Mirvis must tackle this disgrace

February 26, 2015 13:49

Ephraim Mirvis is not merely chief rabbi of the UK's United Synagogue. He styles himself "Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth." This title must mean that he affects to exercise some sort of religious role in relation to Ashkenazi communities in countries that make up the "Commonwealth of Nations" (formerly the British Commonwealth), which includes Australia.

Last week, in his capacity as Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, Mirvis made a public statement following shocking evidence given to an Australian Royal Commission that has been inquiring into the circumstances surrounding allegations of sexual abuse at Jewish institutions in Melbourne and Sydney. To date, three Australia-based Orthodox Jews have been convicted of offences related to the sexual abuse of children; two are serving terms of imprisonment. The remit of the Royal Commission was to investigate institutional responses to these crimes.

Victims and their families gave evidence not so much of the abuse suffered as of the hostile reaction of their fellow Jews to the allegations that they had made (and which we now know to have been only too true) and to the fact that they had reported these matters to the civil authorities.

Prominent among these witnesses was Zephaniah Waks. While students at Yeshivah College, Melbourne, three of Mr Waks's children were sexually abused; these included his son Manny, who has played a prominent and courageous role as a victims' advocate. On Friday 13 February, Australia's most senior rabbi, Meir Shlomo Kluwgant, was called before the Royal Commission. "Did you, Rabbi, (the Waks's lawyer asked him) send a text message [to the editor of the Australian Jewish News] saying 'Zephaniah is killing us. He is a lunatic on the fringe. Guilty of neglect of his own children?'" "I may have said that, yes," was Kluwgant's breathtaking reply.

On Monday night, February 16, Kluwgant resigned as president of the Organisation of Rabbis of Australasia, and on the following day the Rabbinical Council of Victoria called for the resignations of "others, rabbis and lay-leaders alike, who were implicated in the testimony presented at the royal commission." But, inexplicably, it nonetheless characterised Kluwgant's resignation as "unfortunate." And I should add that another rabbi, Yosef Feldman, told the royal commission that he "didn't have a clue" that one of his staff members massaging the genitals of a young student might constitute a criminal offence, and that paedophiles who had refrained from abusing children for many years and had repented should be granted leniency.

Victims suffered hostility from their fellow Jews

What has Ephraim Mirvis said about all this? On February 17, he issued the lightest of light-touch statements declaring paedophiles must be brought to justice "however embarrassing for our communities. Let there be no doubt: it is a legal, moral and religious imperative to report cases of sexual abuse to the police." But missing from this proclamation was any condemnation of the posturings of Rabbis Kluwgant and Feldman, or any reference to the obfuscations of other rabbis.

Also missing from Mirvis's statement was any reference to the fact that the principal rabbinical actors in the drama played out before the Royal Commission were all members of the Lubavitch movement. And I should add that when New-York-based rabbi Abraham Shemtov, who has been described as "No. 2" in the Lubavitch hierarchy, was contacted by a leading Australian newspaper, he apparently refused to make any statement, claiming he was too busy.

The fact that the principal rabbinical actors in the drama played out before the Royal Commission were all "Chabadniks" could be a coincidence. But I do not think so. It needs to be remembered that the third Lubavitcher Rebbe (died 1866) infamously -and by his own admission - permitted a child-molester to go unpunished, and retain his teaching position. The Lubavitch movement does some wonderful work. But at present it strikes me as dangerously dysfunctional. There can be few rabbinical leaders better placed than Ephraim Mirvis to call time on this recklessness.

February 26, 2015 13:49

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