Yeshivah slammed over response to victims slur

By Joshua Levi (Australian Jewish News)
August 11, 2016

Yeshiva leaders have sparked fury by vehemently defending a rabbi who came under fire in an email exchange but not victims of child sexual abuse.

On Friday, a member of the Yeshivah community, Moshe Elkman, was highly critical of Yeshivah’s Rabbi Chaim Tzvi Groner in a message sent to more than 50 people regarding a planned meeting concerning proposed changes to the Yeshivah Centre management structure. Claiming the rabbi had failed to inform him when the meeting would be, Elkman expressed his disappointment in harsh terms and threatened to go to the media if Rabbi Groner wasn’t forthcoming.

Within hours Yeshivah’s director of adult education Rabbi Yonason Johnson said he was in “shock and dismay” because the “slander of Rabbi Groner is unacceptable both halachically and morally”.

He went on to say that “this would be true if said about anyone, let alone a Rov (Rabbi) and the Rebbe’s Head Shaliach in Melbourne”.

Rabbi Johnson urged everyone on the email chain to “maintain civility and respect at all times”.

Chabad Youth director Rabbi Moshe Kahn, Yeshivah College principal Rabbi Yehoshua Smukler and Yeshivah trustee Nechama Bendet all responded agreeing with Rabbi Johnson.

But then Belinda Cyprys, the -sister-in-law of convicted child sexual abuser David Cyprys, joined in the email conversation. Urging Elkman not to go to the media, she wrote, “Threatening to go to the media is not the way to do things, that brings you down to the level of those that caused a lot of this angst in the first place.”

The reference was perceived by many who saw the email as an attack on victims of child sexual abuse who had gone public about their ordeal.

However, no Yeshivah Centre leaders responded, which left victims shocked and infuriated.

“We waited and waited and waited for Rabbis Johnson, Kahn, Smukler and Bendet – the same people who within minutes of each other (and within three hours of receiving the original email) had felt compelled to lecture everyone else that it was ‘unacceptable both halachically and morally’ to talk to the media or bad-mouth their colleague – to make it clear that it was also ‘unacceptable both halachically and morally’ to blame victims and victim advocates for the mess that is Yeshivah,” abuse victim and victims advocate Manny Waks said.

According to Waks, he contacted a number of Yeshivah leaders, urging them, “to speak out strongly against this public act of victim blaming, in the same way as they came out forcefully and instinctively in calling for an apology to their colleague. But we heard nothing.”

On Monday Yeshivah leaders finally did respond, but it left many wondering if anything has changed at the school.

“It has come to our attention that some of the comments made in this email chain have caused offence to victims of child sexual abuse,” Rabbi Johnson, Rabbi Smukler, Rabbi Kahn and Bendet said in an email.

“We do not suggest that such hurt was intended, nor that the comments causing offence were necessarily directed towards victims of child sexual abuse.

“Notwithstanding, now that we are aware of the hurt caused, we believe it is important to ensure that a safe space is created for victims of child sexual abuse free from criticism for coming forward.

“We therefore ask that contributors to this email chain to be mindful and show greater sensitivity towards victims, advocates and their families.”

Waks said that if you contrast that response with the forceful replies to the initial email, “laden with religious references and justifications, it is clear that the Yeshivah leadership do not consider public attacks on victims/victim advocates to be as serious as speaking to the media or criticising their colleagues”.

Stating that the response is completely inadequate, he said, “We continue to expect the Yeshivah leadership to clarify that the victim blaming email from Cyprys is ‘unacceptable both halachically and morally’ and also requires an apology.  “And at the same time, perhaps these Yeshivah leaders would like to explain to whom Cyprys may have been referring when she wrote her offensive comments.”

On Tuesday night, Cyprys apologised via email. “I was not referring to victims of sexual abuse at any stage in my letter,” she said. “I was referring only to my perception of the media’s bias when it comes to Yeshivah and how that bias has hurt my family and Yeshivah.”