Jewish community failed over abuse
As Melbourne’s Jewish congregations gather in synagogues for Saturday’s Sabbath, many feel shattered and shamed by the grim truths exposed during hearings of the Royal Commission into Institutional Child Sexual Abuse.
And one Orthodox Melbourne rabbi said he and his colleagues were “tainted by failure”. Rabbi Ian Goodhardt, of Blake Street’s modern Orthodox synagogue in Caulfield, told congregation members some rabbis “were growing increasingly disillusioned with the conduct of their colleagues” and the lack of credible rabbinic leadership.
Tensions among rabbis are clearly mounting, following a two-week hearing that examined how yeshivah centres in Melbourne and Sydney, which belong to the worldwide ultra-Orthodox Chabad stream of Judaism, handled horrific cases of abuse in their midst.
In a joint statement posted on Facebook on Thursday, Rabbi Goodhardt and fellow Orthodox rabbi James Kennard warned they may form a breakaway leadership group. They called for immediate reform to the Organisation of Rabbis of Australasia and Victoria’s rabbinical council and increased accountability.
“If this is not possible, then we are confident that the community would support a new model of rabbinic organisation,” the statement said.
Rabbi Goodhardt said rabbinic leaders, including himself, failed for not speaking out earlier. Rabbi Goodhardt had been on the Rabbinical Council of Victoria executive when abuse survivor Manny Waks publicly started campaigning for justice.
At that time, the council “became more concerned with defending Orthodoxy … than focusing on the pain and suffering of the victims”, Rabbi Goodhardt said.
Can the ultra-Orthodox leadership really change its ways? That is the question that troubles many people now.
“They need to be more consultative with other rabbis, lay leaders and women,” Rabbi Kennard, principal at Burwood’s Mt Scopus Memorial College, told Fairfax Media this week. He said the controversial rabbinical council gave Chabad-affiliated rabbis disproportionate influence.
Danny Ben Moshe, who made the Walkley-award winning documentary Code of Silence about the struggle for justice by Manny Waks and his father, Zephaniah, said the mood was grim on St Kilda East’s Carlisle Street this week.
“From non-ultra Orthodox people, the response [to the hearings] was absolute horror, that this has bought shame on the entire Jewish community and shame on the Orthodoxy,” Mr Ben Moshe said. “Among ultra-Orthodox people [on the street], they didn’t want to talk about it.”
A woman from the Chabad community, who did not want to be named, described the mood as “fragile”.
“[The Chabad community] is upset that it got to this point, that it wasn’t dealt with immediately,” she said.
But she was also indignant.
“Because of the mistakes of a few, our whole community gets rubbished. It’s not fair,” she said.
Shockwaves from the hearings have been felt around the world. Chabad’s New York headquarters released a statement saying it was “appalled and deeply pained to learn of the allegations against individuals associated with some of the Chabad institutions in Australia.”
A few rabbinic heads have rolled so far. But are they the right ones?
Australia’s most senior rabbi, Meir Shlomo Kluwgant, resigned this week as president of Organisation of Rabbis of Australasia after admitting on the witness stand to sending a text message that branded Zephaniah Waks a “lunatic”, who was attacking the Chabad community.
The rabbi’s other roles – on the rabbinical council executive, as a member of Victoria Police’s multi-faith council and as a Jewish Care general manager – also became untenable. ButAustralian Jewish News (AJN) journalist Josh Levi and Council of Orthodox Synagogues of Australia president Romy Leibler defended Rabbi Kluwgant as one of the “good guys” who had worked hard to address sexual abuse.
The incident has caused a huge storm at the AJN because Rabbi Kluwgant had originally sent the text message to its editor, Zeddy Lawrence. It found its way into the hands of a staff journalist.
AJN general manager Rod Kenning said the journalist had been suspended for allegedly passing it on to Manny Waks.
But, on Friday, the AJN said the suspension had been revoked and no further action would be taken.
Rabbi Yosef Feldman resigned from Sydney’s Yeshiva centre board after his testimony provoked widespread disgust and condemnation. On Wednesday, Chabad’s New York headquarters delisted him as a worldwide emissaryof the movement. This was a rare and telling occurrence.
Many people believe his father, Sydney Chabad leader Rabbi Pinchus Feldman, should also quit following his own testimony regarding abuse that occurred under his watch at Yeshiva College Bondi.
Meanwhile, on Thursday, Rabbi Abraham Glick announced he was resigning from all leadership positions with Melbourne’s Yeshivah Centre, including his role as chairman of the spiritual committee. He had already resigned as a Yeshivah College teacher. Rabbi Glick was principal of the school during a period when abuse occurred.
Statements supporting abuse victims and the royal commission’s work have flowed thick and fast from Jewish organisations this week. Many people question why such statements were not made years ago.
Zephaniah Waks is cynical about the sincerity of most apologies. Mr Waks snr wants the boards of Yeshivah Melbourne and Yeshiva Sydney democratically elected so they are more accountable to members. This would dismantle Yeshivah’s royal families and tear down generations of vested interests.
Meanwhile, Manny Waks has finalised his wish list for the Jewish community to address past sins and move towards the future.
“Every rabbi and every leader of peak Jewish bodies should publicly acknowledge what happened and apologise for their silence about intimidation shown towards myself, my family and other victims. And the Yeshivah Centre boards in Melbourne and Sydney need to apologise and resign, along with other leaders who’ve been implicated,” Mr Waks told Fairfax Media.