Australia: Another Jewish Sex Crime Coverup
SEXUAL CRIMES against children by rabbis and other Jews seem to be a never-ending occurrence. A case in Melbourne, Australia depicts how the crimes were covered up, with abuse taking place for decades and no action being taken by rabbis who were aware of the crimes via the complaints of parents. It is often considered against the Jewish religion to take crimes “within the faith” to the police.(ILLUSTRATION: Rabbi Yitzchok Groner)
The Guardian reports:
Sharp divisions in the Jewish world have been exposed. Two rabbis, including one of the nation’s most prominent, have been forced from their posts. Whistleblowers, humiliated and ostracised for years by Yeshivah, have been dramatically vindicated. More victims have come forward. More criminal charges may follow. Yeshivah schools face a nightmare of civil litigation.
The cast is Jewish, yet the bones of this story are familiar to anyone who has followed the scandal of child abuse in Christian schools and parishes. Rabbis and bishops have shown over the years much the same failings when faced with a choice between guarding the prestige of their faiths and the safety of children. This story is about the dangers in any cult of blind obedience to holy men.
Rabbi Yitzchok Groner died just in time. He was a dominating figure in Melbourne’s Jewish world, a mountain of a man with inexhaustible energy, deep religious learning and a stare that stopped grown men in their tracks.
As the Melbourne emissary of the Chabad-Lubavitch leader Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, Groner’s authority was absolute. He spent 50 years building the Yeshivah sect into a wealthy, powerful and very private community of several hundred families living around a busy synagogue and thriving schools at a campus on Hotham Street, East St Kilda.
Yeshivah is ultra Orthodox: fundamentalist, intellectual and charismatic. God created the world in six days. Families are big. Sex is never discussed. Modesty is everything. Men and women mark their days with prayer and ritual. Instead of dying in the face of the modern world, old-fashioned, rule-bound Chabad-Lubavitch Judaism flourished.
Groner died in the winter of 2008, but his power didn’t die with him. To question his authority – indeed his saintliness – after his death, was considered a particularly grave sin among the Chabad. Protecting his memory were the rabbis he had trained and sent out into the wider Jewish world, and the interlocking mesh of Chabad families that seemed to make everyone at Yeshivah the son-in-law, nephew or sister of everyone else.
A couple of months after Groner’s death, news broke that David Kramer had been sentenced to seven years in prison in St Louis, Missouri, for molesting children at a youth camp where he was supposed to be teaching “Hot topics for Jewish teens.” The story died in Australia for the time being, but from this point, a number of Chabad leaders, teachers and parents knew an appalling scandal threatened Yeshivah.
Kramer had taught at the Yeshivah primary school in late 1989. The young American rabbi was immediately popular and immediately began molesting children. The number of his victims is not known, perhaps dozens, including two of the sons of Zephaniah Waks.
Waks was a most unwise man to cross. The Waks name is all through this story. Tenacity runs in the family. Half measures aren’t in their DNA. Their sense of right and wrong is strong and personal. As the father of 17 children, Zephaniah Waks had more than proved his dedication to Chabad. But in the end those children would mean more to him than any obligations to the sect.
Waks discovered the abuse in 1992. He says he complained to the principal of the Yeshivah school, Rabbi Abraham Glick. Within hours, Waks learned that Kramer had admitted the abuse. When he wasn’t fired, Waks says, he confronted Glick again, only to be told: “There is a danger of self-harm. So we can’t fire him.”
Glick doesn’t deny learning about Kramer at this point, but can’t recall discussing the teacher’s fate with Waks. He told the royal commission: “I think he had that conversation or a similar conversation most probably with someone else.”
Waks was outraged by the failure to act. He didn’t call the police because at this time he had no doubt that doing so “would be in breach of the Jewish principle of mesirah.” This ancient rule, still alive among the followers of many faiths including Judaism, threatens believers with expulsion if they take crimes within the faith to the civil authorities.
Waks called a meeting of parents hoping to pressure the school to sack Kramer. Hours before it was due to begin, he was told Kramer had been dismissed. What he did not discover until years later was that Groner had given Kramer an air ticket to Israel, on condition he leave Australia immediately.
Another threat was looming at Yeshivah in those weeks. Police had discovered another paedophile active on the campus, a man whose abuse of Chabad children Groner appears to have known about for nearly a decade.
David Cyprys had been to school at St Kilda and never left. He hung around Yeshivah in various guises: as a helper at youth camps, security guard, locksmith and martial arts instructor. He had keys to the ritual bath, the mikveh, where he abused boys. He abused them in one-on-one kung fu lessons. He abused them at youth camps. He raped them at his house.
The earliest known complaint about Cyprys was in 1984. One victim and the father of another complained to the head of Chabad Youth. The father also confronted Groner, who promised to look after the matter and assured him his son was so young he wouldn’t need counselling. Years later the father would give evidence that from that time he didn’t hear another word from Groner.
Complaints about Cyprys kept coming. In 1986 Groner told a 30-year-old mother whose son was being abused: “Oh, no, I thought we cured him [Cyprys].” She trusted the rabbi’s assurances that all would now be well. A long time later she discovered the abuse of her son continued for another two years.
At the start of the summer holidays in late 1990, a scholarship boy with ambitions to be a rabbi arrived at St Kilda from interstate. He was 15 and very vulnerable. His mother was dying of leukaemia. There was no father in his life. This lonely kid, known at the royal commission as AVR, welcomed attention from Cyprys. “I thought he was a really cool guy,” he said. “He seemed genuinely interested in me.”
Cyprys repeatedly abused the boy for nine months. Found crying one day in the playground, AVR was taken home by a kindly family. His mother flew immediately to Melbourne. The boy told her something of the abuse but couldn’t mention the rapes. “She was quite sick and I thought that would push her over the edge.”
She rang Groner. AVR remembers them seeing the headmaster, Glick, next day and also telling him about Cyprys. But Glick would assure the royal commission he had no memory of the boy at the school at all; no memory of this exchange with him and his mother; and no knowledge of the allegations against Cyprys for something like a decade.
AVR was expelled from the school that day. “They did not want me there any more,” he told the commission. “They did not offer to help me or provide me with any counselling. From the time of the disclosure, no one associated with Yeshivah would speak to us or help us. Even our family members would not help us and we had a lot of trouble getting back to the airport and getting home.”
AVR and his mother went to the police. The case was looming over the St Kilda community as Kramer was given his air ticket to Israel. Cyprys was charged only with indecent assault, for the boy was still unable to talk about the rapes. Cyprys pleaded guilty in September 1992 and was fined $1,500. No conviction was recorded. Newspapers carried no reports of the case. Cyprys returned to his old stamping ground and his old ways.
‘I was lost in the only world I knew’
The wall of secrecy around the St Kilda community would not be breached for nearly 20 years. But witnesses told the royal commission that within the walls Cyprys’s brush with the law was common knowledge at the time.
Even so, no surviving Chabad leader has admitted knowing in the 1990s that the man they still trusted to help out at youth camps and give private kung fu lessons to 12-year-olds, had confessed to sexual assaults in a Melbourne court. This was despite Yeshivah being, in the words of Rabbi Glick, “so small that you can’t sneeze without everyone knowing it.”
The royal commission discovered another peculiarity: not a scrap of paper survived at the Yeshivah centre recording the allegations against Kramer, or his flight to Israel, or the multiple complaints against Cyprys which continued to land on Groner’s desk.
In 1996, Zephaniah Waks was appalled to discover another of his sons had been abused. Back from Israel for his sister’s wedding, Manny Waks had heard about Operation Paradox, the hotline for abuse victims run each year by Victoria police. In the history of combating abuse in many institutions and many faiths, Operation Paradox was to play an honoured role.
Manny told his father he had been abused for many years at Yeshivah, first by the son of a senior Chabad rabbi and then by Cyprys. He believes the abuse ruined his childhood. It was known in the playground, and he was mocked for being gay. He became wild and alienated from his schooling and his family. By the time of his Bar Mitzvah he had come to loathe the Chabad way of life. “I was lost,” he told the commission, “in the only world I knew.”
The police were called. Cyprys denied everything.
With the pluck so typical of his family, Manny confronted Groner in the street and told him of his abuse. “The conversation was a brief one,” he told the royal commission. “It seemed clear to me that Rabbi Groner was aware of the circumstances so there was very little I had to say. He said that Yeshivah was dealing with Cyprys and that I should not do anything of my own accord.”
Having finished his military service in Israel, Manny brought his wife home with him to Melbourne in 2000. They lived apart from the Chabad community but visits to his parents’ house for Sabbath took him past the Yeshivah centre, where it infuriated him to see Cyprys still on duty as a security officer.
“I recall many occasions when our eyes met while I was walking past,” he told the commission. “He seemed to deliberately smirk at me. Often he fixed his eyes on me and continued to smirk until I was forced to look away. To me his facial expression said: ‘We both know what I did, and I got away with it.’ ”
Once again, the young man confronted Groner. “How can you have this person here providing him access to children when you know what you know?” he asked the rabbi. In his evidence to the commission, Waks recalled Groner pleading with him not to pursue the matter.
“He said that he was taking care of it; Cyprys was getting professional help and, according to these professionals, was making improvements. My final question to Rabbi Groner was: ‘Can you assure me that Cyprys is not currently reoffending or that he will not reoffend in the future?’ To which Rabbi Groner responded: ‘No’. At this point I said I had to go, and I left.”
How many complaints Groner received about Cyprys will never be known. The last the commission examined was particularly heartbreaking. It came from the mother who first complained to the rabbi in 1986. Her son, now 30, had just told her his abuse continued for years after her meeting with Groner.
“You promised me you would take care of the matter and you didn’t and my son is suicidal,” she told the rabbi on the phone in 2002. According to the evidence she gave at the royal commission, Groner asked if her son was planning to go to the police. “I said: ‘Probably.’ And Rabbi Groner then said: ‘Well, what do you need me for?’ And I think we both hung up. I don’t recall who hung up first.”
Her son did go to the police, but his allegations were vague. He was coming down from years of heavy marijuana use and was, by his own account, all over the shop. The police case against Cyprys wasn’t closed but by 2003 it seemed to be getting nowhere.
That was the year Yeshivah says it cut its formal links with Cyprys. His security licence would say he was still employed there for many years, but Yeshivah says his services were terminated in 2003, not because of allegations of abuse, but late bills, illegible invoices and high prices. He was not shunned in the Orthodox community. On the contrary: he remained on the board of the Elwood synagogue and in 2006 became a director of the Council of Orthodox Synagogues of Victoria.
Groner was, by this time, very old but his immense authority in the Chabad community was unchallenged. He had determined that his successor would be his son-in-law, Zvi Telsner. When Groner died in 2008, honoured in the secular and religious press, Telsner inherited the post of chief rabbi.
He could not be sacked or directed or disciplined. He was in charge because Groner had put him there. His authority depended on the continued and unquestioned dedication of the sect to the memory of a man whose achievement would be questioned over the following years in the most mortifying way.
Not that Telsner, even today, has any doubts about the fundamental goodness of Rabbi Yitzchok Groner. “His sensitivity to every child was something which cannot be described,” he told the royal commission. “His whole life was taking care of children. Anyone who could think that he would want to harm any child in my estimation would be not only erroneous but just not acceptable, totally.”
A loathing for the exposure a police investigation might bring
With David Kramer due to be released from his St Louis prison in 2012, someone in Melbourne kept reminding the police about Yeshivah’s role in spiriting this paedophile out of the country years before.
For the first time, Victorian police began investigating Kramer and turned to Yeshivah for help. The school provided police with names and addresses of students at the school in Kramer’s time, and in the middle of June 2011, Telsner put a brief notice up on the wall of the synagogue urging parents to co-operate with the investigation.
The Chabad community was in an uncomfortable position. Only months before, the Orthodox rabbis of Victoria had made it clear that the old prohibition of mesirah did not apply to child abuse. Jews were not only free to take allegations of abuse to the police but the Rabbinical Council of Victoria declared that as a matter of Jewish law it was “obligatory to make such reports.”
Events would prove the Chabad community deeply divided over this fresh development. Some simply could not accept the right of the secular world to interfere in the affairs of the community. Others saw it was impossible to keep the police out but had little appetite for helping them. Widely felt in this private world was a loathing for the public exposure that investigation might bring.
For a time it was not known in the community that one of their own was helping the police. AVB finished his schooling in St Kilda, but had grown up in the sister Yeshivah community in Bondi. There as a boy in the 1980s he was abused by Daniel “Gug” Hayman, a major donor to that community. But AVB had also been abused by a youth leader who brought a party of Yeshivah students up from Melbourne, David Cyprys.
AVB was puzzled by the list of students Yeshivah had given the police. “My name and address, my brothers’ names and addresses, and the names and addresses of many of my friends and classmates was not on it.” So he emailed his contacts within the Melbourne Chabad community, urging them to encourage and support victims who might be willing to speak to the police.
“Many in the community have been aware of these allegations for an extended period of time,” he wrote. “As parents and community members, we have a duty to confront sexual abuse in our community. Only this way, can we ensure that it never happens again.” He ended: “Ongoing silence is NOT an option.”
Retribution was swift. The day after the email went out, Telsner delivered a fiery sermon reminding his congregation of the false spies who condemned the people of Israel to wander 40 years in the wilderness. AVB was not there. He soon heard about it. He assumed, and many in the community assumed, that Telsner was attacking him.
A few days later, Manny Waks was shocked to read in the Age a story that began: “Police are trying to breach a wall of secrecy at a private boys school in St Kilda East over allegations of sex crimes by a former teacher who is now in jail in the United States.”
The paper’s education editor, Jewel Topsfield, wrote of a community afraid to speak. One former student told her: “If you are labelled an informer it gives the family a bad name and makes it hard for children to get married … the issue is not just about the sexual abuse investigation, it is about the culture that enables it.”
Waks had his life back under control. At the age of 35 he was married, working in Canberra and a vice-president of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry. He rang Topsfield. He knew this could be very difficult for his family. But he felt he had no choice but to take a leadership role in bringing this impasse to an end. He detailed Groner’s failures to act. He identified himself as a victim.
This blew the lid off the story and Chabad’s response was everything Waks feared. Zephaniah was attacked in the street. He and his father were denounced around the world in blogs and on Facebook. The terrible accusation moser – betrayer – was levelled against them. Documents that emerged at the royal commission suggest the accusation was also being made in email exchanges between rabbis and at meetings of the Yeshivah centre’s committee of management.
Zephaniah begged the Chabad leadership for help. He supported his son. He wanted a statement from them that neither Manny nor his family was to be blamed for him going public. “I am sick of being smeared, along with my family,” he wrote. “I attribute a lot of the problem to Yeshivah’s inaction, or worse, in this matter.”
No protection was offered.
Zephaniah sat in the synagogue as Telsner delivered another slashing sermon. “Who gave you permission to talk to anyone, which rabbi gave you permission?” Telsner asked. It was a week after Manny’s revelations in the Age. Victims must go to the police, said the rabbi, but the congregation must cease spreading loshen horah – false rumours – that Yeshivah and his father-in-law had failed to act. Accusations, he said, should first be brought to him, the rabbi.
Telsner named no names, but Zephaniah Waks had no doubt the rabbi was attacking his son. He and his wife, supported by a few friends, walked out of the synagogue. He then made notes of what he had just heard Telsner preaching: “The rabbis have the power to excommunicate people when they disobey the rabbis … the worst sin is besmirching the name of Rabbi Groner.” And: “In the last few weeks, people have argued about who I meant in my sermons. Now I am saying clearly: if you think it refers to you, it does. Don’t think it means someone else … “
Telsner would admit in the witness box of the royal commission that he delivered this sermon at a time when many members of the Chabad community were reluctant to talk to the police. He would deny mentioning his father-in-law. He denied using the word excommunication. Above all, he denied his sermon was a personal attack on Manny Waks.
Honours previously shown to Zephaniah in the synagogue were withdrawn. He and the rabbi would sit there side by side for years, but Telsner never said anything that might reassure Waks that he and his family were not the target of that attack. “We had a very, shall we say, cool relationship,” the rabbi told the royal commission. “Therefore I didn’t think that actually speaking to him would clear up matters.”
As the shunning intensified, AVB and the Waks father and son made futile appeals to a number of Jewish organisations for support. Years later, senior Orthodox rabbis would say what AVB and Manny Waks had done was correct, even admirable. But at the time, none spoke out on their behalf. There was no one to condemn loshen horah when the targets were victims of abuse who had defied Chabad’s old code of silence.
The grip of that code still seemed strong in Sydney, where the Bondi Yeshivah was grappling with its parallel scandal: the failure to act on old allegations about the activities of Gug Hayman and a rabbinical student known at the commission as AVL.
One of Hayman’s many friends was the Sydney rabbi Yosef Feldman, son of Pinchus, the chief rabbi at Bondi, and Pnina, sister of both the legendary diamond explorer Joe Gutnick and one of the heroes of this story, Rabbi Moshe Gutnick.
Yosef emailed colleagues: “I really don’t understand why as soon as something of serious loshen horah is heard about someone of even child molestation should we immediately go to the secular authorities.”
When those emails were leaked to the Australian Jewish News, Feldman issued a statement that he did, indeed, support the official ruling that abuse must be reported to the police, and then stepped down as president of the Rabbinical Council of New South Wales.
He was furious with the paper. After meeting executives of the Jewish News, Feldman emailed a number of fellow rabbis to explain why the public attention being given to the troubles in Chabad caused him such disquiet: “I felt that the hype has been causing phoney attention seekers to come forward like Manny Waks and this should be stopped.”
Drowning in the witness box as he tried to explain that email, Feldman assured the commissioners he didn’t doubt Waks had been abused. “Phoney didn’t mean he’s not a genuine article.” The thing was, he hadn’t been raped. Before he left the box, the rabbi said: “This was very wrong of me.”
‘There is a tradition … that you do not assist against Abraham’
Cyprys was charged a mere seven weeks after Waks went to the Age. He faced 16 counts of indecent assault and 13 counts of gross indecency involving 12 victims. At his bail hearing, Detective Senior Constable Lisa Metcher spoke of lies and cover-ups. She accused “high-standing members of the Jewish community” of protecting the accused paedophile. Police feared Cyprys’s supporters would help him flee the country.
AVB was there in court. He was seen talking to the police. The attacks on him in Chabad blogs redoubled. He was accused of lying, of inventing his abuse, of welcoming his abuse, of setting out to destroy the Yeshivah community. There were calls for his wife to be burnt as a witch.
“I was gut wrenched,” he told the royal commission. His boss was told. He feared losing his job. He heard that Cyprys’s lawyer at the bail hearing, Alex Lewenberg, was complaining about the help he was giving police. AVB rang the man and an authorised recording was made of a conversation in which Lewenberg accused AVB of being a moser.
“I am not exactly delighted,” said the lawyer, “that another Yid would assist police against an accused no matter whatever he is accused of. That is the reason why I was very disappointed, because there is a tradition, if not a religious requirement, that you do not assist against Abraham.”
The charge list against Cyprys kept growing. He was eventually committed for trial on 41 charges – including rape – committed between 1982 and 1991. The magistrate took the opportunity to say the claim by the school’s headmaster, Rabbi Glick, that he had not known sexual abuse was occurring in his school in the 1980s was “unfathomable.”
Cyprys compelled one victim to give evidence in court of his rape. Cyprys was found guilty of rape and subsequently pleaded guilty to 12 further charges and was sentenced to eight years’ imprisonment. Manny Waks was granted permission by the court to identify himself as a victim.
The Australian Jewish News carried a full page ad demanding Glick be stood down by Yeshivah. It didn’t happen. On advice from senior counsel, Yeshivah issued a very carefully worded apology: “We understand and appreciate that there are victims who feel aggrieved and we sincerely and unreservedly apologise for any historical wrongs that may have occurred.”
That’s as far as they were willing to go at that point: “May have occurred …”
Kramer was extradited from the US and pleaded guilty in July 2013 to molesting four boys at Yeshivah back in the early 1990s. He was sentenced to 18 months in prison. His own lawyer accused the school of covering up these crimes and helping his client flee the country. Yeshivah issued an unreserved apology “for not informing the police at the time the allegations arose.”
The parents of one of Kramer’s American victims alerted to Kramer’s fate by the Melbourne Herald Sun, were not impressed. They told the paper: “We arrive at the inescapable conclusion that the blood of our child . . . rests upon the head of those complicit in Kramer’s escape from justice.
“We call upon the Yeshivah centre to do the right thing: not by offering hollow, meaningless platitudes of ‘we’re sorry’, but to take concrete action by releasing from its employ all who were responsible for Kramer’s escape from justice.”
Telsner remains the spiritual leader
The witness stand of a royal commission is a cruel place for men of any faith. Cardinals and preachers are not used to being held to account. In their world, facts don’t necessarily matter. Belief is everything. Up against the law, compelled to answer, they find themselves trapped in daylight.
Over 10 long days of hearings in Melbourne, rabbi after rabbi apologised for the failings of the Chabad-Lubavitcher communities of St Kilda and Bondi. Some did so bluntly. Some only when they were cornered by tough questioning. Only Rabbi Moshe Gutnick seized the opportunity with gusto.
“I and many of my so-called ultra-Orthodox friends and colleagues share the outrage as to what has gone on here,” he told the commissioners. “I believe that the true tenets of Chabad, Judaism and Orthodoxy require that I and all Jews stand proudly shoulder to shoulder with, and in absolute full support of, the victims.”
He called those who went to the police heroes. Demands that dealing with child abuse should be left to rabbis he rejected as “a gross misuse of rabbinical power.” He condemned mesirah as a mechanism for maintaining control. “You threaten people with mesirah and they become intimidated and they stay underfoot.”
When he left the box, he embraced Manny Waks.
Rabbi Meir Shlomo Kluwgant made smooth headway in the witness stand until almost the end. The most senior rabbi in Australia said all the right things. His downfall came when he was read a message he had sent while watching online as Zephaniah Waks gave evidence a few days earlier.
“Zephaniah is killing us,” he messaged the editor of the Australian Jewish News. “Zephaniah is attacking Chabad. He is a lunatic on the fringe, guilty of neglect of his own children. Where was he when all this was happening?”
Kluwgant resigned three days later as president of the Organisation of Rabbis of Australasia. He is also no longer chaplain to the Victorian police.
Gutnick’s nephew, Yosef Feldman, made such a hash of his appearance in the witness box that he lost yet another post. At one point he said he didn’t “have a clue” if an adult touching a child’s genitals might be a crime. His attempts to square the old prerogatives of the rabbis with modern demands for reporting to police were condemned by the Executive Council of Australian Jewry as repugnant. He resigned next day as a director of Yeshivah Sydney.
Feldman’s mother, Prina, emailed Manny Waks last October: “Why do you keep highlighting Yeshiva?! … You need counselling! I haven’t met a person yet with one nice word to say about you. Most people consider you a lowlife – not because of any molestation, which wasn’t your fault, but because of your malicious blame game, which is unjust, unwarranted, undeserved and wicked.” She was not called to the commission to give evidence.
This week, Rabbi Glick resigned from his positions at Yeshivah College. He told the Age he felt the victims would want him to break all his links with his old school. “That’s where the abuse took place and it was under my leadership. I haven’t taken this lightly.”
But Zvi Telsner is still the spiritual leader of Melbourne’s Chabad community in St Kilda despite calls from many quarters in the Jewish community that he resign.