Child sex abuse in the Hasidic community
ABC Radio National
Tuesday 13 August 2013
Photo: WITH THE STORY NOW TOLD AT A PUBLIC INQUIRY, THE HASIDIC COMMUNITY NOW ADMITS ITS FAILURE IN ACTING ON THE KNOWLEDGE THERE WAS A PAEDOPHILE IN ITS MIDST. (MIKE DONNELLY; FLICKR.COM/CC/BY-NC-ND/2.0)
The Waks family lived across from the Yeshiva, or religious school, in Melbourne's tight-knit Hasidic Jewish community. When their oldest of 17 children, Manny, was sexually molested by two teachers, the impact on his faith, his family and the community was devastating. Rachael Kohn writes about how the Hasidic community learned a difficult lesson about sex abuse and the synagogue.
One of the consistent themes arising from the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse is that organisations often seek to protect themselves and their reputations—even at the cost of their victims.
This defense mechanism is well known for large scale organisations that have major reputations to uphold, but spare a thought for the smaller introspective religious groups that are so intensely integrated that any ripple is stifled lest it wreak havoc on the whole community.
That is what happened when Manny Waks, a member of one of Australia’s largest ultra orthodox Hasidic Jewish families—which was the subject of a film on ABC TV ten years ago—spoke to the community leadership about his own abuse as an 11-14 year-old by teachers in the Yeshiva Centre in Melbourne.
In fact, Manny and his father had reported the crime to the police back in 1996, but the ‘it’s your evidence against his’ response resulted in their allegations being shelved. After years of frustration, Manny finally broke the silence in 2011 and as president of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, he was the first community leader in the Jewish community to go public about his own sexual abuse.
'The abuse started by the first person at the age of about 11. The first one ceased and then the second one commenced just before my Bar Mitzvah. It was not an easy time… I went through a grooming process is what I understand it to be now. You just learn to trust them, to believe them, to fear them. And then when they actually start the physical abuse, the sexual abuse, it’s too late to even start to think about anything, especially when you’re an 11 or 12 year-old kid, the concept of sex… is not something you’re exposed to in any way shape or form.'
The reality of sexual abuse by those in authority has made the public more aware of this grooming process, especially since the Victorian Parliamentary Inquiry into sexual abuse (at which both Manny and his father Zephaniah gave evidence) and the Royal Commission have gotten under way. And with the recent conviction of David Kramer in a Melbourne court, the Hasidic community leadership has now admitted its failure to properly respond to a known paedophile in its midst.
Even if the community leadership is learning the hard way that child sexual abuse must not be tolerated or swept under the carpet, the deep resentment towards the Waks family is a painful reminder that many in the community cannot forgive someone who has aired its dirty linen in public. Zephaniah, who used to attend the Yeshiva Centre’s synagogue on a daily basis, now stays away most of the time, which is not easy given he and his family live across the street.
'It became so unpleasant in synagogue these days that I keep my foot in by going on the Sabbath,' he says.
'I now have a Jewish legal decision that I don’t have to go to the synagogue during the week and I don’t now. It was getting to the stage where I didn’t realise the pressure it was putting on me. Only after I stopped going I realised how much pressure there actually was. I saw the difference, instantly. I slept better at night.'
Zephania, who chose to join the Lubavitcher Hasidic movement in the 1960s, still has his faith, but his son Manny has all but lost his.
'My walking away from religion really commenced during the time of the abuse,' Manny says.
'I still feel uncomfortable standing inside a synagogue for example. I never understood why, but now, as a mature adult, I can actually understand the fact that the abuse took place within a synagogue, and the discomfort and the shock and horror of an 11 and 12 year-old kid to have experienced that will probably leave that in your mind for the rest of your life.'
'And on top of that, that it was conducted by people of religion, and by people of authority within the institution, and that so many of these people who actually knew about it…and they just were not willing to do anything. All of those things together made me angry and really alienated me from the faith.'
As the father of three boys Manny continues to uphold many of the Jewish traditions, which he regards as a cultural inheritance, but only so long as he can watch his beloved cricket and footy programs on the Sabbath.
It’s a trivial violation compared to the moral failure of his religious leaders.
Hear Rachael Kohn speak to Manny & Zephaniah Waks at The Spirit of Things.
Originally published at Radio National (where you can listen to the interview).