"You might think Manny Waks would be a hero for breaking the silence about child sexual abuse within Melbourne’s ultra-Orthodox Jewish community this year. Several abusers have been exposed and two have been jailed.…You might also think the Chabad community of the Yeshivah Centre would applaud and encourage Waks’ parents, Zephaniah and Chaya, who have given their son the moral support and encouragement he needed since he told them in 1996 about the abuse that began happening to him when he was 11 years old." You might think that, but you would be wrong.
Manny, Tzefanya and Chaya Waks
After the whistle has blown
Barney Zwartz • The Age
You might think Manny Waks would be a hero for breaking the silence about child sexual abuse within Melbourne’s ultra-Orthodox Jewish community this year. Several abusers have been exposed and two have been jailed, while the St Kilda East Yeshivah Centre, where Waks himself was abused 25 years ago, now claims to be a model of child safety and awareness.
You might also think the Chabad community of the Yeshivah Centre would applaud and encourage Waks’ parents, Zephaniah and Chaya, who have given their son the moral support and encouragement he needed since he told them in 1996 about the abuse that began happening to him when he was 11 years old.
But two weeks ago, Zephaniah and Chaya decided to put their house on the market and move to Israel, citing bullying, harassment and ostracism from the community in which they were once respected members.
Indeed, Yeshivah rabbis railed against the whistleblowing Waks from the first day after Manny went public, and now say Zephaniah and Manny have run a vendetta against the centre.
“It’s the hypocrisy that gets me,” Zephaniah says. “You read about it in the prophets [of the Hebrew Bible], but you don’t expect it today.”
Manny says they know of several abusers within the Yeshivah community, some of whom have been convicted and others against whom there are accusations. “Some are in Melbourne, some have gone to Israel or America, and most will never face justice because victims don’t want to take further action.”
He says some in the community refuse to report another Jew to non-Jewish authorities, or oppose going to the police. Some victims feel they have moved on and don’t want to get bogged down in the past. “For others, their families don’t know; and still others because they have seen what has happened to the Waks family – it’s about what may happen to victims and their families.”
The Waks’ experience is not unusual. Whistleblowers in any community risk a backlash, but the more enclosed and reclusive the group, the more its members fear turmoil and publicity. This is true of ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities around the world (although the Chabad movement prefers to call itself simply Orthodox).
Indeed, a New York public prosecutor last year described the intimidation of victims of sexual abuse and their families as going beyond that meted out by the Mafia.
“I haven’t seen this kind of intimidation in organised crime cases or police corruption,” said Brooklyn district attorney Charles Hynes, whose comment has been chillingly confirmed by recent US cases.
In September, a young Orthodox woman whose testimony of being repeatedly raped for three years from the age of 12 by a youth counsellor led to him being jailed for 103 years [sic] was booed out of her synagogue in Williamsburg, New York. According to The New Yorker [sic] magazine, thousands of people attended a fund-raiser for the counsellor’s defence, his supporters hung posters around the neighbourhood accusing the victim of libel, and she and her husband were shunned.
Four members of the community were charged with witness tampering after prosecutors recorded them threatening and trying to bribe the couple, offering them $500,000 to move to Israel and drop the case. [Actually, three removed the victim's boyfriend's restaurant's kosher seal and drove him out of business; one separately offered the bribe – FailedMessiah.com.]
The woman’s husband told the New York Post: “She felt horrible and mistreated. They treat survivors as if they are the abusers.”
In a second case, a family moved from Lakewood, New Jersey, to Detroit, but the intimidation continued.
The pressure on victims to drop complaints is intense – from rabbinical authorities and neighbours alike. In one particularly shameful case reported in the American media, when a 30-year-old man abused a 14-year-old boy in a ritual bath, a rabbi made the boy apologise to the molester for seducing him.
Matters have not been so extreme for the Waks family, but they have suffered. Manny – a former vice-president of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry – has left the ultra-Orthodox community and founded Tzedek, a victims’ advocacy group. He and several of his 16 siblings are no longer on speaking terms.
Manny went to the police and the Yeshivah leadership in 1996 to report the abuse by two different perpetrators. One of them, David Cyprys, 45, is now in jail awaiting final sentencing for abusing Manny and eight other boys when he was a security guard and karate teacher at Yeshivah. Fellow Yeshivah employee, Rabbi David Kramer, was jailed for three years in July for abusing four students.
But more than a decade after Manny reported the abuse, no action had been taken. Only then did he go to the media. It is this, above all, that the community disapproves of.
Zephaniah used to visit the Yeshivah Centre three times a day to pray, and often to study. His house, which is opposite the centre, is just a few metres away. Last week, for the first time, he did not attend the sabbath service.
When Manny told him in 2011 he was going public, Zephaniah assumed that meant he would tell friends. Instead, it was on page 1 of The Age.
“I was anticipating trouble, but I’m not going to say no,” Zephaniah says. “It had an immediate reaction. The next sabbath, Rabbi [Zvi] Telsner [the Yeshivah Centre's senior rabbi] started his nonsense, thundering, ‘Who gave you permission to speak to anybody?’
“In his sermon, he went through the various levels of excommunication that exist in Judaism, not from God but from the community. And the rabbis have powers if you don’t listen to them. I walked out, and so did six women with my wife.”
It went slowly downhill from there, Zephaniah says, but has spiralled in the past few months. “After a year, I stopped getting ritual honours in the synagogue [such as being called on to read the Bible], and it was made explicit that I’m not a deserving person.”
After he was assaulted in the synagogue, Zephaniah was devastated not to receive support from witnesses. He says one told police he heard it but saw nothing; another saw it but heard nothing, and a third said he did not want to get involved. “I’ve got kids to marry,” he told Zephaniah.
Most of their friends are scared. “It says something that you have great-grandparents and they are afraid to take a position. They have seen the writing on the wall; they have to live in the community.”
Many either derive income from the Yeshivah Centre or are given substantial financial subsidies for their children’s education at its various schools.
Some Orthodox Jews simply refuse to believe people in their community could molest children, and there is also a natural desire to protect the community. Some people admit there was a problem but it was in the past, perhaps decades ago, and the Yeshivah Centre has apologised fully for it.
“Some see it as a Waks family vendetta against Yeshivah, though nothing could be further from the truth,” says Manny. “But we have to ask, why don’t other victims feel comfortable speaking out?”
Some observers believe the rabbis are trying to preserve the community’s traditions and keep the outside world at bay. The more hardline rabbis, especially in Israel and the US, strongly endorse the prohibition against mesirah (a Hebrew term for a Jew reporting another Jew to non-Jewish authorities) and believe publicly airing allegations against fellow Jews amounts to a desecration of God’s name.
Chaya, who was president of the women’s group and had other leadership roles, was an important figure in the community. “It is very hard at my age to start a new life in a new house,” she says.
As she began to feel increasingly uncomfortable in the community, she wound back her responsibilities. “It’s a problem; it’s an embarrassment for the community,” she says. “If only at the beginning they had just said ‘sorry, and if victims come forward, we will help you’.
“The problem is, parents are scared. This is very sad. I ignored this subject with my friends. I didn’t feel comfortable to go to functions at the school that I used to. You feel maybe people are staring at you, thinking about you in a negative way. They say what Manny is doing is good, but not this way.
“I never expected this to happen,” she says. “I thought my friendships were strong. I say hello, but it’s very superficial. Now I’m just in the house, and that’s it.”
Last week Yeshivah Centre spokesman Yehoshua Smukler accused the Waks family of running a vendetta. This week he said in a statement: “We can only wish the Waks family all the best on their anticipated move, and reiterate our open door to provide any support they feel would be of benefit to them.”
He repeated the centre’s desire for any victims to go to the police. “I have consistently and constantly stated that the Yeshivah condemns sexual abuse in any form, and that we recognise that the effects of abuse on victims and their families are profound and real, requiring empathy, understanding and support.
“It has not been our policy or practice to harass or intimidate victims in any way. On the contrary, we have offered support and counselling to numerous victims to date.”
Rabbi Smukler, principal of the Yeshivah and Beth Rivkah colleges, says the centre continuously reaches out to past victims of abuse.
“We are a welcoming and warm community who have unreservedly apologised for mistakes made in the past handling of historical matters of child abuse. We are focused on creating a safe environment for all our children, now and in the future.”
He says police have told the centre there is “absolutely no basis for concern” about any current staff.
The Waks say the ultra-Orthodox leadership is clever but disingenuous. They say go to the police with “credible” accusations, but you must go to the rabbi to ascertain what is credible, Manny says. The rabbis still want to control what happens.
But at the Yeshivah Centre, their authority is slowly starting to break down, he says.
Although the older generation is “more focused on protecting the institution, protecting their mates”, the younger generation is more interested in justice and supporting victims.
“The biggest obstacle is that no one is willing to speak publicly, so the community only hears the vocal people, and they, sadly, are usually the ones whose attitudes are a problem.”
There have been lively discussions on Facebook, and Manny and Zephaniah were touched by a post on Monday from a young Jewish mother who said it was because of Manny, who spoke up when everyone else was silent, that she felt safe to send her children to Yeshivah schools.
Even so, the “auction soon” sign has been put up outside the home where Zephaniah and Chaya raised 17 children (12 bedrooms, five kitchens), and they will divide their time between Israel and Melbourne, where they have a wig business. They will do so outside the ultra-Orthodox community.
Manny says: “We need to find opportunities to work with people so they don’t feel they are under attack. At the moment, the entire Yeshivah community feels under attack. They are being dragged through the media and the courts.
“I don’t apologise for what I am doing, but just because people don’t speak up doesn’t mean they are evil people.
“The blame lies with the leadership, but there is also a responsibility for the community to take some action. We need people to say ‘not in my name’ and to help.”
For Zephaniah, the issue is even more stark: “As someone said to me, if religion can allow such people to flourish, what’s the point of religion?”
Barney Zwartz is religion editor.