Vales of Silence

A heavy silence fell this week over the home of Yisrael Asher Vales' grandparents in the Jerusalem ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Mea She'arim, where Vales, who is suspected of killing his baby son, is being held under house arrest for the duration of the proceedings against him. The family, which until recently had been waging an extensive media campaign to prove his innocence and cooperating happily with journalists, has now sentenced itself to silence. The frequent reports on the mood of the accused and the wife standing by his side have stopped. The lectures of the people who intervened on his behalf, who explained that it was Vales' conflicted spirit and his heavy conscience that caused him to repeatedly confess to abusing the baby, have ceased. The alternative ultra-Orthodox media channels that report through the Internet and cellular phones have also put an end to their melodramatic announcements about the "case of yeshiva student Vales."

Vales is refusing the many requests for media interviews, his brother-in-law Zvi Eisenstein said at the beginning of the week in an effort to explain why the curtain was coming down on the drama. Another associate said proudly that Vales had even refused an interview request from Hamodia, the newspaper of the ultra-Orthodox Agudat Yisrael party. The request is in itself curious, as this straight-laced paper does not, as a rule, discuss criminal matters - or even hint at them - out of concern for the purity of its readers' souls. The occasional instances in which a serious crime is mentioned relate to the really major cases, like the murder of a prime minister.

The house where Vales, his wife and his parents are staying became the pilgrimage destination for rabbis and sages this week who stopped by to express their support. Some of them are not even identified with the "Yerushalmerim," the people of the Old Yishuv (pre-state Jewish community) - a group that includes the Valeses. Leading Lithuanian (non-Hasidic) figures like Ponevitch Yeshiva head Rabbi Berel Povarsky and Rabbi Chaim Kanevsky came to visit, as did leading Hasidic rabbis from Edah Haredit such as Rabbi Tuvia Weiss and the sage of the Toldot Aharon sect.

The small apartment in the center of Mea She'arim houses round-the-clock prayers and a study hall, and in the evenings, the place is filled with friends, acquaintances and busybodies. The question is, will the commotion around the Vales case only continue until the next incident to capture the attention of the Jerusalem public? Until an intensification of the conflict between the two rival factions of the Satmar Hasidic sect in the United States following Rabbi Moshe Teitelbaum's death, for instance? Or is the Vales case becoming an established myth, a symbol of police harassment, and possibly state harassment, of the ultra-Orthodox?

Media flurry

Those close to the Valeses say the family had "gone underground" when it stopped catering to the media, that it had adopted the approach of the police and the prosecution, who were not comfortable with the media flurry and the criticism surrounding the case. But that argument, which was geared toward the outside world, could also indicate the family is falling into line with the radicals in the Edah Haredit, who are not known for their sympathy for the media. One can assume they will not hesitate to go out into the streets again if the trial is not to their liking. The quiet, in that case, is only temporary.

If the Vales family and its in-laws, who are moderates, at first tried to influence the mood in the Edah Haredit community, they ended up giving in to the extremists. Since the extremists established the "committee to save Vales," they have been the ones setting the tone. It has recently become clear that Atra Kadisha, a radical group waging a militant struggle over graves, has decided to fund Vales' legal representation. David Shmidel, who heads Atra Kadisha, has recently been representing the family in talks with top lawyers.

It's clear the family wants to prove the innocence of Yisrael at any price. But within the ultra-Orthodox world, some say the involvement of the extremists, especially a radical like Shmidel, is a serious tactical error. Ultra-Orthodox publicist Dudi Zilbershlag, who advised the family when the case was first reported, predicts the trial will inflame emotions and said the anticipated events among the American Satmars are liable to have a negative influence on the ultra-Orthodox reaction to the Vales case.

Each of the Satmar factions will attempt to show it is better than the others, said Zilbershlag, by showing it is conceptually closer to the zeal of Satmar leader Rav Yoelish (Rabbi Yoel Teitelbaum), whose reputation has reached mythological proportions. And Israel is a key site of this internal struggle. "I think this internal war will lead to extremism and that it will bring a lot of financial resources to the various Satmar factions in Israel for the purpose of protests," said Zilbershlag. The same source of funds that paid for the campaign of the extremist factions during election season are likely to cause trouble related to the Vales case.

Radical interested parties like Shmidel generally operate on the sidelines and don't manage to recruit the moderates. But this time it's different. Zilbershlag said the entire ultra-Orthodox community, including the Lithuanians, is involved because the community thinks the press has been giving the ultra-Orthodox issue too much coverage. The Vales case, he said, was placed on the national agenda as a struggle against the ultra-Orthodox, and "that immediately unifies the camp." He said he changed his mind when he saw an investigator speak to the baby's mother, Hanna Vales, "rudely and tendentiously."

A journalist who belongs to the Lithuanian camp said Povarsky, the head of the Ponevitch Yeshiva, visited the Vales home because "there is the matter of mutual responsibility, and the boy is in a difficult situation. That's why everyone is coming to lift his spirits." However, an ultra-Orthodox analyst has another explanation: "The rabbis are simply worried about themselves. This is the show now, so they're worried about being seen there."

Choosing the lawyer

Povarsky even connected the family with attorney Yaakov Weinrot. A lot of thought went into choosing the lawyer. The case has been examined by other prominent lawyers as well: Sassi Gaz and Avigdor Feldman. Gaz was crossed off because he didn't promise total acquittal; Feldman promised acquittal, but his image as the attorney of murderers deterred the family.

It's not surprising the family is leaning toward Weinrot, who wears a black skullcap and recently represented the ultra-Orthodox community when it came up against cellular phone companies and in coalition negotiations. The only reservation is the question of his dedication - to what extent will he take a personal interest, asked a source familiar with the case. The family wants him to deal with the case as though his own son were involved, not as another business deal. In any case, the decision will be made by next week. A legal hearing will be held Monday to discuss representation. At the hearing, the family is expected to ask that Vales be allowed to pray in the synagogue.

Meanwhile, Yisrael Asher Vales has become a kind of folk hero. A close friend said the house was so packed that he had to coordinate his visit with the family ahead of time; the family contacted him a day later to tell him when to come. Hanna Vales has returned to her work at a clothing store. The men congregate in the family home in the morning. The morning prayers start at 6:45 A.M., after which breakfast is served. The students from Vales' yeshiva arrive at 9:30 to study with him. They disperse at 1 P.M. and the family eats lunch. A new group of worshipers shows up at 4 P.M., and the house becomes a shteibel, a synagogue with many people coming and going for prayers.

Visitors to the house sit and converse around the table, people analyze the Edah Haredit and decide who is for the Vales family and who is against. For instance, they discuss what happened after Rabbi Moshe Sternbuch visited Vales in jail. The Edah Haredit announced it was stopping the protests after the rabbi got the impression that Vales was guilty. But two days later he recanted and made a statement of support. The family said the police pressured Vales before the visit not to deviate from the testimony he had given, and that pressure, they said, is what convinced Sternbuch to support him.

Vales, who at first clung to his guilt, is becoming freed of it. He repeatedly tells of the pressure the police exerted on him, and visitors drink in his words thirstily. It appears his family has managed to convince him of his innocence.