The scandal began in 2011 with an investigation by Victoria Police into allegations of sexual abuse at Melbourne’s Yeshiva College, a boys’ day school also known as Yeshivas Oholei Yosef Yitzchok Lubavitch, during the 1990’s. When the probe initially focused on David Kramer, a Jewish studies teacher at the yeshiva, a leading Chabad rabbi in Melbourne reportedly enabled Kramer’s exit to the U.S. Subsequently imprisoned in Missouri for seven years on a conviction of sexually assaulting a child in St. Louis, Kramer is now the subject of an extradition request by Australian police.
Members of Australia’s Jewish community have disclosed that, in addition to Kramer, other suspected molesters have fled the country to evade arrest, and at least two of them are residing in the United States while they are being investigated in Australia. In September 2011, David Cyprys, a former student and employee at Yeshivah College, was charged on 13 counts of gross indecency with a child and 16 counts of indecent assault with a child between 1984 and 1991. Cyprys is due to stand trial shortly in Australia on these charges. A second individual, Velvel Serebryanski – currently living in New York under the name Zev Sero – has been accused by Manny Waks, a former vice president of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, of molesting him when he was a child at two synagogues in Melbourne. Serebryanski’s father, Rabbi Aaron Serebryanski, is a prominent Chabad emissary to Australia.
According to an Australian newspaper, Detective Senior Constable Lisa Metcher accused members of the Yeshiva community during a magistrates’ court hearing in Melbourne last year of “lying to police and trying to cover up sex abuse claims.” The publication reported Metcher as declaring to the court, “They failed to act in any way to protect children.” Australian police are currently investigating more than a dozen Orthodox individuals suspected of child abuse in Australia,
Waks has placed the crux of the blame for the lack of appropriate action by the Chabad school’s faculty on Rabbi Yitzchok Dovid Groner, the former head of Yeshivah College, who died in 2008. Waks and other child abuse victims claim they repeatedly notified Groner about incidents of abuse, but he failed to take action. A defender of Groner, Pini Althaus, admits that the rabbi threatened to report suspected abusers to the authorities, but promised not to do so if they agreed to move out of the area. Althaus, a Lubavitcher Chasid living in Brooklyn whose father is a trustee of Yeshivah College, stated in a comment on the VosIzNeias website: “In the case of two American citizens who acted inappropriately, Rabbi Groner gave them the choice to leave the country immediately or face criminal action. In retrospect, perhaps the latter would have been more appropriate; however, this was not the ‘culture’ at that time, to masser or turn someone in to the authorities.”
Yaakov Wolf, an Australian now living in Los Angeles who claims that Cyprys molested him, speaks critically about the Chabad day school’s rabbinical staff. “They take these people and think they’ve done their job by sending them off to another community that hasn’t heard about them, and that’s what they’ve done for years,” Wolf charges. “They end up sending them to another community, so basically they are throwing their problem onto somebody else.”
Separately, a former Yeshivah College teacher has claimed that the school failed to act in response to another reported incident, wherein the alleged perpetrator, who also moved afterward to the United States, was a student. “The parents of the abused boy were so horrified that the school would not expel him (the offending student),” the ex-faculty member said, “that they ended up taking their son, as well as their two other younger boys, who were in the primary school, out of yeshiva and to another, less frum school.”
The alleged molester in that case, Mordechai Yomtov, was arrested nearly two decades later in Los Angeles on charges of sexually abusing three boys at a local Chabad yeshiva. In 2001, Yomtov pleaded guilty to the charges, and subsequently served one year in prison. Yomtov’s current location is not clear.
Rabbi Zvi Telsner, leader of the Australian day school’s synagogue and a son-in-law of the deceased Rabbi Groner, said he was unable to answer questions about past events because they occurred before he appeared on the scene. “I wasn’t here,” Telsner said. “I have no idea what happened.”
But parents in Melbourne were well aware of the unfolding scandal. One mother told an Australian newspaper that when she informed the day school that David Kramer was abusing her child, she was advised to get counseling. The Weekend Australian reported that Kramer “was flown to Israel at the school’s expense” after the allegations against him came to light. Harry Cooper, a former executive at Yeshivah College, told the newspaper, “At the request of the parents, we shipped him off. I remember it vividly.”
Eventually moving to America, Kramer was hired as a volunteer youth leader at an Orthodox shul in St. Louis. The shul’s rabbi, Ze’ev Smason, said Kramer was a “very attractive, dynamic fellow” who was popular with both parents and their children – until some parents spoke to Smason about the accusations of abuse. “When the question was one of safety for children who might come in contact with him, he was immediately reported,” Smason said. The police in St. Louis are planning to extradite Kramer to Australia for trial once he is freed on parole, which he becomes eligible for in the spring.
Sexual abuse is difficult enough for many victims to report, but Orthodox Jewish survivors and their families often find it much harder, because of the tight-knit nature of their communities and because of concerns that they are violating religious laws such as mesirah. Many are also worried about committing a chilul Hashem, a desecration of G-d’s name.
Some Haredi, or ultra-Orthodox, organizations, such as Agudath Israel of America, still instruct people that unless one has direct knowledge of abuse, such as being a victim himself or herself or personally witnessing such an incident, that person must consult a rabbi before reporting suspicions to the authorities.
Many in the Orthodox community have traditionally been reluctant to report child sexual abuse to police due to fear of violating the religious law of mesirah, which prohibits reporting on a fellow Jew to secular authorities. In fact, Agudath Israel of America recommends consulting with a rabbi before approaching the authorities when one has suspicions of abuse. In contrast, a beit din in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights issued a ruling at the time that the Melbourne scandal erupted, advising followers who suspect abuse that they are not in violation of halacha if they report their suspicions to the police.
In Rabbi Smason’s opinion, Orthodox Jews are often reluctant to report molestation by one of their own because they have an aversion to the prospect of besmirching Judaism’s image “They don’t realize that the ultimate chilul Hashem (desecration of G-d’s name) is that these things are kept quiet,” Smason stated, “and in the process, individuals bounce from community to community.”
Rabbi Meir Shlomo Kluwgant, immediate past president of the Rabbinical Council of Victoria, said that there has been no attempt to cover up abuse in Australia and that the rabbinate there is serious about dealing with the issue. “A lot of abuse accusations are based on rumor and innuendo, unless they’re proven in a court of law,” Kluwgant added.
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