More turmoil at Melbourne's Yeshivah Centre

By Manny Waks
February 2, 2016

I have deliberately stayed silent on the proposed governance ‘reforms’ that have been recently disseminated by the Melbourne Yeshivah Centre in response to last year’s Royal Commission. Some of the proposed ‘changes’ are concerning and appear no more than an attempt by the existing trustees to entrench their power when the only proper course of action is for them to resign. But rather than criticise, I wanted to afford the Yeshivah Centre the opportunity to properly consider its position and, to the extent that they’re prepared to speak up, to hear what the rest of the Yeshivah/Chabad community had to say.

However, it now seems that the Yeshivah Centre has been vetoed by the organisation that apparently has always had ultimate power, authority and responsibility: Chabad Headquarters, which is based in Brooklyn New York. It is important to note that since this scandal became public in 2011, Chabad Headquarters have remained silent for the most part, other than a solitary statement issued following the Royal Commission.

The intervention by Chabad Headquarters raises a number of questions about their responsibility for the child sexual abuse cover-ups within Yeshivah and their failure to speak out against the leadership and communal bullying and harassment of child sexual abuse victims, their families and supporters. At the same time, it again exposes the incompetence of the Yeshivah leadership who can’t even seem to clean up their own mess properly. I have briefly addressed each of these issues below, and reproduced the letter from Chabad Headquarters and the 1973 Merkos Guidelines they reference in their letter.  

The Role of Chabad Headquarters

As is clear from the Chabad Headquarters letter, in their view at least, the Yeshivah Centre has at all times functioned under the ‘overarching authority’ of ‘the Rebbe zy”a and his representatives at Lubavitch World Headquarters in New York and in Melbourne’. The questions that need to be asked are: What did they know about the sexual abuse of so many children at Yeshivah? What did they know about the cover-ups? What did they know about the ongoing intimidation of victims, their families and supporters? Why have they waited until now to intervene? Were they comfortable with the way Yeshivah responded to victims of child sexual abuse or did they simply not view child sexual abuse as an issue worthy of their intervention?

As far as I’m concerned, they have had plenty of opportunity to have a positive impact on the Yeshivah Centre and community. Instead, they seemingly chose to stand idly by and allow the ‘Chabad ethos’ to be trampled. And now that their power risks being taken from them, they have intervened at the last minute. From my perspective, and that of the victims I’ve spoken to, it is too little too late.

During the Royal Commission, the global Chabad leadership were apparently too busy to speak to journalists. Perhaps now they can start answering questions about the responsibility of Chabad Headquarters for the sexual abuse of children seemingly within their institutions, the subsequent cover-ups of these crimes, followed up by the campaign of intimidation of victims, their families and supporters.

The Role of the Melbourne Yeshivah Centre Leadership

There has been much talk about changes occurring in the Yeshivah leadership since the Royal Commission. While there has been some positive change, including the installation by the trustees of an alternative Committee of Management and the resignation of some trustees, the reality is this: Every trustee who is running Yeshivah today was also running Yeshivah at the time of the abuse, cover-ups and intimidation. They are the same people who led Yeshivah to a Royal Commission and then promised to resign by the end of 2015. They are the same people who, rather than acknowledge their failures and move on, have seemingly proposed to entrench their power for an extended period. And a year after the Royal Commission, Yeshivah is still far from having good governance in place. The position in which they now find themselves is entirely of their own doing – rather than addressing the conflicts, acting transparently, honouring their past commitments and listening to some within their own community (and beyond) – they have carried on as they always have, as if a law unto themselves. After this latest debacle, hot on the heels of their broken promise to implement new governance by the end of 2015, they must all resign without delay.

That is not to say that the answer is for Yeshivah to again be accountable to a select group of Chabad Rabbis, as would seem to be the position of Chabad Headquarters. That model has been tried and has failed spectacularly. But it is to say (indeed to repeat) that those trustees who, by virtue of their leadership role there, have been responsible for what has transpired at Yeshivah cannot be part of the solution.

I believe the time has come where serious consideration needs to be given by the broader Jewish community and government as to whether it is appropriate for Yeshivah to continue under its current administration and in its current form. It is easy to forget amid all this chaos that victims are still hurting and seeking justice by way of holding to account those trustees who remain in power, and that the safety of children within the school is paramount. I concur with another Yeshivah victim who recently said publicly that he does not believe that safety can be guaranteed in the environment that currently exists. I would urge the community to give serious consideration to forcing the trustees to hand the Yeshivah Centre over to capable and independent trustees who can administer the Centre professionally until such time as the community has developed the appropriate structures to have it back. Ultimately it’s the safety and wellbeing of our children – past and present – that we are dealing with. And this must always come first.

Below is the letter from Chabad World Headquarters, as well as the Merkos Guidelines from 1973.

Chabad letter:

18 Shevat 5776
28 January 2016
Dear Members (Trustees) of the Yeshivah Centre Associations,
As you well know, the Chabad Lubavitch Schools in Melbourne are among the oldest, largest and most successful Lubavitch schools in the world. Our Rebbe, zy”a was instrumental in their founding in the 1940’s and painstakingly nurtured them over many years, ensuring their growth and development. The Rebbe took great personal pride in their accomplishments and considered them his very own, to the extent, that he included them in his annual Sale of Chometz contract.
We also hereby acknowledge the severe difficulties that you have been going through for over a year and the aggravation and turmoil that have engulfed the entire Chabad community of Melbourne.
We recently received a copy of the proposed future structure of the Yeshivah Centre, Melbourne Australia (the Yeshivah Centre), contained in the materials prepared and presented by the Governance Review Panel. Our careful consideration of the material has caused us considerable alarm.
While the times and circumstances may indeed call for changes in the management structure of the institutions (and this aspect is fully addressed in the complex proposal) it must be recognised that there cannot be any change in the overarching authority under which these institutions were established and have functioned all the years, which are; the Rebbe zy”a and his representatives at Lubavitch World Headquarters in New York and in Melbourne itself. This hierarchical structure was put into place by the Rebbe (and memorialized in the attached memorandum document in 1973). The ‘Trustees’ of a Lubavitch institution are put in place and entrusted to ensure this hierarchical structure and they have neither the right nor power to do otherwise. Unfortunately, the documents from the Governance Review Panel do not reflect this reality at all.
Furthermore, all Lubavitch institutions are, by necessity, under the Halachik purview of a Lubavitch Rabbinical body whether a local one or the central one in New York, the Vaad Rabbonei Lubavitch Haklali. Again, the documents from the Governance Review Panel do not reflect this.
We understand the pressures that you are labouring under and want to be of help to you. Toward that end the Merkos board has established a special subcommittee and empowered it to represent the Merkos and Lubavitch World headquarters in interacting with you on these most critical matters. The subcommittee is comprised of Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky (ex officio), Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky, Rabbi Yisroel Deren and Rabbi Shmuel Kaplan. They will be in contact with you and will consider a visit to Melbourne in the near future, if they find it necessary. Obviously, we request that you refrain from making any formal decisions until the Merkos subcommittee has a chance to engage with you in this process.
We trust that the intent and will of the Rebbe, together with his blessings, will guide us all in the proper direction and ensure a bright future for all of the Lubavitch institutions of Melbourne.
Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky
On behalf of the Board of Directors
Merkos L’Inyonei Chinuch

Merkos Guidelines:

1 Adar II, 5733
For all regional offices, branches, and institutions
In any city and country where there is an accredited special representative from the Lubavitch Headquarters in Brooklyn (whether by appointment of the Secretariat, or of the Merkos, as director of the regional office) --
All activities of the local Lubavitch organisation and institutions in general, and of the Chinuch institutions in particular, are to be conducted under the management and supervision of the said representative as chief executive of the region.
While the above does not preclude the possibility and, indeed, advisability of having various administrative bodies to manage the affairs of the particular local institutions -- all such personnel are subordinate to the said representative and to his supervision and directives, as per terms agreed upon with said representative.
Should there arise any point of disagreement between any administrative personnel and the representative, which for some reason cannot be resolved locally, through an intermediary such as a Rov of Anash or other arbitrator, the parties concerned may communicate directly with the Secretariat or the Director of the Merkos L’Inyonei Chinuch in Brooklyn for instruction and guidance to resolve the matter.
Rabbi M. A. Hodakov