Former Jewish leader’s sex abuse charges rock Melbourne community

Menachem (Manny) Waks was on a leadership training program in Israel in June 2011 when he made a decision that would radically change his life.

Flicking through Melbourne’s The Age newspaper on his laptop one morning, he spotted an article about David Kramer, who was convicted of pedophilia in Missouri in 2008 and now was wanted in Melbourne on allegations of child sex abuse dating to his stint as a teacher at Chabad’s Yeshivah College in the late 1980s.

Waks, a former vice president of the Executive Council of Australian Jews, studied at the all-boys college. He was not one of Kramer’s alleged victims, but the article stirred nightmarish flashbacks.

“When I saw that article, I thought this is the right opportunity,” Waks, 36, told JTA. “I knew there were other perpetrators and victims within the Jewish community. Someone needed to shatter the wall of silence, and I realized it needed to be me.”

The wall was decimated on the morning of July 8, 2011, when Waks' story was published on the front page of The Age.

Under the headline “Jewish community leader tells of sex abuse,” Waks revealed he had been molested as a student — not once, but several times. Not by one official, but by two — one of whom he claims is the son of a venerated Chabad emissary.

Waks said he was molested in a synagogue and in a ritual bath, where he was lured to bathe in the nude by his alleged assailant.

His revelations landed like a bomb in Balaclava, a leafy Melbourne suburb that is home to a large proportion of the 50,000-strong Jewish community, including many affiliated with the Chabad hasidic movement. Waks’s explosive accusations — in particular his claim that senior Chabad rabbis covered up complaints by parents and even helped alleged perpetrators flee the country — triggered a sequence of dramatic events that has shaken the Jewish community.

Nearly two years on, the aftershocks are still reverberating.

In December, Waks testified before the Victorian parliamentary inquiry into child sex abuse. Next month, he is expected to be called before the royal commission into institutional child sex abuse in Australia. And he has taken leave from his job as a public servant to work as the full-time director of Tzedek, an advocacy group he founded last year for Jewish victims of child sexual abuse.

In short, he has become the face of child sex abuse in the Australian Jewish community, the shoulders on which other victims lean and their primary media spokesman.

Sitting in a cafe in the heart of Jewish Melbourne last week, Waks looks nothing like the devout hasidic kid who grew up in a strictly Orthodox household with 16 siblings. Indeed, his traumatic childhood prompted Waks to sever ties with Chabad in his late teens, shave his beard and abandon his black hat. Today he is bespectacled and sports a goatee beard; a tattoo is visible on his left arm.

“I hate going to synagogue,” Waks says. “I feel very uncomfortable being there. I can’t even utter prayers from the siddur. But I go there for my kids.”

Since he came forward, Waks says dozens of Jewish victims of abuse have contacted him. Of those, only one — Yaakov Wolf, the son of a popular kabbalistic rabbi — has spoken publicly.

“It’s been endemic within the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community — both the abuses and the cover-ups. There’s enough evidence to support that,” Waks says. “There are so many cases, so many allegations, so many perpetrators, so many victims and so many more allegations yet to be revealed.”

Waks says he has received “incredible” support from within the community. Ze’ev Smason, a St. Louis rabbi who reported the allegations against Kramer to police, congratulated Waks for helping confront “a form of spiritual toxicity” within Orthodoxy. Waks says his family also has been largely supportive.

But to others, Waks is exploiting an unfortunate situation. He has been accused of grandstanding and seeking fame and fortune while taking down the very organization that helped raise him and his siblings.

“Is it grandstanding?” Waks asks. “Maybe. But the simple rhetorical question to these individuals is this: What have you done to address the rampant child sexual abuse and cover-ups that have plagued our community for decades?”

Perhaps inevitably, the intense media coverage Waks has generated has had a polarizing effect in the Jewish community.

The editor of the Australian Jewish News, Zeddy Lawrence, wrote that the scandal indicates the Orthodox rabbinate is “an apple that is rotten to the core.” In response, Rabbi Meir Kluwgant, the president of the Rabbinical Council of Victory, wrote last week, “Never in my history as a religious leader within our community have I experienced such disrespect and contempt leveled at the religious leadership as a whole.”

Chabad's leadership has remained tight-lipped since the charges were first made public. In a July 2011 letter, Rabbi Yehoshua Smukler, the principal of Yeshivah College, called the effects of abuse “profound” and urged victims to contact authorities. He declined to comment further because the matter is before the courts.

In August, Yeshivah Center, the college's parent body, apologized “unreservedly” for “any historical wrongs that may have occurred.” A spokesman for Chabad headquarters in Brooklyn, N.Y., noted that the organization's child safety policies requires reporting child abuse to the appropriate authorities.

Despite such sentiments, Waks has neither forgiven not forgotten what happened to him under Chabad's watch. He is particularly rankled that his father, Zephaniah, has been denied communal rites at Chabad’s main synagogue and shunned by members of the tight-knit community.

“It has profoundly impacted my father’s health and his life,” Waks says.

At least three cases are slated to go to court this year, two of them embroiling Yeshivah College. Kramer, who was extradited late last year, will face a committal hearing next month to ascertain whether the multiple counts of assaults against minors between 1989 and 1992 merit a trial.

In July, David Cyprys, a former board member of an Orthodox synagogue and a former security guard at the college, will face trial on 41 counts of child sex abuse against 12 former students, including Waks and Wolf.

And a third man, whose name is being suppressed by a court order, also is expected to face trial later this year on charges involving Jewish children in a non-Orthodox Jewish organization.

Despite the progress in the courts, the public criticism and the expressions of remorse from religious leaders, Waks says he has no intention of letting up.

“If I step away, there are many powerful individuals and bodies who would still much rather see this whole scandal swept under the carpet,” Waks says. “We are resilient. We will not be intimidated. We will no longer remain silent.”

Sad encounter prompts sex trafficking docudrama

The inspiration for “Holly,” a docudrama about child sex-trafficking, came as Israeli-born producer Guy Jacobson inadvertently wandered into a notorious red light district in the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh five years ago.

“It was a dusty street like any other, but suddenly, I was surrounded by 15 little girls — 5, 6 and 7 years old — who were aggressively soliciting me for sex,” Jacobson said in a phone interview from his Manhattan apartment, now the headquarters of the Redlight Children Campaign he has co-founded to help fight child prostitution. “I was struggling to remove their hands, and most of them realized that I was not a potential client, but one of the littlest girls kept saying, ‘I yum yum very good; I no money today, mama-san boxing me,’ which meant the madam of her brothel would beat her up. I gave her $20 and walked away, but I knew I had to return and do something about this horrific problem.”

In the summer of 2004, Jacobson did return to that dusty street and the adjacent brothels to film “Holly” — accompanied by 40 bodyguards wielding M-16s to protect the cast and crew from gangsters.

The drama tells of Holly (Thuy Nguyen), a 12-year-old virgin, and Patrick (Ron Livingston), an American smuggler who becomes obsessed with saving her from the pervasive, government-backed industry. It proves to be a fool’s errand, and while “Holly” has been lauded on the festival circuit (one reviewer called it “a work of serious, contemplative outrage”), it has also been criticized for “dousing its drama with the cold water of education,” in the words of another.

Critics have also noted that it is among several recent films on sex trafficking, including “Trade” and the documentary, “Very Young Girls,” which “is working its way into the popular culture since the U.S. Congress passed human trafficking legislation in 2000, said Carol Smolenski of ECPAT-USA (End Child Prostitution, Child Pornography and Trafficking of Children for Sexual Purposes-USA). An estimated 2 million child sex workers toil in what the United Nations deems the fastest growing criminal enterprise worldwide.

The hyper-realistic portrayal of such a child’s life has made “Holly” a darling of human rights activists (the United Nations hosted a VIP screening with Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton [D-N.Y.] on the host committee); The New York Times published two stories on the movie, one also focusing on the Red Light campaign, before it opened in New York two weeks ago, earning a No. 2 slot for all-around box office receipts.

While the prostitution drama may well recoup its budget of several million dollars, the effort was not about the money, Jacobson insisted. “I don’t mean to offend anybody, but for me, this is a global crime against humanity, similar to the Holocaust,” he said. “And once you see the film, you can no longer say you didn’t realize the scope of the problem, only that you don’t care.”

Jacobson, 44, said it is no coincidence that almost everyone involved in making the film grew up in Israel, including the writer-director, Guy Moshe, and New York financiers Smadar and Amit Kort, who were so moved by early drafts of the script that they vowed to give Jacobson whatever he needed to produce it. “We’re used to operating under stress, and making this film was like a miniwar,” he said.

Jacobson drew on his experience in Israeli intelligence during the Lebanon War to research “how a 12-year-old prostitute really feels” in Phnom Penh. While posing as a pedophile client, he chatted with the girls, their pimps and clients in cafes and “bought” a time upstairs with various girls in order to photograph their rooms, which were tiny, dirty, and decorated with magazine cutouts of puppies and kittens (he would ask them to take a shower so he could snap pictures and tell them he wasn’t in the mood when they returned.)

It took 15 drafts (and Moshe’s reworking of the script) to get the tone just right: “Go a bit too far and the film becomes unbearable, and if you don’t go far enough, it won’t raise awareness,” Jacobson said. The filmmakers included neither sex nor nudity in order to avoid exploiting the subject matter.

Moshe said he also drew on his Israeli military service — in an elite special forces unit in the Gaza Strip during the intifada — to make the film. His job was to seek out and arrest terrorists, and while he declined to elaborate, he would say, “You’re still a child mentally, but you’re thrown into situations and experiences that many much older people never go through. It makes you identify more with people enduring the bleaker side of life.”

Because of their wartime experiences, neither Moshe nor Jacobson were alarmed when they received a call from Interpol agents just before they were to begin production, reporting that contracts had been taken out on their lives. The filmmakers were advised to leave the country immediately.

“Then just three days before the shoot, we learned officials were going to shut down the movie unless we paid them an obscene amount of money,” Moshe said. “We had to negotiate with them around the clock, and that debacle ended with me counting out $60,000 in cash — with a bodyguard standing behind me — to a delegate with his own bodyguard.”

Moshe and Jacobson smuggled the scenes shot each day to secret locations outside of Cambodia (“That meant I didn’t see dailies until 17 days into the shoot,” Moshe recalled), and a co-producer was detained at the airport as she tried to leave the country with much of the equipment (she laid low for a week by hiding in seedy hotels under an assumed name).

The scene based on Jacobson’s memories of being solicited by a 5-year-old posed a different set of challenges. Moshe obtained his child actors from an orphanage run by a social worker, who wanted to help eradicate the real-life problem. In order to protect the girls, who did not speak English, he taught them their lines phonetically so they did not know what they were saying. ( Two psychologists were on the set.)

Pedophiles or Victims? You Decide

When I met with Andrew Jarecki, director of the disturbing new documentary, "Capturing the Friedmans," I was prepared to ask him dozens of questions about the Jewish aspects of the film: Does it make the Jewish community look bad? How does it relate to the community today? How does his own New York Jewish upbringing relate to the subjects of the film? After all, this film about pedophilia concerns a suburban Jewish family living in the very Jewish suburb of Great Neck, Long Island.

But first, I desperately needed to ask Jarecki one question:

Did they do it?

Did Arnold Friedman and his youngest son, Jesse, repeatedly harass, molest and sodomize some of the elementary school boys taking an after-school computer club at their house, or were they targets of an overzealous police force on a witch hunt in suburbia?

In 1987 (around the same time that Jarecki started what was to become the ubiquitous MovieFone), Nassau County police arrested Arnold and Jesse on dozens of charges of sexual crimes against children. The manicured hamlet came under a Clintonian-like media scrutiny and righteously turned on the Friedman family.

But what makes this story different from, say, other prominent cases of pedophilia, is that the Friedmans themselves were intense documentarians: Throughout their lives, they shot stilted home movies of birthdays, holidays like Passover and Chanukah and kiddie pool parties. The filming didn’t end after the arrest, though. The camera remained on while the accusations unraveled their lives.

Surprisingly, that is what is most disturbing about the film; not the sexual nature of the case, but the dissolution of the family: The nagging Jewish mother, unsupportive of her nerdy Jewish husband who meekly faces her withering words; the children — David, Seth and Jesse — forced to stick up for their overprotective father; the Stepford-like Jewish community that prides itself on upward mobility and sends its post-Hebrew school children to computer classes at the Friedmans. Yes, it’s your typical dysfunctional Jewish family — smiling in bar mitzvah pictures, fighting at the seder table — until the FBI knocks on the door, and the Friedmans end up tearing one other apart like hungry locusts. More than the accusations, the real horror of the story is the drama of a recognizably bitter family falling apart.

Which is why this documentary — winner of the Grand Jury Documentary Prize at Sundance this year — has struck such a chord with audiences, even in its opening week. In New York and Great Neck, the heated Q-and-A sessions (which will also take place in Los Angeles) "sort of give [the audience] permission to be a little more emotional about it," Jarecki said, attributing that response to the fact that most documentaries present two sides of a story and "whoever is more credible" the audience sides with.

"Because there were home videos, the audience becomes a primary source — you get a chance to decide for yourself," he said. "The film charges the audience as a judge might a jury."

Yet even with the home movies, three years’ worth of interviews — with the family, police, prosecutors, judge, neighbors, accusers — you don’t know. Did they do it?

What did Jarecki think?

"I try not to behave [as] if I were there," he said, dodging the question. "I think the issue is so much more complicated than the case because there were two people involved: Arnold and his son. Some people say, ‘I don’t know if I believe them. I don’t know if they’re guilty or innocent.’ And the only thing I was trying to make people do is to separate these two people in their minds, because, you know, who among us wants to be judged by the same criterion as our parents?"

Jarecki himself stumbled into this saga with different intentions. After he and his partners sold MovieFone to AOL for $388 million in stock options in 1999, he decided to make a nice little documentary about children’s birthday party entertainers, following one Manhattanite clown named David Friedman. But when Friedman took Jarecki into his childhood home in Great Neck, Long Island, Jarecki unlocked the secret to this sad clown.

That’s how Jarecki’s life unfolds: When he can’t get through on the telephone to a movie theater back in 1988, he decides to start MovieFone. When he wants to make a sweet documentary, he stumbles onto one of the most sensational stories a filmmaker could hope to find.

"I’m very lucky. Strange things happen to me," said the filmmaker, who is as engaging as his film. Wearing jeans and a dark blue long-sleeved T-shirt, a green-and-blue beaded bracelet peeking through, the 40-year-old looks ever the causal dot-com millionaire cum artiste, and he casually accepts his fortuitous life (now taking place in Rome, with his wife and three sons).

"The only thing I really credit myself with is being willing to let it develop," he said.

And if you feel like the wool is being pulled over your eyes on this roller coaster of a tale, Jarecki said it’s only because he’s trying to present the information as he himself discovered it: onion layers of contradictions impeccably interwoven to create a heartbreaking story that you’ll have to just see for yourself.