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Child sexual abuse, cover-ups and intimidation — a global Jewish community snapshot

A global Jewish community snapshot in light of revelations in Baltimore, and an ongoing Australian case
Rabbi Steven (Shmuel) Krawatsky, formerly of the Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School in Baltimore (via The New York Jewish Week)
Rabbi Steven (Shmuel) Krawatsky, formerly of the Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School in Baltimore (via The New York Jewish Week)

In the wake of a recent child sexual abuse scandal to hit the Jewish community, this time in Baltimore, it is an opportune time to examine similar cases around the Jewish world and reflect on how we have responded to them. Learning from these will help us respond more adequately to such scandals in the future.

For this purpose, I will focus on what has recently transpired in Australia and the United Kingdom.

In 2011, during my tenure as Vice President of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry (ECAJ), I publicly disclosed for the first time that I had been sexually abused as a child by two perpetrators while a student at Melbourne Chabad’s Yeshivah Centre.

While initially applauded by some, this revelation and my subsequent public advocacy on the broader issue of child sexual abuse unleashed a torrent of additional abuse from many quarters, most notably from many within the global Chabad community, including its leaders and their supporters.

The week after the disclosure, Yeshivah’s senior rabbi, Tzvi Hirsch Telsner, asked a question directed at me and my family in his Shabbat sermon: “Who gave you permission to speak?” An Australian Judicial Inquiry, the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, later confirmed that Rabbi Telsner effectively intimidated me and my family (and others) in an attempt to silence us.

The intimidation and cover-up attempts came not just from the Chabad community, the centre of the scandal and investigation. Much of it came from the mainstream Jewish community, including those at the highest levels of leadership. Dr Danny Lamm, then president of the ECAJ, publicly supported Yeshivah’s reactions during the scandal, despite clear evidence that they were behaving unconscionably. The ECAJ recently apologised for its part in the scandal, but Lamm has stubbornly refused to do so.

For many Australian Jews, it was easier to simply ignore the issues, to turn a blind eye, or worse, to actively cover it up. The vast majority remained silent – community members, lay leaders and leading rabbis, some of whom were directly involved in the intimidation of victims and their families. One of these was Australia’s most senior Orthodox rabbi, Meir Shlomo Kluwgant.

Astonishingly, it seemed irrelevant to many of them that after my public disclosure, more and more victims/survivors were reporting their own abuse to police. This directly ensured that my second abuser, David Cyprys, was finally convicted and sentenced to eight years’ imprisonment. It also resulted in numerous other convictions, not only within Chabad. And it created much greater community awareness and action regarding the issue of child sexual abuse.

In the UK, there have been multiple child sexual abuse scandals, such as the case involving Todros Grynhaus and the investigation by Channel 4’s Dispatches program. Most recently, the UK Jewish community was embroiled in a new scandal. Just as in Australia, the main protagonists were members of Chabad, but the mainstream Jewish leadership also managed to disgrace itself.

The Jewish community did not learn from the Catholic Church how not to respond to child sexual abuse. Moreover, the UK leadership seems not to have learned anything from their Australian counterparts – neither from the good examples nor the bad. At the time of writing, both the Board of Deputies of British Jews and the Jewish Leadership Council have yet to acknowledge their failings and apologise for the significant damage they caused.

While there was an initial outcry in the UK community about its latest scandal, it is now practically back to business as usual. True, as in Australia, some condemned the offending institution (Chabad) and the perpetrator, but so much more has been lacking. There has been zero accountability. Chabad UK blamed a local Chabad rabbi, who in turn blamed the perpetrator. Meanwhile, the mainstream Jewish leadership praised Chabad for its efforts. This, after a Chabad UK congregation hosted an event for well over 1000 men, women and children to honour a convicted pedophile in a celebration of his donation of a Torah scroll, while his victim (needless to say, not a wealthy donor) continues to be shunned.

One could compare this (an analogy which our community would well understand) to a hypothetical case where a Palestinian terrorist attacked an Israeli target and the Palestinian Authority handed him over to Israel for trial and subsequently, upon his return home after having served his sentence, feted him as a hero. I doubt very much that Israel would then praise the PA for having done the right thing and aiding the course of justice.

I suspect that such an analogy may be unpalatable to some, but make no mistake about it, the impact on victims/survivors of feting such a criminal as a hero is significant. It would likely cause severe emotional distress and psychological harm by triggering a re-traumatisation, which often gives rise to a range of serious symptoms, such as depression, anxiety, self-harm and much more, even including suicide.

There are many questions that are still left unanswered in the UK scandal.

Which brings us to the response of the Baltimore community to its recent scandal.

As was initially the case in both Australia and the UK, many within the Baltimore community have rallied to the defence of the alleged perpetrator, Rabbi Shmuel Krawatsky (Rabbi K).

While it is important to emphasise that Rabbi K has not been convicted of any crime, it is nevertheless a matter of great concern to see such a conspicuous and overwhelming outpouring of support for him by the local community, despite the numerous serious allegations against him, rather than the community taking a more cautious approach.

In all these cases, victims were disbelieved, or the abuse downplayed.

Often, victims were dismissed as being crazy or having issues. Victims’ families, too, were discredited with similar characterisations. Victims’ previous histories and track records suggesting the contrary were given little heed.

In Baltimore, Rabbi K is suing the complainants’ parents and a victims’ advocate. And in Australia, Cyprys attempted to sue me.

It seems most community members and leaders wished and hoped that these issues would just fade away.

The main reason often given for inadequate, and at times even criminal, responses to child sexual abuse within institutions is a desire to protect the institution’s reputation and an attitude that the institution is more important than individual members and must be protected at all costs.

However, it is worth considering what additional factors there may be in decisions Jewish communities make about their response to such scandals and their handling of them.

An ever-present consciousness of anti-semitism and a dogged awareness of the still haunting memories of the Holocaust still permeate many pockets of our community, and it plays a significant role in their reactions to such crises. Many are averse to airing our dirty laundry in public, even if it aids the laundering thereof, for fear that it will increase anti-semitism.

Our blind trust in revered rabbis is another factor. In the minds of many, they are almost incapable of doing wrong.

Within the ultra-Orthodox community, there is limited or no sex education, and at times very limited secular education in general or none at all. Some communities are so insular that those within them live under a perception of being insulated from the law of the land – that they are living in a law-free zone, at least in relation to its enforcement and the authority of police. Notwithstanding many Orthodox halachic rulings that the Jewish law against mesirah does not apply to cases of child sexual abuse, the act of mesirah, even when halachically permitted, still carries with it the character and stigma of an extra-legal taboo within those segments of our community.

And typically, within those communities, a unique stigma also attaches to sexual abuse victims, thereby heaping insult upon injury. Often, not only is their personal standing within the community diminished, they are also regarded (irrespective of gender) as damaged goods in the shidduch stakes (i.e. the marriage market). Sadly, this is a powerful deterrent to victims reporting the crime, and therefore just as much an enabler of such criminality (by tending to protect the offender) as mesirah used to be. All in all, these (and other) factors make children in those ultra-Orthodox communities more vulnerable.

As the majority of the publicly reported sexual abuse cases, cover-ups and intimidation have occurred within Chabad communities, it is relevant to quote from the findings of Australia’s Royal Commission about Chabad Australia.

“The second factor [that the Royal Commission believes contributed to the inadequate response by Chabad Australia] relates to the beliefs and practices of insular Chabad-Lubavitch communities, including the absence of sex education or awareness about child sexual abuse, the importance of maintaining standing in the community, the application of Jewish law concepts such as loshon horo and mesirah to communication about and reporting of child sexual abuse and the practice of shunning.”

Therefore, notwithstanding the good work done by Chabad, its significant global influence – comparable somewhat with that of the Catholic Church – demands that a great deal of the blame be placed on Chabad for the scandalous responses of Jewish institutions to the global plague of child sexual abuse afflicting our communities.

It is important to note that most child sexual abuse cases are complex. In most cases, the circumstances of the offence means that there is little in the way of supporting evidence on either side to justify a community’s taking sides, so when the accused is a much loved and respected leader, it is much easier to ignore and disbelieve the complainant.

Also, it is difficult to admit that we were wrong. Parents try to do everything they can to ensure the safety and well-being of their children. So when we find out that a popular rabbi or teacher has been accused of perpetrating unspeakable crimes, it means that our trust has been misplaced or that our background checks were inadequate. Faced with having to confront such failure, it is easier and more comforting to go into a state of denial.

While the hard work of a few – most notably, victims/survivors themselves – has galvanised Jewish communities world-wide into action, and despite the significant progress we have made in recent years, it is quite obvious that there is still a very long way to go in this work.

In Australia, it ultimately took an independent government inquiry of unprecedented proportions to profoundly change the attitude and approach of the country’s Jewish community – a change which (we hope) is the beginning of a broader and sustained cultural shift.

We hope, too, that the global Jewish community learns from the past, and, in particular, from the Australian experience, which has greatly benefited from having the spotlight of the Royal Commission turned upon its shadier secrets.

We must ensure justice and accountability for past transgressions by both abusers and their enablers.

And we must do everything we can to ensure that our top priority is our children’s safety and well-being.

Manny Waks is an international victims’ advocate and CEO of Kol v’Oz, which is dedicated to preventing child sexual abuse in the global Jewish community.

About the Author
Manny Waks is an author, consultant, advocate and public speaker. He is the founder and CEO of Kol v'Oz, an Israel-based international organisation which addresses the issue of child sexual abuse in the global Jewish community. He is also an abuse survivor in an Australian Chabad-run institution. His published memoir is titled ‘Who Gave You Permission?’.
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