EXCLUSIVE: Consistently standing up to injustice and using his voice to help others, Australians should be extremely proud to welcome back anti-child abuse advocate, Manny Waks, who has returned to this country to keep an eye on the high-profile sexual abuse trial of Melbourne school principal Malka Leifer, writes Therese Taylor.
Manny Waks has a unique profile, among Australian Jews, as a campaigner against the sexual abuse of youth in the Hassidic community, where he himself grew up.
He was preyed upon by two offenders, and much of his life has been a quest for justice and accountability.
The just-commenced court proceedings, addressing the alleged offences of Ultra-Othodox Jewish school principal Malka Leifer in Melbourne against three of her students who happened to all be sisters, are the reason why Manny Waks has recently returned to Australia from Israel.
He will be able to report and advocate on this particular case, and to campaign for the rights of children.
The Waks Family
The Australian public first saw Manny amid cozy images. The Waks family, who had seventeen children, attracted the attention of journalists. In 2003, a tv documentary, ‘Welcome to the Waks family’ gave a benign and entertaining view of the closed world of the Hassidic Jews. The eldest son, Manny, appeared at odds with some religious rules, and inclined to make sardonic comments, yet close to his family.
The documentary makers did not know, and almost no one knew, that Manny Waks had been assaulted by authority figures, and that this was one reason why he wrestled with an inability to conform within schoolrooms and synagogues.
In 2014, a new documentary gave the other side of the picture. Code of Silence began with Manny Waks explaining that he had to speak out about the sexual abuse of children for his own sake, and also that of other victims.
“If I can’t come forward and go public about this issue, there is no way that anyone else will …” Manny states in the film.
The documentary gave voice to members of his family and community as they confronted these problems.
Tzedek (justice in Hebrew) was an Australian organisation founded by Waks, in 2012.
Tzedek campaigned against sexual abuse within the Jewish community, and played an important role in assembling evidence later presented to the Royal Commission into Child Abuse.
However, Waks, the very founder of Tzedek, who had expended considerable effort to get it funded, was obliged to leave the organisation in 2014.
The dispute between Waks and the board of Tzedek is recounted in his memoir, Who Gave You Permission?
This obviously only gives Manny’s side of the story, but Tzedek itself was not much forthcoming about why they broke with their founder. The ostensible reason, was a dispute about some Facebook posts, which Waks later withdrew, which made allegations about a Melbourne Jewish religious leader. The matter was resolved by an apology, but it led to Waks’ departure.
There would be different views on this issue but it is fair to say that it is difficult to run an advocacy campaign, especially about such a closed and divisive issue, without eventually saying something which is proved inaccurate and has to be withdrawn.
One aspect of the Tzedek dispute is that the religious leader who threatened a libel action was doing what the Ultra Orthodox sector deplores – he was taking a dispute with a fellow Jew to the Gentile authorities.
It is surprising that he escaped criticism for that. Manny Waks certainly did not, in his campaign against child sexual abuse. While the mainstream Jewish organisations have been strongly affirmative of dealing with this issue, and raising standards of safety measures and reporting, a tiny, retrograde minority have been hostile.
Tzedek was much less active without the leadership of Manny Waks, and on 26 August 2021 announced: “The Tzedek name will be returned to the Jewish Community, ceasing to exist as a separate service within Monash Health SECASA.”
For his part, Manny Waks founded a new organisation, VoiCSA – Voice Against Child Sexual Abuse – which is now active, and likely to have particular relevance to the unfolding of the Malka Leifer case.
Manny Waks will provide a vivid and informed view of the evidence in the trial of Malka Leifer which is being set out in the Melbourne courts as we speak.
As Waks communicates equally to the Jewish community and the wider Australian community, his reports will be significant to read. It is heartening that he is able to be in Australia at this time.
Speaking with True Crime News Weekly this week, Waks said the reasons for his return were multi-pronged.
“My main hope is that some semblance of justice will finally prevail in this case,” he said.
“My additional hopes are that other survivors will be empowered by the courage on display by the three sisters to hopefully pursue their justice.
“Also, that Jewish and other communities around the world heed the important lessons from this prolonged search for justice.
“Sadly, the issue of child sexual abuse is prevalent in every segment of society and therefore must be addressed appropriately.”
Some of us wish that Manny Waks would return to Australia permanently, for he is a valued fellow-citizen, who does us great credit.