Policies are the best policy
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Policies are the best policy

Teaneck synagogue forum addresses child sexual abuse

Does your synagogue have policies in place to protect children from sexual abuse? Do your children’s schools and camps?

Such policies, Dr. Shira Berkovits told a meeting in Teaneck on Sunday night, can make a difference to children’s safety.

Dr. Berkovits is a consultant for the Department of Synagogue Services at the Orthodox Union, and she is developing a guide to preventing child sexual abuse in synagogues. She was speaking at Teaneck’s Congregation Rinat Yisrael, as part of a panel on preventing child sexual abuse co-sponsored by three other Teaneck Orthodox congregations: Netivot Shalom, Keter Torah, and Lubavitch of Bergen County.

A written policy brought up in the hiring process “serves as a very good deterrent” to would-be molesters seeking to work for the organization, she said, because it would prod them to look for a less-aware organization. She said: “There’s an oft- cited belief molesters can’t control their urges. If that were the case they would molest when walking down the street, in the mall, on the bima. That doesn’t happen.” Instead, she said, they wait for the right opportunity, “when there are fewer chances of getting caught.”

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Rabbi Yosef Blau and Dr. Shira Berkovitz took part in the panel discussion at Congregation Rinat Yisrael.

Rabbi Yosef Blau, head of spiritual guidance at Yeshiva University’s rabbinical school and a strong advocate for child abuse survivors, said that parents “have an incredibly important role” in preventing child abuse. “How many of you asked your children’s camp if they trained their staff, and what are their procedures for dealing with abuse?” he said. “You can ask the same questions about the schools you send your children to. Even more so about the seminaries and yeshivot in Israel you’re sending your children to.”

But, he continued, “People don’t ask. Parents don’t seem to care. If you don’t ask, why should the camps take it seriously? When there are scandals the schools don’t lose any students, the camps don’t lose any campers – the community is sending a powerful message of indifference.

“We like to believe we’re different” in the Orthodox community, Rabbi Blau said – but that is not the case.

He told of a study five psychologists had conducted about the effect of going to the mikvah on marital satisfaction.

“To do this study properly, one of the questions they asked the women was whether they had been abused at any time in their lives,” Rabbi Blau said. “The result of the study was that the percentage of Orthodox women who had been abused was essentially exactly the same as everybody else.”

That is to say: about a third of the women. (About one in six men have been abused, for an overall average of one in four people, according to the Center for Disease Control).

When the psychologists presented the results to a meeting of the Orthodox Forum, a think tank, “everybody doubted their statistics,” he said. “They rejected it totally.

“I was given the assignment of responding to the report. I went and asked a number of prominent psychologists and psychiatrists about it. The response was, ‘Ho hum, of course it’s the same. It’s a problem throughout society. It’s not determined by ethnic background, by wealth or poverty.'”

One panelist, David Cheifetz, a member of Rinat Yisrael, shared his story of being molested at a Jewish summer camp as a child decades ago.

When a friend in whom he had confided reported the abuse, David was sent home by the camp administrator – and the abuser went on to teach children for decades.

“We need to change the culture that seeks to downplay abuse in our Jewish community,” Mr. Cheifetz said. “Abuse is real. It has an impact that is lifelong. Events such as this forum are needed to shift societal attitudes away from it being taboo.

“We need a mechanism to provide support for the many victims in our community, the walking wounded. We need to acknowledge that we are not alone,” he said.

Dr. Berkovits said that the problem of inadequate training on child abuse prevention is endemic in the Jewish community. She reported that she distributed a survey to synagogue youth directors from all streams of Judaism. “Only 33 percent responded that they had a child protection policy in their synagogue. Only 17 percent said their synagogue offered any training to them.

“Insist on training and policies for all teachers, camp counselors, youth group leaders,” she said. “Demand your youth serving organizations get on board. There should be training on what to do and what not to do, on what’s a red flag.

“Child molesters do not end up in a youth serving organization by accident. They work hard to get there.”

In your synagogue and organizations, “form a committee and ask that committee to seek expertise on how to form policies,” Dr. Berkovits added.

Yeshiva University is offering a training course geared for rabbis, taught by Victor Vieth, the executive director emeritus of the Gundersen National Child Protection Training Center in Winona, Minnesota.

“Ask your rabbi to enroll in this course,” she said. “Show your rabbi that this is a priority for the community by paying for the course.”

Parents, she said, can take an in-depth, ten-hour training program through Darkness to Light (www.d2l.org), a national nonsectarian organization founded in 2000 to protect children from sexual abuse.

“From the earliest age, children are taught to respect parents, elders, and rabbis,” she said. “Generally speaking that is good, but we must qualify these lessons. We must teach them that no one, not even a Torah scholar, a spiritual leader, or an elder is above the law. We must teach children to respect their own and others’ personal space. They must feel comfortable and entitled to demand their own personal space from adults. We need to model respect for children’s boundaries so that they’re in charge.

“Imagine a shul kiddush where some friendly man comes up to your child and starts tousling his hair. Your child is all squirmy. The natural response might be to ask the child to show some respect, to give a handshake to Mr. Gold.

“Imagine instead that you said, ‘It doesn’t look like my child enjoys that,’ or ‘My child asked you to stop touching him. Please respect that.’

“It sends an important message to all the adults around that this is a child who is trained to respect his own space and has parents who will speak up for him. We have to make sure that we’re taking the proper precautions, that we’re properly supervising children. That doesn’t mean we have to be frantic about it or that every time we see an adult talking to a child we need to freak out about it.”

She said that if a child discloses that he or she has been sexually abused, “believe the child, and tell him or her you believe what he or she is telling you. Research shows that 99 percent of the time the child is telling the truth.

“Protect the child immediately from the suspected offender. Don’t give the suspected offender any further access.

“Then, do not investigate. You are not trained to investigate child abuse. All you need to know is that you have a reasonable suspicion that sexual abuse has happened. Report the suspicion to the police, then leave it to the experts to determine if the abuse has happened.”

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