SYDNEY (JTA) — Menachem (Manny) Waks was on a leadership training program in Israel in June 2011 when he made a decision that would radically change his life.
Flicking through Melbourne’s The Age newspaper on his laptop one morning, he spotted an article about David Kramer, who was convicted of pedophilia in Missouri in 2008 and now was wanted in Melbourne on allegations of child sex abuse dating to his stint as a teacher at Chabad’s Yeshivah College in the late 1980s.
Waks, a former vice president of the Executive Council of Australian Jews, studied at the all-boys college. He was not one of Kramer’s alleged victims, but the article stirred nightmarish flashbacks.
“When I saw that article, I thought this is the right opportunity,” Waks, 36, told JTA. “I knew there were other perpetrators and victims within the Jewish community. Someone needed to shatter the wall of silence, and I realized it needed to be me.”
The wall was decimated on the morning of July 8, 2011, when Waks’ story was published on the front page of The Age.
Under the headline “Jewish community leader tells of sex abuse,” Waks charged that he had been molested as a student — not once, but several times, and not by one person, but by two: a security guard and the son of a venerated Chabad emissary. Waks said he was molested in a synagogue and in a ritual bath, where he was lured to bathe in the nude by his alleged assailant.
His revelations landed like a bomb in Balaclava, a leafy Melbourne suburb that is home to a large proportion of the 50,000-strong Jewish community, including many affiliated with the Chabad hasidic movement. The explosive accusations by Waks — in particular his claim that senior Chabad rabbis covered up complaints by parents and even helped alleged perpetrators flee the country — triggered a sequence of dramatic events that has shaken the Jewish community.
Nearly two years on, the aftershocks are still reverberating.
In December, Waks testified before the Victorian parliamentary inquiry into child sex abuse. Next month, he is expected to be called before the royal commission into institutional child sex abuse in Australia. And he has taken leave from his job as a public servant to work as the full-time director of Tzedek, an advocacy group he founded last year for Jewish victims of child sexual abuse.
In short, he has become the face of child sex abuse in the Australian Jewish community, the shoulders on which other victims lean and their primary media spokesman.
Sitting in a cafe in the heart of Jewish Melbourne last week, Waks looks nothing like the devout hasidic kid who grew up in a strictly Orthodox household with 16 siblings. Indeed, his traumatic childhood prompted Waks to sever ties with Chabad in his late teens, shave his beard and abandon his black hat. Today he is bespectacled and sports a goatee; a tattoo is visible on his left arm.
“I hate going to synagogue,” Waks says. “I feel very uncomfortable being there. I can’t even utter prayers from the siddur. But I go there for my kids.”
Since he came forward, Waks says dozens of Jewish victims of abuse have contacted him. Of those, only one — Yaakov Wolf, the son of a popular kabbalistic rabbi — has spoken publicly.
“It’s been endemic within the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community — both the abuses and the cover-ups. There’s enough evidence to support that,” Waks says. “There are so many cases, so many allegations, so many perpetrators, so many victims and so many more allegations yet to be revealed.”
Waks says he has received “incredible” support from within the community. Ze’ev Smason, a St. Louis rabbi who reported the allegations against Kramer to police, congratulated Waks for helping confront “a form of spiritual toxicity” within Orthodoxy. Waks says his family also has been largely supportive.
But to others, Waks is exploiting an unfortunate situation. He has been accused of grandstanding and seeking fame and fortune while taking down the very organization that helped raise him and his siblings.
“Is it grandstanding?” Waks asks. “Maybe. But the simple rhetorical question to these individuals is this: What have you done to address the rampant child sexual abuse and cover-ups that have plagued our community for decades?”
Perhaps inevitably, the intense media coverage Waks has generated has had a polarizing effect in the Jewish community.
The editor of the Australian Jewish News, Zeddy Lawrence, wrote that the scandal indicates the Orthodox rabbinate is “an apple that is rotten to the core.” In response, Rabbi Meir Kluwgant, the president of the Rabbinical Council of Victoria, wrote last week, “Never in my history as a religious leader within our community have I experienced such disrespect and contempt leveled at the religious leadership as a whole.”
Chabad’s leadership hasn’t said much about the specific cases since Waks’ charges were first made public. In a July 2011 letter, Rabbi Yehoshua Smukler, the principal of Yeshivah College, called the effects of abuse “profound” and urged victims to contact authorities. He declined to comment further because the matter is before the courts.
In August, Yeshivah Center, the college’s parent body, apologized “unreservedly” for “any historical wrongs that may have occurred.” A spokesman for Chabad headquarters in Brooklyn, N.Y., noted that the organization’s child safety policies requires reporting child abuse to the appropriate authorities.
Rabbi Moshe Gutnick, president of the Organization of Rabbis of Australasia, wrote to Waks in January saying the rabbinate fully supports “uncovering and uprooting the scourge of child sexual abuse — as difficult a challenge it is for our community to face up to — and that we stand with all the victims in their search for both healing and justice.”
At least three cases are slated to go to court this year, two of them embroiling Yeshivah College. Kramer, who was extradited late last year, will face a committal hearing next month to ascertain whether the multiple counts of assaults against minors between 1989 and 1992 merit a trial.
In July, David Cyprys, a former board member of an Orthodox synagogue and a former security guard at the college, will face trial on 41 counts of child sex abuse against 12 former students, including Waks and Wolf.
And a third man, whose name is being suppressed by a court order, also is expected to face trial later this year on charges involving Jewish children in a non-Orthodox Jewish organization.
Despite the progress in the courts, the public criticism and the expressions of remorse from religious leaders, Waks says he has no intention of letting up.
“If I step away, there are many powerful individuals and bodies who would still much rather see this whole scandal swept under the carpet,” Waks says. “We are resilient. We will not be intimidated. We will no longer remain silent.”