Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse public hearing - Opening Statement
By Manny Waks
February 2, 2015
1. This statement made by me accurately sets out the evidence that I am prepared to give to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. The statement is true and correct to the best of my knowledge and belief.
2. Where direct speech is referred to in this statement, it is provided in words or words to the effect of those which were used, to the best of my recollection.
3. My full name is Menahem Leib Waks. I am known as Manny. My date of birth is 10 April 1976.
4. I am the second eldest of 17 children. I have six sisters and ten brothers. My mother was born in Israel and my father in Australia.
5. My parents were introduced at the headquarters of the Chabad-Lubavitch (‘Chabad’) global movement in Crown Heights in Brooklyn, New York. After they were married they moved to Israel. I was born in Israel and lived there until I was seven years old. My family then moved to Sydney and later, when I was eight years old, to Melbourne.
6. My family and I lived across the road from the Melbourne Yeshivah Centre, which is part of the Chabad movement. I grew up within the Chabad movement and my upbringing was ultra-Orthodox.
7. I attended Yeshivah College for my education. Yeshivah College is a Jewish day school for boys run by the Yeshivah Centre. It is on the same grounds as the Yeshivah Centre. During all of my childhood the director of the Yeshivah Centre was the late Rabbi Yitzchok Dovid Groner, who was the most senior figure in the Yeshivah Centre.
8. During my childhood, the Yeshivah Centre was the centre of my universe and, indeed, my family’s. It was where we spent the vast majority of our time for religious, educational and recreational purposes. The Yeshivah community was small and insular.
9. In my experience, matters of a sexual nature are taboo within the Yeshivah community and the broader Chabad movement. There is a strict separation of the genders for all activities. Members of the opposite gender are not meant to interact on any level except with their own family members and in other certain situations. There is a strict dress code to ensure a certain standard of modesty – for example, females must cover themselves below their elbows and knees. During my school years I did not have any form of sex education – in fact, even the word “sex” was not uttered in an educational context.
10. From the age of eight until I was 12 years old, my education in primary school at Yeshivah College consisted of two to three hours of Jewish studies in the morning followed by secular or general studies such as mathematics, English and the like, for the remainder of the day.
11. In 1988, when I was approximately 11 years old, I was sexually abused by Zev (Velvel) Serebryanski, over a period of several months. Serebryanski, who would have been in his early 20s at the time, was a member of the Yeshivah Centre community and the son of a senior Chabad Rabbi who also taught at Yeshivah College and the Yeshivah Centre more broadly. Serebryanski befriended me when we met in the synagogue we both used to attend in East St Kilda (FREE – Friends of Refugees of Eastern Europe – Chabad House for members from the former Soviet Union). His role was to read aloud from the bible each Sabbath. While my family was not from the former Soviet Union, we used to sing and at times some of us would lead the services there.
12. The abuse first occurred at the Yeshivah Centre – inside the synagogue itself during the Jewish festival of Shavuot when it is customary for men to remain awake all night to undertake religious studies. I went upstairs to the women’s section of the synagogue to rest for a while on one of the wooden benches. Serebryanski followed me up there, sat on the bench beside me and started stroking me on my clothes – initially on my thighs and eventually my groin area. He undid my belt and unzipped my trousers and felt around my penis and groin over the top of my underpants with one of his hands. After a short time he stopped and said something like “This isn’t for a place of worship, let’s go outside.” He led me to the adjoining bathrooms where he continued to abuse me sexually, as I describe in my police statement. To this day I am unsure why I followed him. I am also unsure how or why the abuse on that occasion ceased. Serebryanski abused me again in a similar way on a further two occasions or so, each time on the Sabbath at the Chabad House.
13. I felt shocked and confused by what had happened to me. I did not like or understand what was happening. I told Serebryanski to stop what he was doing to me and ultimately he did.
14. In the lead-up to the abuse, Serebryanski undertook what I now understand to be a grooming process with me in that he showed a special interest in me. On several occasions he allowed me to drive his car on the Yeshivah premises. I was around 11 years old.
15. I confided in a classmate and former close friend at Yeshivah College what had happened to me. He breached my trust by sharing this information with other students at school. As a direct result, I was taunted and bullied and called ‘gay’ at school because I had been sexually abused by a man. It is my subsequent experience that there seems to be a misconception in many segments of the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community who conflate homosexuality with paedophilia.
16. I was bullied and taunted in the presence of teachers at school and others in positions of authority within the Yeshivah Centre but no one acted to stop the bullying or taunts. I felt that many people, including adults and teachers at the school and Centre, knew what had happened to me and tolerated me being bullied about it. I thought this because no-one intervened or helped me. I remember walking around feeling very embarrassed, upset and angry. No adult at the Yeshivah College or Centre ever asked me what was happening and whether I was ok. Most of the time I felt completely deserted and alone. My saving grace was my sporting capability. For a period I was class captain in basketball and soccer, which ensured I was not completely marginalised. Had that not been the case, I have no doubt that my suffering would have been significantly worse.
17. Midway through Year 7, when I was 12 years old, I withdrew from secular studies and commenced full time religious studies. I went to Israel to study religion full time for six months, and then returned to Melbourne to continue my full time religious studies at Yeshivah College and through private sessions in both the Yeshivah Centre and elsewhere.
18. From about 1987 to 1990, when I was about 12 years old until I was about 14 and a half years old, I was sexually abused by a man I knew as David Cyprys. I now know his full name to be Shmuel David Cyprys. Cyprys was approximately 20 years old at the time – although to me he seemed a lot older. At this time Cyprys was responsible for security at the Yeshivah Centre, which often included determining who was allowed on the premises. He was also the locksmith at the Yeshivah Centre and had keys to all areas within this institution. He also taught karate classes that I attended.
19. Cyprys was in a position of power and authority. He seemed to be trusted by the Yeshivah Centre. He was someone that I admired and respected but also feared.
20. Cyprys generally taught karate classes in the backyard area of Elwood Synagogue on Dicken Street, Elwood. The classes were once or twice a week, always in the evenings. Cyprys was the only instructor and there were usually about six students in the class. Cyprys sexually abused me during some of these classes and also when he drove me to and from these classes.
21. Initially Cyprys would suddenly come up behind me during a karate class and pinch my backside. At that stage I thought he was just being silly and that he was a bit crazy but the abuse soon started to escalate.
22. Cyprys would often take me and a few others to and from the class in his white van. At Cyprys’ request, I usually sat in the front passenger seat next to Cyprys and, after a while, Cyprys began touching me over the top of my clothes on my penis and groin. One time he dropped my brothers off first and then parked the van nearby and touched my penis and groin area over the top of my tracksuit pants.
23. On at least one occasion, when he gave us a training exercise that required us to stand with our legs spread wide, he grabbed my crotch area from behind and squeezed my penis and testicles. He had placed me in the back of the class, and so no one would have seen any of his sexual assaults.
24. On another occasion he said that I had done something wrong in class and he needed to punish me. He took me outside while everyone else was told to continue practicing. He gave me two options in the form of a punishment. I cannot recall the first option – only that it was something impossible for me to do. The other option was to drop my pants and run around the yard half naked. He effectively left me with only one choice, to run several laps in the yard without any pants on while he watched. I remember feeling humiliated and distressed. However, I felt I had no choice but to comply because I was relatively powerless compared to him and I was worried he might make me do something even worse.
25. One particular occasion that stands out more than any other incident occurred when I was about 14 years old. A classmate and I attended a personal karate training session with Cyprys out the back of the Yeshivah Centre. After training Cyprys asked me to accompany him while he dropped my friend off at his home because he wanted to show me something afterwards. This was despite the fact that I lived across the road from the Yeshivah Centre. After we dropped off my classmate in East St Kilda, Cyprys drove me back to the Yeshivah Centre and took me to the male Mikveh, a ritual bath. Cyprys sexually abused me inside the Mikveh. During the abuse I became very dizzy and told him that I needed to get out of the water. I went over to the drying area and sat down on the floor. Cyprys came over to me and continued what he had been doing in the bath. I remember feeling very dizzy to the point where I blacked out briefly. Soon after I got up, dressed myself and walked home.
26. The Mikveh is a sacred place. It is a ritual bathing house. It is a tradition within the global Chabad movement, as well as other ultra-Orthodox groups, for males from a young age to immerse themselves on a daily basis in the Mikveh. On Fridays, in honour of the Sabbath, and on other occasions this ritual is repeated. It is meant to be a holy and purifying experience. Prior to immersing in the Mikveh one is expected to have a shower at the facilities provided. Often people also shower after immersing in the Mikveh. Inside the Mikveh itself it is customary to dip your entire body three times underwater (i.e. you rise above the water each time and then fully immerse yourself). In my experience, most people also generally use the Mikveh as a place to relax and socialise. So often, depending on how busy it is, there are numerous people inside the Mikveh at the same time – just chatting and relaxing.
27. Before my experience with Cyprys at the Mikveh, I never had any indication that the Mikveh was an unsafe place – on the contrary, I had always assumed it to be a very safe place due to its religious significance; never in my wildest dreams did I imagine that Cyprys would sexually abuse me in this holy place.
28. My abuse by Cyprys happened on a number of occasions over a period of around two years. I felt very confused about what was happening to me. At the time I did not feel there was anything I could do about it. Due to my initial experience of being bullied after disclosing the abuse by Serebryanski I did not even consider sharing the abuse by Cyprys with anyone. And this time I felt that it was my fault – after all, why would two separate well-known community members sexually abuse me? Moreover, this time around the shame, the guilt, the pain and the suffering was multiplied. This was further exacerbated by the fact that the issue of sex was never spoken about around me – certainly not by any responsible adults, including my family unit.
29. Despite the fact that I never spoke of my abuse by Cyprys, it seemed to me that people around me were aware that Cyprys was abusing me. I was very surprised by this and to this day I am not sure how people came to know. I suspect that people saw us spending a significant amount of time together and had simply assumed. I recall one particular incident that made me realise that many knew what I thought was my secret. A rumour started spreading that another schoolmate was abused by Cyprys. At one stage, the victim himself told me what had happened. I vividly recall the way he conveyed what had happened; he said that Cyprys had touched his privates (while pointing to his genitals). I cannot recall my response. Soon after my schoolmate told me this, his mother came to the Yeshivah Centre. I recall precisely where I was when I met her. I was standing just outside my classroom in the College. She seemed to know who I was but I am not sure how – perhaps her son, who was walking a bit behind her, identified me. In front of several people, she said that Cyprys had sexually abused her son and that she had heard that he had also abused me. I recall feeling immensely embarrassed and just freezing. I may have murmured something but I cannot be sure – I may have also nodded. That part is blurred. I just wanted to get out of there and that situation.
30. Before the abuse I was a regular child and a reasonably well-behaved son, brother, student and friend. At home I was the proud older brother to many siblings. I helped out a fair bit. I was happy and positive. At school, while not necessarily a model student, I completed my work and did not have any particular behavioural issues.
31. This all changed after the abuse; my world seemed to have collapsed. I felt ashamed, guilty and angry. I was taunted and teased at school. I felt alone, and became alienated from my family, friends and community.
32. Having grown up in an ultra-Orthodox Jewish environment, where every aspect of daily life is dictated by religion, I soon came to loathe religion, its practices and leaders. I have no doubt this was due directly to the abuse which occurred within a religious institutional environment. The abuse marked a dramatic change in my religious belief system. So, as a child around my Bar Mitzvah (at the age of 13), one of the most important milestones for a Jewish boy, I felt lost in the only world I knew. It is very hard to explain the depth of this despair, given my background. I was essentially questioning my very existence.
33. At home, I became a very difficult child. I rebelled openly against religion. I removed my religious attire at every opportunity. I regularly committed some of the gravest sins possible within our religious lifestyle – I desecrated the Sabbath, I ate non-Kosher food, I didn’t pray, I didn’t fast, among many other things. I was also regularly consuming large quantities of alcohol. This was the start of a long term substance abuse problem for me.
34. In school, my behaviour deteriorated, especially during religious studies, which invariably resulted in constant confrontations with, and alienation from, my parents, teachers and friends. Perhaps it was a coincidence or due to a subconscious act, the teacher for whom I caused greatest grief was the father of my first abuser. Ironically, at this point, I was placed in a full-time religious studies programme. I think this was meant to ensure that I would maintain my strict religious beliefs and practices.
35. When I was 15 years old I was accepted to the religious institutions for older males in Sydney and Melbourne respectively (Yeshivah Gedolah). In due course, due to my irreligious behaviour and clear disinterest in my studies, I was expelled from both institutions, twice. I was also expelled from home a number of times.
36. As a confused and troubled teenager, I had to fend for myself, alienated from my family, friends and community. I do not recall telling anybody about what Cyprys did to me until September 1996. This is largely because of the bullying I experienced after I told my classmate about the abuse by Serebryanski. It was also because I felt that the adults and teachers at Yeshivah had not responded to that bullying.
Disclosure of the abuse
37. In 1994, when I was 18 years old, I moved to Israel and joined the Israel Defense Forces (the ‘IDF’). It was at this time that I formally left the ultra-Orthodox community within which I had grown up, although I had not been observant for some years before this.
38. In September 1996, while I was still in the IDF, I was given a one month break to return to Australia for my older sister’s wedding. It was during this time, while at my parents’ house, that I was listening to the radio and I first heard of Operation Paradox, which was a campaign against child sexual abuse in Australia.
39. I had been thinking about what had happened to me and had been thinking about doing something about it. The abuse had left me disillusioned and angry. When I heard about Operation Paradox on the radio I felt that anger come to the surface and thought to myself ‘I just have to go and do this.’ So I went to my father’s office in our family home and disclosed to him, without going into detail, that I had been sexually abused by Serebryanski and Cyprys. At this time I was 20 years old.
40. It was obvious to me that my father was very shocked, but he was also very supportive of me. Most importantly, he never doubted a word of what I was telling him. I informed him what I had heard on the radio regarding Operation Paradox and that I wanted to make a statement to the police. Almost immediately he called the police and arranged for them to come to our family home.
41. In September 1996, Senior Constable Warner of St Kilda Police visited me at my parents’ home and I gave a statement about what happened to me. My father also provided a statement.
42. The police told me that they would interview Cyprys. By this time Serebryanski was living in the United States, where I understand he still lives. The police later told me that they had interviewed Cyprys and he had denied everything. They told me that it was a case of my word against his and that they were not closing the case but would wait to see if more evidence came to light. I believed at the time that more should have been done about it and I still feel quite upset that it wasn’t.
43. Around the time I went to police I also spoke with Rabbi Groner, the director of the Yeshivah Centre, and discussed what Cyprys had done to me. Rabbi Groner lived around the corner from us and I took the opportunity to speak with him one day when we ran into each other in the street. The conversation was a brief one: it seemed clear to me that Rabbi Groner was aware of the circumstances so there was very little I had to say. He said that Yeshivah was dealing with Cyprys and that I should not do anything of my own accord. I recalled feeling that he just wanted that conversation to end.
44. The main reason that I approached Rabbi Groner at this time was because I had seen that Cyprys was still in a security role at the Yeshivah Centre. I often saw Cyprys at the Yeshivah premises, looking like an official security guard. I observed that his security business signs “Shomer Security” were displayed on the Yeshivah premises
45. After one month in Australia I was due to return to Israel to complete my military service. However, I did not return at the end of my leave but remained in Australia for around five months, engaging in substance abuse on a daily basis. At the time I did not have the maturity to understand why I overstayed my leave in such a significant manner. Upon reflection I believe it was because I felt let down by the system. From my perspective, I had gone to the police and to the Yeshivah Centre’s leader and effectively had the doors shut in my face. It was difficult to accept. I think that this is the reason why I remained absent without leave in Australia for so long.
46. I am not sure what caused me to return to Israel – it may have been boredom, the need to complete my military service or my parents’ request that I return. When I finally did return to Israel, I did not go back to the IDF. I felt too vulnerable and scared to go back – both to the IDF itself and to the front lines where I had previously served as an infantry soldier in the respected Golani Brigade. It was during this time that I also met my future wife.
47. Ultimately, after around another three months, I was arrested by the military police and spent about a month in a military gaol for being absent without leave. I explained to the military court that a police matter kept me in Australia and that I could not leave. I did not go into further details. This contributed to a reduction in my sentence. The remainder of my service was increasingly challenging on several levels. I concluded my military service in 1998 and remained in Israel for another couple of years working in security.
48. In March 2000, I returned to Australia with my future wife to start a life here. My wife and I married in Melbourne on 21 November 2000.
49. As my parents live across the road from the Yeshivah Centre, where they also prayed, often I used to have to walk – alone or with my family, including my young children – past Yeshivah to get to my parents’ house for a Sabbath meal. Most synagogues in Australia have security officers standing at the front of the synagogue. Astonishingly to me, Cyprys was often that security officer protecting the Yeshivah Centre. I recall many occasions when our eyes met while I was walking past. He seemed to deliberately smirk at me. Often he fixed his eyes on me and continued to smirk until I was forced to look away. To me his facial expression said: “We both know what I did, and I got away with it”. It infuriated me. It still does, whenever I think about it.
50. Occasionally I had to walk inside the Yeshivah Synagogue – for example, for my brother’s Bar Mitzvah. Cyprys was the security person standing there, who technically needed to authorise my entry. I was infuriated that the Yeshivah Centre put him in the position of deciding who is safe to enter this institution. There were many children there and since he was the security guard, I believed he had access to every room and facility on the premises. I could not believe that the Yeshivah Centre allowed him to remain in this position for years after I had discussed with Rabbi Groner in 1996 what Cyprys had done to me.
51. In the early 2000s, I again approached Rabbi Groner specifically to discuss this matter with him. In his office, I asked him why Cyprys was still employed by the Yeshivah Centre in this highly sensitive role. I said to him, “I can see David Cyprys is still standing here doing security. How can you have this person here providing him access to children when you know what you know?” Rabbi Groner said that he was personally dealing with it and he told me, adamantly, that I should not raise it elsewhere. I recall that he practically pleaded with me not to pursue this matter. He said that he was taking care of it; Cyprys was getting professional help and, according to these professionals, was making improvements. My final question to Rabbi Groner was “Can you assure me that Cyprys is not currently re-offending or that he will not re-offend in the future?” to which Rabbi Groner responded “No”. At this point I said I had to go and I left.
52. This conversation left me with the clear understanding that Rabbi Groner did not wish me to go to the secular authorities about what Cyprys had done to me. I understood his clear message to be that he was dealing with it internally, and he would continue to do so.
53. I observed that Cyprys continued working in a security role at the Yeshivah Centre until the mid 2000s.
Victims of Crime Assistance Tribunal
54. When I reported my abuse to the police in 1996 they gave me the details of the Victims of Crime Assistance Tribunal (VOCAT). Although I did make initial contact with a lawyer, I did not proceed with an application at this time because I only intended to be in Australia for a short time.
55. When I returned to Australia permanently from Israel, I made an application to VOCAT.
56. On 20 February 2001, I attended a hearing at VOCAT and was awarded a modest sum together with a number of counselling sessions with a psychologist. I attended only a handful of the sessions with the psychologist. I felt very uncomfortable seeing a psychologist. My experience growing up was that if you saw a psychologist you were seen by the community as being weak-minded and crazy. I felt there was a stigma attached to seeing a psychologist, which prevented me from pursuing this form of healing. To some degree, this is still an ongoing issue for me.
57. The VOCAT process made me feel empowered, and I was relieved that my experiences and predicament were finally validated. Indeed, the ultimate positive point was when the Magistrate acknowledged everything that had happened to me.
Going public about my abuse
58. In June 2011, while I was in Israel on a fellowship, my father advised me that Victoria police were looking at historical cases of child sexual abuse at the Yeshivah Centre. He connected me to the leading investigator at the time, Detective Sergeant Scott Dwyer. Soon after, while I was still in Israel, I spoke to Detective Dwyer and provided him with information.
59. Subsequently, while still in Israel, I saw an article online in The Age newspaper dated 22 June 2011, that stated that Victoria Police was seeking to extradite former Yeshivah College teacher Rabbi David Kramer for his alleged crimes at Yeshivah.
60. While I was already aware that the police were investigating some of the historical cases at Yeshivah, I was shocked to read the article in The Age. It was very overwhelming to see that the issue was now in the public domain. In the mid 2000s I had contemplated telling my story in the media, mainly in the hope that other victims would come forward. However, for various reasons, I decided not to go public with my story at that time. But now that the issue was receiving publicity, I felt that the time was right. I contacted the author of the Kramer article, Jewel Topsfield, and confidentially shared with her my story. I asked her to await my return to Australia as I still needed to speak to close family and friends, and I wanted more time to consider this.
61. I sought my parents’ feedback about me going public. They supported me doing so – although they never anticipated that it would become a major news story, rather my father has since told me that they thought I intended to freely share my story with people. I also obtained my wife’s support. Our biggest concern was the possible ramifications for our three young boys. We did not make the decision lightly – in fact, my wife gave her support mainly because she saw how much it meant to me to pursue this matter.
62. My main reasons for going public included:
at the time, I was a Vice President of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry and I felt compelled to take a leadership role on this issue;
I believed that if someone spoke up publicly, many other victims would go to the police; and
after decades of silence, I no longer wanted to hide behind a veil of shame and guilt, which is also the main reason I chose to disclose my name publicly (as opposed to only sharing my story anonymously).
63. On 8 July 2011, my story featured in an article on the front page of The Age.
64. On 1 September 2011, I was contacted by Detective Senior Constable Jonathan Russell of the Moorabbin Police Station. The matters in relation to Cyprys were being reinvestigated. He asked me whether there was any further information I could add to my 17 September 1996 statement in relation to Cyprys. This resulted in me making a further statement to the police on 5 September 2011.
65. Cyprys was later charged and committed to stand trial in relation to his offences against me and 11 others. Cyprys was found guilty on five charges of raping another victim. He subsequently pleaded guilty to 12 other charges in relation to eight other victims, myself included.
66. On 20 December 2013, Cyprys was sentenced to eight years in jail in relation to these charges.
67. I attended all of Cyprys’ hearings and sentencing. As far as I could see there was no-one from the Yeshivah Centre at any of the hearings. At the pre-sentence hearing I read a victim impact statement and made an application to the judge asking permission to identify myself publicly as one of Cyprys’ victims. This application was granted at the sentencing hearing.
68. I made a public statement outside the court after Cyprys was sentenced. I had lived for decades in silence, shame and guilt. I was very pleased that the judge had granted my application to be identified because I did not want to hide behind anything any longer. I wanted to be able to say publicly “this is who I am, this is what happened to me and David Cyprys and the Yeshivah Centre are responsible for this”.
69. In my victim impact statement I also said that I thought Victoria Police made a major error in their response to my allegations back in 1996. I said that I had never received an explanation as to why a link was not made between my allegations and similar allegations over which Cyprys had faced court only a few years earlier, and that I hoped that Victoria Police would shed some light on the matter. In February 2014 I wrote to the Chief Commissioner of Victoria Police about this matter, seeking an explanation.
70. On 24 February 2014 I received an email from Inspector Mark Galliott, Deputy Chief of Staff to the Chief Commissioner, in which he gave me an explanation of why charges were not laid in 1996 when I first went to the police.
71. While I accept that it may not have been simple to introduce the previous case as evidence in my case, there was no attempt to do so, nor was there any other follow up action by police. I still feel that had the police response in 1996 been more serious, Cyprys would have been exposed many years earlier. I accept that many things were different in the 1990s, but I do believe that Victoria Police could have handled my initial complaint better. My more recent experiences with Victoria Police, however, have been much more positive.
72. I do not know what, if any, action Rabbi Groner took after I spoke to him in 1996 and again in the early 2000s about my abuse by Cyprys. However, I observed that Cyprys continued to work as a security guard at the Yeshivah Centre until at least the mid 2000s.
73. From the time the article appeared in The Age in July 2011, I have been criticised for publically disclosing my abuse. From the beginning it seemed clear to me that many within the Yeshivah community felt I had breached what I call the Yeshivah/Chabad community’s ‘code of silence’.
74. A very small minority of the Jewish community who were not members of the Yeshivah/Chabad community were also critical of my public disclosure. I believe this mainly related to the fear that negative publicity about the Jewish community would inevitably lead to increased anti-Semitism.
75. I was keen to engage with Yeshivah in a positive and constructive manner. Both on my own behalf and for the other victims/survivors who had been approaching me since I went public with my story.
76. At one point in 2011 a friend from within the Yeshivah community asked me whether I would consider talking to the Yeshivah leadership about Yeshivah’s response. I agreed to do so. I offered to sign a confidentiality agreement agreeing not to reveal publically that we had met. However, soon after my friend approached me I was made aware of Yeshivah’s attitude to meeting me. I was told that the Yeshivah Centre was not willing to engage with me under any circumstances.
77. In December 2012, I met with one of the members of the Yeshivah Committee of Management, Mr Harry (Chaim) New, at his home. I was very close to his family during my teenage years. At this meeting, I offered to Harry to meet with him and/or other Yeshivah representatives to resolve some of the issues that had been developing between Yeshivah and me. I made it clear that this meeting would have nothing to do with possible compensation – rather, I saw it as an opportunity to engage with them on the broader issue of responding to the allegations of child sexual abuse at Yeshivah. I offered complete confidentiality. Harry said that it would be highly unlikely that the Committee would agree to meet with me, but that he would get back to me if this was indeed an option. I never heard back from him about this. During our meeting Harry said to me that rather than going to the media I should have come to him first because he would have helped resolve the matter.
78. In terms of an apology, the only sincere and direct apology that I have ever received from a person with a formal role at the Yeshivah was from a former teacher of mine. On 8 July 2011, the day my story featured in The Age, Rabbi Yitzchok Tzvi Jedwab called me to apologise in a deeply heartfelt manner. Rabbi Jedwab taught me when I was around 13-14 years old. Often he would throw me out of the classroom for disrupting the class. It seemed to happen very regularly; I recall this time as a nightmare. He called to apologise for responding in such a manner and for not picking up the signs that I was experiencing significant pain and suffering. Rabbi Jedwab became emotional while apologising. I responded by thanking him for apologising but as he was not aware of the abuse, there was really no need for him to apologise (but that I nonetheless greatly appreciated it). Since then this apology has stuck with me.
79. I have never received a direct apology of any kind from the Yeshivah Centre or College. No-one has contacted me on behalf of the Yeshivah Centre or College to offer me any form of support or assistance.
80. However, on 20 August 2012 the Yeshivah Centre sent a letter to the Yeshivah community. The letter was signed by Rabbi Zvi Telsner (on behalf of Yeshivah Synagogue), Rabbi Yehoshua Smukler (on behalf of Yeshivah College) and Don Wolf (on behalf of the Committee of Management). The letter said that they “unreservedly apologise for any historical wrongs that may have been committed”.
81. I felt this was a qualified apology, in particular the use of the word “may” was a slap in the face. I felt that the Yeshivah leadership knew that crimes did occur, and that they did not take the right action when they first learned of allegations of abuse by Kramer and Cyprys. I also felt that the term ‘historical wrongs’ was a cynical attempt by the leadership to try to downplay the issue of child sexual abuse and cover-ups within the Yeshivah community. I do not think there should have been any ambiguity about this issue. To me, the focus of the letter was more to reassure the community that everything was fine than to apologise to me and other victims.
82. The letter went on to provide details of the current child safety practices at the Yeshivah College and Centre and to state that they were co-operating with police and providing support to victims and their families. The Yeshivah Centre has never provided any support to me or to my family.
83. Nevertheless, at the time I felt it was a step in the right direction. I publicly welcomed the “apology” as a great positive development and said that I would judge the Yeshivah Centre based on their future words and deeds. Other victims and community members told me, however, that they could not welcome such a qualified apology, and criticised me for doing so. On 24 July 2013, the day that Kramer was sentenced, a second apology was sent by Rabbi Smukler to parents of current students at Yeshivah – Beth Rivkah College. It was not addressed to me or to other victims of Cyprys and Kramer.
Impact on my life
84. The abuse I experienced had an immense impact on my life. I have already explained the effect that the abuse had on me as a young teenager – I changed from a happy, positive, reasonably well-behaved boy to an angry, rebellious teenager with a substance abuse problem. I rejected the religion in which I had been raised, lost all focus on my studies and became alienated from my family and community.
85. Soon after turning 18, desperate to leave the place and community of my abuse, abuser and enablers, I travelled to Israel to serve in the IDF. This was a superficial escape, as the pain and anger – in relation to both the abuse and cover-ups – was enduring. I regularly thought about my experience of abuse; this included having flashbacks, and feeling a sense of helplessness and despair. Later in my time with the IDF I saw IDF psychologists on a number of occasions. The focus of these sessions was about helping me to cope with my military service, which became increasingly challenging for me. I cannot recall if I discussed with these psychologists the abuse and my disclosure of it in 1996.
86. In 1996, when I first went to the police and to Rabbi Groner, I was left feeling despondent and disillusioned that no charges were laid and no action was taken against Cyprys. I lost faith in the police, the judicial system, the religion I was brought up in and its leaders – my own powerlessness were reinforced. From my perspective, I had done everything that I could do to obtain justice for Cyprys’ crimes and to protect our community from the possibility of Cyprys committing future crimes. However, my efforts had been to no avail. This was not easy to accept for a 20 year old who was trying to do the right thing. This resulted in a period of heavy substance abuse while absent without leave from the IDF.
87. When I returned to Australia in 2000, I worked as an integration aide at Jewish schools for two and a half years, while I completed my Year 12 equivalent studies (Victorian Certificate of Education). I then did a degree in international relations at Latrobe University, Melbourne, which I completed in 2005. During this time I worked with a federal Member of Parliament and also with the Lowy Institute for International Policy in Sydney. In 2006, I was employed as head of the B’nai B’rith Anti-Defamation Commission, a job I did for around two years. In 2009, I started working in Canberra as an Assistant Director at the Office of Transport Security, and later transferred to Melbourne. The transfer was at my request, made after I had publically disclosed my abuse and at a time when my family and I needed the support of our family and friends in Melbourne. In order to be transferred to Melbourne I had to accept a more junior position with lower remuneration.
88. Although I had turned away from my ultra-orthodox upbringing, I became active within the broader Jewish community. Among other roles I am a past President of the Canberra Jewish Community, former Vice President of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry and a former Governor of the New South Wales Jewish Communal Appeal Board of Governors. In 2011, I was Convenor of the Australian Association of Jewish Studies Conference. I also founded the Capital Jewish Forum and was a founding director of the Online Hate Prevention Institute.
89. In July 2011, I decided to go public about my abuse. I hoped that by telling my story other victims of child sexual abuse would feel empowered and encouraged to come forward to either speak with the police or to seek any help that they may need. To me, speaking publically was about justice and closure. And as a leader within the Jewish community at the time, I also wanted to take a leadership role in this area because no one else had.
90. I know that there are many within the Chabad/Yeshivah community and some within the broader Jewish community who wish that I would be quiet about what happened to me and also in relation to my advocacy and support of others. However, I feel that as a community we need to learn from the past in order to address the future. I believe that this is something that is owed both to victims/survivors and to the broader community.
91. Going public about the abuse was cathartic and very empowering for me, but the effects of the abuse are still with me. I still have vivid and distressing memories of the abuse, including in dreams. I feel less ashamed now that it is no longer a secret but I still feel guilty, including about the effect of my disclosure on my family. I feel deep anger towards Yeshivah and its leadership for leaving Cyprys in a position where he was able to continue abusing boys. I still find it very hard to deal with the emotional and psychological impact of the abuse on me, although I am starting to understand it better. At times I have relied heavily on alcohol and other methods of numbing the emotional pain.
92. Since early 2013 I have been debriefing regularly, about once a month, with a retired psychiatrist who is a mentor to me. I am finding that helpful.
93. I have had the support of both of my parents, my wife and some other members of my immediate family. My abuse and my decision to talk about it publically has also had an impact on them, and in many ways it has torn my family apart. Many members of the ultra-Orthodox community, in particular the Yeshivah community, have not been supportive of either myself or my family and this has been very difficult for my family.
94. The effect of my disclosure on my family, in particular my parents, has been very painful for me to see. While I have left the Orthodox community, my parents remain within it. I understand from them that, since I went public, they have been shunned by the Yeshivah community around which they based their life. They have lost most of their friends and, during 2014, decided to sell the family home opposite the Yeshivah Centre and move to Israel. They are still in the process of relocating.
95. My parents told me about a very troubling incident in the Yeshivah Synagogue in July 2011. It occurred soon after I went public about my abuse and Yeshivah’s lack of response. My parents told me that Rabbi Telsner gave a public sermon on the Sabbath at the Yeshivah Synagogue during which he asked “Who gave you permission to talk to anyone, which Rabbi gave you permission?”, Rabbi Telsner explained the power of a Rabbi to excommunicate a person who had disobeyed a Rabbi, and said that the worst sin was besmirching the name of the late Rabbi Groner. My father told me he felt threatened and was outraged by these words. My parents told me that they and some of my mother’s friends walked out of the Synagogue during this sermon.
96. My father has also told me that after I went public and after he publically supported me he was no longer receiving the same honours he used to receive in Synagogue. He said he was not being called to the Torah in Synagogue on certain occasions, even in the week of his birthday when it is customary to receive this honour. He has also told me that he was aggressively confronted and pushed by another community member inside the Synagogue on two separate occasions, in May and in August 2013. My father reported both these incidents to the police.
97. My father told me that he initially continued to attend Synagogue at Yeshivah several times a week, as he had done before I went public, then he began to go only on the Sabbath, and eventually he stopped going to Synagogue at Yeshivah altogether. He is still devout and it is terrible for me to see him excluded in this way.
98. In December 2012, after a period of undertaking a great deal of work in this area after going public with my story, I formally established an organisation called Tzedek. Tzedek is Hebrew for ‘justice’. It is an Australia-based support and advocacy group for Jewish victims and survivors of child sexual abuse. It offers victims a safe, culturally aware environment to come forward with their story and begin the healing process. It provides guidance, advocacy and support. I worked as the chief executive officer of Tzedek until November 2014.
99. Since its foundation, Tzedek has been in contact with well over 100 Jewish victims and their families from across Australia.
100. Going public with my story over two years ago, assisting many other victims of child sexual abuse and in some cases their families, and working to protect other children within our community, has been a great part of my healing process. It has given me hope. It has empowered me. It has given me a voice. The decades of living in silence with the shame, guilt and anger have been shattered. Importantly, it has provided me the opportunity to turn a tragedy into a positive – something that has benefitted me and, I hope, many others.
101. I have recently relocated to Europe with my family. While there are several reasons for this one of the main reasons has been the ramifications of publically disclosing my story. I will still continue my work addressing child sexual abuse within the global Jewish community.
102. What I would most like to see is an unequivocal acceptance of responsibility by the Yeshivah leadership, for what happened to me and the others who were abused, and for the effects on our lives of covering up the abuse and for allowing it to continue. I would like them to acknowledge that I did nothing wrong by going to the police and by speaking publically about my abuse, and that my parents have done nothing wrong by supporting me. I would like them to condemn the ongoing intimidation and harassment of me and my family, rather than condoning or even inciting it. I would like them to take steps towards genuine repentance (Teshuvah, in Hebrew), which includes requesting genuine forgiveness and offering recompense. This would mean a great deal to me.
103. The reality is that for genuine change to occur it must happen from within. At this stage I believe that while there are some within the ultra-Orthodox community who wish to see change, these are mainly the younger age demographic. The leadership group – both broadly in the ultra-Orthodox community and more specifically within the Yeshivah Centre – mainly consists of individuals who have been in their positions for decades. I believe that in many (if not most) cases they inherited their positions from family members, or have been installed due to their family connections. This reduces my faith that Yeshivah will implement the reform that is so urgently needed, at least not in the short term.
104. In 2012, I made a submission to the Victorian Parliamentary Inquiry into the handling of child abuse by religious and other organisations. In this submission I made a number of recommendations that I think are still needed:
104.1. Organisations dealing with children must maintain open and transparent structures at all times to enable the free flow of information and encourage reporting of, amongst other things, sexual abuse of children under the auspices of such organisations.
104.2. Funding should be made available to relevant agencies within religious communities to both educate about child sexual abuse and assist such victims within their respective communities. However, given the intertwined relationships described above, any such funding must be carefully vetted to prevent real and perceived conflicts of interest which might impact upon the protection of children.
104.3. The mandatory reporting requirements should be broadened—for example, this requirement should not just apply to teachers but also to others with responsibility for the welfare of children such as religious leaders (e.g. rabbis), lay leaders (e.g. Board members of relevant institutions such as the Yeshivah Centre and peak bodies) and leaders of student activities (it is very common within the Yeshivah Centre for 18yo-22yo students to lead younger students during weekly activities and on overnight camps).
104.4. There should be a standard (possibly government-authored) Code of Practice in relation to organisations responding to child sexual abuse allegations. Such a Code should make it clear that, for example, all allegations must be reported to the police as soon as they become known to the organisation and that under no circumstances should an alleged paedophile be assisted in leaving Australia. Similarly, the Code should address issues such as systemic practices to discourage reporting of child sexual abuse allegations (such as threats of excommunication or even invoking religious doctrine to engender silence through guilt, promise of success in the afterlife etc.)
104.5. Institute a scheme to encourage alleged victims, their families and organisations to go to the authorities.
104.6. Institute a scheme to compel organisations to fully cooperate with the authorities in investigations into allegations of abuse under their auspices. This should extend beyond the legal requirements where organisations may do the bare minimum and not be subject to criminal actions. Incentives may be an option to consider.
105. I also made a number of additional recommendations for legislative change, which I ask this Commission to also consider:
105.1. Remove the statute of limitations on civil claims.
105.2. In order to ensure that there is compensation available to meet any future claims, certain institutions should contribute a statutory amount to a government-controlled fund to provide for payouts in the event that any of the responsible institutions are no longer in operation or have altered their business structure in some way to avoid liability. The contribution scheme could be applied flexibly, such that it takes account of the differences among institutions, such as by size, number of institutional leaders, funding, assets or some other measure(s) to be determined. The value of the contribution could be calculated similarly, alternatively trigger points could apply such that some institutions could avoid contribution if they met certain disclosure, training or insurance requirements, or were not, for example, implicated in any reports to police or involved in any eventual convictions.
105.3. Where fault is found on the part of the institution, there should also be strict personal liability for all those involved in the management/governance of the institution. Those responsible for setting the culture, practices and procedures of the institution should be and remain accountable for any actions carried out by those employed or engaged by the institution. The personal liability should apply even to those who were not present at the time of the alleged activity, as this would ensure that those seeking to assume a position in an organisation would make the necessary enquiries and conduct their own due diligence before assuming any position of responsibility. Any areas of concern noted during these enquiries should also be made a mandatorily reportable issue.
105.4. Criminal liability should also be considered for those in responsible positions within organisations who have knowingly turned a blind eye to child sexual abuse or who have knowingly aided paedophiles to escape the jurisdiction. Indeed, I would urge the Royal Commission to consider recommending to Victoria Police to open a formal criminal investigation into the Yeshivah Centre to see whether any laws have been breached by any of its leaders.
105.5. Many institutions seem to use organisational structure to avoid liability. This includes transferring assets into trusts or other arrangements which are either unidentifiable or which cannot be sued because they themselves did not cause the harm. The law should be changed to specifically permit courts to disregard any trusts or other defensive structures and make orders applying liability to the entity holding the assets.
105.6. Consideration should be given to an accreditation or compliance system by which institutions are required to name all their managers, provide a service address, declare that they have assets, and nominate the entities which should be investigated and served in the event of a claim. Failure to do so would result in the institution losing tax free status, government funding, special privileges, etc.
105.7. The Victorian Government should consider legislative amendments to either expedite extradition procedures or to simplify them so as to remove any obstacles to investigation and the administration of justice. If necessary, the Victorian Government should approach the Federal Government and foreign governments to cooperate with any changes which will address these goals.