One by one the communal leaders say ‘sorry.’ “We failed you.”
Parents and teenagers, neighbours and grandparents, victims and survivors have gathered in a show of solidarity against child sexual abuse in the Jewish community. It is also a public reconciliation of sorts.
This ‘Night of Healing’ on Monday night in Melbourne has been organised by Tzedek, a support group for Jewish victims of child sex abuse, at the urging of prominent Jewish advocate and abuse survivor, Manny Waks.
Waks hopes this evening will address the pain, confusion and division that has crippled the Jewish community since public revelations in the Royal Commission hearings regarding sexual abuse and its concealment in Melbourne and Sydney Yeshiva communities.
Last Thursday’s final hearing in Sydney, a part of the Royal Commission into Institutionalised Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, follows hearings in 2015 and a report in 2016 on abuse within the Jewish community. Since then, institutions have implemented child protection policies, but Waks and other advocates remain angry that some disgraced leaders have not yet been forced to resign and are still being paid salaries.
Tonight however is a time to share stories, acknowledge the abuse that occurred and say sorry for, as Waks puts it, “members of our community committing unspeakable crimes against members of our community.”
The theme of ‘the witness’ permeates the speeches. Dr Vicki Gordon of Australian Jewish Psychologists praises sexual abuse survivors for speaking publicly during the Commission hearings, allowing those present ‘to witness and validate’ the stories being told.
“Soul murder,” says Dr Gordon, looking up from the lectern. “This assault, this betrayal, often by someone known and trusted by the victim, destroys their soul.”
Drawing from her own experience attending the 2015 hearings, she explains how listening to survivor accounts can help those abused to feel connected with the community and allow the community to show support for victims.
“To be in the room,” she continues, “and to hear testimonies of their abuse and of their traumas … was to connect, to empathise, to feel, touch, smell, taste and hear just a glimpse of what that soul murder looked like.”
President of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, Anton Block, describes how it takes a village to raise a child and how, as chiefs of this village, the community as a whole has failed these children by both the engagement in abuse and the subsequent culture of concealment.
“[Victims] have been saying ‘where are you?’” he says. “We are here and here we will always be.”
Never again will victims stand alone, Block says, nor suffer recriminations or rejection for speaking up.
The dangers of denial are reemphasised by Rabbi Yaakov Glasman of the Rabbinical Council of Australia and New Zealand (RCANZ), who recounts how assault being dealt with ‘in-house’ by Rabbis created a culture of concealment. Since the 2015 Royal Commission, this failing has been partly addressed through the creation of RCANZ. Glasman believes that with greater transparency, accountability and external regulation ‘we’ve ushered in a new era of responsibility.’
For Tzedek CEO Dr Michelle Meyer, this new era of responsibility means providing victims with long-denied support and a listening ear.
“The statement ‘I believe you’ is a powerful affirmation and one that can take a survivor over the initial threshold, into a pathway of recovery,” Dr Meyer says. “Understanding that abuse is not their fault is another part of healing. Many survivors blame themselves. Placing responsibility where it belongs is important, empowering survivors to regain a positive sense of self.”
The audience soon becomes witness to another form of testimony, the words of abuse-survivor Rae Le Fleur in her song Roller-coaster Ride. The song reflects on those who shunned the stories of abuse they heard, who covered them up, who turned a blind eye: the silent witness.
“She’s feeling really alone,” Le Fleur sings. “Do you care, are you aware that it’s a roller-coaster ride?”
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