The Australian See also Complexity of child abuse: Manny Wak's brother TO outsiders, Zephaniah Waks blends in with other bearded orthodox Jewish men dressed in black on the footpaths of the East St Kilda neighbourhood where he has dwelt for almost three decades.
But to insiders who live, work, gossip and pray here, his presence reminds them of things they’d rather forget. He is a stone in their shoe: uncomfortable, irritating, difficult to extract. For the past two years he has been singled out for the kind of shunning that others not as stubborn or as flinty or as sure of their stand would sooner flee than endure.
He prays on the Sabbath. He walks to the synagogue. He studies the Torah. He observes the rituals of the Chabad. Why has this solid pillar of his community become persona non grata? Waks believes his so-called sin was supporting his eldest son Manny, 37, who went to the media in July 2011 with allegations he was sexually abused as a teenager at the Yeshivah Centre, where school and synagogue squat in the heartland of this tight-knit group of worshippers.
The fears that choke child-abuse victims in every community cast an even darker shadow in orthodox circles, where dirty laundry is typically dealt with in-house. The archaic concept of Mesirah - the prohibition on reporting another Jew’s wrongdoing to non-Jewish authorities - still exerts a powerful hold. Zephaniah began to feel a bristling towards him from the first Sabbath after his son’s disclosures. That Saturday in the synagogue the most senior spiritual leader, Rabbi Zvi Telsner, delivered a stern sermon from the pulpit. “Who gave you permission to talk to anyone? Which rabbi gave you permission?” he thundered, without mentioning any names. Zephaniah and his wife Chaya walked out in a spontaneous protest with six others. Rabbi Telsner insists his remarks were not directed at any individual. “It’s like calling someone fat,” he tells me. “If you think you’re fat that’s up to you.” He had dismissed as “absolute rubbish” any suggestion he sought to discourage witnesses from stepping forward.
Slowly and surely, during the weeks and months that followed, the Waks began to detect slights and snubs in personal and religious forums, making life increasingly fraught. Zephaniah has been denied religious blessings routinely dispensed to others. Men who have accompanied him to religious studies for years now cut him dead. Intimate friends no longer share their table or invite him to family celebrations. Whispering campaigns besmirch him as a “dobber” or “moser” and anonymous bloggers have defamed him.
Never mind the thousands outside the orthodox community who cheer his son’s courage, their gratitude warming him too. These sentiments only serve to make the silences that engulf him even frostier. “If you get ostracised so that you have to leave your community, your whole world disappears,” says Zephaniah, 63, throwing up his hands. “Where are you going to go?” The Waks’ modest family home sits across the street from the Yeshivah Centre’s sprawl of brick buildings fortified by high metal fences and security patrols. [...]