is everywhere; small, ugly houses are surrounded by weed-choked yards. The moshav's only playground has a sign indicating separate hours for boys and for girls.
This is not the first time this moshav has concealed a dark secret. The abducted 6-year-old boy Yossele Schumacher was hidden here for a while in the 1960s; today, Ben-Zion Miller, suspected of having given three narcotics-filled suitcases to ultra-Orthodox drug-runners in 2008, is under house arrest there.
One resident, who like all those interviewed here asked that his name not be published for fear he would be ostracized, said the place never developed because of the "defilement that prevails in it."
Meanwhile, it is hard to explain how, in a community with just 340 inhabitants - fewer than 40 families, who belong to the large Gur, Belz and Vishnitz Hasidic sects - no one knew about the suspected abuse. Especially because, according to one resident, and confirmed by the police, there is hardly a home in which there isn't a victim.
Walzer's alleged sexual abuse began 19 years ago, when he was rabbi of the Talmud Torah. From the investigative material it appears that a kind of deviant sexual culture arose among some of the boys on the moshav, which included sexual activity, sometimes consensual and sometimes forced, and also that a special language developed around this activity. The expression "to beat up," for example, was used as code for groping and touching of a sexual nature, which often led to forced acts. One resident in his 20s related that instead of playing cops and robbers, the moshav's children invented a game of tag called "Shimshon Walzer."
Of the 40 cases in which there is suspicion of abuse by Walzer, the police have collected complaints and testimony from 16 purported victims, who were aged between 7 and 16 when the acts were committed. Two complained against the additional suspect. Many of the witnesses, now married and living outside the moshav, were not willing to make official complaints, for fear they would be exposed. The acts were apparently frequent, and committed in abandoned barns and chicken coops, or surrounding fields.
From the testimony collected by the investigators, it emerges that the patterns of action of the two suspects were similar: molestation of minors aged 9, 10 and above, most from families with a lower status on the moshav. Walzer would pick them up from the school or the synagogue in his car, and sometimes molest them in the mikveh (ritual bath ).
Over the years, residents say, people lowered their voices when they spoke about incidents they had seen: the flash of naked bodies through the windows of a parked car, a boy groping with Walzer among the bushes, suspicious movements near the mikveh.
Some claimed with self-conviction that their children weren't among the victims. "I have girls and he abused boys," said one woman, though the suspicion is that Walzer abused both sexes.
"I worked in the cow barn all day. My main concern was always supporting my family," said another resident. "I am shocked. But the truth is, I don't dare ask my children whether they were molested."
Children were warned to stay away from Walzer. "From a very young age, we knew he was dangerous," related one inhabitant.
Complaints were made, however, to the moshav's rabbinical establishment. From the testimony, it emerges that they were silenced time after time with the pretext that the matter would be dealt with, or that the incidents were not current.
In fact, parents' protest led to the termination of Walzer's work as a teacher 18 years ago. Instead, he was given offices in the school building where he established a workshop for making tefillin (phylacteries ).
One witness told investigators that when the parents protested yet again, a functionary was brought in from Jerusalem and put in charge of dealing with Walzer. However, in the end, say investigators, it was decided to distance Walzer from the moshav and he was sent abroad to raise money.
As long as the police were not let in on the secret, however, the acts continued, according to the suspicion.
'Not in my time'
The extent of the denial pervading the moshav emerges from testimony that one community council member gave investigators. The witness related a series of "rumors" involving residents, whom he named. Among them were some whom Walzer purportedly abused when they were minors, and others apparently abused by other people.
When the investigators asked why he hadn't complained to the police, the man replied: "The incidents occurred in the past, not in my time. We were not able to know exactly when." He added that, "the victim who is harmed doesn't tell and it's natural that way. And from what I hear, most of the parents of the children who were harmed didn't hear a thing and didn't know anything about it ... They were afraid to ask the children so as not to traumatize them. I can't remember exactly when and with which parents I talked about Shimshon and they said it was an old story and nothing could be done about it, and above all it would harm matches [for marriages] for their children if made public. We are afraid that would be more harmful."
Asked why he was telling the story today, the witness said: "We want an end to it for the sake of our children." Later he recalled that one of the victims, who had in fact complained against the other suspect, had told him two years ago about the sexual abuse he had undergone.
The police visited the homes of people who might have been abused as children and asked them to testify; they also went to yeshivas in Bnei Brak where there are people who may have been in contact with the suspect. Many did not cooperate. Others, who agreed, changed their minds after they were apparently threatened. However, a few of the victims did file complaints.
From their testimony it emerges that even though revealing their secret was a relief, this did not suffice to convince them to complain formally or to confront the attackers. "I don't feel good about it. He is old," one said.
Parents of minors did not cooperate for fear their testimony would harm their sons' chances of a good marriage match. As a result, most of the complainants in the case are adults who have no connection with the moshav now, and some have given up a religious lifestyle.
Only today, 20 years later, has one of the complainants against Walzer told what exactly happened. He was 9 years old when Walzer offered him a ride home from the synagogue. "It was in the evening, but I didn't suspect anything because he had been my 'rebbe' the previous year," he relates. "The truth is, I was even glad to ride with him in the car."
Walzer did not take him home, but rather to a chicken coop at the edge of the moshav. "I was a naive child," relates the complainant. "He started to take off my pants and play with my body. When I resisted, he took his gartel (a thin belt worn by Hasids ) and tied me to him. I don't remember how long it lasted or how I got home."
He did not reveal what he already knew - that "it was a routine thing to go with [Walzer]," as he says. "Friends talked about what they did with him; sexual things that shouldn't be happening to children."
"Until we heard about what happened to our son, I didn't know there was such a thing," relates one woman, whose son complained. "My big sons wanted to beat him up and kill him, but we felt sorry for his wife and his children."
Today, in retrospect, she is remorseful. "I ask myself, what did I do? How did I relate to it? We just yelled that they should kick him out of the school and we believed the principal. Why didn't we go to the police?"
Despite the acts of which he is suspected, about which everyone supposedly knew, Walzer was put in charge of the synagogue and renovated it at his own expense. One local person commented bitterly: "Apparently in order to get respect in the moshav, you have to rape children." The speaker and his family are among the few who, even though they did not have the courage to turn to the police because they feared din moser (the duty to eliminate a Jew who intends to turn another Jew in to non-religious authorities ), fought Walzer in ways acceptable in ultra-Orthodox society: First, they spoke to the principal of the school and the rabbi of the moshav and subsequently they testified at a rabbinical court in Bnei Brak, but to no avail.
The finger of blame in the moshav is now pointed at the accusers. They are being shunned. They are not called up to say the blessings from the Torah in the synagogue on the Sabbath. No one is speaking to them. Their children have no one to play with.
Nor does the complainant against the other suspect feel relief as a result of the indictment. He will soon be 20 years old. According to the charges, for about four years, from age 9 to 13, he would be called over by the suspect during se'udah shilishit (the traditional late-afternoon meal on the Sabbath ) in the synagogue, and undergo abuse behind a hedge near the mikveh.
"The first time, I went in all innocence. I didn't resist," the complainant told Haaretz. "I froze to the spot. I didn't understand what was happening." The longer the acts continued and became more sophisticated, the more ashamed he was: "I knew it wasn't right. I was in total shock. I was in pain."
He says he was raped twice, and each time the suspect warned him to keep mum. He explains that he obeyed because it is a principle in ultra- Orthodox society to obey every adult. He adds that the abuse stopped when he reached the age of 13, and that he dropped out of the yeshiva a short time later.
During the police inquiry, it emerged that two years ago an investigation was opened against this same complainant on the grounds that he himself had abused a minor, but the case was closed for lack of evidence.
He says he told the police investigators he was "sorry I had unwittingly harmed another child." In a conversation with him last month, he said: "When I look at my brothers, I don't know if they are happy but they are married and they have a normal life. I look at myself. From the age of 16 I've been living away from home, looking after myself. And I don't have anyone to cry to. To my mind, the ultra-Orthodox are hypocritical people. My mother said to me, 'The whole moshav doesn't need to suffer because of you.' I am not angry at my mother. She is afraid. I went home to her and I told her everything. She said she didn't know about it, that the deeds were done a long time ago, that it's passed. What hurts most is she didn't come with me to complain."
Attorneys Yehuda Fried and Tal Gabay, who are representing the two suspects, have informed Haaretz that Walzer went to the United States "on a routine mission on behalf of the moshav's educational institutions, even before he knew he was wanted for questioning ... When he decides to return to Israel he will fight to clear his name.
"As an addendum to this investigation the name of our [other] client came up, also as a suspect in similar offenses. The complainant in the case was questioned in the past as a suspect in acts of sodomy with minors, a case that was closed because of difficulties in proving the evidence against him. The complainant was expelled from ultra-Orthodox society because of unsuitability. Any reasonable person who reads the complainant's testimony against our client understands this is a complainant who, to put it mildly, is suffering from problems of credibility, and it is obvious he has a desire to harm ultra-Orthodox society in general and the Walzer family in particular. We believe his testimony will not hold up at all."
The lawyers added: "The court, in a series of decisions, released our client from detention. We believe we will be able to convince the honorable court of our client's innocence."