GABRIELLA PEARL KATZ
To my Jewish community,
I have grown up in a community which has nurtured and nourished me. A community that has provided me with all the tools to question my existence and to pursue a life of meaning, purpose, and happiness. Truly, I attribute my intellect and my love for learning to my Jewish education at Mount Scopus Memorial College (MSMC) and more generally the Jewish based values I hold dear. Indeed, the presupposition of the Talmudic approach to life is that rigorous inquiry and rationality is better than an unquestioning and submissive existence. To be mindless is to lose touch with the heart of the Talmud, one of the greatest examples of critical thinking. However, while the community has taught me lessons of deep thinking and bold action, I have felt disillusioned by members and leaders who have persistently failed to live by those values when it matters most.
The plethora of sexual misconduct and grooming allegations, substantiated by an external review, which came to light in December 2021 against a former senior teacher at MSMC were deeply shocking and disturbing. It should have been a watershed moment for our community. Why does it feel like not much has changed and that things are back to ‘normal’? More specifically, why does it feel like this devastating experience has not informed or changed our community’s understanding of child safety and Child Sexual Abuse (CSA)? Where was the discourse in Jewish media outlets? Where was the provision of counselling for students? Where was the open discussion and transparency from community leaders? I fear that the lack of discourse and questioning of the allegations at MSMC evidenced that our community wanted to sweep it under the rug. Recent allegations against an 88-year-old caretaker at Caulfield Hebrew Shule (CHC) remind us that the problems surrounding CSA in our community are far from solved.
The Royal Commission public hearing into Australian Jewish institutions that were involved in repeat instances of CSA, cover-ups as well as intimidation of victims has certainly led to ground-breaking and ongoing changes within the Jewish community. But nearly seven years later issues of CSA are pervasive. We are so quick to criticise the Ultra-Orthodox community for the way they have previously responded to CSA that we have become incapable of recognising it in our own backyard. It is easier to blame a section of the Jewish community when they are ‘other’, or not part of what you understand to be your community. However, when the MSMC and CHC allegations surfaced, the members who condemned and were disgusted by the abuse that occurred at Yeshiva disappeared into thin air, nowhere to be seen. There was no public show of support for the victims. There were no opinion piece articles. There were no social media posts. The truth is that CSA must be recognised no matter where it occurs. But it appears to only concern my Jewish community when it happens in Orthodox or Ultra-Orthodox settings. Where are the people critically condemning such gross misconduct wherever it happens, completely and with no qualifications?
I have spoken with many people whose personal connection to a community, a family, and a shule has completely blindsided them from properly grappling with the fact that members of this community can be sexual predators. Indeed, I can understand that many may struggle reconciling their personal relationships and the tight-knit nature of our community with such gross allegations. But personal feelings ought not trump the absolute denunciation of such gross misconduct and breach of human and children’s rights. We must stop protecting predators by invoking values of personal loyalty at the expense of vulnerable and victimised young people. It seems that basic human rights are not really an indisputable standard in our community. That is, the right of a female to freely and safely attend shule. The right of a female to feel free to attend high school without worrying that she will be a victim of a predator. The community’s response to the allegations felt like a deliberate choice to choose a ‘side’ over a principle.
To the reader of this letter: what questions were raised for you after reading ‘Students accused senior teacher of misconduct at prestigious Melbourne school’ in The Age, published December 31, 2021? Did you just accept the article as it was, like reading the football scores after a match? Perhaps you thought that what you read sounded terrible but that it was fixed with the solutions outlined in the article. Maybe you contemplated that you are missing many pieces of information? Nevertheless, I was disappointed by the reluctance of individuals to rigorously inquire into what had just unfolded. It felt like no one was grappling with the key questions: Which other staff noticed that the school environment was not conducive to child safety? What culture normalised such behaviour that it went unchecked for 20 plus years?
These are some questions that should have been asked. The reluctance by individuals to question has left me feeling ostracised and I cannot help but think that members of this community really don’t care.
When you are in a position of privilege, having received top-notch education, access to plenty of financial resources, and you live in a community like the one I was raised in, you have a duty to remove your blinkers and see such a relationship in its true colours. When you have the skills and resources to subject events to critical analysis, you are morally responsible and accountable for the blinkers you choose to wear. We must not fool ourselves. What I fear is that my community has failed to recognise what happened at MSMC and CHC was part of a broader pattern. A pattern whereby male predators go unchecked for years, enabled by poor child safety policy enforcement, by unquestioning and ill-educated staff and where victims are not empowered or encouraged to disclose abuse. The damaging outcome is that silence can be a form of survival for many victims who have not come forward. It is little wonder why victims wait decades to come forward, or I am sure for many, decide to not report their abuse, harassment, or assault at all.
Indeed, the fact that grotesque predatory behaviour happens in our community does not mean that it should not be labelled for what it is. Justice must not remain elusive for the aggrieved because the perpetrator is a member of a community you feel attached to.
An edited version of this article first appeared in The Australian Jewish News.