“The abuse first occurred at Yeshiva Center – inside the synagogue itself during the Jewish festival of Shavuot,” Manny Waks recalled, testifying about his molestation at the hands of employees of a Jewish school in Melbourne before Australia’s Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse on Monday.
“I went upstairs to the women’s section of the synagogue to rest for a while on one of the wooden benches. [Zev] Serebryanski followed me up there, sat on the bench beside me and started stroking me on my clothes – initially on my thighs and eventually my groin area.”
The former Chabad hassid, who was 11 years old when the abuse began in 1988, was molested on at least two other occasions, he said.
Waks recounted suffering verbal abuse at the hands of classmates after disclosing the abuse to a friend. The youngsters called him a homosexual, as “many segments of the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community conflate homosexuality with pedophilia,” he explained.
A year later, he would again be molested, this time by a school guard-cum martial arts instructor named Shmuel David Cyprys, including, on one occasion, at the mikve.
In 1996, Waks, estranged from religion, on leave from the Israeli army and battling chemical dependency, turned to Rabbi Yitzchok Dovid Groner, then the head of Yeshiva Center.
“He said the yeshiva was dealing with Cyprys and that I should not do anything of my own accord. I recalled feeling that he just wanted that conversation to end,” Waks recalled.
“The main reason that I approached Rabbi Groner at this time was because I had seen that Cyprys was still in a security role.... I often saw Cyprys at the yeshiva premises, looking like an official security guard.”
He turned to the communal leader again in 2000 to demand an explanation as to why Cyprys was still employed at the center.
“Rabbi Groner said that he was personally dealing with it and he told me, adamantly, that I should not raise it elsewhere. I recall that he practically pleaded with me not to pursue this matter. He said that he was taking care of it; Cyprys was getting professional help and, according to these professionals, was making improvements.”
In 2013 Cyprys was sentenced to five-and-a-half years in jail for committing sexual offenses against several boys during his time at the yeshiva.
Waks, who later went on to found Tzedek, an organization he says has been in contact with “well over 100 Jewish victims and their families” across the country, described the social ostracism faced by his parents after they encouraged him to go public with his story and demanded that the Jewish community “condemn the ongoing intimidation and harassment of me and my family, rather than condoning or even inciting it.”
According to Waks and other activists who deal with issues of abuse among the ultra-Orthodox, the halachic concepts of mesira and lashon hara serve to deter victims from reporting their experiences.
Mesira refers to a Talmudic ban on informing on a Jew to gentile authorities, while the Biblical ban on lashon hara prohibits gossip and damaging statements.
Last June, the Australian newspaper The Age reported that police were investigating several rabbis for allegedly covering up sexual abuse in community yeshivot.
The newspaper reported that it had obtained recordings and testimony used in prosecuting Australian-American abuser Daniel “Gug” Hayman, which indicated that senior rabbinic figures in the Chabad community in the Sydney area knew of allegations of sexual abuse against children and did not report them to the relevant authorities.
Speaking with The Jerusalem Post at the time, Waks said that the Jewish community needed “a cultural shift in the Jewish world as soon as possible” in terms of how institutions and leaders deal with issues of sexual abuse.
“Feelings of guilt, shame, embarrassment... are usual emotions” for victims, “however in the Jewish community we’ve got the added burden of rabbinic interference,” he said.
The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, which was established last January, has been tasked with investigating communities both secular and religious across the spectrum of Australian life.
Several rabbinic figures are set to testify before the commission in the coming days.
Commenting on Waks’s testimony, one communal leader who asked not to be identified, told the Post that abuse among Jews was just a “small blip on the radar” compared to the number of cases among the general population and that there have been only four convictions against Jews.
Most of the cases were 20 to 30-years-old, he said, adding that there has been a change in the perception of reporting abuse among the ultra-Orthodox.
“In Melbourne its obvious the rabbis knew and covered up, no one is denying that. The awareness of the severity of this type of abuse was much less in the forefront of people’s understanding at that time. Now batei din [rabbinic courts] around the world have come out with clear rulings that it’s not mesira.”
While in the past abusers might be sent overseas to continue their crimes in a different milieu, he concluded, such behavior would not be tolerated today.
“Abuse is less prevalent by us but that’s not to say we shouldn’t deal with it properly on an institutional level and victims should know they should come forward and go to the police and that they will get support.”
Waks, however, took issue with such statements, telling the Post that while progress has been made, “to say that the issue of mesira is not an issue in the Australian context is patently false.”
He has received thousands of messages of support since testifying, he said, Monday evening.
“I feel relief and empowerment and I feel that justice is happening now. It’s belated justice but its something I’ve been thinking about for decades.”