Manny Waks, August 9, 2016
-Since its appearance before the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse one and a half years ago, the Yeshivah leadership has tried to manufacture an image that things have changed. The reality is that very little seems to have changed. Some of the same leaders whose conduct was exposed at the Royal Commission, remain in positions of authority at Yeshivah. Despite the representations made by Yeshivah to the Royal Commission, attacks on Yeshivah’s victims and advocates continue unabated and with the implicit support of the Yeshivah leadership. Unsurprisingly, some of the attacks have come from the family members of paedophiles and those who helped protect them.
Last Friday (5 August), an e-mail from a frustrated member of the Yeshivah community was sent to around 100 other community members, complaining of the behaviour of Rabbi Chaim Tzvi Groner, the son of the late Rabbi Yitzchok Dovid Groner (the founder and director of the Yeshivah Centre during much of the period of the abuse and cover-ups there). Rabbi Groner was one of the trustees of Yeshivah who essentially led it to the Royal Commission. Despite the promise that all trustees would resign their leadership of Yeshivah following the Royal Commission, Rabbi Groner was recently appointed by the Trustees (i.e. including himself) to the Board of Yeshivah for life as part of the ‘new’ Yeshivah governance structure.
The email in question referred to stonewalling by Rabbi Groner and communications which the author had with various media outlets. Now, I know from personal experience, that people rarely involve the media without first trying to resolve things internally. Before I went public with my story of abuse through The Age, I repeatedly tried to engage with the Yeshivah leadership (Rabbi Groner senior) but they refused, leaving me with no alternative. Even after the initial media coverage, I repeatedly tried to engage with the Yeshivah leadership, but again they refused. Had I not gone to the media, the huge strides forward in child protection that have occurred in recent years in the Jewish community – in Australia and beyond – would not have happened. It goes without saying that the only people that really fear media exposure are those with something to hide.
And so it was no surprise when the Yeshivah leadership went on the attack in response to the email. Rabbi Yonason Johnson, Head of the Yeshivah Kollel (male adult education), responded that the email was ‘unacceptable both halachically and morally’. He reminded his community that ‘the destruction of the second Beis Hamikdosh (Temple) and the Golus (exile) which we still find ourselves in came about because of ‘Sinas Chinam – baseless hatred’ and urged ‘everyone to maintain civility and respect at all times’. He emphasised that this included ‘refraining from any form of Loshon Hora’ (literally the evil tongue). He called on the author to publicly apologise to Rabbi Groner, who he noted was ‘a Rov (rabbi) and the (late Lubavitcher) Rebbe’s Head Shaliach (emissary) in Melbourne.
Rabbi Moshe Kahn, Director of Chabad Youth and son in law of ex-Yeshivah Chairman Don Wolf was quick to endorse Johnson’s comments. Moments later, Nechama Bendet, the sister of ex-Yeshivah Principal Rabbi Avrohom Glick and who remains a trustee of Yeshivah despite also allegedly labelling victims as ‘moserim’ (collaborators), chimed in with her support. This was quickly followed by Rabbi Yehoshua Smukler, the Principal of Yeshivah who put on such an excellent performance at the Royal Commission and who now proudly displays the Australian Childhood Foundation’s Safeguarding Children Accreditation logo in his email signature. All felt it appropriate to support Rabbi Johnson and castigate the author of the original email for daring to criticise Rabbi Groner and communicate with the media.
Then, as so often happens at Yeshivah, they turned on victims. Belinda ‘Baila’ Cyprys, sister in law of convicted paedophile David Cyprys (who is currently serving a jail term for sexually abusing me and many others), member of the Yeshivah Synagogue Committee and involved in the running of N’shei Chabad (the Chabad Women’s group), responded to the original email, in part, as follows:
‘Threatening to go to the media is not the way to do things, that brings you down to the level of those that caused alot of this angst in the first place. And I know you are way above that.’
It is unarguable that this was a reference to the actions of victims who, like myself, engaged with the media to expose the paedophiles at Yeshivah and the disgraceful behaviour of members of the Yeshivah leadership and community.
She did make sure to conclude her email by encouraging others to pray for the coming of Moshiach (Messiah). As Chabadniks (Chabad followers) like to tell us, it is our kindness to others and good deeds which will bring about the coming of the Moshiach.
What followed was silence.
We waited and waited and waited for Rabbis Johnson, Kahn, Smukler and Mrs. 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. Did their call for ‘civility and respect at all times’ and for ‘refraining from any form of Loshon Hara’ apply to victims/victim advocates or only to the Yeshivah leadership?
To give them every chance, we emailed and spoke to them all. Concerns were raised with Rabbis Smukler and Johnson last Friday and with Rabbi Kahn on Shabbat. We urged 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.
Last night I emailed all of them as well as some media organisations. I reminded them of the submission of Counsel Assisting the Royal Commission:
‘The Yeshivah Centre, the Committee of Management and Rabbi Telsner had an opportunity to unequivocally show their support for the victims of child sexual abuse, advocates and their families, but they did not. It is submitted that their omissions implicitly condoned the actions of others in the community who criticised and shunned the victims, advocates and their families.”
Then finally today, we got something:
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. 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. Rabbis Johnson, Rabbi Smukler, Moshe Kahn, and Nechama Bendet.
Contrast this with their forceful response to the initial email, laden with religious references and justifications, and 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. In my view and that of others to whom I have spoken (including other victims), the above response is completely inadequate. 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.
As I and others have found out along our journey, the only way to effect change at Yeshivah is to involve the media and external parties. Had I not brought this matter to the attention of the media, it is doubtful that any response would have been forthcoming. It should be apparent to all members of the Yeshivah community that for so long as the ‘leadership’ refuses to be accountable, those seeking change have no alternative but to take their grievances outside of the organisation. This includes referring matters of concern to groups such as the Royal Commission, the Victorian Registration and Qualifications Authority, State and Federal Governments and communal donors, all of whom are more than happy to listen.
We view this latest incident, combined with Yeshivah’s ongoing failures to deal with attacks on victims since the Royal Commission, as evidence of the continuing hypocrisy of the Yeshivah institution and its various offshoots. It shows that religion continues to be used selectively and as a tool to quieten dissent but that leaders do not practice what they preach. It shows that Yeshivah has made representations to the Royal Commission and to the broader community which are at best misleading and at worst blatant lies. It shows that Yeshivah are not serious about protecting children and atoning for their mistakes. It shows that the Australian Childhood Foundation erred in bestowing their Safeguarding Children Accreditation on Yeshivah (which I hope they will revoke given what we are seeing). It shows that Yeshivah is not deserving of financial support from Government or communal donors. And it shows that the place is incapable of reform from within – at least not in the near-term.