Manny Waks stands on a street corner in Park Slope, Brooklyn. He drank so much the night before that he doesn’t remember what time he got back to his hotel room. His voice is hoarse and his eyes are hidden behind a pair of black sunglasses. Waks is not sure why he got so wasted, but it could have something to do with his mission today - confronting the man who, according to Waks, sexually abused him as a child more than 25 years ago.
It’s just after midday on May 10, a spring Sunday morning. The sun has finally burnt through the early morning mist and blossoms litter the sidewalk on the cross streets. Waks leans against the brick wall of a diner beneath the shadow of a red awning. Directly across the street, a few doors down, he can see the apartment of Velvel Serebryanski.
Men and women walk along the avenue, sipping coffee or carrying groceries. Children glide by on scooters. They would probably be oblivious to this 39-year-old man if it were not for his entourage — a video cameraman, a sound technician holding a boom microphone, a photographer shooting stills, a director shouting orders and a beefy off-duty security guard standing, arms folded, off to the side.
The crew are here to shoot “Breaking the Silence,” the follow-up to an award-winning documentary film about Waks called “Code of Silence,” which aired in Australia in 2014.
Waks is the center of attention because he was the catalyst for an Orthodox sex abuse scandal that erupted in Australia in 2012, leading to the arrest and jailing of several men for sexually assaulting boys during the 1980s and 1990s. The abuse scandal led to a government commission investigation and the resignation of several senior Chabad rabbis.
As a result, Waks and his parents suffered years of shunning and intimidation until they were eventually hounded out of the country.
I am wearing a pair of headphones that are tuned in to a lapel microphone clipped to Waks’s shirt. The director, Danny Ben-Moshe, a British citizen who lives in Australia, asks what Waks hopes to get out of this encounter.
In the best case scenario, Waks says, he and Serebryanski will have a civil conversation in which Serebryanski shows remorse and Waks persuades him to go to Australia to face up to his actions. The worst case scenario, Waks says, would be if he doesn’t see Serebryanski at all.
Waks and the crew wait to see if Serebryanski enters or leaves the apartment building. After about an hour, Waks can’t take it any longer. He sees a neighbor step out of an adjacent building with some trash. Approaching him, Waks asks whether he has children and if he knows Serebryanski. “There’s a pedophile next door,” Waks tells the man, who disappears back into his building.
Waks walks up the stoop of Serebryanski’s four-story building. “I’m sick of waiting,” he says.
The director, cameraman and photographer are behind Waks now as he tries the buzzer and pulls on the door handle. He leans over the railing towards the window of the ground floor apartment that he believes is his abuser’s and he shouts:
A window, protected by an iron grill, is open. A brown curtain shifts and flutters back in the breeze.
“Velvel! We will just wait a little bit more,” Waks shouts. “Why don’t you come out?”
Frustrated, Waks walks down the stoop and opens the gate to a tiny front yard. The director and cameraman rush in behind Waks as he shifts a trash can aside to get closer to the window.
“I saw you!” Waks shouts. “Velvel! Do you want me to contact all your neighbors? Let them know who you are?”
Waks is sure he has seen Serebryanski. But Serebryanski won’t come to the window, leaving Waks impotent, standing among the trashcans, shouting in through the window.
Ben-Moshe, the director, asks: “Manny, is there anything you want to tell him?”
Waks shouts Serebryanski’s name again.
“Manny,” Ben-Moshe says, “He’s not coming out.”
The commotion attracts neighbors. Jose Torres, wearing a white T-shirt and a New York Yankees baseball cap turned backward, emerges from the building next door. Torres says his father is the superintendent of Serebryanski’s building.
“He’s a pedophile,” Waks tells Torres about Serebryanski, adding that Serebryanski was never convicted. “I wanted to talk to him about that.”
Torres says he is glad that Waks is letting people know. Torres grew up on the block and he says that there are a lot of children around.
“My intention isn’t to push him out,” Waks says. “He deserves to live.”
Waks has blocked many memories from his childhood. But he says he remembers vividly the first time he was sexually abused, an incident Waks logged almost 10 years after the fact in a 1996 report to Victoria police.
It was the first night of Shavuot, when ultra-Orthodox men stay up all night studying Torah.
Most of the more liberal Jews had left the synagogue on the campus of the Yeshivah Centre in Melbourne, Australia. The men and boys who remained were dressed in the black trousers and white shirts common among followers of the Hasidic Chabad-Lubavitch movement.
Despite the late hour, Waks says there were still dozens of people in the building. Some were listening to a rabbi’s lecture, some were studying in small groups or on their own. Others were simply shmoozing or taking a quiet break.
Around 1 A.M., Waks, who was then about 12 years old, decided to head upstairs to the women’s gallery on the first floor of the synagogue to get some rest. As he climbed the stairs, he says he sensed someone following him.
He caught a glimpse of the man and recognized him as Serebryanski, the son of one of Chabad’s principal emissaries to Australia, Rabbi Aaron Serebryanski.
Velvel Serebryanski was more than 10 years older than Waks. Waks says Serebryanski often stared at him in synagogue and made him feel uncomfortable.
When Waks reached the women’s section there was another boy, a few years older than Waks, who was already laid out on one of the pews, apparently asleep. Waks says he lay down and pretended to fall asleep too. The next thing he felt was Serebryanski’s hand. First on Waks’s leg. Then traveling up toward his groin.
Waks’s new life as an advocate for abuse victims began in 2011. That June, Waks read a story in a prominent Australian newspaper, The Age, about Australian police attempts to investigate abuse allegations against David Kramer.
At the time, Kramer was serving a seven-year prison sentence in America for sodomizing a Jewish boy in St. Louis, Missouri.
Kramer was a former Jewish Studies teacher at the Yeshivah Centre’s primary school. Australian police were following up on reports that Kramer had abused several boys in the Yeshivah Centre between 1989 and 1992. Only later would police learn that senior figures in Chabad Australia hustled Kramer out of the country, which is how he ended up in America.
Waks knew only too well about Kramer. Waks has six sisters and 10 brothers. Two of those brothers were abused by Kramer.
Waks’s father, Zephaniah Waks, had already spoken to police about those incidents.
Now, Waks contacted police to say that not only did he believe that Kramer had many more victims, he also wanted to talk to police about another former Yeshivah Centre employee, David Cyprys.
Cyprys impressed the kids at the Yeshivah Centre.
He was the security guard whom you could tag along with as he locked all the doors in the building. He was a regular karate instructor and sometime youth leader who evicted non-Jewish kids who trespassed on the campus basketball court after hours.
Cyprys began abusing Waks when Waks was about 13 years old, he said. It started with inappropriate touching during karate lessons. Then it graduated to fondling in the white van Cyprys used to transport kids home from karate classes.
One of Waks’s most vivid memories is of Cyprys letting him into the Yeshivah Centre’s ritual bath, known as a mikveh, one winter night.
The two undressed and waded into the warm water. Cyprys said he wanted to teach Waks floating techniques. He helped Waks raise his body to the surface of the water. Then, he sexually assaulted him.
Waks carried these memories of Serebryanski and Cyprys with him for decades.
Waks believes they were the primary reasons why he rebelled against Hasidic Judaism during his teens. He started acting out in class. He left the Yeshivah Centre voluntarily and got kicked out of his next yeshiva in Sydney.
Waks immigrated to Israel when he was 18 and served in the Israel Defense Forces. He lived in Israel, as a secular Jew, for six years. After returning to Australia in 2000, he completed his high school education and, after that, he earned a degree in international relations.
Waks’s first job was as head of the B’nai B’rith Anti-Defamation Commission. Soon after, Waks was appointed a vice-president of The Executive Council of Australian Jewry.
Waks’s new, public life taught him the power of the media. He often considered disclosing his abuse but he and his wife decided it wasn’t the right time. They had three young children. It seemed too soon.
When Waks read about the Kramer investigation in 2011, he couldn’t contain himself any longer. He knew that The Age’s story about Kramer was just the tip of a decades-long abuse cover-up.
Waks had heard that the police were looking into other cases. He knew that if he, as a Jewish communal leader, broke his silence and spoke openly about being abused, it might give others the courage to come forward.
So Waks contacted The Age. He gave an interview saying that he had been abused by two Orthodox men in Melbourne without naming either of his abusers. He appealed for all victims, not just of Kramer, to contact the police.
Waks told the newspaper: “The main reason for the silence is the culture in this segment of the Jewish community to keep these types of issues quiet.” He said that he personally knew many abuse victims who had not come forward because of the stigma associated with abuse.
More victims stepped forward, providing evidence that top Chabad officials in Australia mishandled decades of abuse. Allegations were ignored or covered up. At least one molester was spirited out of the country.
Less than two months after Waks spoke to The Age, Australian police arrested Cyprys.
In 2012, Waks founded a not-for-profit organization called Tzedek, which means justice, to support victims of abuse as well as to counsel Jewish organizations on ways to prevent abuse and to protect children.
The following year, Cyprys was sentenced to eight years in jail for raping a 15-year-old boy and for sexually assaulting eight others. That same year, Kramer, who had been extradited to Australia from America, was sentenced to three years in jail for sexually assaulting four boys.
I have been to Velvel Serebryanski’s apartment in Brooklyn before.
When the Australian abuse scandal began to unfold in 2012, I wrote a story for the Forward about Serebryanski and Waks.
Serebryanski, who goes by the name Zev Sero in New York, did not deny the allegations. But he declined to speak on the record.
(When I returned to his apartment on May 15 this year to see if he would be willing to speak on-the-record about Waks’s allegations, Serebryanski did not appear to be home. He did not respond to an email sent to his Facebook account.)
As I watch Waks try to coax Serebryanski out of his apartment, I wonder whether he would have had more success if he had come without a camera crew.
Waks returns to Serebryanski’s open window.
“I know you can hear me,” Waks shouts. “Your neighbors know now. The question is, should I go to shul and let them know? You can come out and talk.”
A man who looks to be in his late 50s walks up the stoop to Serebryanski’s building. Waks asks if he knows Serebryanski. I cannot make out the entire conversation through my headphones, but it sounds as though the neighbor isn’t pleased with Waks’s behavior.
When another neighbor, a man who looks to be in his 20s, walks up the stoop, Waks tries to engage him in a conversation about Serebryanski. The man turns his key in the door. “I don’t want to talk to you, man,” he says, as he slips inside.
Waks acknowledges into the lapel microphone that it’s uncomfortable for people to be confronted on their doorstep by a man with a camera crew telling them their neighbor is a pedophile.
Soon, the older of the two neighbors re-emerges from the building. He is wearing a faded red baseball cap. He sits on the stoop, opens a blue ring binder and proceeds to page through it as though it is perfectly natural that a few feet away there is a camera crew and a man telling strangers about a pedophile on the block.
Waks approaches the man. The neighbor says he will talk to Waks, but not on camera.
The microphone picks up the conversation, but it’s hard to hear the man’s responses. He sounds skeptical about Waks’s claims that Serebryanski is a pedophile. When Waks reveals that he is one of Serebryanski’s victims, the man asks how long ago the abuse took place.
The conversation continues. Then Waks says: “Really? I have just told you there is a pedophile here and you are not concerned?”
Waks tells the neighbor he is trying to raise awareness about abuse.
“So you are not here as an objective journalist,” the neighbor responds. He accuses Waks of not being truthful.
Waks walks away. He is shocked that the neighbor seems to be suggesting that Waks should just let the issue rest.
“I don’t think I can let it be,” Waks says. “But it seems [Serebryanski] has got the support of a neighbor at least.”
Waks heads up the street to talk to a group of Hispanic people, including Torres, who have gathered near the corner.
I could follow but, for now, I am more intrigued by the neighbor.
It took a government inquiry to fully expose the failure of Chabad’s rabbinic leadership in Australia.
Over 10 days this February, the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sex Abuse heard from a succession of victims and their families. They testified about the Yeshivah Centre’s unwillingness to take abuse claims seriously, about rabbinic pressure not to go to the police, about the intimidation of families who chose to speak out.
Leading rabbis were grilled over their handling of claims, the shunning and intimidation of victims and their attitudes toward abuse.
At the heart of the scandal was Rabbi Yitzchok Dovid Groner, the longtime head of the Yeshivah Centre, who died in 2008.
The commission heard how, facing a backlash from victims’ families, Groner bought Kramer a plane ticket to Israel in the early 1990s. The commission also heard how Groner ignored numerous complaints about Cyprys during the 1980s and 1990s.
One mother testified that she reported Cyprys abusing her son in 1986 and was assured by Groner that he would take care of it. She later learned that Cyprys continued to abuse her son for a further two years.
In another case, a student who complained of being abused by Cyprys was expelled from the school. Meanwhile, Cyprys, who pleaded guilty to indecently assaulting the boy in 1992, continued to be employed as a security guard at the Yeshivah Centre for an additional decade.
As a result of what transpired at the commission hearings, several leading rabbis lost their posts.
Rabbi Abraham Glick, who was principal of Yeshivah College between 1986 and 2007, when much of the molestation took place, resigned his position as a teacher at the school.
Rabbi Meir Shlomo Kluwgant, president of the Organisation of Rabbis of Australasia, stepped down from his post after a text message he sent to the editor of the Australian Jewish News, calling Zephaniah Waks “a lunatic on the fringe,” was read out to the commission.
Glick and Kluwgant did not respond to requests for comment.
In Sydney, Rabbi Yosef Feldman resigned as a director of the Yeshiva Centre. In an email, Feldman pointed the Forward to press coverage reporting his position that he had resigned not because he did anything wrong, but as a result of his testimony to the commission being misrepresented in the media.
Rabbi Yehoshua Smuckler, the current principal of Yeshivah College, did not respond to a request for comment.
Waks saw the commission not just as a vindication of his campaign, but as a form of closure.
The way Waks sees it, he was made to suffer three times. First when he was abused. Then, when the abuse was covered up. Finally, by communal intimidation and harassment.
“Closure means the ability for me to move forward without being stuck too much in the past, letting go of a lot of the hurt, pain and suffering,” Waks says.
‘I think they should leave him alone and not harass him,” says Serebryanski’s neighbor, who declines to give his name.
He tells me that Serebryanski has been “a good member of the community” for more than 20 years. “To fly halfway around the world to shame the guy seems inappropriate to me,” the neighbor says.
Most media stories about Orthodox sex abuse focus on the tight-knit, insular, ultra-Orthodox community. But this neighbor is most probably a liberal, Jewish — he recognized the Forward when I identified myself — resident of Park Slope, a famously progressive section of Brooklyn.
“To come to the building and start making allegations to neighbors suggests someone very subjective in viewpoint and someone who wants to harass more than enlighten or caution,” the neighbor said.
As the neighbor is speaking I notice that the curtain in Serebryanski’s window is no longer fluttering. It is pulled right back into the darkest recesses of the shadow as though by a piece of string. Or a hand.
In the dark I think I can make out Serebryanski’s profile. The neighbor, who is facing me, says Waks can’t simply turn up “throwing inflammatory terms around to people he doesn’t know.”
I step away from the stoop to find out how Waks’s mission is going. Waks tells me that the Hispanic neighbors say at least a couple of kids in the area have complained that Serebryanski stares at them and makes them feel uncomfortable.
“My concerns are heightened and justified,” Waks says. But he admits there is only so much he can do.
The curtain returns to fluttering in the breeze. Waks resumes telling any neighbors who come out onto the street that they are living next door to a pedophile.
“One of the intended actions was successful,” Waks says, referring to his warning to neighbors.
It is obvious that Serebryanski will not come out of his apartment to speak to Waks or to the show’s director. After about a half hour, the team moves back to the street corner.
Waks says he pities Serebryanski. He has always thought of him as a sad individual.
Waks said as much when he filed his police report in 1996 detailing how both Serebryanski and Cyprys had abused him.
Nothing came of the report. Waks still can’t quite understand why the police didn’t investigate Cyprys further, especially in light of his guilty plea a few years earlier. “I do regard it as a failure of sorts by Victoria Police,” he says.
Serebryanski is a different matter. He was already living in America by that time.
That night in the women’s gallery of the Yeshivah Centre, according to Waks’s police report, Serebryanski told the boy: “This isn’t for a place of worship.”
Serebryanski led Waks to a bathroom on the same floor where the assault continued.
In his report to police, Waks couldn’t recall how many more times Serebryanski abused him. He thought it was maybe a couple more.
Two decades later, Victoria Police are still interested in speaking to Serebryanski. In August, 2014, Waks received a letter from Victoria Police saying they were investigating Waks’s allegations.
There wasn’t enough evidence to extradite Serebryanski. But if he set foot in Australia, the police said, he would be arrested and interviewed.
That August was the same month as the premier of “Code of Silence.”
The documentary film followed Waks for 18 months as he waged a personal struggle against the abuse cover-up at the Yeshivah Centre.
The film also focused on the consequences for Waks’s family, in particular his father, Zephaniah, who was denounced by communal leaders, shunned in synagogue and who lost most of his friends.
By the film’s end, Manny had relocated to France and his mother and father had moved to Israel.
The film’s producers recognized that the dramatic testimony delivered at the Royal commission hearings in 2015 might provide material for a follow-up documentary.
The ABC, which had aired the first film, commissioned a sequel.
In addition to the hearings, the new film would follow Waks as he took a global anti-abuse initiative to Jewish communities overseas, meeting abuse victims in America and confronting his first abuser, Serebryanski.
Waks arrived at the Forward offices in New York on May 8, a couple of days before his visit to confront Serebryanski in Brooklyn.
Waks is tanned and about medium height and build. He was wearing a blue check shirt and black-rimmed glasses.
Waks is unassuming, warm and friendly. When he discusses sex abuse he is, more often than not, earnest rather than angry. He is so used to being interviewed that it is sometimes hard to tell whether you are speaking to Waks the individual or Waks the campaigner. It was harder still that particular day, since most of our conversations were filmed for the documentary.
Waks said he was not sure what to expect from his potential confrontation with Serebryanski.
He said that Cyprys had never apologized for what he did to victims. Waks wondered whether, if Serebryanski acknowledged what he had done and apologized, Waks might not want to “pursue justice” through the courts.
A couple of days after Waks’s attempt to confront Serebryanski, I catch up with Waks by phone. He is still in New York. But that evening he is flying with the film crew to Los Angeles where he will meet with abuse advocates and victims.
Waks also plans to meet with a Jewish group to discuss financing for a study to look at Jewish communal resources for preventing and dealing with abuse.
The ripples from the Australian abuse scandal reach California too.
In 2001, Mordechai Yomtov, a former student of the Yeshivah Centre who was accused of abusing a younger student there, was sentenced to one year in prison after pleading guilty to molesting three boys, aged 8 to 10, at a Chabad school in Los Angeles.
Last year, a Los Angeles resident, Daniel Hayman, pleaded guilty in an Australian court to indecently assaulting a 14-year-old boy in the late 1980s in Sydney. In return for his guilty plea, Hayman received a 19-month suspended sentence.
While Waks was in New York, he also met with Australian victims of abuse and with Jewish groups. He even secured an audience with Rabbi Mendel Sharfstein, the director of operations at Chabad’s world headquarters in Brooklyn.
Following the Royal Commission hearings, Chabad published a lengthy statement, expressing remorse for the children who were harmed and reiterating the importance of reporting abuse to the police.
Waks said he was impressed with the Chabad leadership’s openness to discuss the issue with him in New York. He said that he hopes to see even more willingness to combat abuse in the future.
Although he wasn’t even halfway through his journey, Waks said the trip so far had been physically, emotionally and mentally exhausting. But he felt compelled to continue.
“The show must go on,” Waks said. “I don’t feel I have a choice.”
Contact Paul Berger at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @pdberger
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