A letter to my Jewish community
'Justice must not remain elusive for the aggrieved because the perpetrator is a member of a community you feel attached to.'
To my Jewish community,
I have grown up in a community that provided me with all the tools to question my existence and to pursue a life of meaning. A community that reveres rigorous inquiry and rationality, discouraging of an unquestioning and submissive existence.
Truly, I attribute my intellect and my love for learning to my education at Mount Scopus Memorial College (MSMC) and more generally the Jewish- based values I hold dear. But whilst the community has taught me lessons – deep thinking and bold action – I have felt let down by members and leaders who have persistently failed to live by those values when it matters most.
The plethora of sexual misconduct and grooming allegations which came to light in 2021 against a former senior teacher at MSMC were deeply shocking and disturbing. It should have been a watershed moment for our community. Why does it feel like things are back to “normal”? Why does it feel like this devastating experience has not informed our communities’ understanding of child sexual abuse (CSA)?
Where was the discussion in Jewish media outlets? Where was the transparency from community leaders? I fear that the lack of discourse was because our community did not want to confront reality. Rather, the community’s response illustrated how individuals distance themselves from CSA disclosures when they occur close to home.
The recent allegations against an 88-year-old former staff member at Caulfield Hebrew Congregation (CHC), while of a different nature to MSMC, remind us that CSA issues are far from solved in our community. Indeed, the Royal Commission into Australian Jewish institutions that were involved in repeated instances of CSA certainly led to groundbreaking changes within the Jewish community. But nearly seven years later, CSA in our community is pervasive. We are so quick to criticise the Ultra-Orthodox community for the way they have previously responded to CSA that we have become incapable of recognising it in our own backyard. Indeed, when the MSMC and CHC allegations surfaced, members who were loud in their condemnation of CSA at Yeshivah disappeared into thin air, nowhere to be seen. CSA must be recognised no matter where it occurs.
Why does CSA only concern my Jewish community when it happens in Orthodox/Ultra- Orthodox settings? Where are the people critically condemning such gross misconduct wherever it happens, completely and with no qualifications?
I can understand that many may struggle reconciling their personal relationships and the tight-knit nature of our community with such allegations. But personal feelings ought not trump the absolute denunciation of gross misconduct and breach of children’s rights. We must stop protecting predators by invoking values of loyalty at the expense of vulnerable and victimised young people. It seems that basic human rights are not really an indisputable standard in our community. The community’s response to the allegations felt like a deliberate choice to choose a “side” over a principle.
What questions were raised for you after reading about what had occurred at MSMC, published in The Age and Sydney Morning Herald, December 31, 2021? Did you just accept the article as it was, like reading the football scores after a match? Perhaps you thought that what you read sounded terrible but that it was fixed with the solutions outlined in the article. Maybe you contemplated that you are missing many pieces of information? Nevertheless, I was disappointed by the reluctance of individuals to rigorously inquire into what had just unfolded. It felt like no one was grappling with the key questions: Which other staff noticed that the school environment was not conducive to child safety? What culture normalised such behaviour that it went unchecked? The reluctance by individuals to question has left me feeling ostracised and I cannot help but think that members of this community do not really care.
When you have the skills and resources to subject events to critical analysis, you are morally responsible and accountable for the blinkers you choose to wear. We must not fool ourselves. What I fear is that my community has failed to recognise what happened at MSMC and CHC was part of a broader pattern. A pattern whereby male predators go unchecked for years, enabled by poor child safety policy enforcement, by unquestioning and ill-educated staff and where victims are not empowered or encouraged to disclose abuse. The damaging outcome is that silence can be a form of survival for many victims who have not come forward. It is little wonder why victims wait decades to come forward, or I am sure for many, decide to not report their abuse at all.
Indeed, the fact that this behaviour happens in our community does not mean that it should not be labelled for what it is. Justice must not remain elusive for the aggrieved because the perpetrator is a member of a community you feel attached to.
Gabriella Katz is an arts/law student at Monash University, a former Mount Scopus school captain and a former Hineni madricha.