Australian Jews Debate Media Role in Abuse Cases

By Sam Sokol (By Jerusalem Post)
March 14, 2013

A confrontation between a rabbi’s wife and the brother-in-law of sexual abuse victims’ advocate Manny Waks last week highlighted a divide between two views within Australian Jewry over the proper role of the media in cases of sexual abuse.

Waks, who heads the Tzedek advocacy organization, claimed on Facebook on Monday that Peninah Feldman, the wife of local Chabad Rabbi Pinchas Feldman, had verbally attacked his brother-in-law Dovy Rapoport on March 6 over Waks’s tendency to turn to the media to publicize abuse cases.

Feldman allegedly told Rapoport that Waks was a “moser,” a Talmudic term for a “collaborator” who informs on Jews to non-Jewish authorities. The word has extremely negative connotations within Orthodox Judaism and there is a prayer recited daily against such people.

“This incident confirms what so many of us have known for a long time; that this type of attitude is fairly prevalent among many within the ultra-Orthodox community,” Waks wrote on his Facebook page. “It also demonstrates, yet again, the ongoing harassment and intimidation many victims and their families are subjected to, including by those in leadership positions.”

Waks thanked Feldman for “sharing with the public views that are generally kept behind closed doors.”

One witness, who spoke with The Jerusalem Post on condition of anonymity, said that it was an “unprovoked attack.”

“I was shocked and horrified by Rebbetzin Feldman’s comments. The rebbetzin referred to Manny Waks as a ‘moser’ and his family as lacking respect for anyone.”

In February, Rabbi Feldman was the subject of accusations that he was aware of abuse occurring at the Yeshiva Centre school in Sydney a quarter of a century ago and did not report it to authorities.

The American-born Feldman, who was sent to Australia by the Lubavitcher rebbe in 1964, replied to the allegations, saying that he “endorse[s] the unequivocal rabbinical rulings encouraging victims of abuse to report to the police and I will continue to support the efforts of law enforcement agencies in investigating and taking action against these heinous crimes.”

In a statement issued in response to queries by members of the local Jewish press, Peninah Feldman said she did not “intend to publicly explain details of a private conversation that may embarrass or cause pain to certain individuals, including some who may have tragically been the victims of child abuse.”

She “unequivocally” stood by rulings by Jewish scholars endorsing the reporting of abuse, she said, adding that “reporting child sexual abuse and in fact any form of physical violence to the relevant government authorities is not mesira [‘informing’].”

She asserted, however, reflecting a split in approaches to abuse within Australian Jewry, that the police “have indicated that media speculation could jeopardize their investigations and interfere with the course of justice.”

In what appeared to be a jab at Waks, Feldman said that “constant leaking to the media in the midst of a sensitive police investigation only hinders the ability of victims to come forward with their deep personal pain, for fear of publicity. In my opinion, such publicity runs the risk of protecting the perpetrators more than it does the victims.”

Waks, who went public as a victim of abuse in 2011, disagrees. The Yeshiva Centre, he told the Post on Wednesday, was undergoing a “serious investigation” involving “multiple perpetrators, many victims and allegations of coverups as well.”

Feldman’s statement, Waks said, was an attempt to “diminish” his credibility, “because I am the one leading this public campaign, including sharing certain stories and cases with the media – obviously in cooperation with the victims.”

“It was a clear attack on me and my integrity,” he said.

While acknowledging that publicity was not always the best course, Waks said that after he came forward with his own story and began Tzedek’s current media campaign, “all of a sudden dozens of people went to the police.”

“Every time there is a case of an additional victim who speaks out anonymously and the media covers the story, more victims have gone forward to the police,” he said. “There is no doubt in our minds that this is the correct way to address” the problem of abuse.

In a statement that Waks sent to the media, he also claimed that last Wednesday’s confrontation with Peninah Feldman “brings into question all other previous positive statements made by the Sydney Yeshiva Centre, especially those made by her husband and yeshiva head, Rabbi Pinchas Feldman.”

“Tzedek is currently examining all of its options,” the statement read, including going to a rabbinic court, should any of the witnesses to the event prove amenable.

Waks further called Feldman’s statements “another crude attempt by the rebbetzin to portray the victims, victim groups and many others who have publicly spoken about their experience of abuse in a negative light.”

Tzedek announced that it has cut ties with the Sydney Yeshiva Centre until the matter is resolved and a retraction and apology issued.

One person familiar with the matter, who spoke with the Post on condition of anonymity, said that there is an “internal debate in the Jewish community. There is a clear halachic ruling that it is not mesira to go to the police.”

“The discussion,” the source said, centers around whether or not it is “helpful to go to the media every five minutes before investigations have run their course.”

Waks, he said, “gives names to the media” even before the police have completed investigations, and this “tips people off that the police are interested in them.”

The current set of abuse allegations in Australia come after the British Jewish community was rocked by a hidden microphone recording of leading UK Rabbi Ephraim Padwa telling a former victim not to go to the police.

In January, following the Padwa incident, David Morris, who heads the Israeli victims advocacy organization Magen, told the Post that there is “a deep set culture of non-reporting and cover-up” within certain Jewish communities.

The Executive Council of Australian Jewry sent a letter to the Australian government in December 2012, responding to statements made by Waks regarding this alleged culture of coverup.

“Mr. Waks’s allegations both of child sex abuse and the covering up by various institutions of that conduct must of course be treated seriously,” the council wrote.

However, “caution needs to be exercised in drawing generalized conclusions about entire communities from allegations that concern specific individuals and specific organizations, and especially from those allegations that are yet to be proven, or even investigated,” the council continued.