Rabbi behaving badly
The allegations against Rabbi Glick set off a chain of events involving Rabbi Meir Kluwgant, which has not yet been put on the public record. Despite what we now know about Rabbi Kluwgant, thanks to the royal commission, the following story demonstrates the gulf between his public and private behaviour.
Just prior to the matter being resolved with Rabbi Glick, a member of the Glick family posted on Facebook a note that basically said No one messes with the Glick family. This was significant because it referred to the power of the extended family within the community. In short, if you take on the Glick family, you take on the whole Chabad movement. Given that his family includes Rabbi Meir Kluwgant (nephew), Rabbi Sholom Mendel Kluwgant (father of Rabbi Meir Kluwgant, and a leading fundraiser at Yeshivah), Rabbi Yaakov Glasman (nephew, and a senior official within the Rabbinate), Nechama Bendet (sister, Yeshivah Centre general manager), and David Werdiger (senior Yeshivah figure, brother of a long-serving member of the Yeshivah committee of management, and cousin of my first abuser), the family has a huge presence within the ultra-Orthodox community.
As noted, Rabbi Kluwgant, the president of the Rabbinical Council of Victoria, called on Tzedek to sack me from my role at the organisation I had founded. He had made his views about me clear a few weeks earlier, on 21 March 2014, in his column in the Australian Jewish News, headlined ‘An abuse of abuse’. It included the following paragraphs:
Sadly, the very cause that the vigilantes purport to be championing is actually being undermined in the process, resulting in victims themselves being hurt too.
Innocent people are being targeted, our community is being tarnished, and the course of justice is being interfered with by individuals who use the press as their tool to exact punishment and retribution on a community and one individual whom they feel have let them down.
Exactly one week later, a former Yeshivah Centre teacher and Chabad youth leader, Aron ‘Ezzy’ Kestecher, apparently committed suicide in his Melbourne apartment. Police confirmed that Kestecher, 28, was facing multiple allegations of child sexual abuse against minors, and had been due to face court in June. In 2012, four charges of indecent acts by Kestecher against minors were withdrawn, but legal proceedings recommenced in 2013 after new alleged victims came forward. A few days after Kestecher’s suicide, Rabbi Kluwgant launched another veiled attack against me, as the Australian Jewish News reported on 3 April:
Rabbi Kluwgant described Kestecher as ‘a very special young man who in his youth spent many a Shabbos meal at my home with friends and family’.
‘He was a kind person with very special attributes, but he was also deeply troubled.’
Angry posters took to Facebook claiming Kestecher was subjected to trial by media and driven to suicide because of a presumption of guilt.
Rabbi Kluwgant inferred that the Jewish community had played a part in Kestecher’s demise. ‘Melbourne Jewish community … (all of us) need to take a good long hard look at ourselves and see what we can do to ensure that this kind of tragedy never ever happens again.’
Phillip Weinberg, who has been a friend and supporter of mine for several years, wanted to help soothe the tension between the RCV and me. Phillip was a member of the Blake Street congregation in South Caulfield, and approached
his rabbi, Ian Goodhardt, also a member of the RCV, to speak to Rabbi Kluwgant on his behalf. He wanted to know why the hopelessly conflicted RCV had involved itself in a matter between Rabbi Glick and me, given neither of us had anything to do with the RCV. He also asked whether the RCV would consider calling on anyone at Yeshivah to resign, or whether their call for accountability only applied with respect to me and my role at Tzedek. To his credit, Rabbi Goodhardt was sympathetic. But Kluwgant sent back a blunt response that the RCV stood by its statement. He was not interested in talking.
Later that year, and only a few months before the royal commission hearing, Phillip met with Rabbis Goodhardt, Kennard, and Genende, and pleaded with them to support victims and to call on those involved in covering up abuse and
bullying victims to resign from their positions at Yeshivah. He asked them how they could preach to their communities that as Jews we had a responsibility to speak up against injustice while, at the same time, they remained silent in the
face of the greatest injustice our community had ever seen, happening right under the noses. The consensus from the rabbis was that they should not get involved — that it was a Chabad issue and not a Jewish-community issue. However, they did agree to ask the RCV president, Rabbi Mordechai Gutnick, to call on Rabbi Glick to resign. The Australian Jewish News got wind of this, and reported it. The following week, Rabbi Gutnick denied everything, and the paper had no choice but to print a retraction and an apology.
One week into the royal commission hearing, Rabbi Kennard eventually came out publicly and called for Rabbi Glick to resign. Kennard also revealed that he had resigned from the executive of the RCV in October 2013, because the RCV hadn’t called the leaders of Yeshivah to account when Cyprys was convicted. He said that at the time he didn’t comment because it served no purpose, ‘but that is no longer the case’. Again, it was great that he took the action, but he undermined his own authority by not making it public, thus preventing his resignation from having any impact on others. Had he made it public at the time, I have no doubt that the attacks against my family and me would have subsided. At the very least, it would have provided credence to my public criticisms of the RCV.
In February 2015, Rabbi Kluwgant was called by the royal commission to give evidence at the hearing into allegations of sexual abuse at the Yeshivah. On the last day of the hearing, on Friday 13 February, under intense pressure, Kluwgant reluctantly admitted to the commission that he had sent a text message to the Australian Jewish News’s editor three days earlier, describing my father, Zephaniah Waks, in the following words: ‘Zephaniah … is a lunatic on the fringe. Guilty of neglect of his own children. Where was he when all this was happening?’
In the wake of this testimony, Kluwgant resigned as president of the ORA and also resigned as an executive member of the RCV. He was also forced to step down from a number of other senior leadership positions — with Jewish Care (Victoria), as Victoria Police Chaplain, and as Ambassador for White Ribbon, a secular charity that campaigns to stop violence against women. An e-mail from the chair of White Ribbon confirmed their action:
White Ribbon Ambassadors have a range of responsibilities … including not acting in a way that might bring the reputation of White Ribbon into disrepute and/or is contrary to the key messaging of the campaign. In this instance, Rabbi Kluwgant accepted that his actions, as a White Ribbon Ambassador, had breached that requirement and that he was to be removed as an Ambassador.
To make a break with the past, Australian rabbis decided to dissolve the ORA and replace it with the New Organisation of Rabbis of Australasia (NORA), headed by interim president Rabbi Selwyn Franklin. (Ironically, the acronym NORA means ‘terrible’ in Hebrew.)
Following Kluwgant’s admission, Rabbi Goodhardt decided to resign from the RCV. A year earlier, and within hours of calling for my sacking from Tzedek over allegations about Rabbi Glick, Kluwgant had sent a sensational email to Rabbi Goodhardt and others, falsely and maliciously alleging that a member of Phillip Weinberg’s family had engaged in an act of criminal behaviour and that, therefore, the rabbis should ignore his concerns. If this accusation had become public, it would have had the potential to not only humiliate but cause profound emotional suffering to the entire family. After
hearing Kluwgant’s appalling evidence to the royal commission, on the heels of his description of my father as a ‘lunatic’, Rabbi Goodhardt decided that Kluwgant’s email regarding Weinberg demanded a response.
The email was another turning point, and not just for Rabbi Goodhardt. Up to this point, in the public eye, Rabbi Kluwgant’s only error had been to use an inappropriately harsh phrase to describe someone — ‘just’ a member of the
Waks family whom many were publicly describing as crazy anyway. To those in the Yeshivah and Chabad community, it was a one-off, a moment of intemperance in a heated environment where many people were using strong language. Many in the community were prepared to forgive him for this single error of judgement.
But to Rabbi Goodhardt, the email about Weinberg’s family demonstrated a pattern of intimidating behaviour, and tainted Kluwgant’s whole character. He passed on the email to Phillip. That same week, Phillip received a phone call from Kluwgant’s cousin, Rabbi Yaakov Glasman, a past president of the RCV, saying that Kluwgant wanted to have a chat with him. Phillip expected that he wanted to patch things up in relation to the ‘lunatic’ text sent to the Australian Jewish News about my father, and move on.
He replied that he would be happy to come over for a chat. Kluwgant did not know that Phillip had seen the email he had written and distributed about his family member, nor that he had printed out a copy of it to take to his meeting with Kluwgant.
When Phillip went over to see him, the rabbi took him by surprise.
Kluwgant: ‘I have heard that you have some issues with me. I want you to know that I have never done anything at all to give you or your family any reason to be upset with me.’
Phillip: ‘Think very carefully about that statement.’
Kluwgant: ‘I swear to you …’
Phillip took the email out of his pocket and handed it to Kluwgant. The email had clearly been sent by Kluwgant from his Jewish Care email account, where he had been employed at the time.
Kluwgant was stunned. ‘How did you get this?’ he said. ‘It was supposed to be confidential.’ His reaction was not to deny he had written it, or to show contrition at having written it. He was first and foremost shocked that it had gone beyond a tight inner circle of recipients.
Phillip told him he was a liar, and said he felt like he had just watched Kluwgant giving evidence at the royal commission again. Kluwgant started crying, and begged for forgiveness.
‘I panicked,’ he said. ‘I wanted this whole thing to go away. And I made it up. I made up the allegation. I have not slept in a week. Can’t we just tear this up and pretend it never happened? My son is getting married soon. I’m about to become a grandfather. I’ve lost everything. I can’t even pay my mortgage now.’
Phillip was resolute. He told him: ‘I have as much sympathy for you as you’ve had to victims of child sexual abuse who, as opposed to you, have had their lives ruined through no fault of their own. You need to be held accountable for what you have done.’
He left Kluwgant in an agitated state, and waited to see how it would unfold. Within the next few days, the rabbi emailed him: ‘Whatever can I do to make this right, I will do.’
Phillip was still reeling from the sheer immorality of Kluwgant’s behaviour, and did not hold back: ‘Send a written apology to the Australian Jewish News admitting what you’ve done.’ He knew this was probably asking for too much. If Kluwgant admitted this in public, his humiliation would be irreversible. So Phillip was not surprised when he did not receive a reply. Indeed, he received no further contact from the rabbi. Kluwgant was in effect daring Phillip to take legal action against him, and, two months later, that is what he did. Phillip sent him a Concerns Notice, and pursued him for defamation. Their lawyers discussed the matter and it was, predictably, settled before going to court. But not without a fight from Kluwgant. Apparently, Kluwgant only agreed to settle after being told by the Australian Jewish News that they were about to run a story on the matter if he didn’t fess up. As part of the settlement, Kluwgant wrote an apology to Phillip, admitting that he had made up the story and apologising to Weinberg and his family, the people hurt by his allegations. I saw the apology before it was signed, and thus before the terms of confidentiality came into effect.
Kluwgant was also forced to send the apology to the others to whom he had sent the email. Phillip did not seek any financial compensation or damages, and the settlement did not involve any financial payment.
In June 2015, NORA was replaced by a new body, the Rabbinic Council of Australia and New Zealand. Apparently, with significant chutzpah and still in a state of denial, Kluwgant nominated himself to be a leader of the RCANZ, but his fellow rabbis did not vote for him. Humiliated by what was a clear signal of disaffection and loss of confidence, he decided to leave the organisation. He then apparently resigned his membership of the RCV.
Within six months of resigning in disgrace, Rabbi Kluwgant was teaching religious studies at Beth Rivkah Ladies College, which is operated by the Yeshivah Centre.
This was an astounding decision by the college, and one that highlighted the gap between words and actions. And how did the news break? Someone notified me that Kluwgant was teaching there. I told the interim committee:
‘This is wrong. It’s an endorsement of him, after everything he has said and done.’
The decision was apparently a surprise to them, too.
Committee member: ‘We were told he was doing some voluntary teaching last term, but it was a one-off.’
My contact then tells me: ‘No, he’s still teaching.’
I ask the committee member about this, who responds: ‘Yes, my info was wrong. It is ongoing. Why don’t you talk to (principal) Rabbi Smukler directly?’
I did. We had a long conversation. Now, Rabbi Smukler is a lovely guy. He and his wife took me out for a very pleasant dinner. He was reaching out to victims. He wanted to listen to my reasons why Kluwgant shouldn’t be teaching at the school, and then promised to get back to me in a couple of days. I didn’t hear anything. A few weeks later, the media reported the story (without my involvement), and the shit hit the fan. Apparently, Rabbi Smukler has since accepted that it was a bad decision to take Kluwgant on in that capacity. I was disappointed that the good rabbi never contacted me about it afterwards.
Collectively, these events contain several significant objective truths: this was not, and is not, a grievance by the Waks family. The central issue is Kluwgant’s character and pattern of behaviour towards victims and anyone who has wanted to help them. Finally, it sends a clear message about the nature of the culture I have been desperately trying to change. After everything that has been said and done, no matter what you do, there will always be a job for you at Yeshivah.