Advocate calls for global Jewish child-abuse commission

By Amanda Borschel-Dan (The Times of Israel)
February 16, 2015

Intimidation, bullying, public persecution, excommunication from the Jewish community and slanderous comments on social media. These are only a few tactics used on the Waks family, in which three of the sons were the victims — not perpetrators — of child sex abuse.

For the past two weeks in Australia, the global Jewish community was rocked by what it heard during public hearings of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse in Melbourne. Dramatic testimony by victims of child sex abuse, their families and those who worked for the Jewish institutions that covered up the abuse led international media headlines.

Since 2011, abuse survivor Manny Waks has spearheaded the efforts to break the unofficial code of silence that bound and gagged his former community, the Chabad-affiliated Yeshivah Centre Melbourne. He founded, and is the former head of Tzedek, an organization that works with abuse survivors and aims to raise awareness of the problem in the Jewish community.

Waks now calls for a global Jewish initiative to address child sexual abuse and its cover-up throughout the Diaspora, including Israel.

“In the context of child sexual abuse, it is not uncommon for perpetrators to move between countries to avoid the consequences of their actions and/or to continue offending with impunity,” Waks said.

“I hope the two weeks of horror we have all been exposed to can be leveraged into a positive outcome — recognition for victims and their families — and can be a learning experience to ensure the safety of children, which is our priority,” Waks stated in a phone call Sunday from Melbourne.

After Waks went public with his allegations — alongside other Jewish victims’ stories in 2011 — due to their support for their son, parents Zephaniah and Chaya Waks were ostracized from the Chabad community, which had, for decades, been the center of their lives. As documented in an Australian television special, “Code of Silence,” the ill will towards them was so institutionalized that the deeply involved parents of 17 — once the poster family for the Australian Chabad movement — eventually left for Israel.

“The fact is that so many leaders stood by idly, and were complicit in the well-known horrific experiences the family had to endure,” said Waks, “from the lay leaders on up.

“Not a single rabbi took responsibility to say, ‘This can’t go on,'” he stated.

Until recently, that is.

Late last week, as the fortnight of hearings came to an end, Waks received an invitation for reconciliation from the children of deceased senior rabbi and director of the Yeshivah Centre, Rabbi Dovid Groner. Groner was the director of the ultra-Orthodox Jewish day school when Waks and other students were abused by security guard/martial arts instructor David Cyprys and former teacher Rabbi David Kramer.

When Waks eventually reported the abuse to Groner many years later — in 1996 — Groner requested that he not speak publicly about it, explained Waks. He said to Waks, as well as to the mother of another victim, that the situation was being handled in-house.

Groner, claimed Waks, had the status comparable to that of an archbishop — not someone to be contradicted.

The royal commission heard testimony last week that rabbis at the Yeshivah Centre attempted to “cure” sex offenders, including Cyprys, reported the Independent. So Cyprys worked for the Yeshivah Centre, where he abused other children, until the mid-2000s.

After Waks’s vocal efforts to bring his abuser to justice, Cyprys was found guilty on five rape charges and eventually pleaded guilty to additional child sex abuse charges in December 2013. He must serve almost five and a half years before seeking parole. (He tried to overturn the rape conviction but wasn’t granted leave for appeal.)

On Sunday, five of Groner’s children met for an hour and a half with Waks to offer their family’s apologies. The siblings — Rebbetzin Miriam Telsner, Rebbetzin Rivkah Yurkowicz, Rabbi Mendy Groner, Rabbi Chaim Tzvi Groner, and Rabbi Yossi Groner — all hold prestigious roles in the community.

Waks wrote in a Facebook post that the siblings “acknowledged and apologized for the sexual abuse, the cover-ups and the intimidation that ensued. They also apologized for not reaching out sooner — despite my attempts — and for not speaking out about the intimidation. They requested that I convey this message to all the Yeshivah victims on behalf of the Groner family (not the Yeshivah Centre or Chabad).”

The meeting was meaningful, said Waks, “not just personally, but also for the community aspect. The community needs to see this to move forward.”

A raw oozing wound with a festering scab

Not all of Australia’s rabbis are so ready to make amends and put the past behind them, however.

As reported in Australia’s Herald Sun, during father Zephaniah Waks’s testimony about the family’s bullying, Rabbi Meir Shlomo Kluwgant sent “a vile text,” saying Waks was a “lunatic” who was “killing” Chabad.

“Zephaniah is killing us,” Kluwgant’s message read. “Zephaniah is attacking Chabad. He is a lunatic on the fringe, guilty of neglect of his own children. Where was he when all this was happening?”

Following the public outcry in the Australian Jewish community over the rabbi’s text — which, only under repeated questioning by the commission, did he reluctantly admit to sending — Kluwgant resigned from his position as president of the Organisation of Rabbis of Australasia.

For the past six years, Kluwgant was also a Victoria Police chaplain. Police confirmed Monday Kluwgant is no longer associated with the force’s Multi-Faith Advisory Committee. According to Australian paper J-Wire, he has also resigned from his role as general manager of cultural and spiritual services with the community organization Jewish Care, which “has a strong record of supporting victims of abuse.”

Two other rabbis resigned during the two weeks of hearings: One was Rabbi Yosef Feldman, who during his testimony controversially called for leniency for pedophiles who haven’t assaulted children for decades. According to the Sun Herald, Feldman also claimed that “he didn’t know it was ­illegal for an adult to touch the genitals of a child.”

According to the Guardian, sometime after Waks initially went public, Feldman’s wife wrote him in an email: “Just because a security guard molested you, don’t blame Yeshivah… Get over it. I haven’t met a person yet with one nice word to say about you. Most people consider you a lowlife.”

The third rabbi who stepped down was Rabbi Abraham Glick, who was the principal of Melbourne’s Yeshivah College while most of the cases of abuse occurred, between 1986 and 2007. Glick, who is Kluwgant’s uncle, also apologized to the victims and resigned from his teaching position at Yeshivah College, but as of late last week, is still chair of the Yeshivah Centre Spiritual Committee.

Ironically, just two weekends ago, reported the Guardian, Feldman and Glick were honored during a prayer service at a Chabad synagogue.

Waks said he expected more resignations, if not firings, to follow — of the leadership that staffed the Yeshivah Centre during the height of the abuse.

He cautioned, however, that the rabbis who have already resigned should not be made “into scapegoats.

“Ultimately the entire Yeshivah leadership who was around during the abuse and cover-up needs to resign,” said Waks. He added that unfortunately there have been several documented cases of much more recent abuse there from the past several years.

Chabad Lubavitch headquarters in New York issued a lengthy statement Monday that was printed in full on J-Wire. The organization wrote: “We are confident that the reports emanating from Australia are the rare and unfortunate exception to our institutions; however, in light of the allegations now under investigation, we are reviewing procedures and protocol to see how these can be improved and enhanced for better implementation and enforcement.

“We will therefore take additional steps to ensure strict adherence of these codes by all Chabad-Lubavitch educational institutions, and we will continue to explore additional measures to raise awareness among school personnel, about the dangers, risks and indications of offenses of sexual abuse and misconduct.

“The victims who have stepped forward to report abuse have surely saved many, many lives, each of them a world unto itself. For this, we applaud them,” stated Chabad.

The need for a global Jewish Diaspora initiative

Manny Waks, like his parents, also left Australia, with his wife and three children; the family now lives in Europe. Whereas he resigned from heading Tzedek in Australia, he is actively pursuing his idea of a global initiative to address child abuse in Jewish institutions throughout the Diaspora and Israel.

This global task force will be modeled on the Australian royal commission, which has offered help in the practical envisioning of costs and staffing for the project. He hopes that it will give Jewish victims a forum to come forward, and give the global Jewish community the opportunity “to see where the big failures are.”

The Jewish commission, should it be funded and come to fruition, would work closely with local authorities throughout the Diaspora, aiding in extradition from Israel, which Waks called “an exhausting process” for law enforcement and the victims.

It is not unusual, said Waks in a March 2014 interview at The Times of Israel’s Jerusalem office, for perpetrators to use Israel as a refuge from the crime. This right to gain citizenship through religious identification places the Jewish state in “a unique position in the context of addressing child sexual abuse within the global Jewish community.”

One such case involved a 26-year-old man identified in the Dutch media as Ephraim S., who left the Netherlands for Israel in 2012 amid allegations that he molested several pupils at the Cheider school in Buitenveldert near the Dutch capital. The Dutch government began extradition efforts in 2014.

Other ultra-Orthodox communities in the Diaspora may also shelter perpetrators, knowingly or not. One of the Yeshivah Centre’s convicted abusers, David Kramer, was in 1992 allegedly “spirited away” by the day school to Israel, according to the Australian Jewish News. From there he proceeded to the United States, where he was convicted of sodomizing a child.

Victims also use Israel as a place of escape, said Waks, who served in the Israel Defense Forces after leaving Australia. It’s a way to “run away from reality, run away from the area,” he explained, but leads to “potentially damaged people who require healthcare needs” living on their own in a strange land. He cited the tragic case of David Menachem Gordon, an outspoken advocate for abuse victims, who, while serving in the IDF, was found dead from an apparent suicide last August.

While the Australian royal commission hearings focused on cases that occurred even decades ago, child abuse is still a current issue for the Jewish community, and a current issue in society at large, said Waks.

The statistics for Australia, Israel and the US — that on average one in five children experience some form of abuse — indicate that this phenomenon is inevitably happening in the Jewish community, said Waks. “The issue is, how do we respond to it?”

Waks said that, while the response today is a lot more effective than years ago, “even weeks ago,” he warned that only 10% of victims disclose their abuse, and the average disclosure time is 20-25 years after it occurred.

“Most people don’t even know when they’re speaking with a victim,” he said.

The taboo on the subject of sexual abuse — illustrated in the extreme in the ostracization of his family — and the stigma felt by the victims, need to be changed, he said. Within Orthodoxy it is exacerbated by gender segregation, no sex education, and large families.

A chilling 2013 Vice article, “The Child-Rape Assembly Line,” quoted Ben Hirsch, director of a New York Orthodox advocacy organization Survivors for Justice, who said, “From anecdotal evidence, we’re looking at over 50 percent. It has almost become a rite of passage” in the ultra-Orthodox community.

Whereas there was once a theory of “stranger danger,” now it is known that most child sex abusers are well known to their victims. All the more so in closed communities such as ultra-Orthodoxy.

Waks warned it may take even a generation to make the Jewish community a safer place. “We’re making progress and will continue to make progress,” he said in March 2014.

In the meantime, Waks said Sunday, “It’s taken the royal commission to get all these leaders onto the stand one by one, getting up and acknowledging the sexual abuse that happened to so many kids, on their watch, the cover-ups and the ongoing serious intimidation, against me, and my family.”

As he looks forward to making this sad success global, he said, “It was a complete vindication of victims and victim advocates, and exceeded every expectation that I had.”

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