Just by listening to the intensity with which Manny Waks talks, one already begins to appreciate the ardour with which he approaches his work of tackling child sexual abuse within Jewish society.
Waks was himself a victim of such abuse when growing up in the Chabad community of Melbourne in the late 1980s and early 90s, and this experience along with the obstacles he encountered bringing his story to light led him to become a leading activist for dealing with the problem as it manifests inside Jewish communities around the world.
“Those who experience sexual abuse themselves are often the ones most passionate about dealing with it because others don’t fully understand or get it,” he told “The impact is profound and longterm from a number of perspectives, and so often we are the ones who end up taking the mantle.”
In 2012, Waks established Tzedek, an Australia-based support and advocacy group for Jewish victims of child sexual abuse. He has recently moved to Israel, and is in the process of setting up a new organization called Kol V’Oz, to act as a central body for organizations throughout the Jewish world dealing with the issue.
Waks notes that there are numerous organizations dealing with the scourge in Jewish communities around the world, and that the local groups are often best placed to deal with the particular concerns and incidents.
Kol V’Oz is designed to provide support, guidance and assistance to to such organizations, helping them with professional development of the institution, itself, providing them with best practice materials, and advising them on policies in communal institutions such as schools, synagogues, mikvas, and sporting clubs, in relevant languages.
“This issue is rampant in society today and it’s not unique to any particular segment of society,” he says, citing a figure that one in five children before age 18 will experience some form of child sexual abuse, in the Western world.
One area of focus which Waks has being trying to draw attention to is child sexual abuse within the haredi community.
He emphasized again that the phenomenon crosses all societal divides, but that different aspects of it are more pronounced in different communities, and that haredi society has its own unique problems dealing with the issue.
“In the haredi community, the fact that they don’t talk about child sexual abuse, and don’t even talk about the issue of sex, increases vulnerability in that community,” he says.
The trust factor in the haredi community towards people with a significant communal profile is also an important factor.
“They trust a fellow Jew who has a big beard and prays three times a day and knows Torah, such a person has their full trust, and no-one sees any reason to suspect that someone like that will harm kids,” he said.
Because of this kind of trust and the generally closed attitude to all sexual matters in haredi society, Waks says that vulnerability of potential victims is a concern.
During a meeting last week between with Chairwoman of the Knesset’s Special Committee for the Rights of the Child and Kulanu MK Yifat Shasha-Biton, Waks and other activists sought to emphasize the importance of tackling the issue within the haredi community.
The meeting was designed to lay the groundwork for holding a full committee hearing in the summer session of the Knesset to tackle this aspect of the problem.
Shasha-Biton and her committee have already been active on the issue, and the MK highlighted another concern that can hinder efforts to help victims and prosecute offenders.
A concept of Jewish law which is often observed within haredi communities is that of “moser,” an injunction against cooperating with non-religious law enforcement authorities instead of dealing with such issues in the rabbinical courts.
Shasha-Biton noted that in dealing with some cases of child sexual abuse, she had been made aware that the victim had been accused of “moser” and that they and their families had been subsequently subjected to various social exclusion practices.
The MK said that the committee was working on various ways to deal with the phenomenon, legislatively and on the ground, including approaching the wives of prominent rabbis to enlist their help in both raising awareness and combatting child sexual abuse in the community.
She also mentioned a rabbinical declaration that was issued last year by haredi rabbis in the US stating that it is an obligation of Jewish law on all Jews to immediately notify law enforcement officials when a reasonable suspicion.
The declaration was seen as a rejection of the concept of “moser” for child sexual abuse issues.
Shasha-Biton said that a similar declaration needs to be heard from rabbis in Israel and said this is one of the goals the committee is trying to achieve.
Also present at the meeting was Dr. Yitzhak Kadman, the outgoing director of the National Council for the Child. Kadman said that despite the obstacles in haredi society, there is a new openness within the community to tackling the issue.
He also emphasized the importance of adjusting the approach taken, to the characteristics of haredi society, saying that it was vital to be tolerant of the differences in attitude to such issues.
Research conducted in 2010 showed that the national rate of sexual abuse victims up to age 14 was 1.7 per thousand in 2010. Figures for predominantly ultra-Orthodox towns and neighborhoods vary. Modi’in Illit had a rate of 0.7 per thousand in 2010, and Beitar Illit had a rate of 1.7, whereas Elad had a rate of 4.3.
For Waks, the efforts of the Special Committee for the Rights of the Child and its willingness to cooperate with him and his new organization are a crucial development in his struggle to provide assistance to those who have been victims of abuse, to raising awareness of the problem, and to the goal of prevention as well.
Getting the attention of Shasha-Biton and the committee is he says another important step forward.
“It’s so gratifying to see that all the hard work by so many people is being vindicated,” said Waks. “It’s very empowering and it feels like change is in the air.”