‘This Is Something That We Can’t Ignore’

By Steve Lipman (The NY Jewish Week)
February 7, 2017

Manny Waks, a native of Australia who grew up in a large chasidic family, estimates that he was sexually abused “dozens and dozens of times” for two years as a tween by respected members of the Orthodox community.

In the three decades since, Waks has spoken about his traumatic experiences “well over a hundred times” in media interviews and international public forums, becoming one of the most prominent advocates for survivors of sexual abuse, particularly in the charedi community.

Last week, in a conference here he organized about sexual abuse, Waks talked again — briefly — about the abuse he suffered.

The Global Summit on Child Sexual Abuse in the Jewish Community was notable not only for the participation of a large number of rabbis and other leaders from the charedi community, a community that for decades had shied away from public discussion of a sensitive topic of such a sexual nature, but for an apparently evolved approach that balances the interests of charedi institutions and of individuals who had suffered abuse in those institutions.

In an opening night panel discussion, Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel, executive vice president of the charedi Agudath Israel of America, said the umbrella organization’s rabbinic leadership now supports an extension of the statute of limitations in New York State for sexual abuse victims to bring civil and criminal suits. Agudath had earlier opposed such an extension, citing the potentially financial liability that day schools, camps and other institutions could face.

He said Agudath would also support a “reasonable period” in which suits could be retroactively brought by people for whom the statute of limitations has already expired.

Sexual abuse is “a very, very important issue. This is something we can’t ignore,” Rabbi Zwiebel said at the summit, which was held at UJA-Federation of New York’s headquarters in Manhattan. “We’ve become more and more aware of it.”

The three-day gathering, which took place Jan. 30-Feb. 1, followed by a day-long academic symposium, was geared to anti-abuse activists “on the front lines,” focusing on the incidence of sexual abuse, and efforts to counter it, in the Orthodox community, said Waks, 40.

Several dozen rabbis, social workers, attorneys and other experts took part in the gathering. Many, wearing typical charedi garb, represented the fervently Orthodox community.

“The fact that they are coming to speak with us sends a strong message to the Jewish community,” said Waks, who organized the summit under the auspices of Kol v’Oz (voice and strength), an anti-abuse organization he founded in Israel last year.

The summit, the first such major conference on the topic outside of Israel, included discussions of such topics as communal education and training, legal statutes of limitations, the need for further research, the role of the rabbinate, victim support, the impact of abuse on families and extradition of suspected perpetrators.

Rabbi Zwiebel, in his panel discussion with Rabbi Mark Dratch, executive vice president of the Modern Orthodox Rabbinical Council of America and founder of the JSafe anti-abuse organization, said that the charedi world, which for several years drew criticism for its reticence to openly address the issue of sexual abuse in its midst and for its opposition to anti-abuse measures that the wider Jewish community had adopted, is taking a more proactive stance.

He said Agudath, influenced by its rabbinic leadership, now supports a “limited” extension of the State’s statute of limitations for civil cases against sexual perpetrators, and would “give serious consideration” to an extension in criminal cases.

In a 2009 joint statement issued with Torah Umesorah – The National Society for Hebrew Day Schools, Agudath said it objected to “legislation that could literally destroy … institutions that are the very lifeblood of our community.”

Agudath’s current “nuanced” positions reflects rabbis’ “balance” of institutions’ and abused individuals’ interests, Rabbi Zwiebel said in a subsequent interview with The Jewish Week.

In a similar vein, at the summit Rabbi Zwiebel said the concept of mesira (informing on a fellow Jew) is not applicable when the evidence against an accused abuse perpetrator is clear. He said charedi rabbis are instructed to tell members of their communities to immediately bring accusations of clear sexual abuse to police, instead of to rabbis. And he invited Jewish victims of sexual abuse at the hands of other Jews to bring a case in a beit din (Jewish court), where no statute of limitations exists.

Rabbi Zwiebel said the annual Agudah conference has included several sessions about sexual abuse in recent years; Torah Umesorah has also begun to schedule sessions on the topic at its conferences; and Orthodox publishers have added chapters on sexual abuse to age-appropriate safety guides for Orthodox children.

The rabbi said he has made such statements before — “it just wasn’t publicly. I don’t recall having said this in a public forum.”

“A forum like this is helpful,” he said. “We can’t keep speaking to ourselves,” Rabbi Zwiebel said, adding that “some people” at the summit said they were “pleasantly surprised” by his remarks.

Rabbi Zwiebel was asked what Agudath is doing to deal with sexual abuse in its community.

“Not enough,” he answered. “We all recognize that we have to do more.”

Waks was comforted by the talk. “Hearing these public statements … I love it,” he said.

Representatives from Jewish anti-abuse organizations in a half-dozen countries attended the summit, networking with their peers, sharing best practices, passing out literature and comparing statistics from their respective home communities about the prevalence of sexual abuse.

Summit participants included a convicted sexual abuser, a representative of the Israeli Mission to the United Nations and a stand-up comedian who entertained at the final-night dinner.

A conference like this that attracted prominent mental health experts to discuss sexual abuse shows the progress made over the last few decades, said Arie Munk, CEO of the Bayit Cham (warm home) mental health organization based in Bnei Brak, Israel, for people “struggling with mental illness and emotional trauma.”

“Twenty years ago, nobody came to these conferences” — if they even took place, Munk said. In the conservative charedi world, where topics like sexuality are traditionally considered a violation of modesty standards, and abuse at the hands of community members would be considered a collective embarrassment, the topic was rarely discussed openly.

“Nobody’s quiet anymore,” Munk said.

Munk said he has lobbied among journalists and politicians in Israel for a computerized index of sexual predators who would be barred from entering Israel.

“Pressure, pressure, more pressure,” Munk said. “The pressure can do something.”

Dr. Shira Berkovits, a psychologist and attorney who founded Sacred Spaces, a “cross-denominational initiative” that “develops policies to prevent institutional sexual abuse,” said it “was not a small thing” that Rabbi Zwiebel “was willing to state on the record that he supports an extension of civil” statutes of limitations. “It is a big deal and he should be given credit for it … and held to it.”

Berkovits praised Waks’ initial advocacy work in Australia as being “light years ahead of anywhere else. He didn’t quit until the institutions began dealing with the issue. He’s done it at great personal cost.”

She called Waks the most successful anti-abuse activist who had been a survivor.

“It’s emotionally and physically draining,” Waks said.

“It’s become a life mission,” he said. “There is no one else doing what I’m doing.”

In his capacity as the summit’s convener, Waks alluded briefly to his personal story, reluctant to do it at great length. “Most present would know it,” he said. “And it’s not about me.”

At 18, he left the Orthodox community, his family publicly confronting his abusers, his faith shattered by the abuse he had suffered and the indifferent response he had encountered from many leaders of his then-charedi community.

“I’m still a proud Jew,” he said.

In Australia, Waks founded an anti-abuse organization he named Tzedek (justice), initiated a civil suit against his childhood yeshiva, testified before a Royal Commission into Institutional Response to Child Sexual Abuse; his activism was credited with the arrest and conviction of several men who had committed sexual abuse, and the resignation of several senior Chabad rabbis.

He was featured in two documentaries, “Breaking the Silence” and “Code of Silence.”

In Israel, where he served in the army after leaving Australia, he lobbied the Knesset for changes to the statute of limitations on sexual crimes.

Waks said he was vulnerable to sexual abuse three decades ago because “When I was a kid, no one was talking with me about this issue.” Not at home not at school.

He said he and his wife have discussed abuse, and its warning signs, with the couple’s three young children. “My children are aware of what is happening,” he said.