Charedi crisis over sex abuse claims

Allegations of inappropriate behaviour with women by a senior strictly Orthodox rabbi have this week led to a schism within the Charedi community.

The community has been convulsed for months following complaints made by women about marriage counselling sessions run by Rabbi Chaim Halpern of the Divrei Chaim Synagogue in Golders Green.

One group believes that Rabbi Halpern has been maligned, while another is angry at what it argues is a failure by an umbrella body, the Union of Orthodox Hebrew Congregations — whose president is Rabbi Halpern’s father — to investigate his behaviour.

On Tuesday, the North Hendon Adath Yisroel synagogue in north-west London pulled out of the Union after the shul’s rabbi, Dovid Cohn, said the Union’s “lack of willingness or ability” to deal with the issue was “a matter of great embarrassment”.

The fallout from the allegations against Rabbi Halpern has divided rabbis, highlighting tensions between the more professional and prosperous congregations in north-west London and conservative factions in Stamford Hill.

Feelings are so highly charged that police are investigating complaints of harassment lodged by one of the rabbis who has opposed Rabbi Halpern.

A police spokesman said on Wednesday that they were investigating allegations that “a man in his mid-60s” had received more than 50 phone calls which included “profanities in Hebrew”.

Henry Ehreich, secretary of North Hendon Adath Yisroel, which has around 180 members, explained that its decision to leave the Union and go independent was because “of the way the Union has been dealing, or not dealing, with the problem. We were faced with a situation where members of our shul were voting with their feet.”

If the synagogue had remained affiliated, he said, it would have appeared to have been in agreement with the Union’s perceived “inaction”.

He added: “We think this may be a catalyst for other shuls to do the same.”

Last Monday, the Union’s religious head, Rabbi Ephraim Padwa, appeared to have taken firm action against Rabbi Halpern by authorising the expulsion of his synagogue from the Union.

But only a few hours later, Rabbi Padwa let it be known that an announcement of the move had been a “misunderstanding”. Union officials confirmed that Divrei Chaim remained within the Union.

The rethink followed a meeting at the home of Rabbi Halpern’s father, Rabbi Elchonon Halpern, the elderly president of the Union. Police were called when witnesses in the street reported hearing heated exchanges with supporters of Rabbi Chaim Halpern inside. No arrests were made.

Several Golders Green rabbis, including former London Beth Din Dayan Chanoch Ehrentreu, who have examined some of the evidence against Rabbi Chaim Halpern, have previously declared him unfit to serve as a rabbi.

Rabbi Halpern maintains his innocence, saying that his counselling sessions have been conducted in accordance with Jewish law.

Although he resigned his position as a Union dayan and other communal roles, he continues to lead Divrei Chaim and teach Torah classes in the area.

A senior Orthodox activist from north-west London said: “The rabbonim of north-west London, along with the entire community, have completely lost confidence in the UOHC. They, or their leader, are utterly incompetent and should be replaced; either scenario calls into question the reliability of their communal activities, including kashrut.”

Rabbi Chaim Halpern, he said, “has disgraced his position as rav. The sooner he leaves north-west London, the sooner the community can begin to heal itself”.

In December, the Union announced plans to set up a special Beth Din convened by a leading rabbi from Israel to examine the allegations. But the lack of any further detail has fuelled accusations of impotence.

Rabbi Halpern, meanwhile, continues to enjoy support within the Charedi rank-and-file. One Stamford Hill supporter said: “I have heard a lot about him, that he’s always got time for people who have got problems. I don’t believe the rumours.”

Last updated: 1:46pm, January 3 2013