The arrest of Haredi rabbis and public figures in northern London on Wednesday was the most dramatic turn yet in a fully sordid case that for months has been creating turmoil within Britain's insular ultra-Orthodox community.
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The involvement in the case by the London Metropolitan Police, coupled with a court ruling earlier this month that forced Google to reveal the details of bloggers who have written about it on the Web, is further proof – if any was needed – that Haredi society can no longer solve its problems behind closed doors.
The arrest of Rabbi Chaim Halpern, who was taken into custody in the north London neighborhood of Golders Green on Wednesday morning, came after months of accusations that he had been abusing as many as 30 women, all of whom had come to him for family guidance.
Halpern is the scion of one of England's most influential Haredi families. He is the rabbi of a Golders Green community and a former rabbinical judge of the Union of Orthodox Hebrew Congregations, which is the main ultra-Orthodox establishment in Britain. He has now been pressured into resigning from his religious positions and a special ad-hoc beit din (rabbinical court) has been convened to hear the allegations against him.
The three other arrested men are believed to be well-known figures in the local community who are suspected of helping Halpern to "pervert justice" by pressuring some of the women not to complain. According to Haredi sources, another well-known figure to be questioned by police is Rabbi Ephraim Padwa, the head of the Union and the man regarded by many as unofficial "Haredi chief rabbi" of Britain.
Accusations against Halpern have been swirling in London's cloistered Haredi world for at least six months now. In December, senior rabbis issued a ruling deeming him unfit to fulfill religious posts. Despite that edict, a small number of followers continued to back Halpern who, while resigning from his official positions, continued to hold services in the small synagogue at his home. And while a special beit din was due to reconvene in two weeks to examine the case, there has been a great deal of criticism within the community that their goal was simply to whitewash the allegations. Many of Halpern's original accusers failed to appear before the court in the first place.
The police action almost certainly came after a tip-off from the Haredi community, which marks a distinct betrayal of the ultra-Orthodox to not be a mosser – one who gives a fellow Jew up to the authorities. But any so-called mossers could in turn say that it was Halpern who went to the authorities first.
A few weeks ago, Halpern persuaded the High Court to issue an order against Google, ordering the search-engine behemoth to release the names of those who had commented publicly against him on a blog.
It is much too early for predictions about how big this case will get. But one thing is clear: The days of solving sexual abuse or other problems within the confines of the community, without the need for police or other professional intervention, are over. British police are not always eager to involve themselves in the matters of tightknit religious communities, and in a number of recent cases they have gotten flak for acting too slow when it comes to sexual abuse among ethnic minorities.
In the case of British Haredim, however, the police investigation, while perhaps rather tardy, was inevitable. There was simply too much online activity surrounding it. Blogs in Britain, Israel and the U.S. had covered it furiously at every turn. The bloggers themselves are Haredi, and well-connected to sources in Golders Green. They have information from eager informants on both sides.
And it's not just the insider blogs that have come calling. The mainstream news organizations are covering it as well. Last month, Britain's Channel 4 screened a television program on "Britain's Hidden Child Abuse" which documented the ways in which the Haredi community tries to prevent allegations of child abuse from getting out. The program included undercover footage of Rabbi Ephraim Padwa, leader of the Haredi community in London's Stamford Hill, counseling the victim of an alleged sexual attack not to go to the police.
The Haredi community in Britain, as well as in Israel and the United States, is becoming more transparent by the day, despite the rabbis' efforts to contain it. Anyone who believed that a special beit din could have cleared up the issue before the police came calling was obviously deluding himself.