Manny Waks has shared his personal story of being sexually abused as a child so many times that he appears almost numb to the trauma. He is well-known in Australia, especially within the Jewish community, as a resilient survivor and an outspoken advocate for victims who has brought the issue of pedophilia to national attention.
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But the poise with which he crusades on behalf of others belies his own lingering demons. As the number of people who confide in him grows, he says, it gets harder to make peace with his own past.
“It’s destructive,” Waks, 39, tells Haaretz in Ramat Hasharon, the central Israeli city where he and his family have lived since November, after being forced to leave Australia. “It’s literally destructive to deal with these things on a daily basis. There are days when I’m paralyzed, when I cannot work.”
When that’s not the case, Waks runs Kol V’Oz, an organization he launched here in Israel that serves as an umbrella group for institutions worldwide dealing with child sexual abuse in the Jewish community. It plans to offer training, best-practice materials, advocacy and research, to map the prevalence of child sexual abuse across global Jewish communities and the services currently available to victims, among other things.
“Once we have a better understanding of this,” says Waks, “we’ll be better placed to know where we need to go as a community and where to invest our resources as an organization.”
Waks grew up in the ultra-Orthodox Chabad community of Melbourne, the second-eldest of 17 children. He was sexually abused as a child by a security guard at the Yeshiva Center, an umbrella organization for Orthodox Jewish institutions in Australia, who was also his karate teacher, and was allegedly molested by another man at a local synagogue.
As an adult, at age 35, after efforts to confront the abuse with a rabbi and the police didn’t bear fruit, Waks went public with his story in 2011 in an interview with the Melbourne daily newspaper, The Age. Since then, he has become the face of child sexual abuse victim advocacy in Australia’s Jewish community.
The revelations caused a scandal both within and beyond the community. As a result, one of Waks’ offenders was imprisoned, as was a man who abused two of his younger brothers. In addition, many senior Australian rabbis have stepped down from their posts, and those who were suspected of hiding the offenses of the Yeshiva Center’s employees or intimidating victims into silence were questioned in the country’s Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.
But going public has taken a toll on Waks and his family. His parents, who supported him in his campaign, were ostracized from Melbourne’s Chabad community and eventually moved to Israel, where his mother remains a part of the Chabad community but his father has left – a dynamic that has driven a wedge through their marriage. Waks' wife felt so uncomfortable being associated with the constant criticism that he was being subjected to, and feared their three young sons would soon enough be exposed to it too, that she also wanted to leave Australia.
“People who weren’t sexually abused don’t fully understand its impact,” says Waks. “They don’t know what it is to have people not believe you – or cover it up – or intimidate you when you do try to do something about it.”
Despite this, he feels compelled to continue speaking out, even though his wife would prefer he give it up. In Australia, Waks founded Tzedek, an organization that works directly with victims of sexual abuse in the Jewish community, and in Israel he has begun lobbying the Knesset through Kol V’Oz to take action in this field.
“Every time I speak publicly about this, more and more people come forward to share their stories and take their complaints to the police,” says Waks, emphasizing the immense feeling of “unburdening” when a victim finally speaks out.
An afflicted fresh start
Diaspora communities have come a long way in acknowledging the issue since Waks first took his story to the press five years ago, but while some institutions publicly express a willingness to confront it, behind closed doors they would rather deal with it quietly, he says, by supporting the victim in going to the police but not informing the community of the allegation.
“Dealing with it quietly is a Band-Aid solution,” says Waks. “It may help the victim, it might make the organization feel that they’re doing the right thing, but we’re now at a stage where we need to encourage other victims to come forward.”
When victims speak out – either publicly or anonymously – it generates dialogue, he says, and provides institutions with an opportunity to educate its constituents, raise awareness and prevent further abuse.
Waks knows this isn’t easy and that to speak out is to invite another kind of abuse. For years he has had to put up with emails and Facebook messages vilifying him and calling him a fraud, as well as letters threatening to sue him for defamation – many of which are intended to intimidate him into silence.
In Israel, though he hopes to make a fresh start, he acknowledges that he is wading into the same toxic territory.
“There is no doubt that there will be critics here, too,” says Waks. “But I feel much more insulated here,” merely due to the size of the Jewish population and the vast array of issues it is tackling – national security being chief among them. He expects, therefore, to face less resistance, particularly among the large population of secular Israeli Jews who might appreciate his efforts to generate dialogue and instigate positive change around child protection, as was the case with many secular members of the Australian Jewish community.
Not only that, but in Israel he is not the whistle-blower he was in Australia. Rather, he is joining an existing, ongoing conversation about this issue.
Still, the very work of turning his nightmare into a lifelong mission takes a significant toll on Waks emotionally. Asked why, despite this, he insists on tackling child sexual abuse so publicly and vocally, he gets worked up. “Who else is going to do it?” he charges.
“There are many great advocates and organizations working to make a change,” he says. “But for people who weren’t abused themselves or haven’t shared it publicly, it’s a lot more difficult to achieve sustainable change.”
But the burden is heavy: When he first moved here, Waks began seeing a therapist once a week. Then he started going twice a week. Now, he is increasing that to four.