Manny Waks comes from an Australian Chabad family that had to leave Chabad after Waks went public in 2011 with revelations of sexual abuse at Chabad’s Yeshivah College in Melbourne. Waks, who has served as vice-president of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, also testified at the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, which included a close look at Yeshivah College. He was in Toronto last week to present Code of Silence, the film about his ordeal which aired at the Toronto Jewish Film Festival. He spoke to The CJN’s Paul Lungen.
Tell us about Code of Silence.
Code of Silence is an award winning documentary commissioned by the Australian Broadcasting Company and undertaken by Danny Ben-Moshe. It won Australia’s most prestigious award, the Walkley Award, in December last year.
I’m the main subject, as the victim of child sexual abuse in the Jewish community. I’m often described as a whistleblower focused not only the abuse itself and the subsequent cover up, but it also follows the ongoing intimidation that myself and my family experienced, particularly my parents. It follows their story as well, ultimately culminating in them having to leave Australia.
Where are they now?
They’re in Israel. They still spend half the time in Australia. My mom still owns a wig shop, and they still own the house, which is not an easy thing to sell, because it’s right across the road from the Yeshivah centre. It has 13 bedrooms—I’m one of 17 children, that’s why the 13 bedrooms – with six kosher kitchens. They typical clientele for such a house would be from the ultra-Orthodox community, where the relations between them and my parents, at the Yeshivah centre, has been problematic to say the least.
Tell us about the abuse you suffered.
I was 11-years-old. There were two pedophiles in my case. The first is [prominent in the Chabad community]. He abused me for the first time ever on Shavuot night, when it’s customary within the Orthodox community to remain awake all night to study the Torah. He abused me inside the Chabad Yeshivah Centre synagogue. Subsequently he abused me several more times in another synagogue where my family and I used to go every week. That lasted about six months. Subsequently, from the age of around 12 to the age of around 14 and a half, I was sexually abused repeatedly by David Cyprys, who’s currently sitting in jail for the crimes committed against me and many other boys at the Yeshivah Centre.
Cyprys is in jail. What happened to the other guy?
He is in New York. And the police have investigated him. What we’re waiting for if for further evidence to come forward.
You said the abuse continued until you were 14 and a half. Did you come forward to your parents at that time, or the police?
The only time I shared my abuse with anyone was when I was around 12, in relation to the first perpetrator, I shared it with a classmate. Ultimately he betrayed me. He disclosed my abuse to some of my classmates and within a few days I was being called gay, a poofter – which is a derogatory term for homosexuals.
How did your family react to this? Did they know it was happening in the time when you were eight to 14?
Until I was 18 I was within the yeshiva framework, which means I was doing religious studies full time. I started to rebel. I guess now in hindsight a lot of it probably related to the abuse. The rebellion I was exhibiting was in relation to religious adherence. I was turning the lights on and off on Shabbat. I was eating non-kosher. I demonstrated complete disinterest in my bar mitzvah, which is very uncommon especially within the Chabad world.
And the response of my parents and the school was really about trying to push me to become even more Orthodox and focus on religious studies.
But you didn’t mention to them that abuse had occurred?
No. I shared it with a friend and I saw the consequences of sharing that. But it was clear that a lot of people in the school environment, in the Yeshivah Centre, were aware of the abuse, not just the students, but in some cases also the adults, in some cases the teachers. People were calling me names and rumours were circulating that I had been abused.
What did you do next?
At the age of 18, I wanted to escape from that community, that lifestyle, so I made aliyah to Israel with the aim of going into the Israel Defence Forces.
At the age of 20, my sister was getting married in Australia. I had a month’s leave to go Australia, visit my family and go to that wedding. When I was there, I happened to hear on the radio that a police operation addressing child sexual abuse. I remember them saying if you have any information to please come forward.
Right after that I went to my father and shared that information what happened to me and he called the police. Which to his credit is not something that necessarily happens in the ultra-Orthodox world. Often, they start asking questions, questions about how much they believe you and even if they believe you. There are often in my experience [stories] that parents try to encourage the child not to go to the police, we’ll deal with it or it really didn’t happen, or all sorts of responses.
What explains that denial response?
I think there are multiple reasons. Some genuinely believe in the concept of mesirah, which is about handing over a fellow Jew to the authorities or telling on them. This comes from Eastern Europe when the pogroms and anti-Semitism were rife and if you told on a fellow Jew to the authorities, there was a good chance he wasn’t going to get a fair trial. Often the entire community would potentially bear the brunt of these types of allegations.
Other reasons are that it may bring trouble to the family. In other cases, it’s about trying to protect the victim, from their perspective: You won’t have good marriage prospects, for example. Your whole life will be ruined, you’ll be seen as a victim. So there are a multitude of reasons parents may respond it that way.
What happened to the abusers?
I went to the police when I was 20. In 1996 we had an interview with the police. The first perpetrator was overseas already at the time, so they couldn’t interview him. David Cyprys, they could interview him and at that stage it was my word against his word, as I was the only victim who came forward. So for lack of evidence, they didn’t shut the case but left it open pending further evidence that might came to light.
At the same time I went to the head rabbi of the Yeshivah Centre, the late Rabbi Yitzchok Groner, and his response was they were aware of the allegations about him, they were dealing with [it]. Essentially he urged me not to take any actions against him.
Did they do anything about it?
In 2000 I went to Rabbi Groner a second time. I had a conversation in his office, which I remember vividly. The way the conversation ended was that he made it clear they were addressing it, that [Cyprys] was seeing someone, a psychologist, there are improvements.
It was very hurtful to have to walk past that institution and see my abuser and as it turns out he was the abuser of many other students, standing there and having, free access everywhere in that institution.
So more children came forward?
In 2011, I read an article in the media that the police were looking at historical cases at the Yeshivah Centre and in particular they were looking to extradite David Kramer from the United States.
Kramer was a U.S. and Israeli citizen who had been brought to the Yeshivah Centre around 1990. They had brought him there to be a teacher. He was someone who was highly admired and respected. Basically, he turned out to be a pedophile. The allegations were that he sexually abused 50-60 children.
As soon as the allegations surfaced, by a number of parents, my father acknowledged that two of my brothers were victims of Kramer as well.
As soon as the Yeshivah Centre heard about it, their initial response was to do nothing. Subsequently, at a meeting, parents were threatening to go to the police and take further action, the Yeshivah Centre stepped in and decided to send him overseas.
They just sent the problem elsewhere?
That’s exactly right. They sent him to Israel with his family – he had about 10 children – and he was someone else’s problem. Soon after he went to America, to St. Louis, where he re-offended.
Was he ever extradited to Australia?
He was extradited to Australia and ultimately four victims came forward in his case, including two of my brothers.
When I saw that police were looking to extradite him to Australia, that’s when I felt, I have a leadership role, I’m a victim myself of two perpetrators. If I don’t come forward publicly about this issue, to address it appropriately, no one else would.
I felt compelled to do so, after discussing it with my wife, we decided that I was going to do that.
I spoke to my father about it and asked him how he felt as part of that community. At the time, he didn’t quite understand what going public meant, that it was going to be a front page newspaper article in one of Australia’s most prominent publications, in The Age newspaper.
After that day, I was being inundated by victims, by therapists, media, people around the world, community leaders and victims and family members of victims who shared their stories. “You empowered us. We never thought we could talk about this.”
People were genuinely shocked. Victims were calling me saying, “We all knew about these allegations. I was abused, but we could never talk about it, and now we’re seeing this in The Age newspaper.”
Did you get responses from other yeshivahs around the world?
I had people contacting me on that day and subsequently from ultra-Orthodox yeshivas all over the world. I also had people from modern Orthodox and progressive communities and elsewhere. I had secular Jews contact me to say good on you for speaking out on this issue. It’s about time. We all know it happens in our community and we need to address it.
So this is not unique to your yeshiva?
It’s not unique.
In recent years, a lot of allegations have surfaced within the Chabad community, not just in Australia but in America, in London, and people are saying, why is it happening in Chabad?
Out of the ultra-Orthodox, Haredi community. Chabad is the most open. There’s more engagement with the outside community.
Is it your contention that incidence of sexual abuse of children is the same in the ultra-Orthodox community as it is in the secular community?
I think one of the biggest issues we have in the Jewish community is lack of data. We have to go based on the figures in the outside community, it’s that one in five children before 18 experience some form of sexual abuse.
There’s nothing to suggest it would be any less in the Jewish community. If anything, I would argue there would be reasons for it to be higher for at least some segments of the Jewish community. Pedophiles look for vulnerability, which would include low socio-economic environment, very large families, where it’s difficult for parents to know where the child is all the time, and those sorts of things.
You might think that for people who are Torah observant Jews, who are striving to be a holy person, there should be less abuse?
Sometimes people are aware of these issues, but they say, listen, this guy is a holy rabbi. There is no way he could have done these things, especially when they look at the victims who make these allegations and who in many cases have left the fold and are no longer religious. So who are they going to believe?
How did all this affect your faith, your Judaism?
It’s difficult for me to actually say, because of the abuse I stopped being religious, Chabad.
I went through an evolution of sorts. I was at one period very anti-religious. Now, it’s live and let live. I respect and admire many rabbis and I have close relations with many rabbis
What speaks to me is that my Jewish identity has been strong and remains strong, with trials and tribulations along the way. I am a proud Jew and a proud Zionist, but I can call out when rabbis do the wrong thing. No-one is above the law. No-one is above reproach and we do things that are inappropriate, we need to be held to account.
This interview has been edited and condensed for style and clarity.