The past few weeks have been incredible. The Royal Commission public hearing into the Chabad-run Yeshiva(h) Centres in Melbourne and Sydney allowed the Australian community as well as many overseas who were following events via the internet and live streaming to hear the shocking revelations of child sexual abuse, deliberate cover-ups and intimidation of victims and their families. Adding to the horror, it became clear that not a single Jewish community leader among lay leaders, peak body representatives or rabbis was willing to take clear public stands in support of the victims and against the individuals and institutions who were, at the Royal Commission, shown to have engaged in systematic attacks against those of us fighting these ongoing injustices.
From a personal perspective, as both a victim and a victim advocate, the silence of these leaders was the most hurtful of the various afflictions. As an adult it felt worse than the sexual abuse itself, worse than the knowledge that it was deliberately covered up and worse than the intimidation by those with an interest to conceal these unspeakable crimes. So often I felt alone, deserted by those who could and should have taken a public stand; marginalised until my family and I succumbed to the incredible pressures by making the difficult decision to leave Australia – to leave our home. And I was certainly not alone. There is little doubt that those leaders were all complicit in the ongoing immoral and possibly criminal behaviour against the many victims and their supporters.
It is therefore of little surprise that the overwhelming feeling I now have is that of full vindication; for publicly disclosing my experience of abuse, for publicly holding individuals and institutions to account for cover-ups and intimidation, and in particular, for my publicly stated aim of ensuring there would be a public hearing into the Yeshiva(h) Centres. I was often accused of exaggerating the issue and criticising certain leaders and institutions, of being anti-Orthodox and it was suggested by some that while my mission was noble, there must be another way in which to achieve my aims (even though I was never presented with an alternative). And there were plenty more hurdles. But again, in the end, I was fully vindicated.
This is why the public acknowledgements and apologies are so important, and when done correctly, are profoundly meaningful. The regret and sorrow expressed by leaders and rabbis need to reflect the level of pain and suffering so many of us were forced to endure for so long. So while several good rabbis have belatedly spoken up, they must ensure that central to their public pronouncements are the simple but powerful words “I’m sorry that I did not speak up earlier”. I deliberately say only rabbis because I have yet to see any regret expressed by the peak bodies, including some who were engaged in an ongoing campaign to attack my credibility. Now that I have been fully vindicated, I am particularly disappointed not to have received a single apology from the likes of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry. I still hold out hope that there will be many more public pronouncements and apologies – to me, to the many victims/survivors and their families, and indeed to the entire community.
But the positive impact the Royal Commission has had on so many of us has been telling. Most importantly, it has elicited a strong and unequivocal community response. The community demands justice. It demands change. Now.
These past few weeks have been painful for us all. Many victims and survivors – not just those who courageously gave evidence – were re-traumatised as they were forced to re-live their horrific experiences. The evidence presented also traumatised the entire community, and as people learned of the extent of pain and suffering through the hearings, members of the community empathised with victims and their families. We were all in disbelief at the clear lack of leadership – religious and otherwise.
Undoubtedly it has been one of the most challenging experiences our community has ever faced. Unfortunately we will continue to feel the consequences for some time to come. But it had to happen; short term pain for long term gain.
Now we, as a community, must embark on a process of fundamental change and healing. We must ensure that we have learned from the past and implement the necessary steps to achieve sustainable and meaningful change.
This means that leaders who failed the victims/survivors – indeed the community – must take full responsibility for their actions and inactions. In some cases resignations will be required, while in others apologies will suffice. I am pleased that we have already seen some progress in this regard. But much more still needs to be done. There is no doubt, for example, that the Yeshiva(h) Centres in both Melbourne and Sydney need a change of leadership. The reality is that very little will change if the leaders who so abysmally failed the community remain in positions of authority. There must be accountability. Equally, if not more, important, there must be change. Thankfully we are blessed to have many talented leaders within our community who can replace the old guard.
For this sustainable change to occur, the community must stand up, as we have so vociferously during the course of the public hearing. We can no longer rely on a select few to do this difficult work, often at a great personal cost. As a united community we are much stronger than any individual – however powerful they may be. Sometimes we need to take action, despite the challenges and discomfort.
Donors and supporters of communal institutions all have an important role to play as well. Funding is of critical importance to all institutions. It is incumbent upon every donor to utilise his or her influence to ensure accountability and transparency – not only with the funding but also in governance, policy development and in other areas. I do not support wholesale boycotts (in terms of funding or otherwise) of any institution, including the Yeshiva(h) Centres. They provide important services to our community. However, the funding and other support must be conditional. There must be accountability and transparency and leaders must, simply said, do the right thing. In the case of the Yeshiva(h) Centres, it is clear that wholesale changes are necessary and major reforms are required. They should embark immediately on a transitional process. They must institute a proper governance structure, remove the failed leadership and appoint new leaders.
I genuinely appreciate the ongoing support of so many within our community. I also appreciate that many have reached out to me personally, especially those who were involved in some way in this tragedy. Of most significance thus far, both personally and from our community’s perspective, was my recent meeting with the family of the late Rabbi Yitzchok Dovid Groner, the former long-standing director of Melbourne’s Yeshivah Centre who was ultimately responsible for so much of the suffering emanating from this tragedy. All five of his Australia-based children were present at this historic meeting. They apologised for the sexual abuse, the cover-ups and the intimidation that ensued. They also apologised for not reaching out sooner (despite my attempts) and for not speaking out about the intimidation. Although they apologised, I made it clear to them that I do not hold them responsible for their father’s failures.
Moreover, I noted that I still admire and respect the late Rabbi Groner. I recall him as a warm leader who ultimately made mistakes. They were serious mistakes with profound and long-lasting consequences. But I genuinely believe that if Rabbi Groner was alive today, he would have reached out a long time ago and accepted responsibility for his leadership failures. At least this is the Rabbi Groner that I remember. As I shared with the Groner family, I want to utilise this opportunity to move forward in a positive and constructive manner. This terrible tragedy should be the catalyst that ultimately unites our community, provides comfort to the many who have been hurt and importantly, ensures the safety of our children.
While so much progress has been made in recent years, and especially in recent weeks, we must remain focused and maintain public pressure until we are satisfied that the required reforms and other outcomes are achieved. It may take some time but we must remain committed to this important cause.
With a moment for change so close at hand, it is worth remembering the words of Edmund Burke, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing”. Although so many stood idly by in the past, we are now presented with an opportunity – a collective opportunity – to rectify a long-standing and dangerous situation. We must do so for the many victims and survivors, and for the safety of our children.