Manny Waks pays the price for speaking about sexual abuse in an Orthodox Jewish community
18 May 2013
Manny Waks, with his father Zephaniah, testifies at the Victorian inquiry into child sex abuse in December (photo: Tony Fink).
TO outsiders, Zephaniah Waks blends in with other bearded orthodox Jewish men dressed in black on the footpaths of the East St Kilda neighbourhood where he has dwelt for almost three decades.
But to insiders who live, work, gossip and pray here, his presence reminds them of things they’d rather forget. He is a stone in their shoe: uncomfortable, irritating, difficult to extract. For the past two years he has been singled out for the kind of shunning that others not as stubborn or as flinty or as sure of their stand would sooner flee than endure.
He prays on the Sabbath. He walks to the synagogue. He studies the Torah. He observes the rituals of the Chabad. Why has this solid pillar of his community become persona non grata? Waks believes his so-called sin was supporting his eldest son Manny, 37, who went to the media in July 2011 with allegations he was sexually abused as a teenager at the Yeshivah Centre, where school and synagogue squat in the heartland of this tight-knit group of worshippers.
The fears that choke child-abuse victims in every community cast an even darker shadow in orthodox circles, where dirty laundry is typically dealt with in-house. The archaic concept of Mesirah - the prohibition on reporting another Jew’s wrongdoing to non-Jewish authorities - still exerts a powerful hold. Zephaniah began to feel a bristling towards him from the first Sabbath after his son’s disclosures. That Saturday in the synagogue the most senior spiritual leader, Rabbi Zvi Telsner, delivered a stern sermon from the pulpit. “Who gave you permission to talk to anyone? Which rabbi gave you permission?” he thundered, without mentioning any names. Zephaniah and his wife Chaya walked out in a spontaneous protest with six others. Rabbi Telsner insists his remarks were not directed at any individual. “It’s like calling someone fat,” he tells me. “If you think you’re fat that’s up to you.” He had dismissed as “absolute rubbish” any suggestion he sought to discourage witnesses from stepping forward.
Slowly and surely, during the weeks and months that followed, the Waks began to detect slights and snubs in personal and religious forums, making life increasingly fraught. Zephaniah has been denied religious blessings routinely dispensed to others. Men who have accompanied him to religious studies for years now cut him dead. Intimate friends no longer share their table or invite him to family celebrations. Whispering campaigns besmirch him as a “dobber” or “moser” and anonymous bloggers have defamed him.
Never mind the thousands outside the orthodox community who cheer his son’s courage, their gratitude warming him too. These sentiments only serve to make the silences that engulf him even frostier. “If you get ostracised so that you have to leave your community, your whole world disappears,” says Zephaniah, 63, throwing up his hands. “Where are you going to go?” The Waks’ modest family home sits across the street from the Yeshivah Centre’s sprawl of brick buildings fortified by high metal fences and security patrols.
Geography aside, there is a nobler purpose to staying put. “If he walks away, they will win,” Manny says. Easier for him; he’s a modern secular Jew adept at using the media and the cogs of democracy to hasten change. He aches for his father’s health and welfare even as he applauds the old man’s spunk. Already inextricably bound by flesh and blood, they are united in this fight against a crime that plagues every race, creed and faith, flourishing wherever it grows unchecked.
In a tiny office behind a busy commercial thoroughfare, Manny Waks is building a victims' advocacy group called Tzedek - the Hebrew word for justice. There are no fancy logos or potted palms or receptionists. Dressed in a suit with an open-necked shirt, Manny fills the barely furnished room with hope and passion. Sympathetic Jewish entrepreneurs have loaned him this space; volunteers are enlisting; victims are coming forward; and donors have contributed around $50,000. In April, the former Canberra public servant took leave from his departmental post to work here 12 hours a day counselling people, lobbying governments, making submissions to the state and federal bodies investigating abuse and, most importantly, promoting cultural change within the Jewish community.
Manny is not religious. He had begun to disengage from Judaism after allegedly being abused by two different men - neither of whom are named in this article - on numerous occasions inside the ritual bathhouse at the Yeshivah Centre and at other locations during the late 1980s, when he was in his early teens. He remembers getting ready for his bar mitzvah without any of the excitement associated with this event. He did not tell his parents about what had happened at school, confiding only in a couple of friends, who told others, which led to him being teased as "gay". "What that reinforced to me was, 'Keep your mouth shut and don't say anything'."
Sexual abuse scandals that have stained Christian parishes around the world have spread to orthodox communities from Brooklyn, New York to Melbourne, Australia. In January, Brooklyn's District Attorney Charles Hynes spoke of the "intimidation" and "scare tactics" used to frighten a Jewish victim in a landmark sexual abuse case. "Many victims are fearful that factions within these communities will ostracise, will do things that are just not acceptable; things that I think are shameless," he said. The extreme bullying tactics that bedevilled the Brooklyn case have not been reported here, but Zephaniah told the Victorian inquiry into child sexual abuse he was concerned about the "incredible pressures" on families to keep quiet.
Appearing with his son Manny in December, he gave his account of the dynamics at work. "Why people do not talk? What sort of pressure is put on people? If you come forward and it becomes known it is a closed community; everybody knows everything - you are going to have trouble getting marriages for your children. This is a very, very strong thing and people are very fearful... It's a terrible dilemma for a parent: family name, stigma - all that sort of stuff."
Melbourne claims the largest per capita number of Holocaust survivors outside Israel, many of them still wary of police. "In our synagogue we have a very nice old man who was in a concentration camp and came out alive," Zephaniah told the inquiry. "He said to me recently, 'We would never have done this. In Europe we wouldn't tell the police about another Jew'." Zephaniah asked him what he would do now, today, with an offender. His answer: "Send him away."
After Victoria Police launched the 2011 investigation into alleged sexual abuse at Yeshivah, a series of strident sermons warning against the spread of falsehoods and stressing the supremacy of rabbinical authority sent tremors of concern through the community. When a police request for co-operation was not forwarded to all former students, one of the victims sent an email around pleading: "Ongoing silence is NOT an option". The next weekend, Rabbi Telsner's sermon drew on a biblical episode often cited to hammer home the dangers of slander and gossip. He reminded his audience that such conduct was forbidden and later told The Australian Jewish Newsthe community should unite and help each other rather than "sending emails around and making trouble".
"Before you say anything, you have to ask a rabbinical authority," Rabbi Telsner tells me, insisting that when it comes to child sexual abuse "clearly everyone should co-operate with the police". Last August, Yeshivah apologised unreservedly to victims "for any historical wrongs that may have occurred".
Perth rabbi Dovid Freilich estimates that 95 per cent of Australian rabbis believe these matters should be dealt with internally. He was president of the Organisation of Rabbis of Australasia at the time the Yeshivah scandal erupted and resigned after his call for full co-operation with police drew criticism from the membership. "I was castigated by other rabbis. They don't talk to me anymore. I regard it as a compliment... The law of the land is the law of the land," he says, dismissing the idea that victims should go to a priest or a rabbi rather than use the courts.
Manny taps his computer keyboard to show me an anonymous email he'd received from a person unwilling to raise allegations of serial abuse because of the repercussions for his siblings. He argues that even talking about these issues is a challenge. "The word 'sex' is not mentioned in many orthodox communities; they just don't talk about it. So if you're describing an act of sexual abuse as immodesty instead of a criminal act, you have a major challenge to overcome," he explains. Recently, a member of the Yeshiva executive had demanded to know why Manny hadn't come to him before going public. Manny told him he had approached a senior religious figure about the alleged abuse years before he went to the media, but nothing was done.
Research by victim support groups has found many people carry their dirty secret for an average of 25 years before mustering the courage to act. As the second oldest of 17 children, Manny is often asked why he kept quiet while his younger siblings attended the same school. "It's really not simple," he says. "If a family suddenly takes 10 children out of a school... Why? There would be stigma attached and the whole family would be tarnished. As strange and absurd as it may sound, the whole family would have been marginalised. It was not an easy decision."
Zephaniah Waks chose his family's home in the shadow of Yeshivah for its proximity to the synagogue and the college. Manny remembers how his siblings spilled out of their front yard into the open spaces of a precinct that became the family's playground. "When you've got 17 children, families cannot constantly be on top of where everyone is. Yeshivah was like our back yard. We played basketball there every evening. The rabbis and teachers held positions of trust, just like priests in the Catholic church."
One Friday night in 1993, Zephaniah heard two boys having a furious argument over a teacher at the college. "One was shouting that his brother had said, 'Rabbi Kramer had done things to him and it's not true'." Zephaniah spoke to them to ascertain as best he could what had occurred. The next day, after raising the matter with a psychologist friend, he approached the school. Kramer, a teacher at the college, conceded there was truth to the children's claims but instead of being suspended immediately, Zephaniah says he was told that a psychiatrist was treating him and there was concern he might suicide.
Zephaniah called a meeting of parents at his house on the Monday evening to determine the next step. "The [college] board fought vigorously against his dismissal or police involvement, trying to talk us out of it," he recalls. "At around 6.50pm I got a call that they were firing him immediately so we should call off the meeting." Shortly afterwards, Kramer boarded a plane for Israel. The problem had left the country without involving police or publicity.
Zephaniah is haunted by his role in this saga and its legacy steadied him to take a very different stand when Manny, who left home in 1991 to pursue religious studies in Sydney, came to him in 1996 with allegations of abuse.
When Zephaniah greets me at his front door, where Jewish symbols frame the portal, he declines politely to shake my hand as is customary for men of faith. He wears a velvet yarmulke, black pants, moccasins and the traditional white tasseled belt. We sit on either side of a long dining table in a spotless room where Hebrew books and ceremonial candelabra lie within easy reach.
Zephaniah speaks at a frantic pace, animated by anger, frustration and disbelief, some of it turned on himself. "I'm not letting myself off the hook," he says of the putsch that sent Kramer overseas, where he reoffended, being convicted in 2008 of abusing a 12-year-old boy at a synagogue in Missouri. Kramer's release on parole three years into a seven-year sentence was the trigger that led Victorian police to reopen investigations into events at Yeshivah, and to have Kramer extradited from the US to Australia.
"I feel guilty, very guilty," Zephaniah says. "I was the most active in the whole thing. I could have done something. We should have gone to the police, no question. I feel very bad. Ultimately I was someone who could have done something and I chose not to."
Although he later visited Kramer in Israel, seeking assurances he was being "treated", nothing absolved the regret and unease that ate away at him. When Manny knocked on the door of his study in 1996 to unburden his allegations of abuse at the hands of other men, Zephaniah did not hesitate.
"I had been in my room listening to a radio report about Victoria Police targeting child sexual abuse crimes and that's when I went downstairs to my father's office," Manny recalls. Zephaniah rang the police immediately. "A lot had changed. It was a few years on. I knew already that Kramer had not been dealt with properly. I was right onto it."
His son's sworn statement to police signed in a shaky scrawl at 4pm on September 17, 1996, gathered dust. Detectives who reviewed the case in 2011 said legal action was not pursued at the time of the complaint because of "impediments" back then.
Manny's case only resurfaced when the Victorian police sex crimes unit began reviewing cold cases. By then married with three young children, living in Canberra and serving as vice-president of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, he was ready to be counted. "I felt if I came out there would be many, many other victims who'd come forward. All we needed was one person to get out there and do it. I'd watched Catholic priests being named and decided this wasn't about pursuing my abusers, it was a major cultural issue."
Sixteen other victims have since made sworn statements to police, who are investigating alleged crimes at other Jewish institutions. Kramer and another former Yeshivah employee have been charged. Kramer pleaded guilty last month to five counts of indecent assault and one count of committing an indecent act with or in the presence of a child under 16.
Manny remains the only accuser to have braved the Australian media, inviting hostility and recrimination for his troubles. When he told his father that he planned to speak out, Zephaniah didn't realise the splash Manny's story would make. "I'm glad I didn't know," he says. "I didn't say a negative word to him. I thought, if it's that important to him still, then he has to unburden himself. I didn't protect him at the time. I'm not going to get in his way."
Manny hasn't felt the cold shoulders directed at his father. He's threatened defamation action against two bloggers stirring up hatred. "I get either dirty looks or thanks for what I've done. It has had a significant impact on my family but I have got no regrets. It is something I had to do." As for critics who say he's done it for the money and the publicity, perhaps they should visit his office and take tea with his father. Zephaniah's burden is the one that weighs heaviest. "It has harmed my father's health, causing him sleepless nights and the loss of decades-old friendships as people go around the community saying, 'Don't have anything to do with him'," Manny says. "A lot of people say, 'Why doesn't he leave?'"
Zephaniah is consumed by the Yeshivah leadership's response to the problems in its past as well as attempts to portray him as a pariah. "I don't want to come over as being too obsessed," he says, quickly conceding "but I am obsessed. In case anyone wonders why I am so adamant and so hot even now, and it doesn't get any less, it's because I personally know of three people walking free who are serious perpetrators and who will in all probability continue to walk free because of the attitudes and actions and the intimidation that continues. For me, that is the bottom line".
Efforts to broker peace through internal Jewish channels got him nowhere. In March, Yeshivah's rabbinical leaders refused an invitation from a New York rabbi to moderate the dispute in a Jewish court so Zephaniah took the unprecedented step of lodging a complaint with the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission. Both parties have been summonsed to a meeting scheduled for next week.
Rabbi Telsner denies there has been a vendetta against Zephaniah: "It is absolutely false from beginning to end." He says the decision to withhold blessings from him was made by a synagogue committee. "We give it to the people who deserve it," he says.
On the wall of the Waks' living room hangs a photo of Zephaniah's father Leo, a dashing character in a fedora, without any of the sartorial garb favoured by contemporary orthodox men. "That guy there," he says of his father, "was an engineering student in Berlin when Hitler came to power. His degree has a swastika on it. He knew what was going on but he refused to buckle as he watched the salute rising higher and higher, and a little of his determination sits inside me. I'm not moving out of here until I want to move."
The pressure mounts. "It's very unpleasant. You can't believe this is 2013 in Australia. You can't believe it," he says. I ask, what has hurt him most? Not the sudden withdrawal of the old friend he once accompanied to study sessions. "He's always been a weakling.I'm not surprised he buckled to pressure. The thing that bothers me most about this is seeing good people doing nothing." He nods at the portrait of his father and the consequences of allowing evil to thrive.
When he walks me outside to my car, the Yeshivah Centre looms across the street and I almost expect security to arrest Zephaniah for refusing to shut up. But the shunning works in subtler ways. Despite the warmth of the sun, I feel a shiver up my spine.
Originally published at The Australian.