Decades of Yeshiva Rapes Shock Aussies
It is as disgusting as it is ironic that the mikveh—the ritual baths where Jews and converts to Judaism immerse to purify themselves—was one of the places Manny Waks says he was sexually abused as an Orthodox Jewish teenager in Melbourne. According to him, Shmuel David Cyprys, the head of security at Yeshivah Centre—the school Waks attended—instructed him to go to the mikveh with him in 1990.
“During the abuse I became very dizzy and told him that I needed to get out of the water. I went over to the drying area and sat down on the floor. Cyprys came over to me and continued what he had been doing in the bath,” Waks remembered. “I remember feeling very dizzy to the point where I blacked out briefly. Soon after I got up, dressed myself and walked home.”
Waks shared this account last week at the start of the Australia Royal Commission Into Institutional Responses to Child Sex Abuse. The Jewish community is hardly the only group that the Australian government is probing. It has, however, warranted two weeks of specific scrutiny as more people like Waks, who kept their abuse hidden for decades after their rabbis allegedly failed to respond, have decided to go public for the entire Jewish community and the country to hear their stories.
According to Waks, this chilling incident was hardly the first abuse he suffered at the hands of Cyprys—or, for that matter, an adult male in the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community in Australia. Waks alleged in testimony before the commission that, from the age of 11 in 1987 through 1990, he was sexually assaulted by not only Cyprys but Zev (Velvel) Serebryanski, a man in his twenties who was the son of a respected rabbi affiliated with Chabad, an international organization of Orthodox Hasidic Jews.
The details of the alleged abuse are horrifying, but the reactions from the yeshivahs and the Chabad community in Melbourne are just as—if not more—disturbing. In fact, it is the response—or more accurately, the lack of one—from Jewish communal leaders that has warranted the commission’s investigation.
At the time that Cyprys allegedly abused Waks, he had full, unfettered access to all of the classrooms at the Jewish day school. According to Waks, Cyprys had this privilege despite the fact that a student had told the man in charge of the yeshiva, Rabbi Yitschok Dovid Groner, about his abuse experiences with Cyprys in 1984. “It should have been preventable,” Waks told The Daily Beast.
Waks himself told both Rabbi Groner, who passed away in 2008, and St. Kilda police about the abuse toward the end of 1996. Neither religious nor law-enforcement authorities, he claims, responded particularly vigilantly. “The police said at the time ‘It’s your word against his, and we’ll keep it on file until other information comes to light,’” Waks said.
In fact, the police did have other information against Cyprys: Another child came forward with sexual abuse claims in 1991, but when Cyprys pleaded guilty a year later to a sexual offense against another child, he received only a fine—and the Yeshivah Centre continued to employ him, in a security capacity no less.
“It was very clear when I went to the late Rabbi Groner that they weren’t going to do anything about it,” Waks told me. “They claimed he [Cyprys] was seeking help and that was it.”
According to Waks’ testimony before the Royal Commission, Cyprys was employed in various security capacities at the school through the middle of the 2000s, despite the decades of complaints made against him.
In the case of Cyprys, justice was ultimately served. He was sentenced to eight years in prison in December 2013 after a jury found him guilty of five charges of rape against one student. He pleaded guilty to 12 charges of assaulting eight others, including Waks, who was the only one of the victims to go public. Cyprys is in prison, although he will likely only serve five-and-half years before he is up for parole.
Serebryanski, on the other hand, is living as a free man in the U.S. The man that Waks says was the first to molest him was safely shuttled off to the States, specifically to Brooklyn. Paul Berger of The Jewish Daily Forward tracked him down in 2012. According to Berger’s report, Serebryanski, who goes by Zev Sero, did not deny the sexual-abuse allegations, though he would also not speak to Berger on the record. Waks admits that at this point, in the case against Serebryanski “it’s my word against his.”
The Australian Chabad community has faced accusations of letting—or even helping—child-molestation suspects get out of the country and into Israel or the U.S. instead of turning them over to law-enforcement authorities. Not only do these men escape punishment, but they are then capable of abusing new victims.
David Kramer at Yeshivah College, a Jewish all-boys secondary school in Melbourne, left Australia after being accused of sexually assaulting students. Manny’s father, Zephaniah Waks, spoke before the Royal Commission about how two of his other sons were abused by Kramer. When families went to the rabbis who oversaw the school and threatened to go to the police, Kramer was given assistance to move to Israel, according to reports about testimony given at the Royal Commission.
Kramer relocated to St. Louis, where he began volunteering as a youth leader at Nusach Hari B’nai Zion, an Orthodox synagogue. In 2007, St. Louis County prosecutors charged Kramer with sexual misconduct and statutory sodomy for fondling a 12-year-old boy and mastubrating in front of him in a University City apartment. He was sentenced to seven years in prison after pleading guilty and was subsequently extradited to Australia. He pleaded guilty to five counts of indecent assault and one count of an indecent act with a minor.
Chabad operates in the U.S., and for that matter all over the world, but it forms a nearly inescapable network in Australian Jewish life, according to Waks. As hard as it is for victims of sexual abuse to ever come forward, Waks believes it is even harder for Australian Jews because of Chabad’s strength.
“In Australia, the Chabad community dominates the rabbinic scene. The vast majority of rabbis serving the country are from Chabad. The yeshivas are connected through Chabad. If you go up against an individual rabbi, you’re up against the entire system,” Waks said.
In his own experiences in coming forward with abuse, Waks said he often felt “it was me against Chabad,” which is not the message he intended to convey.
“I admire and respect certain aspects of Chabad, but it happened at a yeshiva that was part of the Chabad institutions,” he said.
The problems examined in the Royal Commission are also not limited to Australia. There is a well-documented history of ultra-Orthodox rabbis not responding adequately to abuse and—even more problematically—district attorneys doing in kind in the U.S.
Both Australia and the U.S. ultra-Orthodox Jewish community share a culture of concealment that can be just as damaging to abuse victims.
“The first time, they are traumatized by the abuser. The second is by the community leadership,” said Waks. Recalling his own abuse at the hands of his school faculty, Waks says he absolutely believes adults knew what was going on at the time. “People deliberately chose to turn a blind eye. Many people knew of at least some of the allegations, but no one acted—and that is astounding,” said Waks.
Both communities are also filled with congregants who are only beginning to consider going to police, rather than their rabbis, when they suspect abuse. It has long been considered an affront to the community to go to secular law enforcement due to the tradition of mesirah, not turning a fellow Jew into secular authorities.
This tradition has been codified in some religious institutions. Agudath Israel of America, the leading ultra-Orthodox institution in the U.S., instructed parents to gain permission from rabbis before going to the police as late as 2012.
Unsurprisingly, adherence to this tradition has created massive problems for adequately responding to the needs of sexual-abuse victims. Testimony during the Royal Commission has revealed some rabbis in power to be anywhere from inept to sinister in their response to sexual-abuse allegations.
Rabbi Yosef Feldman, the rabbinical administrator at the Yeshivah Centre in Sydney, testified last week that he did not notify police when a mother told him a teacher had massaged her son’s genitals. This was his defense during testimony at the Royal Commission: “I didn’t know it could have been a crime. I didn’t see that as necessarily being sexual… (but) it could potentially be something which is highly inappropriate. I don’t know what the criminal code is and what’s a crime and what’s not a crime. A lot of things could be a crime (when) I don’t think it is.”
Whether Feldman was pleading ignorance or trying to cover for his behavior is unclear, but other comments he has made during the testimony reveal an egregious level of insensitivity. “I was worried the publicity would bring about fake victims,” he said to the Royal Commission about his decision to discourage other rabbis from making public statements about sexual abuse. “The reality is they make a whole issue of child abuse and it encourages people to accuse people of abuse when… they are really innocent.”
While much of the Royal Commission’s probe centers on the Chabad community, advocates stress that the problems are not exclusive to the ultra-Orthodox or Jewish world. Prior to the testimony devoted to the Jewish community, the Royal Commission was investigating the Catholic Church and other institutions plagued with sexual-abuse problems.
“Chabad is not unique,” said Shmarya Rosenberg, a blogger who documents the abuse problems within the ultra-Orthodox community at Failed Messiah. “There’s sex abuse everywhere—public schools, private schools, religious schools. Wherever you go this exists. The question is: What do you do to prevent it and what do you do to punish it?”
Still, while the Royal Commission is examining sexual abuse in a number of institutions, Waks has received criticism from fellow Jews who are fearful that the probe will spark anti-Semitism. It is well-documented that anti-Semitism is on the rise around the world. Last month’s attack on a kosher supermarket in France—which a spokeswoman at the U.S. State Department Tuesday falsely claimed did not target Jews, before taking back that statement—and Germany’s recent court decision that firebombing a synagogue is not considered anti-Semitic only make Jews understandably feel more threatened.
Waks empathizes with this concern, but refuses to cower to it.
“There are some people who think I’m doing the Jewish community a disservice. There are some people who think that airing the Jewish community’s dirty laundry in public is something that needs to be stopped at any cost and feel that by doing so contributes to anti-Semitism,” said Waks. “They feel this issue could have been dealt with quietly, but no one did anything.”
His unwillingness to back down has cost him stability and his personal homeland. Because of the backlash he faced for speaking out, Waks and his family have decided to relocate to Europe, where they will remain for the foreseeable future. Waks feels his family is more secure there.
“At this stage, it’s too difficult after the years of challenges we faced. I wouldn’t want to put my wife and kids through it again,” he said.
He says he was still hesitant to leave Australia.
“For me, personally, Melbourne is home.”
Waks, however, is hopeful. While not a solution, the Royal Commission is hopefully “a catalyst for other changes,” he said.
In fact, there has already been a noted shift in attitudes in the Australian Jewish community since the start of the Royal Commission’s probe. The Executive Council of Australian Jewry released a statement denouncing Feldman’s comments and his leadership last week:
“Yossi Feldman’s statements are repugnant to Jewish values and to Judaism, which is centered on the sanctity and dignity of individual life, especially the life of a child. We believe his position as a religious leader has become untenable.”
As of Wednesday, Feldman had officially resigned from his post as director on the board of management at the Sydney Yeshivah Centre, a move that appears to be a direct response to his comments at the Royal Commission and the outrage they sparked.
“I apologize to anyone in the Rabbinate, the Jewish community, and the wider Australian community who may have been embarrassed or ashamed by my views, words, understandings, recordings, or emails about child sexual abuse or any other matter,” stated Feldman’s official resignation.
The change occurred so quickly following his Royal Commission testimony that it offers hope for concrete improvements in the reporting and response to child sex abuse in the Australian Jewish community.
While Waks has personally paid for his advocacy, he believes speaking out has been a wake-up call that is finally starting to effect change, while providing the needed support for other victims. “No one stood up for us. The victims had no voice in this country. Thankfully, now I know many feel they do,” Waks said. “The tide has changed.”