Plan To Combat Sexual Abuse Unveiled

By Steven I. Weiss

Published February 25, 2005, issue of February 25, 2005.

A rabbi at the forefront of efforts to curb abuse in the Orthodox community is launching an initiative to certify organizations that adopt policies to combat the problem.

The rabbi, Mark Dratch, told the Forward that he is planning to leave his post as religious leader of Congregation Agudath Sholom in Stamford, Conn., in “six months to a year” to launch JSafe: The Jewish Institute Supporting an Abuse Free Environment. The hope, he said, is that the “seal of approval” he will provide will become “something that parents would begin to look for.”

Dratch, who serves as chairman of the Rabbinic Sexual Improprieties Task Force of the Rabbinical Council of America, a union of more than 1,000 Orthodox rabbis, announced his plan Sunday at the biennial conference of the liberal Orthodox organization Edah.

The plan is being unveiled as the RCA is being criticized by some rabbis, outside experts and alleged victims for sharing the names of complainants with a rabbi accused of sexual harassment. The country’s largest Orthodox organization, the Orthodox Union, has been working for several years to restore its reputation after a series of reports chronicling the failure of O.U. officials to act against a top youth group leader who was eventually convicted of sexual abuse.

While Dratch’s efforts until now have been focused on combating abuse in the Modern Orthodox community, he said he will be attempting to register a variety of Jewish organizations and congregations of all denominational stripes.

“The heart of the program is to create a certification program for camps, schools, JCCs, synagogues” and Jewish organizations, Dratch said in an interview. The program will, for a fee, put organizations through a three-step program to achieve certification.

First, Dratch said, “all of their professionals and volunteers will be appropriately trained… [so that they] know how to respond” to cases of alleged abuse. Second, the organizations will “know what’s expected of the professional or volunteer so that they don’t become perpetrators… [and have] policies and guidelines in place in terms of how to deal with problems.” Third, JSafe will “give guidance to the various organizations” and serve as a place for people to turn if they feel an “organization is not responding appropriately.”

Among the requirements for organizations to receive certification will be that they have “background checks before a person is hired,” Dratch said.

A significant element required for JSafe’s success is that it be utilized by most or all Jewish organizations and that many or most Jewish parents come to require it, Dratch said.

The Jewish Community Center Association did not respond to a request for comment. A spokesman for the O.U. said, “We don’t know enough about it yet to comment.”

Rabbi Avi Shafran, a spokesman of the ultra-Orthodox Agudath Israel of America, wrote in an e-mail to the Forward: “I imagine that Haredi communities or institutions that don’t feel that they have their own adequate ‘self-policing’ abilities in this area may avail themselves of the new organization’s services.” However, he wrote, “I don’t know if there are any communities or institutions that fit that description.”

Once JSafe is up and running, evaluations of individual organizations “shouldn’t take more than a couple of months,” he said. During a session at the Edah conference, he said it could take more than several years for most or all Jewish organizations to be certified.

Rabbi Yosef Blau, an outspoken leader in countering abuse in the Jewish community, told the Forward, “I think it’s very important within the community for someone to be working in this area, and there’s no doubt that Rabbi Dratch has shown concern about this problem, perhaps before anyone else.”

Asked what kind of reception Dratch’s plan could expect in the community, Blau said: “It’s really premature to know.… We assume great success, we’ll just have to see how it plays out.”



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