Jewish community leader tells of sex abuse
8 July 2011
MANNY Waks's behaviour started to change part-way through his schooling at Yeshivah College.
''I wasn't listening to the teachers and was getting into trouble,'' Mr Waks says.
Now, more than 20 years later, he believes his disruptive behaviour, his rebellion against his strict Hasidic upbringing, even the fact he is no longer an observant Jew, can potentially be linked to sexual abuse he says he was subjected to at the Orthodox Jewish school in St Kilda East.
Mr Waks claims he was repeatedly molested by a trusted figure of authority at the school who had unfettered access to the young boys.
"This was a man who was in a position of power and authority, who was trusted by the school and who repeatedly took advantage of his position in preying on young boys who looked up to him." The 35-year-old Canberra public servant says he was also abused by another member of the Chabad community. One of the alleged incidents is said to have occurred inside a synagogue.
''No wonder I feel so uncomfortable being in a synagogue, because it evokes in my subconscious some of these memories,'' Mr Waks says.
As a leader in the Jewish community and a human rights advocate, he believes he has a responsibility to speak publicly for the first time about the abuse he says dogged his childhood. He hopes his story will empower and encourage others to speak to the police or seek the help they may require.
''This is about justice and closure, both for myself and other victims,'' says Mr Waks, a vice-president of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry and president of the ACT Jewish Community, among other senior roles. He wants to hold to account the alleged perpetrators of the crimes and the Yeshivah Centre, which runs the college and which he says betrayed victims by persuading them to remain silent.
Mr Waks also hopes his story will help change the stigma faced by victims of sex abuse. ''I feel I've moved on with my life … you can actually move forward while acknowledging that it has inevitably impacted me in a profound way.''
While some alleged victims of sex abuse at Yeshivah College have made statements to police, Mr Waks says there are many others, some of whom he knows personally. ''The main reason for the silence is the culture in this segment of the Jewish community to keep these types of issues quiet: it's my understanding a lot of these victims haven't even told their wives.''
Allegations of sex crimes at the college resurfaced last month, after police wrote to former students urging them to contact Crime Stoppers if they had been assaulted between 1989 and 1993. The claims were mainly linked to former Jewish studies teacher David Kramer, who fled Australia in the early 1990s after parents complained he had sexually abused boys.
Yeshivah College, which did not report the complaints to police, was accused of covering up the scandal. Kramer went on to offend in the US, sodomising a 12-year-old boy while conducting a youth program at a St Louis synagogue. He was jailed in 2008 and is now serving a seven-year prison sentence.
Mr Waks, who was not abused by Kramer, says there are multiple perpetrators and victims involved in the current police probe. He is furious that Yeshivah College did not take action at the time and says it recently tried to ''defend the indefensible'' by suggesting the alleged abuse related to a time before mandatory reporting.
''This lack of basic action is what has ultimately led to perpetrators reoffending and the tally of victims rising.''
And he was distressed by the memories from 20 years ago triggered by the current probe.
Menachem ''Manny'' Waks and his 16 siblings grew up in an Orthodox Chabad family in St Kilda East. Mr Waks says he only told one friend about the alleged sexual abuse. But rumours soon circulated and boys started to snigger. Midway through year 7 he left mainstream school and focused purely on a religious studies program at Yeshivah College. When he was 18 he joined the Israeli army and rejected his religious upbringing.
Mr Waks made his first statement to police in 1996. He also told Rabbi Yitzchok Dovid Groner, Yeshivah Centre director. In 2000, after returning to Australia, Mr Waks was shocked to see his alleged abuser was still in a position of authority at the Yeshivah Centre.
''I said to Rabbi Groner: 'How can you give this person access to children?' Rabbi Groner pleaded with me not to take it further. He said to me that [the alleged perpetrator] was getting help from a psychiatrist. I said: 'Can you guarantee he will not re-offend?' Rabbi Groner said no and that's when I walked out. In my attempt to seek justice and closure I felt like I was working against an entrenched culture and system of covering up these crimes at any cost.''
Yeshivah College's general manager, Nechama Bendet, says Rabbi Groner died in 2008.
''We are therefore not in a position to clarify any communications he is alleged to have made around 15 years ago,'' she says. ''The college would like … to make it absolutely clear that it supports and encourages any person who alleges sexual abuse to report the matter to the Victoria Police as the college condemns all forms of child abuse.''
Since learning of the police inquiry last month, Mr Waks has worked closely with police. He is hopeful of arrests soon.
''This is certainly a move I have been anticipating for many years,'' he says. ''I do not seek sympathy but rather understanding and support for deciding to bring this important and sensitive issue into the public domain. We need to shatter this insidious code of silence."
Originally published at The Age.