By Melissa Davey (The Guardian)
February 15, 2015
When he was 18 years old, Manny Waks turned his back on life within the Orthodox sect of Judaism known as Chabad. But the effects on his life remain profound.
Now 38, Waks is still unable to read a novel, so dictated was his childhood by religious texts. Until the age of about 29, he believed rubbing his eyes with his fingers after waking up in the morning would cause him to go blind unless he carried out a religious washing ceremony first.
But the most damage has been caused by the repeated sexual abuse he suffered within the umbrella organisation for the movement in Australia, known as Yeshivah.
Waks grew up across the street from Melbourne’s Yeshivah Centre, where all of his schooling and extracurricular activities took place. He and his family were completely immersed within the Yeshivah community, and anything beyond its radius was foreign to them.
For the past fortnight, that secretive world has been comprehensively picked apart at the royal commission into institutional responses into child sexual abuse.
The hearings represent the first time the Sydney and Melbourne Yeshivah centres, headquarters to the Orthodox Chabad sect of Judaism, have been scrutinised in public, and Waks’ evidence has played a central part in that process.
Since Waks first spoke publicly in 2011 about the abuse he suffered, he has helped to expose the centres, and the schools, synagogues and activities attached to them, as communities within which child sex abuse was covered-up, denied or ignored.
The rabbinic law of mesirah – the prohibition of a Jew informing on a fellow Jew to secular authorities – was used by leaders to keep victims silent, the commission heard. When victims did go to police, they were labelled mosers, or “informers”, a charge so serious they were threatened with exclusion so severe it was akin to being excommunication, which would mean being ripped away from a culture, identity, religion and community. It meant everything from marriage prospects to opportunities for religious honours would be forever taken away.
Exact membership numbers are unknown, but the Yeshivah Chabad communities in Victoria and New South Wales are small and tight-knit. The commission heard that while membership numbers were not recorded, the synagogues held a few hundred people, and were often full during services.
It does not matter that peak Jewish bodies have publicly said the concept of mesirah does not, and should never, apply to cases of child sexual abuse. Even today, Waks says, victims remain fearful of being shunned.
“The fact that to this day I am the only victim who has been willing to be named should say plenty,” Waks says.
“It is easier for me than for other victims, because I am no longer in that world. Most child sex abuse victims prefer anonymity because of a range of taboos and stigmas attached to them. It’s very sensitive.
“But within the Yeshivah community, those issues and barriers are multiplied tenfold, and by speaking out against them, your life will potentially be over. You will feel the consequences, you will be damaged goods.”
In 1988, when he was 11 years old, Waks was abused by a member of the Yeshivah centre known only to the commission as AVP because he left the country before he could be charged.
The man abused Waks multiple times. Once, it happened inside a synagogue during the Jewish festival of Shavuot, where it is customary for men to stay awake all night studying religion. Once it happened inside a bathroom adjoining the synagogue. The abuse continued, usually on the Sabbath at Chabad House.
Waks confided in a classmate at the Yeshivah college, who told other children. Soon, Waks felt like everyone knew about what was happening to him, and he faced daily taunts and bullying – including being called “gay” because he had been abused by a man.
The children mocked him in the presence of teachers and other adults, who never asked what was going on. Waks responded by becoming rebellious and disobeying the rules of his religion. He wore jeans. He turned lights on and off during Sabbath. He took off his kippah (skullcap).
It attracted the ire of his parents and teachers, who tried to control him by reducing his secular education and increasing his religious studies. To this day, Waks feels he has “huge gaps” in his secular education.
Traumatised by his previous experience of disclosing his abuse, Waks said nothing when he was 12 years old and another Yeshivah staff member, security guard David Cyprys, began sexually abusing him. In a religious environment where even speaking about sex except in the most specific of circumstances was taboo, telling an adult he was being abused felt impossible.
For Waks, there was no escape. He and his 16 brothers and sisters lived directly across the road from the Yeshivah centre in St Kilda, just 6km south-east of Melbourne’s CBD. Two of his brothers were also abused.
“For me, Yeshivah was the centre of my universe,” Waks says. “It was everything. None of the kids in my family knew anything beyond the radius of a few blocks, and at the centre of that radius was Yeshivah, the heart of our world.
“My interactions were with people who were Chabad, and my contact with the outside world was minimal.
“We didn’t venture out. We didn’t need to. Our school, our recreational activities, our synagogue, they were all at the Yeshivah centre. And if an event we went to wasn’t held at the centre, it was still a Yeshivah event.”
Waks says Chabad has “all the hallmarks” of a cult – “every waking moment was dictated for us”, he said. He still has difficulty reading books or watching movies for pleasure, so heavily was his studying of religious texts and documentaries. He did not know what his secular birthday was until he was 15. His relationship with his father, who used a disciplinary approach to ensure his children adhered to Yeshivah values, is fractured.
But Waks says to label Chabad and Yeshivah as a cult would force him to reject his entire childhood. And there were moments of beauty he wants to hold on to.
There were the van rides into the countryside with his brothers and sisters, where they were allowed to break free from their endless religious study.
There was walking for hours in the heat or the rain to visit elderly community members in nursing homes, just to bring them some happiness. There was the charity work and sense of community.
Despite having shunned the religion, Waks carries with him everywhere a laminated US$1 note given to him in 1990 by the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the then leader of the global Chabad movement.
“I got the dollar from him around the same time I was being abused, and I like to think if he was alive today and knew, he would have stopped it and made Yeshivah leaders start behaving in a loving way,” Waks said. “When I think of the Rebbe, I still view him with the utmost respect and reverence.”
When Waks was 12 years old and questioned a teacher about whether the Rebbe was really infallible, he received a swift slap in the face.
“So I find it hard to criticise Chabad. It’s my childhood. And I find it difficult to call Chabad a cult, even though there are clearly cult-like elements.”
His father, Zephaniah Waks, has no such difficulty. While he still practises Judaism, he broke away from the Orthodox community last year after being severely ostracised. By supporting his sons in going to the police and speaking out against their abuse, he faced endless and unrelenting attacks within Chabad.
He put his house on the market two years ago – he remains unable to sell it – and moved overseas.
“It is a cult, there is no doubt,” he says. “When you are in a cult, you can’t just decide to leave, it is extremely difficult. You can’t just leave Chabad and go to a different Chabad church. When I go overseas, word gets around within Chabad there that I am destroying Chabad in Australia.
“I do not mix with the Chabad community anymore. The day before the royal commission, I shaved off my beard. That was the final step of leaving. It destroys people.”
“One paedophile can do what he can do,” Waks said. But by ignoring claims of abuse, some members of the community had enabled the perpetrators to “do this again and again, and then helping them to cover it up, never forcing them to be stopped or held to account, and also stopping any victims from coming forward”.
“After hearing the evidence from the commission, how can anyone say this abuse was [isolated]? And they did nothing.
“This commission will have ramifications no matter what happens. If they come out with strong findings and recommendations, it will have ripple effects throughout the world, and it will be clear people can’t away with these things.”
The commission heard that as Zephaniah Waks was giving evidence about the abuse of three of his sons, the president of the Organisation of Rabbis of Australasia, Rabbi Meir Shlomo Kluwgant, sent a text message to the editor of the Australian Jewish News accusing him of “destroying Chabad” and calling him a “lunatic”. On Monday morning Kluwgant resigned after child sexual abuse victims said his position was untenable.
Manny Waks believes the past two weeks of evidence means resignations now need to happen. Some of the rabbis were involved in malicious attacks against him and his family, it was revealed. They were so brutal that Waks relocated his wife and three children to Europe.
“Where was anyone at the time we were being abused, when we were going to the police?” he asks. Waks is now establishing a global organisation to investigate child sex abuse within the Jewish community.
“These leaders, these people, are the ones who are the biggest miscarriages of justice. They will do anything to protect themselves, their reputation and their institution, and that’s what’s so astounding and so offensive to the core.
“They didn’t get up and say anything. I was left alone as the victim, as the advocate, as the troublemaker, as the person that is bringing the community into disrepute. As the one attacking orthodoxy and attacking Yeshivah. I hope finally, everyone can see there were reasons for it.”
With the Yeshivah hearings now over, Waks says he feels elated. “I have a family to support and I have a life to live, and I hope at some stage soon I can reclaim my life and continue my work helping victims in a way that is sustainable,” he says.
“I haven’t been able to relax in years. How often do I get phone calls, emails and text messages in the middle of the night from all over the world that says, ‘Can we speak’?
“I can’t turn victims away. I can hear the struggle in their voices, I can see it in their writing, and I know in reaching out to me they have done the bravest thing they’ve ever done in their lives. And if I don’t respond to that call or message in the middle of the night, I know they won’t be able to sleep as they wonder if I’ve read it or if I’ll respond. This takes up my time, and it does come at a cost to me and my family.”
But Waks says he will not be able to truly relax until the resignations come. “From the people who knew about the abuse, from the people who should have known about the abuse, from the people who covered it up and the people who knew or should have known about the cover-up. From the people who knew about the intimidation of victims and from those who were involved in the intimidation of victims. The list is long, and their positions are untenable.”