Image: Flickr/​adri­ana komura

Man­ny Waks is the author of the recent­ly pub­lished mem­oir Who Gave You Per­mis­sion?: the mem­oir of a child sex­u­al-abuse sur­vivor who fought back

For sur­vivors of child sex­u­al abuse with­in the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty, espe­cial­ly those abused with­in an insti­tu­tion­al set­ting, Jew­ish hol­i­days can be par­tic­u­lar­ly chal­leng­ing. The desire to sur­vive this peri­od — to lit­er­al­ly remain alive — may be a dai­ly, if not an hourly struggle.

Unfor­tu­nate­ly, based on per­son­al expe­ri­ence, I ful­ly under­stand some of these challenges.

I was raised in an ultra-Ortho­dox Chabad fam­i­ly in Mel­bourne, Aus­tralia. Between the ages of around eleven to four­teen and a half — some of the most impor­tant years of a reli­gious child, which include the ven­er­at­ed bat mitz­vah — I was sex­u­al­ly abused by two dif­fer­ent men. Some of the abuse took place inside places of reli­gious sig­nif­i­cance, includ­ing a syn­a­gogue and a mik­vah — a rit­u­al bath.

Dur­ing the peri­od of abuse and its after­math, I rebelled against every­thing I knew, not least my religion.

My expe­ri­ence of sex­u­al abuse left a last­ing impact on my Jew­ish iden­ti­ty: The place I feel most uncom­fort­able in the world is inside a syn­a­gogue. I instinc­tive­ly tune out most reli­gious dis­cus­sions. I am unsure whether I believe in God.

Yet, for­give­ness — as I was taught at my child­hood school, Yeshiv­ah Col­lege, the venue of some of my abuse — is a core Jew­ish value.

It isn’t easy to for­give, espe­cial­ly when the per­son seek­ing for­give­ness has caused you pro­found pain. A mere apol­o­gy, we think, can­not pos­si­bly be suf­fi­cient. But for­give­ness is nec­es­sary, espe­cial­ly in the con­text of sig­nif­i­cant injus­tices. More­over, it may be a pow­er­ful tool, both for the one giv­ing the apol­o­gy and its recipient.

Over the years, I have received and accept­ed dozens of apolo­gies, includ­ing from those in the Ortho­dox com­mu­ni­ty. I have sought to for­give the many who have wronged me and oth­ers: for the cov­er-ups, the intim­i­da­tion, the inac­tion. My only con­di­tion has been that the apol­o­gy be gen­uine, which has not nec­es­sar­i­ly always been easy to discern.

All those who have apol­o­gized should con­sid­er: Was that one-off apol­o­gy or pub­lic state­ment suf­fi­cient? If you claim to fol­low halach — Jew­ish law — was your apol­o­gy con­sis­tent with halachik require­ments? Can you be doing any more to alle­vi­ate the pain you caused your victims?

In this con­text, the Aus­tralian Rab­bi Moshe Gutnick’s 2013 pow­er­ful Yom Kip­pur apol­o­gy on behalf of the Ortho­dox Rab­binate deserves a men­tion. It demon­strat­ed that the Rab­binate was (belat­ed­ly) acknowl­edg­ing some of its gravest fail­ures. This apol­o­gy had an incred­i­bly pos­i­tive impact for many around the world.

How­ev­er, based on recent devel­op­ments — the hir­ing, for exam­ple, by an ortho­dox Mel­bourne school of a rab­bi who was forced to resign from his com­mu­ni­ty lead­er­ship posi­tions after his attacks on vic­tims and their fam­i­lies, and the con­tin­ued safe haven offered by Israeli courts to a fugi­tive Mel­bourne school prin­ci­pal who abused sev­er­al of her stu­dents — we still have a very long way to go.

Despite the ongo­ing per­son­al cost, I will con­tin­ue to advo­cate for jus­tice, account­abil­i­ty, and pre­ven­tion, because I have wit­nessed the sig­nif­i­cant progress that is possible.

Per­haps, at some point, my fel­low vic­tims and I may final­ly be able to rejoin the broad­er com­mu­ni­ty in hol­i­day celebrations.

Man­ny Waks is cur­rent­ly CEO of Kol v’Oz, an inter­na­tion­al orga­ni­za­tion with an office in New York, that he estab­lished to address child sex­u­al abuse in the glob­al Jew­ish community.