By Shannon Deery (Herald Sun)
February 21, 2015
MELBOURNE’s Yeshivah Centre is one of the biggest Jewish organisations in the southern hemisphere.
So when the royal commission into child sexual abuse blew open its strict code of silence, it sent shock waves around the Jewish world.
Now mainstream Jews are desperately trying to distance themselves from the ultra-orthodox Chabad-Lubavitch movement that runs Yeshivah.
Chabad, perhaps more than most, has strictly observed the code of silence since post-war migrants established Yeshivah here in the 1940s.
Known as mesirah it explicitly prohibits Jews from informing on each other to civil authorities.
It has been blamed for decades of cover-ups that led to an epidemic of sexual abuse that has shamed the Yeshivah community.
Since 2010, the Rabbinical Council of Victoria has publicly reiterated that mesirah didn’t apply in cases of child sexual abuse.
But within Chabad, rabbis continued to stress its importance.
“You grow up with it. It is embedded in you. It is like the ABC,” victim AVB told the royal commission.
He grew up within the Yeshivah community in Bondi and Melbourne and was abused in both cities.
“The punishment for mesirah is spiritual death and ostracisation. I believed that if I assisted the police I would be excommunicated from my community and lose my identity,” he said.
Despite his fears, AVB, and others, did helcp police lift the lid on decades of sexual abuse cover-ups.
Because of it they were shunned, vilified and bullied within the insular community.
AVB was told by one senior figure, who last week resigned as president of the Organisation of Rabbis of Australasia, that he was to remain silent. Another senior official labelled him a “maser”.
“Let me put a brief analogy,” he says.
“During the time of the Holocaust some Jews became what’s called the Jewish police.
“They would work on behalf of the Germans and sometimes they would beat the Jews, and they were considered the low of the low because they were working with the Nazis.
“A maser is equivalent to those Jewish police in that time. They are the low of the low. You can’t get any lower than a maser.”
When allegations of sexual abuse did surface, and they did as early as 1984, they were either ignored or covered up.
Perpetrators were helped to flee overseas, or pulled aside and quietly told to stop offending. Police were never involved.
Rabbi Abraham Glick, principal of Yeshivah College between 1986 and 2007, admitted serious failings by the college leadership.
At least 13 students were molested under his watch by teacher David Kramer and security guard David Cyprys.
Cyprys had been allowed to continue working at the school despite pleading guilty to indecent assault in 1992.
Kramer was moved to the US after complaints were made by parents in the early 1990s.
He continued to offend overseas, and was ultimately jailed in the US.
Rabbi Glick was told about child sex crimes being perpetrated by staff at Yeshivah as early as 1991, but failed to act.
He maintains that because of the way the school operated, his responsibility to be aware of such issues was “never spelt out”.
“I suppose at some level one could argue that, yes, as principal that was my responsibility,” he said.
“If one understands the way Yeshivah actually operated it’s not so clear.”
Instead, he said complaints were handled by former Yeshivah head Rabbi Dovid Groner, who was allegedly told of abuse as early as 1984.
“I can’t say why he didn’t tell me. I think most people would find that (truly incredible) but that’s the fact,” Rabbi Glick said.
“I’m prepared to say that if he were alive today, I believe he would agree that that was a mistake. A big mistake.”
Rabbi Glick this week resigned from four leadership positions within Yeshivah.
In doing so he has removed himself as a trustee, a legal beneficiary and legal controller of the centre.
“I hope that this will bring a measure of comfort to the victims and their families and help them in the healing process,” Rabbi Glick said in an email to the community.
He is one of three senior figures who have fallen on their swords in the wake of the commission.
Both Rabbi Meri Shlomo Kluwgant and Rabbi Yosef Feldman were forced to quit from posts after being publicly shamed.
Rabbi Kluwgant resigned as president of the Organisation of Rabbis of Australasia, from his role with Jewish Care and lost his position on Victoria Police’s Multi-Faith Advisory Committee after labelling the father of a victim a “lunatic”.
Rabbi Feldman resigned from Yeshivah Sydney after claiming he didn’t know it was against the law to touch the genitals of a child.
He also backed leniency for reformed paedophiles. He has since been delisted by Chabad.
The resignations have been welcomed by Yeshiva’s victims of sexual abuse.
But they believe they don’t go far enough, saying if those behind the cover-ups don’t step down, the community can never say it has learnt and has changed.
“The reality is that very little will change if the leaders who so abysmally failed the community remain in positions of authority. There must be accountability. Equally, if not more, important, there must be change,” high-profile victim Manny Waks said.
Rabbi Yaakov Glasman, a past president of the Rabbinical Council of Victoria, said some Chabad figures were still clueless when it came to handling child sexual abuse.
He said the royal commission had caused untold damage to the Jewish community because of a handful of radical-thinking rabbis.
“There can be no words to mitigate the damage that they have caused,” he said.
“I would concede there are members of the ultra-orthodox community ... who don’t quite get it, who perhaps are living in a previous generation in terms of their mindset.
“The overwhelming majority of the rabbinate distance themselves from (those rabbis) emphatically.”
One of those, Rabbi Zvi Telsner, remains Yeshiva’s chief rabbi in Melbourne, despite mounting pressure for him to resign immediately.
He has been accused of using sermons to encourage the shunning of victims and was widely criticised for linking homosexuality and paedophilia.
His comments were described as “repulsive, ignorant and insulting” by the Jewish Community Council of Victoria.
Despite them, he remains Chabad’s top man in Melbourne. Chabad leaders in New York have refused to be drawn on the Royal Commission.
They have released just one general statement, but have refused to respond to requests for comment.
And victims fear that’s evidence of the bigger problem: That the code of silence remains.