Waks in Africa

August 14, 2013 by J-Wire Staff
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Manny Waks is CEO of Tzedek, an advocacy organisation which champions the cause of the cictims of sexual abuse. He has been on a visit to South Africa. Tali Feinberg reports from Cape Town…

“My motivation for being here is to promote discussion on this important issue,” says Manny Waks, who visited South Africa this week, hosted by Limmud and the Schusterman Foundation’s ‘Make It Happen’ initiative.


Manny Waks with "Dr Eve" sexologist Dr Marlene Wasserman

Manny Waks with “Dr Eve” sexologist Dr Marlene Wasserman

Menachem ‘Manny’ Waks is the second oldest of 17 children raised in a tight-knit ultra-Orthodox community in Melbourne, Australia. He is a Jewish community leader and professional who has challenged the status quo on sexual abuse, having been a victim during his teens while living in a Haredi community.

As a ‘whistle blower’ on this issue, he has campaigned independently and through his organisation Tzedek to bring its perpetrators to book, often at a huge personal cost.

“I want to find justice for past and future victims of sexual abuse, to create a culture where people feel safe to speak out and where these issues are confronted,” said Waks at a Cape Town gathering, where he presented his story in conversation with Dr Marlene Wasserman, known as ‘Dr Eve.’

The talk was opened by local community member Gur Geva, who teamed up with others to help bring Waks to Cape Town, funded by micro-grants from the Schusterman Foundation. “This may be a ‘sensational’ topic, but Manny presents it in an un-sensational way,” said Geva, emphasising how the Australian activist’s priority is to share his story in order to protect children.

“[Waks] was repeatedly molested by a trusted figure of authority [when he was a teenager],” reported The Age newspaper when Waks first went to the media with his story in 2011.  “The [then] 35-year-old Canberra public servant says he was also abused by another member of the Chabad community. One of the alleged incidents is said to have occurred inside a synagogue,” reported the paper. Another incident is to have allegedly occurred at a mikvah.

Waks explained to the Cape Town gathering how he was 20 years old when he finally told his father of the abuse he experienced from when he was in his early to mid-teenage years. Statistically, victims can take an average of 25 years to share their story with others. His father “immediately picked up the phone and called the police,” and has stood behind him ever since. But this has come at a cost, as his father has essentially been shunned by his community.

In conversation with Dr Eve, the two discussed how abuse can sometimes go undetected in religious communities because of factors like too many children to watch; lack of supervision at shuls, schools, mikvahs and camps; and a culture of keeping quiet about contentious issues.

“I realised that if I don’t take a leadership role in this area,” said Waks on one of his reasons to share his experiences, explaining that while it has been difficult to confront his community, it has also led to other victims coming forward.

“My aim is for Jewish communities to be a safe place for victims and their families to disclose their stories; for them to not be shunned and to be believed; and to create a conversation with leadership,” said Waks.

“We need to remember that we are part of broader society, and that sexual abuse is prevalent in all communities in this country,” said Dr Wasserman. “It is important to have this conversation in that context,” she added, emphasising that “this is an issue that affects everyone.”

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