Paul Kalina, Powerful documentary on child sex abuse in Melbourne’s Jewish orthodox community, The Sydney Morning Herald

Filmmaker Danny Ben-Moshe had no interest at first in making a follow-up to Code of Silence, the Walkley-winning documentary about Manny Waks, the whistleblower who lifted the lid on child sex abuse within Melbourne’s Orthodox Jewish community.

But listening to the testimony presented to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sex Abuse, he was dumb-struck at what he describes as the “phenomenally preposterous” answer a prominent rabbi gave to a question about appropriate adult conduct.

What was meant to be a jokey remark about making a sequel became reality, and 48 hours later he was filming outside Melbourne’s County Court.

The clincher was that the leaders of Melbourne Yeshivah Centre, who had refused to talk to the filmmakers in Code of Silence, were now under the spotlight in the courtroom making cringeworthy and clumsy confessions. Rabbi Yosef Feldman, among others, had unwittingly given them a gift.

“It was the prevarication, the obfuscation, the denials, the twisting,” recalls Ben-Moshe of the courtroom testimony.

In Breaking the Silence, a self-contained “sequel” to Code of Silence, the spotlight is again focused on Manny Waks and his parents and the fallout that followed Waks’ very public revelations of the abuse he suffered at the hands of members of the ultra-Orthodox Chabad​ sect. Waks and his father Zephaniah​ are now widely considered to be personae non grata in the close-knit community.

One year later, others have come forward with similar allegations, while perpetrators have been prosecuted. For Ben-Moshe and his producer Dan Goldman, the focus has shifted from what happened to how Yeshivah and the wider Jewish community has dealt with the “sordid scandal”.

“Manny went to Yeshivah several times before he went public. They weren’t interested. They mismanaged this all the way through the process, to [the point they were] hauled before the Royal Commission. In fact, the Yeshivah Centre wrote to the managing director of the ABC saying [Code of Silence] should not be made and the filmmakers … have no capacity to make this film.

“Which is really like saying, ‘Hello, we’ve got a story’. That’s how completely bizarre the whole approach and their hostility to any form of scrutiny and any form of reflection on the way they mishandled this whole thing is.”

Ben-Moshe, himself a practising Jew and active participant in Melbourne’s Jewish community, insists that the revelations about Yeshivah (similar scandals have also rocked the Maccabi Jewish sport organisation) is not specifically about putting that community on trial. He is also acutely sensitive to the possibilities of stirring anti-Semitism by exposing such unsavoury events.

“One of the things it tells us, it doesn’t matter whether you’re a Jew, a Catholic, a Muslim, or an agnostic, it’s about power. All this is about is protecting the institution over the individual and there’s a reason: the Catholic Church and in particular the Chabad movement are conservative religious organisations where the power of the rabbi and the power of the archbishop is unquestioned.

“I don’t think anyone in the Yeshivah leadership meant for this to happen … But they got it profoundly wrong. And the point was, it was too hard because of the power and reverence of the institution and the rabbis to turn around and say we got it wrong.”

In the latter part of Breaking the Silence, Waks decides to confront a man now living overseas who is believed to be one of the abusers. By Ben-Moshe’s own reckoning this point, at which documentary “observation” and “participation” morph, was highly fraught and uncomfortable.

“The whole story is an uncomfortable one and it was a genuine part of Manny’s journey,” says Ben-Moshe of the intervention, which he defends, while also pointing out that another victim, who is seen in the documentary but not identified, clearly disagrees with Waks’ actions.

“Manny feels he deserves justice and closure. I’m not judging him on that right,” says Ben-Moshe.

Like Code of Silence, Ben-Moshe expects the new film will send shock waves around the world. The webcast of the Royal Commission hearings was watched by Jewish communities across the globe, and in particular in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights.

A deputy district attorney in Los Angeles who Ben-Moshe interviewed was also shunned when he started looking into abuse issues in his Chabad community.

“The real question is, will there be people who agree with the film, agree that these rabbis should have stood down, who will now stand up themselves and feel confident about being counted, or will they still be afraid of the repercussions?”


Breaking The Silence


ABC, Tuesday, 9.30pm

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