When he reported that he had been sexually abused in the Chabad centre of Melbourne, Manny Waks discovered a culture of cover up, intimidation and ostracism. He has since fought for recognition, reform and redress. For himself and for the many other, anonymous, victims. He talks to Ori Golan.
In 2011, when he exposed his story in the Australian press, Manny Wax dropped a figurative bomb in the heart of the Yeshivah centre in Melbourne. It is the Chabad centre where he and his family lived; where he was educated; and where he was sexually abused over a period of three years. Since then, he has become the forefront of sexual abuse within the Jewish community of Australia. Of the many victims, his is the only face that has not been pixilated, with a name that has not been changed to protect his identity.
I meet Waks at a local café in Bondi Junction, the hub of Jewish Sydney. He turns up in casual clothes, his head uncovered, and orders something to eat which is clearly non-kosher. No one would guess that, as a child, he was a devout orthodox Jewish boy. Hearing him talk is a study in mellifluousness. His sentences are beautifully crafted and his flow of words so effortless.
Waks is in Australia to launch his book, Who Gave You Permission?, written in collaboration with Michael Visontay. “It is about setting the record straight about certain things” he tells me when I ask him what motivated him to write it.
A few days later I read the book and find that it does indeed attempt to set the record straight about certain things. Many things. They include his Chabad upbringing, growing up in a household of 17 children, his relationship with his parents, his friends and his public advocacy work.
The book offers readers an insider’s view into the inner machinations of an ultra-Orthodox Jewish community; the social fabric, daily routine and strict rituals of the Chabad movement in Melbourne. One aspect I find astounding is the sheer ignorance in which his education at the Yeshivah Centre left him. “Until my early twenties I did not know the difference between Jesus and Hitler – I thought they were one and the same person”, he writes.
But at the heart of this memoir is the sexual abuse to which Waks was subjected from the age of 11 to 14 by two employees of the Chabad centre. It relates in considerable, sometimes graphic, detail, the grooming process, the abuse itself, and the devastating impact it has had on his life. We follow the young Waks as he goes off the rails; as he flunks school; as he takes to gambling, alcohol and casual sex; as he becomes alienated from his family; and as he loses his faith. It is unclear how much, and to what extent, his life unravelled as a result of his abuse or because of his rebellious nature.
Some things, however, are clear. By 1996 Rabbi Yitzchok Groner, director of the Yeshivah centre, and Rabbi Abraham Glick, principal of Yeshivah College, were both aware of allegations of gross sexual abuse occurring within their institutions involving three named paedophiles at the centre. Both rabbis chose to ignore the complaints, turn a blind eye, and do nothing. That same year Waks, accompanied by his father, made a statement to police about his sexual abusers. The first, Velvel Serebryanski, a teacher at Yeshivah Centre, was by now living in the US (where he still lives and has managed to evade the law); the second, David Cyprys, a security guard employed at Yeshivah, was interviewed by Australian police, but denied the allegations levelled against him. Consequently, the police decided not to pursue the case any further. A third abuser, Rabbi David Kramer, later implicated in the abuse of Waks’ two younger brothers, was spirited out of Australia with the help of the Chabad community. [After fleeing to Israel, Kramer moved to the US where he sexually abused another boy and was subsequently jailed.]
It was in June 2011 that things took a dramatic turn for Waks. A steady stream of stories involving institutional cover-ups of child sexual abuse in Australian institutions, and a renewed interest by Australian police to pursue old cases of sexual abuse, buoyed him to speak out. Waks resolved to take his story to the media. It appeared in The Age, an Australian newspaper, sending shock waves across the country. Yeshivah found itself in the centre of a media frenzy. Less than two months later, Cyprys was arrested and convicted of the rape and sexual assault of eight boys. He was sentenced to eight years in jail. Kramer was extradited to Australia and sentenced to three years in jail for sexually assaulting four boys.
Soon after, Waks established a support, lobby and advocacy group for survivors of sexual abuse in Jewish institutions in Australia. In this capacity, he spoke passionately in many forums, using different media, calling for reform, accountability and an apology from these institutions. He became the ‘go to’ person for victims and their family; the mouthpiece for the many who dared not make their voices heard.
But this activism has come at great personal expense. “I find myself not just experiencing the trauma of my own experience”, he says pensively, “but I experience vicariously trauma of hundreds of other victims who have disclosed their abuse to me. It sits with me, it lives with me. It triggers memories, flashbacks, nightmares. It’ really… it’s endless.”
This is the first I see the more frail side of Manny Waks; not the valiant crusader he so often projects.
Yeshiva’s reaction to Waks' media exposure of molestation in its mist was swift and harsh: it included denunciation, intimidation and the bad mouthing of his family. Waks was accused of being vindictive and trying to bring down the institution. His parents, who were still living in the Chabad community, were shunned, ostracised and made to feel that they had transgressed one of the sacrosancts of their community: keeping it all in-house. Indeed, the title of the book is a pull-quote from a sermon delivered by leader of the Yeshivah Centre, Rabbi Zvi Telsner, shortly after the scandal broke out. During a Sabbath sermon, Telsner addressed Wak’s father, Zephania, thundering: ‘Who gave you permission to speak to anybody?’ It was clearly a rhetorical question because everyone in the close-knit Chabad fold knows that you don’t snitch on a member of the community to an outsider. To do so would render you a Moser - a rabbinic term for a Jew who informs on another Jew to secular authorities.
In hindsight, I ask Waks, does he regret going to the media? He shakes his head resolutely. “Not at all. We need to stop the silence”, he explains. “Silence engenders abuse and cover ups. Perpetrators rely on that; on knowing that no one is going to speak. Shame and guilt – they rely on that. Now that we are finally speaking out they are resorting to intimidation tactics.”
The fallout has impacted so badly on his parents that they felt obliged to sell their house in Melbourne and move away. They now share their time between Israel and Australia. Zephania has trimmed his signature beard and wants nothing more to do with Chabad which he labels a cult. Both parents have had a number of health issues which Waks imputes to their experiences with Chabad. In April 2014 Zephania had a massive heart attack and had to undergo quadruple bypass surgery.
Manny, his wife and three children, have also upped sticks and left. First they moved to southern France; currently they live in Israel.
In an ideal world, what would you like to happen, I ask him. Would you like Chabad to disappear? “No,” he replies, “Chabad adds a lot to the Jewish community; they raise awareness of our traditions and practices. Some of the things that they do are beautiful. But I think they need to take a good hard look at themselves. I am not just talking about Chabad Australia, but internationally.”
Are you willing to forgive them? He mulls over my question, lets it hang in the air and then nods. “My ability to forgive”, he says, “has no statute of limitation. Anyone willing to take responsibility, acknowledge and apologise, nothing will stop me from accepting their apology.”
Even the perpetrators?
“I would not rule that out”, he says, reflecting. “After David Cyprys finishes his sentence, I would consider meeting him.”
Our conversation veers to the more personal, intricate, long-term effect his experiences have had on him. We agree that details about his immediate family will remain off limit. For the rest, Waks is willing to tell it like it is. I ask him to describe to me how life has panned out for him.
“In the last couple of years I face, almost on a daily basis, depression, anxiety and suicide ideation. I deal with it every day. I face battles every day. Even getting out of bed can be a battle; physically and mentally.”
“I am still stuck there. One of the difficulties I face is that when people look at me they say: wow, you’re articulate, you look healthy, you’ve got a family, you’ve moved on. But my demons are with me every day. They have been for many many years.”
Is this an unguarded moment, I wonder, or is Waks voluntarily exposing his more vulnerable side?
We talk about his family. He is one of 17 children, the second oldest of the brood, after his elder sister. The Waks family has known rifts, estrangement and open hostility among its constituents. Since Waks blew the whistle on the abuse at the Yeshivah Centre, his siblings have variously supported him or shunned him; some refuse to speak to him; others have simply not maintained contact. “When you have sixteen siblings, it stands to reason you will get variation”, he smiles. Relations with his brother, Avi Yemini, have been particularly strained. When the latter posted a Facebook post which claimed that a notorious, convicted child sex offender is currently staying at the family home, Waks responded by suing his brother for defamation. He is now at pains to douse the story: “My brother and I have signed a settlement a couple of days ago. So there’s been a cessation of hostility in the family.” Following the publication of the book, one sibling and spouse apologised for their lack of support over the years. “Another sibling, on reading the book, wrote me a very beautiful letter of acknowledgement, realising finally what it was all about.”
Waks’ trajectory is unique. He could have easily disappeared into the cloud of statistics of abuse victims who give up on life. Instead, he chose to fight back. He went back to school to finish his education; he went on to study at university and gain a degree in International Relations; and he took possession of his life. His defiant spirit has propelled him into leadership roles within Australia’s Jewish community, including executive director of the Anti-Defamation Commission.
His most notable contribution, however, was his work with Tzedek, an advocacy group for Jewish victims of child sexual abuse, which he founded in 2012, and through which he campaigned to effect change in Australia’s Jewish organisations.
In February last year Waks became the only survivor of abuse within the Jewish community to speak publicly at the royal commission, a government-appointed commission charged with investigating institutional responses to child sex abuse in Australian institutions.
His testimony – and the findings of the commission – led to sea changes in Chabad: shortly after it, Rabbi Glick resigned from all leadership positions at Yeshivah; seven months later, Rabbi Zvi Telsner resigned his post as head rabbi of Melbourne’s Yeshivah Centre; and in June this year the entire committee of management of the Yeshivah Centre was dissolved and replaced with an interim leadership.
However, for all his successes, Waks’ dog-with-a-bone approach and his confrontational style have put him at loggerheads with many community groups; he has fallen foul of numerous organisations and has raised the ire of a number of leaders within the Jewish community. This is reflected in the book in which he doles out epithets and criticism against numerous stake holders in the community. By way of justification, he delves into a catalogue of very intricate conversations and email exchanges, labouring points in minute details in what appears to be an attempt to settle old scores and air personal grievances with anyone he feels has let him down: family, school friends, colleagues, community leaders, police officers, newspaper editors and politicians. It is a shame he has not attempted to win hearts with the same ferocity that drives him to fight his cause.
He left Tzedek under what can only be described as unpleasant circumstances and now heads Kol v'Oz – a global outfit which aims to address issues of child sexual abuse within Jewish communities around the world.
“Our emphasis is about big-picture changes; cultural change, legislative change and change in statute of limitations” he explains. “In Israel we are dealing with the issues of paedophiles running to Israel and using the law of return to seek shelter from justice. There have been cases [of abuse] in different parts of the world: Melbourne, Amsterdam or New York, alleged perpetrators make Aliya and then no one hears about them afterwards. “
In December last year, Waks accepted an invitation to speak at the Yeshivah Centre Redress Scheme, part of the Centre's commitment to address the impact of abuse that occurred in the organisation. Now, aged forty, he was back in the very place where it had all begun; where his life was so callously shattered, his self so violated. He turned to the packed room and read:
“From the very beginning of this journey, I said the one of my aims was to return to Yeshivah Centre – to be welcomed back. Today’s announcement of the Redress Scheme is a watershed moment for our community.”
Also invited to speak was another victim, known only as AVB. He is still a Chabad member, an observant Jew. His words sent a cold shiver down the spine of those present. (See box)
Looking at Waks and hearing him speak so eloquently, it is easy to admire him. His trajectory has been remarkable. It is not a trajectory he chose for himself, but one imposed on him by circumstances over which he had no control. It is sad to think that he may have to live with his demons for the rest of his life; that, despite his extraordinary achievements, he feels such a profound sense of pain and disappointment. “Despite the large network of friends and supporters around me,” he writes, “deep down I feel isolated, alone.”
As a child, Waks loved partaking in Chabad’s ‘outreach’ programs. It is perhaps a tragic irony that he himself is unable to reach out now.
AVB Speaking at the Yeshivah Centre Redress Scheme
“I just want to go through a little journey why I’m here today and why I opened my mouth in 2011. Someone I knew well was abused at the Yeshivah and in 2011, when I spoke to them and encouraged them to come forward, the person broke down and said “you don’t know, there will be consequences for me". That abuse did not occur in the 1980s or the 90s. It occurred in the 2000s. That statement [….] made me feel immensely guilty because I felt, had I opened my mouth in the 80s, or in the 90s, or even in the 2000s, perhaps this individual wouldn’t have been affected. So it was that guilt – not a sense of justice for myself – that made me go to the police in 2011.
When people stand in a room and talk about myself, or Manny Waks, or any other individual, and talk about us in disparaging ways, or call us a liar, they are sending verbal cues to everyone else in the room; that if you open your mouth, either about an even that happened to you in the past, or to someone you know, […] you can bet your bottom dollar that the same statements would be made about you.
Someone I knew well was abused at the Yeshivah over a period of four years. In 2011 he went with me to the police and started a statement. He found it quite emotional. And then he saw some of the statements that were made about me and he decided to withdraw. Several years later, this person was at my shabbos table with his family and his parents were there. And his parents don’t know to this day. In the middle of the meal, the father starts laying on some of the statements he has heard about me, without filter. The cue he was sending to his son was that if you open your mouth, these are the things you can expect, and I am not going to defend you. That father will go to the grave without knowing that his son was abused over a period of four years, including in a most horrific way.
One of the other things I just want to put forward, I don’t know if some people realise, is that some of the crimes that happened here are as horrific as you get.
Do any of you know how bad it got? Do any of you know there were cases of rape? Did you know that a knife was being held to a boy’s neck while he was raped? Did you know that another time a boy’s mouth was covered to stop the screaming? Child sexual abuse is not a tap on the knee or a tap on the shoulder - or somewhere else. It’s as bad as you get. It’s the violation of a child at an age of innocence, when he should be able to trust an adult to look after them and nurture them.”