Australian police are currently investigating several rabbis for allegedly covering up sexual abuse in community yeshivot, according to local media outlet The Age.
The newspaper reported that it had obtained recordings and testimony used in prosecuting Australian- American Daniel “Gug” Hayman earlier this month that indicated that senior rabbinic figures in the Chabad hassidic community in the Sydney area knew of allegations of sexual abuse against children and did not report them to the relevant authorities.
Hayman, who lives in Los Angeles, was given a 19-month suspended sentence. He had pleaded guilty in May to indecently assaulting the 14-yearold in the woods at Camp Gan Israel – where Hayman was a volunteer.
Testimony during Hayman’s trial revealed that during the late 1980s several children had told Rabbi Boruch Lesches, then a senior figure at the Bondi Yeshiva Center, of Hayman’s actions. Lesches is currently a Rabbi in Monsey, New York.
Rabbi Pinchas Feldman, dean of the yeshiva, “just told me it shouldn’t happen and I should take steps to avoid it. It was a once-off conversation in his office,” Hayman said in a recording of a telephone call with a victim, obtained by The Age, in which he stated that he had told Lesches and Feldman of his actions.
Non-disclosure of reports of sexual abuse to authorities is a criminal offense in Australia.
Manny Waks, the head of Tzedek (Justice), an organization that advocates for victims of sexual abuse within the Jewish community, told The Jerusalem Post on Monday that he has launched civil proceedings against the Yeshiva Center and that he was “aware that there are numerous victims that are also in the process of doing the same.”
“What is astounding is that there has been zero accountability for those who had a position of authority at the time of the abuses and subsequent cover ups,” he said.
Citing incidents in Melbourne, including a lawsuit recently brought by an alleged victim of a female educator who has since fled to Israel, Waks said that he believes that a comprehensive overhaul of the religious community’s approach to abuse is necessary.
The Jewish community, he said, needs “a cultural shift in the Jewish World as soon as possible” in terms of how institutions and leaders deal with issues of sexual abuse.
“Sadly it seems to me that the religious community has a fair bit to learn from the secular community in the context of responding to allegations on child sexual abuse,” he said.
“Feelings of guilt, shame, embarrassment...
are usual emotions” for victims, “however in the Jewish Community we’ve got the added burden of rabbinic interference.
By that I mean we are aware of some cases where rabbis have advised victims not to admit what happened.”
Tzedek, he added, is working closely with the government’s Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, which issued a comprehensive report on abuse in Australia on Monday.
In remarks to The Jerusalem Post on Monday, Feldman said that the allegations were “just ridiculous.”
Referring to Hayman, Feldman said that “35 years ago I was running a big school and a big community, people coming to see me all the time and this guy wasn’t working for me, he wasn’t even a student. He alleged that he told me something and I told him not to do it.
This is really nonsense.”
“I don’t remember any such thing. Why he felt it necessary to say something like this is beyond me, I have no idea,” he added. “It is making a non-issue into an issue.”
“I was running the yeshiva here since 1968 and until 1991 I was never approached by anybody about any type of allegations, neither a victim, neither an alleged victim nor a perpetrator.
I’ve never been approached, and in 1991, I think it was, there was an instance that came to our attention and we immediately notified the authorities and it’s all recorded,” he said.
“In our institution it’s a storm in a teacup because nothing ever happened to the best of my knowledge.”
Feldman’s son, Rabbi Yosef Feldman was quoted by the Australian Jewish News three years ago as saying that when contacted over allegations of abuse, a rabbi must “look at the Jewish perspective and the human rights of the aggressor. It is not only the victim that he has to think of, because in this case he also has to think of the attacker.”
Rabbi Dovid Freilich, the former head of the Organization of Rabbis of Australasia (ORA) resigned his position in 2012 because he “could not in any way shape or form preside over any colleagues who believed such a thing should be covered up.”
Speaking with the Post, Freilich, who serves as a communal Rabbi in Perth and is not a member of Chabad, said that “we as a rabbinate should, unlike the catholic church, come right out and condemn [abuse] in the strongest terms [and] condemn those people who even covered it up.”
“I believe that the people who covered it up, rabbis or no rabbis, are just as culpable and also should face criminal proceedings because like in any crime if you hide the perpetrator and enable the perpetrator to do even more and continue on with the crime, you are just as guilty,” he said.
If the authorities believe that there is a need to conduct an investigation, he added, “they need to investigate it.”
“Whatever has to be done, even if it involves investigating Jewish institutions,” it should be done, he said, “because we have got to think of the victims... Not trying to protect our institutions.”
ORA now has a no tolerance policy towards covering up abuse and is “far stronger on this issue,” he said. Freilich is no longer affiliated with the rabbinic group.
JTA contributed to this report.