One of the smaller institutions where child sexual abuse has come to light is the ultra-orthodox Jewish community known as Yeshiva in Sydney and Yeshivah in Melbourne.
The Yeshiva/h community includes a network of synagogues, schools, community and youth centres, ritual bath houses and businesses, all closely linked through religious and familial connections. Because of the extremely close-knit nature of the community it would be too identifying to write individual survivors’ stories, so this is a compilation of some of their experiences, drawn from a wider group who came forward.
Survivors told us they grew up in a very sheltered and strict environment, where religious education was prioritised over any broader involvement with society. Many felt this left them vulnerable to predators.
Enoch told the Commissioner that the Yeshiva/h school he attended didn’t have sex education classes and wasn’t a place where children discussed personal matters at all.
Survivors often didn’t understand what was going on during the actual incidents of abuse.
Adon, who was abused by his teacher, said he felt confused and unsettled after it happened, not understanding what the teacher had done but sensing that there was something wrong about it.
Enoch, who was abused by a teacher who had been invited into the family home, said, ‘It was the feeling of someone using power over you and the feeling of helplessness when it was only a very brief event, but it was at my house and I had no concept of how to react’.
In some instances, the children had the courage to report what had happened to them at the time of the events.
Adon said, after he reported, some action was taken and the abuser was removed from his former position in the community. But he reappeared a few weeks later in another position at his school.
Eban said that when the news broke of a teacher’s abuse, all the teachers at his school went into denial. The school offered no counselling to him or the other victims, and no apology.
Adon later found out that his father had spoken to the head of the school who dismissed the issue saying, ‘Adon is young, he won’t remember’.
As they grew up, many of these survivors saw larger forces at work when it came to Yeshiva/h’s failure to adequately respond to their complaints of sexual abuse. The way the organisation evolved and is still structured was seen as a fundamental part of the problem.
Eban said, ‘The institutions are run like a “quasi-mafia”, with many interlinked family members in positions of authority, which contributes to a culture of bullying and intimidation’.
Davi agreed with this sentiment. He said, ‘These people who have positions of leadership within the institution are self-appointed, they are self-governed, they are self-assessed …’
Davi continued, ‘They take the view that these things happened so long ago and, anyway, the person [perpetrator] has asked for forgiveness, so it’s okay now … Everything is about the reputation of the institution and the reputation of those involved ... They don’t care. They’re not interested’.
Eban said while there are rabbis who are supportive of victims, he is not convinced they can do anything effective. He believes the only way things are likely to change will be through legal action. ‘I see within the institution, I still see this ingrained lack of accountability, lack of responsibility, lack of genuine caring and friendship that is required to seriously deal with these issues.’
One of the problems survivors struggled with was how the rest of the world views Jewish institutions and the historically entrenched reasons for Jews not speaking out against their own faith.
‘There’s a massive part of the secular and religious community that feels you’re going to incite anti-Semitism if you show how bad we are’, said Davi. ‘So that sense of “we are a light unto the nation, we know better”, it still prevails and that no one should see your dirty laundry. No-one should see what we’re like – really like – because they will hate us and it will start a Holocaust again.’
Davi also saw this affecting the way Yeshiva/h views its own position in the world.
‘It’s like an Amish community within a community … They are caged in that kind of mindset and they don’t care … They actually don’t give a shit about secular law … They have no respect for the law of Australia.’
Some survivors were pessimistic they would ever get any sense of justice from the organisation, having been disappointed by responses they received in the past.
‘Every apology they’ve given so far has been couched in very bad language’, said Enoch. ‘It hasn’t been an outright apology, you know, it’s been “if” and “but” and “when” and “maybe”, and so you know, I don’t think bending their arm behind their back and forcing them to make what appears to be a genuine apology is going to be genuine … The only reason they’re apologising is because they’ve been caught.’
But Eban is one of the survivors who is hopeful of change, and of finding a way forwards for the whole community.
‘Having these issues come to light will actually be good for the Jewish community – if it’s done in a dignified way, if the real leaders, the people that have a voice and moral backbone, if they’re also given a voice to speak out … if there’s some form of change.’