Manis Friedman Headlines Event With Child-Rapist Protector

Manis Friedman, inspirational religious leader, and well known speaker, renowned in the Chabad community, and well known for his infamous comparison of sexual abuse to a case of diarrhea, is headlining a shavuos retreat being organized by JEM Retreats, and the Illulian family. The same Illulian family that steadfastly protected registered sex offender, Mendel Tevel, and allowed him to be around children.

People might not understand the extent of the damage caused by this pairing. Let’s start with Manis. Many people feel that because Manis is such an influential figure, and because he’s “helped” and “inspired” so many people, he should get a pass for saying something that’s at worst insensitive. Like, what’s the big deal, right? So he compared sexual abuse and its devastating effects to diarrhea, he apologized, didn’t he?

His apology was half-baked, insincere, a non-apology apology that he forced out to get the “angry bloggers” off his back. But his attitude, and the attitude of the community that worships the ground that Manis walks on hasn’t changed at all. It’s the attitude that tells victims that the community’s comfort is more important than their safety, than their justice. It’s the attitude that would rather pretend that the problem either doesn’t exist, or that it’s not nearly as prevalent as activists would have you believe.

But let’s examine who’s hurt more by which. Sexual abuse is an uncomfortable topic. It’s horrific. It’s painful to think about. It turns the stomach. It offends the conscience to even think about the kind of evil required to commit such a heinous act. It’s almost inconceivable to believe that someone who has ostensibly accepted what they believe to be a moral way of life would be able to do such a thing and live with themselves. But while it may offend your sensibilities to accept that sexual abuse happens, that’s the most you’ll suffer in accepting it as reality.

The victims of this reality, however, suffer so much more. They suffer PTSD, flashbacks, anxiety, depression, addiction, self-harm, suicide, eating disorders, relationship, and sexual problems, the list goes on and on. It’s so much worse than diarrhea. You can’t fix sexual abuse with imodium. Minimizing the problem may make your life more comfortable, but in doing so, in ignoring the very real problem of child sexual abuse in our community, you ignore the suffering of its victims. You stand idly by while they suffer and die.

And that’s the problem with Manis, really. The problem is that he is so influential and inspiring. The problem with Manis is that people listen to him and believe what he says, believe that sexual abuse is no big deal, believe that it’s not worthy of discussion, that it’s blown out of proportion. He doesn’t deserve a pass because he’s respected, he deserves greater accountability because he’s respected. There’s responsibility attached to that much power, and he’s shirked his. If he can’t responsibly handle his influence, then he should lose it. And that’s everyone’s job: To make sure that people like Manis can no longer cause damage through the sway they hold over the people who follow them.

And then there’s Illulian. The fact that the Illulians are paired with Manis just proves my point. Minimize sexual abuse enough, sweep it under the rug enough, and people like Illulian, people who cover up for child sexual abusers like Mendel Tevel, freshly registered as a level 2 sex offender, keep their chezkas kashrus, even though, even more than Manis, they’re responsible for the sexual abuse of children. There can be no crueller irony than the pairing of Manis and Illulian on an ad prominently featuring a kids’ program.

 

This story was first broken by Meyer Seewald of Jewish Community Watch.

Standard

How We Let Abuse Happen

The following was a response to someone who commented on my recent Hevria post about a Newsweek article detailing abuse and cover-up at Oholei Torah in Crown Heights. I’ve copied the comment here:

Abuse and its cover-ups should never be tolerated. Still, I take issue with your claim that the outrage will always be that the articles by secular outlets are anti-Semitic simply because this is such a searingly uncomfortable subject. It is pretty clear in the Newsweek article that they are pushing an agenda and trying to spread the idea that abuse like this happens BECAUSE of the nature of the religious/Chassidic community (this despite their “disclaimer” that abuse doesn’t necessarily occur more in Chassidic communities than secular). They misreport facts about the insularity of the culture and use their own misunderstandings as support for theories like “abuse is perpetuated because religious people are ignorant and close-minded”, beliefs that reek of bigotry. I think if issues were addressed with more respect, compassion, and empowerment, and less shaming and polarizing sensationalism, they’d be better received by the community and the focus would be less on the anti-Semitism of the article and more on solutions.

My response:

Three things facilitate this kind of abuse and cover-up. I’ll unpack them below. You’re welcome to call me an anti-Semite too, but these are things I’ve learned during my years of being a victim, and my years of activism on behalf of victims.

1) Willful ignorance

2) Denial

3) Conspiracy

Willful ignorance:

There is very little talk about sex and sexuality in general. It’s not considered tznius or appropriate. I’m not going to get into the merits or disadvantages of that, it’s just a fact. We shy away from anything related to it. We don’t use proper words for genitalia, like penis and vagina, we don’t have discussions about safe sex and consent, and we don’t explain children’s bodies to them, generally speaking. Many kids have no frame of reference to interpret what happened to them when they’re abused, because they don’t even know how to relate to their own bodies.

Again, I’m not trying to start an argument about whether we should or shouldn’t change that, but it is the reality. Sex is considered a private subject inappropriate for public discussion regardless of the context. And that *is* due to our religious culture. for better or worse.

That being the case, abusers know that there’s more they can get away with. They know that kids don’t really know what’s happening to them, they know the kids aren’t generally prepared to protest or tell anyone immediately after because they wouldn’t even know how to describe it, and they know that no one would believe the kid anyway, because what kind of nice Jewish person would do that. Which leads to the next two steps, denial and conspiracy.

Denial:

Being that the very topic of sex even in the context of consensual sex is so taboo and private, kal v’chomer non-consensual sex, or sexual abuse. The notion of someone having sex with someone else consensually outside the confines of marriage, let alone someone of the same sex, is so outside the realm of possibility for most sincere frum Jews that the notion of someone having sex with someone else *non* consensually is just impossible to fathom. The idea that someone who claims to have accepted torah and mitzvos, someone who goes to shul 3 times a day, puts on tefillin, keeps kosher, and learns in his spare time – certainly a rebbi – could do such a horrible crime is beyond the comprehension of many.

And it’s completely understandable, but it’s false. And it, again, is because of our religious culture. Once again, I’m not looking to debate the merits or disadvantages, it’s just a fact. That’s how the rank and file who don’t know any better react to abuse allegations. Especially since many abuse victims, by the time they finally pluck up the courage to report, have developed some serious problems, and/or gone off the derech, so to speak. They come off as angry, with an ax to grind, which they must have, because they’re no longer religious.

They must want to get back at the religious people who forced them to keep shabbos all those years, or whatever. No one ever considers that it’s because they were abused that they have psychological issues requiring therapy or meds, in many cases. No one considers that their eating disorders, drug habits, depression, personality changes might have happened as a result of abuse at the hands of the person they’re accusing, because again, the notion is inconceivable, and we tend to believe the nice religious guy with standing in the community rather than the OTD guy with problems. Which again, is the result of our religious culture. For better or worse. Which leads me to the last step, conspiracy.

Conspiracy:

Until now I was discussing people who are not familiar with the details of these cases, and who don’t have any personal connection to any abuse cases. The rank and file, as it were. They’re not involved in the conspiracy, they’re used by the people who are. The people at the top, the roshei yeshiva, principles, administrators – the ones to whom the allegations are often first made – actively silence victims who come forward with allegations of abuse. They’re the ones who threaten students with expulsion, call them liars, tell them it was their own fault, and do their best to keep the victim silence. In Chaim Levin’s case, for example, Rabbi Lustig told Chaim’s parents, after he came to Rabbi Lustig with an allegation against his cousin who abused him for 4 years, that the name of the abuser was irrelevant, and that he should just move on. He also failed to inform the police of the allegation, as he was required to by law.

But it doesn’t stop there. Many times it stops with the leaders. If they tell someone not to come forward, either by convincing them not to “ruin a man’s family,” parnassah, or otherwise appealing to their conscience, or by threatening or blackmailing them into silence, the victim will just give up and not pursue the case further. Sometimes the victim doesn’t care, and wants to pursue the case regardless of what they were told, and what threats were made. That’s when the leaders take advantage of the community’s naïveté.

When the allegations are made public, the community leaders, who themselves have dealt with many cases of abuse, generally behind closed doors, and often by intimidating victims, will issue a public statement standing behind the alleged abuser, and trashing the victim. The community, already ignorant of the fact that abuse takes place, and in denial that it could actually happen, of course sides with whomever their leaders tell them to, because why shouldn’t they? They have a tremendous amount of reverence for their leaders, and have no reason to assume that their leaders are misleading them or lying to them.

And all this is due to the fact that our religious culture, for better or worse, fosters this ignorance, and this denial, which enables the conspiracy.

Now, I just wrote that out in a very long explanation. The condensed version is what you’ll find in those sentences in the Newsweek article you objected to. Tell yourself it has nothing to do with the culture we’ve built around our religion, but it’s just not true. There are many beautiful things about our culture, and many ugly things we’d prefer not to acknowledge. This is an example of the latter.

 

Standard

Standing on Principle Even When it Hurts – How to Deal with Avi Yemini

During the Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, Avi Yemini, a son of Zephaniah Waks and one of the brothers of Manny Waks, released a video levelling accusations against his father. He alleged that his father beat his children with belts and was generally emotionally abusive toward them. He then went on to challenge the legitimacy of the Royal Commission, and the testimony given by his brother, Manny Waks, and his father, Zephaniah Waks. According to Avi, Zephaniah’s claims about being ostracized by Chabad were fabricated. Avi has since gone on to defend Rabbi Glick, and Chabad in general, who have been accused of being complicit in the covering up sexual abuse, minimizing the experience of survivors, and ostracizing Zephaniah Waks after he and Manny went public regarding the sexual abuse suffered by Manny.

These allegations put the survivor community in a very difficult position, especially those of us who are active in the fight against sexual abuse and coverups in the religious Jewish community. On the one hand, we have Zephaniah Waks, who was undoubtedly ostracized by the Chabad community. This has been proven by the Royal Commission. Zephaniah has spent the past two years fighting along with his son, Manny—both of whom who have suffered for this cause—to put an end to the culture of silence and stigma around sexual abuse, not only in Australia but around the world. On the other hand, we have Avi Yemini, Zephaniah’s son, who is claiming that one of the men we’ve been holding up as a martyr for our cause, abused him physically and emotionally as a child.

There are a few points that need to be addressed there.

 

  • What Avi Yemini wanted to say to the royal commission regarding Zephaniah was in no way relevant to what they were investigating. They were not investigating the personal lives of Manny and Zephaniah Waks—they were investigating institutional responses to child sexual abuse. Whether or not Zephaniah abused Avi is irrelevant to that investigation. More to the point, whether or not Zephaniah deserved shunning for allegedly physically abusing Avi, that is not why Chabad shunned him. They shunned him for aiding Manny in his fight against Chabad for covering up sexual abuse.

 

  • Avi Yemini can defend Chabad and call the claims a farce until he is blue in the face, but The Royal Commission has already proven that there was a coverup; they’ve already proven that the community shunned Zephaniah because he dared challenge them on that coverup; they’ve already proven that Chabad of Australia cultivated a culture of silence, coverup, stigma, and denial surrounding sexual abuse, and that Chabad cared more about its reputation than the children in their care.

 

  • Manny Waks has nothing to do with the allegations Avi Yemini is levelling against Zephaniah Waks, and is in no way tarnished by the claims against Zephaniah. I have the greatest respect for Manny and his accomplishments.

 

  • At the core of the statements Avi Yemini has made, underneath the defenses of Chabad, the claims that his father and brother exaggerated or fabricated their experiences, is his claim that he was abused by his father.

 

To me this presents the biggest challenge we face as a community of activists. Bigger than Agudah, Satmar, Chabad, Skverr, Torah Temima, Lakewood, or any others. With all of those institutions we stand firm on the moral high ground taking aim at people we know are wrong, people whose coverups accomplish nothing but hurting children, and perpetuating an environment in which children are placed in constant jeopardy. There is no righteousness in their denials and refusals to change. There is only opportunism, cruelty, vanity, and perhaps, if we’re charitable, willful ignorance.

I’ve been discussing this with some people, and their general sentiment has been that the potential damage that will be done by acknowledging the allegations Avi is making against Zephaniah may outweigh our moral obligation to give every abuse claim equal time and consideration. Hence, the silence thus far from the activist community regarding the claims against Zephaniah Waks was, perhaps, in the interest of protecting children, an ostensibly righteous excuse, but an excuse with which I disagree. Some people have said that this is an unfair conflation of two issues which have nothing to do with each other, or whose severities are not equal—physical abuse vs sexual abuse. Others have said that their reluctance in addressing these issues publicly is that it will give ammunition to Chabad who will use it to dismiss the findings of the Royal Commission, and by extension the claims of our entire cause. Being that Avi so densely interspersed his allegations against Zephaniah with claims that the Royal Commission was a farce, they argue that it may be impossible to separate the wheat from the chaff.

This subject has been weighing heavily on my mind since I was made aware of it, and I’ve decided, regardless of any objections by my friends or colleagues, to make a public statement about this in the form of this blog post. My reasoning is as follows.

We hold the people and institutions we’re trying to change to a very high standard. We demand absolute transparency, we demand that they be free of any taint of abuse, and we challenge them every time they give us an excuse for not acknowledging the claims of a survivor. Moreover, we object every time they disregard the claims of a survivor who may no longer be religious, or is addicted to drugs, on psychiatric medicine, or in psychological treatment, since the survivor is clearly mentally disturbed, or clearly has an axe to grind being that he or she is no longer religious; we point out that the very reasons they are claiming they’re entitled to deny the allegations are in fact effects of the abuse and coverups, not the cause of the complaint. That’s the way I see Avi’s claims. A kernel of truth surrounded by untruths, brought on by the pain of his claims being ignored.

How can we not hold ourselves to the same standard just because we find it inconvenient and potentially harmful to our cause. How can we demand, for example, that Agudah support the Markey bill, which would open yeshivos to potentially crippling litigation, and criticize them when they actively fight against such legislation, when we ourselves aren’t willing to bleed a little for our cause.

Yes, Chabad may use this article may be used as ammunition, even though it clearly states that they are guilty of everything they have been accused of. Yes, this may be touted by our opponents, or by people on the fence who are desperately seeking any means by which they can maintain their cognitive dissonance, as an excuse to dismiss our cause. But if we wish to see our cause succeed, if we wish to see the change we’re asking of these institutions implemented, then we need to be pristine in our record of handling similar situations. We can have no blemishes against us which they could later use to call us hypocritical. We need to be a light unto the communities, and stand as a perfect, shining example of what we would like to see—a world in which abuse is universally acknowledged, and dealt with in a lawful manner that encourages prosecution of abusers and support of survivors.

If we claim to care about children, then we have no business equivocating with different kinds of abuse. Abuse is abuse and no form of it is tolerable. No coverup of abuse is tolerable. No tacit denial of abuse allegations is tolerable, regardless of against whom they are levelled and what the consequences may be. In being the perfect example of the change we wish to see in this world, we will get closer to fulfilling our dreams.

The claims that Avi Yemini has made against the Royal Commission, and the claims he makes against Manny and Zephaniah regarding their ostracism and the coverup of their allegations—which have already been proven by the royal commission—are not to be taken seriously. He’s already been proven wrong. The issue we must discuss is the allegation of physical and emotional abuse he has levelled against Zephania Waks. Avi’s claims deserve the same attention we would give to any other survivor who came forward with an allegation, even if his allegation puts us in an uncomfortable position.

Standard