A child sex abuse scandal in Australia’s Jewish community has spilled into America, as a pending extradition, arrests in Australia and a slew of cover-up allegations put that community’s response to molestation under scrutiny.
Australian police are seeking to extradite convicted child molester David Kramer, currently in jail in Farmington, Mo., on suspicion of having abused children at a Chabad school in Melbourne during the 1990s.
Kramer, who was reportedly spirited out of Australia by one of Melbourne’s Chabad leaders following abuse allegations, is halfway through a seven-year prison sentence for sodomizing a 12-year-old boy in St. Louis.
According to members of the Australian community, he is not the only molester to end up in the United States after Australian community leaders failed to report them to legal authorities. Other molesters fled the country more recently as suspicion of abuse fell on them, community members say.
The Forward has learned that at least two suspected molesters from the Australian Jewish community are living in the United States while they are under investigation in Australia.
Meanwhile, Manny Waks, a former vice president of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, accused an Australian living in New York of molesting him when he was a boy.
Waks, 35, who has been the catalyst for revelations about the Melbourne abuse scandal, told the Forward he was molested by Velvel Serebryanski, son of a prominent Chabad rabbi, at two Melbourne synagogues during the late 1980s.
Listen to Paul Berger’s interview with Manny Waks about his personal experience of being abused:
Serebryanski, who goes by the name Zev Sero in New York, did not deny the allegations when a Forward reporter asked him about them at his Brooklyn home.
Serebryanski, 47, declined to speak on the record about the allegations. His father, Rabbi Aaron Serebryanski, is one of Chabad’s principal emissaries to Australia.
Waks claims that Serebryanski molested him on several occasions, including when he went to lie down during an all-night Shavuot study session in a synagogue at Melbourne’s Yeshivah Centre, a Chabad institution.
Waks said Serebryanski began to molest him in the synagogue and then said: “This isn’t for a place of worship. Let’s go outside.”
According to Waks, who was about 12 at the time, Serebryanski then led him into a nearby restroom.
The charges are contained in a police report that Waks filed in 1996.
In that same report, Waks details how he was also abused by David Cyprys, a Melbourne karate instructor.
Cyprys is about to stand trial in Australia on dozens of sex charges related to the abuse of 11 boys.
During a magistrates court hearing in Melbourne last year, Detective Senior Constable Lisa Metcher “accused members of the Yeshivah community of lying to police and trying to cover up sex abuse claims,” according to The Age, an Australian newspaper.
”They failed to act in any way to protect children,” the newspaper stated that Metcher told the court.
Waks went public last year with accusations that he was repeatedly molested while attending the Yeshivah Centre’s boys school, Yeshivah College.
His call for other victims to come forward shattered decades of denial. Press reports related how Victoria state police were inundated with testimony from young men who said they were abused.
Australian police are currently investigating more than a dozen Orthodox individuals suspected of child abuse in Australia, according to Joel Berman, a Los Angeles resident who has been in touch with detectives on aspects of the cases in the United States.
Berman said two people under investigation are currently in the United States. Police declined to speak to the Forward.
Many of the charges relate to the 1980s and ’90s, a time when rabbis in a number of Orthodox communities appear to have dealt with abuse by either turning a blind eye or throwing molesters out of the community.
At the center of the controversy is Rabbi Yitzchok Dovid Groner, the former head of the Yeshivah Centre.
Waks and other victims and their families claim they alerted Groner about abusers many times, but he failed to act.
In 1991, a child brought allegations of abuse against Cyprys. The following year, Cyprys pleaded guilty to a sexual offense and was fined, but Chabad officials allowed him to remain at the school, where he worked as a security guard until recently.
Waks said he confronted Groner about Cyprys in 1996 and in 2000, but Groner continued to allow him to work for the center. Groner died in 2008.
Even one of Groner’s defenders, Pini Althaus, said the rabbi threatened to report suspected abusers to the authorities — unless they moved elsewhere.
Althaus, a Brooklyn Chabad member whose father is a Yeshivah Centre trustee, stated in a comment posted on the VozIzNeias blog: “In the case of two American citizens who acted inappropriately, Rabbi Groner gave them the choice to leave the country immediately or face criminal action. In retrospect, perhaps the latter would have been more appropriate; however, this was not the ‘culture’ at that time, to masser or turn someone in to the authorities.”
Yaakov Wolf, an Australian who says Cyprys molested him and who now lives in Los Angeles, said of members of the yeshiva community: “They take these people and think they’ve done their job by sending them off to another community that hasn’t heard about them, and that’s what they’ve done for years.
“They end up sending them to another community, so basically they are throwing their problem onto somebody else.”
The identities of the two American citizens to whom Althaus referred are unclear. Kramer came from a Chabad community in the United States, but a spokesman at Farmington Correctional Center declined to confirm his citizenship.
Althaus declined to speak on the record to the Forward.
Meanwhile, a former Yeshivah College teacher told the Forward that the school failed to act on another occasion, too. In this case, the alleged perpetrator, who also subsequently moved to the United States, was a student.
During the early 1980s, the student, then aged 16 or 17, “took advantage” of a boy several years younger, the former faculty member told the Forward. He said the school refused to expel the abusive student.
“The parents of the abused boy were so horrified that the school would not expel him,” the former Yeshivah College teacher said, “that they ended up taking their son, as well as their two other younger boys, who were in the primary school, out of yeshiva and to another, less frum [observant] school.”
That alleged abuser was Mordechai Yomtov, who, almost 20 years later, was arrested in Los Angeles on charges of sexually abusing three boys at Cheder Menachem, a Chabad school.
In 2001, Yomtov pleaded guilty to molesting the boys, aged between 8 and 10. He served one year in prison and was required to register as a sex offender.
Yomtov has been in violation of sex offender registration requirements since March 2003, according to the website of the California Attorney General’s Office. A spokesman for Attorney General Kamala Harris did not respond to requests for clarification on Yomtov’s whereabouts.
The former Yeshivah College teacher, who did not wish to be named, said he also voiced concerns about Kramer to the school, but no one would listen.
Rabbi Avrohom Glick of Yeshivah College, who is a former principal and still teaches at the school, did not return calls for comment. Rabbi Yehoshua Smukler, the current principal of Yeshivah College, did not respond to calls and emails for comment. Rabbi Chaim Tzvi Groner, head of the Yeshivah Centre, did not respond to questions sent via email.
Rabbi Zvi Telsner, leader of the Yeshivah Centre synagogue and son-in-law of Yitzchok Dovid Groner, said he could not answer any questions about past events because they occurred before his time. “I wasn’t here,” Telsner said. “I have no idea what happened.”
Melbourne parents say they do know what happened.
One mother told The Weekend Australian newspaper that when she informed the school that Kramer, a Jewish studies teacher at Yeshivah College, was abusing her child, she was referred for counseling.
The Weekend Australian reported that after the allegations surfaced, Kramer “was flown to Israel at the school’s expense.” Harry Cooper, a former executive at Yeshivah College, told the newspaper: “At the request of the parents, we shipped him off. I remember it vividly.”
Kramer eventually made his way back to the United States and settled in St. Louis.
He became a volunteer youth leader at an Orthodox synagogue, Nusach Hari B’nai Zion.
The congregation’s rabbi, Ze’ev Smason, said Kramer was a “very attractive, dynamic fellow” who won over parents and their children. Then, one day, parents came to Smason with allegations of abuse.
“When the question was one of safety for children who might come in contact with him, he was immediately reported,” Smason said.
In July 2008, Kramer was sentenced to seven years in jail. He is eligible for parole this April. As soon as he is free, police intend to extradite him to Australia to stand trial, Australian media have reported.
Detectives traveled to the United States last year to gather evidence for this and other investigations, the Forward has learned.
Smason said he was glad he had persuaded at least one victim to report Kramer’s abuse in St. Louis. But, he added, there is still a reticence in the Orthodox Jewish community to speak to law enforcement.
Smason said he knows of another molester in the city, but he cannot persuade victims to contact police.
Sexual abuse is difficult enough for many victims to report, but Orthodox Jewish survivors and their families often find it much harder, because of the tight-knit nature of their communities and because of concerns that they are violating religious laws such as mesirah, which prohibits reporting on a fellow Jew to secular authorities. Many are also worried about committing a chilul Hashem, a desecration of God’s name.
Some Haredi, or ultra-Orthodox, organizations, such as Agudath Israel of America, still instruct people that unless one has direct knowledge of abuse, such as being a victim himself or herself or personally witnessing such an incident, that person must consult a rabbi before reporting suspicions to the authorities.
Chabad institutions have taken a more liberal approach. A beit din, or religious court, in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn issued a ruling around the time that the Melbourne scandal broke, telling followers who suspect abuse that they are not violating religious laws by reporting their suspicions to the police.
Nevertheless, many survivors and their families fear being kicked out of synagogues and schools, or ruining marriage opportunities because of the taint of an abuse allegation.
Smason said people are often reticent to report because they don’t want to sully Judaism’s name, “not realizing that the ultimate chilul Hashem is that these things are kept quiet — and in the process, individuals bounce from community to community.”
Rabbi Meir Shlomo Kluwgant, immediate past president of the Rabbinical Council of Victoria, said rabbis’ approach to disclosures of sexual abuse has “definitely changed for the better in recent years.” But Kluwgant added that there has been no attempt to cover up abuse in Australia and that the rabbinate there is committed to addressing the issue.
“A lot [of abuse accusations are] based on rumor and innuendo, unless they’re proven in a court of law,” Kluwgant added. “I could tell you lots of lashon hara [evil talk].”