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How One Faith Group Fights Abuse — One School At A Time

When Dr. Shira Berkovits worked as a consultant for the Orthodox Union, among other Jewish organizations, in synagogue youth programming, she was asked to give presentations that trained synagogue staff members in keeping children safe from abuse. “I thought I was going to do it for one year and walk away,” she says.

Yet when she started asking youth directors, across Jewish denominations, whether they offered training about how to protect children from abuse, Berkovits was shocked to find that the “vast majority” had no policies in place to ensure safety. In 2013, according to a survey she conducted, 82 percent of 110 synagogue youth directors across the denominational spectrum had no training in preventing child sexual abuse.

When Berkovits pushed further, she realized that far too many Jewish organizations relied on a casual system, relying on untrained eyes to spot irregularities in staff behavior. She quickly found that the “vast majority” of Jewish educators, were never trained in creating safe spaces.

Armed with a PhD in behavioral psychology, Berkovits knew that something had to change in the Jewish and Orthodox communities.

So she turned to other religious groups – namely, the Christian community – to see how faith institutions were handling abuse in their midst. She discovered the work of GRACE: Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment, an organization whose mission is to “empower the Christian community through education and training to recognize, prevent, and respond to child abuse,” according to its website.

Together with Liberty University’s law professor Basyle Tchividjian, Berkovits co-authored a book on policy for churches and ministries, The Child Safe-Guarding Guide for Churches and Ministries, which focuses on protective practices, responding to policy violations and child abuse, and supporting survivors and living the policy.

In 2013 the Rabbinical Council of America passed a resolution about policies for abuse, largely based on a draft of Berkovits’ forthcoming Jewish book

After that, she started receiving phone calls from various organizations — Jewish and non-Jewish alike. “We are getting three to five calls a week, sometimes a day, for help,” she told the Jewish Week. “For now, institutions want to do the right thing but they are left to handle these matters on their own.”

In 2016, Berkovits founded ‘Sacred Spaces,’ a “cross-denominational initiative to address abuses of power in Jewish institutions,” by setting formal procedures in Jewish institutions to prevent abuse of power.

And while other organizations may address abuse, Sacred Spaces does so from an explicitly Jewish understanding of why this is important -– as a faith-based organization. Recent training sessions included Brookyn’s Union Temple, Greenboro, North Carolina’s American Hebrew Academy, Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School in Livingston, NJ, Yeshivat Maharat and Yeshivat Chovevei Torah in Riverdale NY, and Manhattan Day School in the Upper West Side.

Sometimes, Berkovits argues, abuse can be prevented simply by implementing the right policies.

“A good policy can function as a deterrent, sending a clear message to potential abusers: Abuse is not tolerated here and will be reported immediately,” Berkovits wrote on the eJewishPhilanthropy blog. “Screenings [of prospective employees] should include a criminal background check; a check of the state’s central registry for perpetrators of child abuse and neglect; Internet/social media searches of an individual’s names, nicknames, screen names, and email addresses; an interview; and reference checks. [Another] way to protect children from abuse is to maximize visibility when designing or renovating a building; it is preferable to opt for open layouts, glass walls, well-lit spaces, and windows in all doors.”

Berkovits outlines these procedures in her forthcoming book “Preventing and Responding to Child Abuse: A Policy Guide for Synagogue Professionals and Lay Leaders.” And while these steps may seem simple —they took time to catch on in the community.

The first donation to Sacred Spaces, Berkovits fondly recalled, was not from a philanthropist, but from young people who understood the urgency of the issue. “I’ll never forget receiving a $5,000 check from Yisrael Klitsner and Laurie Wasser — this was a huge amount of money for them and for us, and they understood that someone had to get the ball rolling,” she said. “Following that came funding from the Natan Fund, the Aviv Foundation, and JWFNY [the Jewish Women’s Foundation of New York]. Women’s foundations were more willing to enter the dialogue about abuse of power, since this is an issue they were already talking about.”

Berkovits said that most funders were afraid to broach the issue, at the time. “Many donors would tell me that they supported our initiative but that this wasn’t a priority for them at that time, or that they were hesitant to fund what they viewed as a ‘taboo’ issue, and that we should come back to them later once we were more established. Others were concerned that by taking preventative steps they might somehow be perceived as having had a history of abuse in their organizations or family.”

But today, in the #MeToo era, as communities are forced to look in the mirror, more and more Jewish institutions — as well as funders — are turning to Sacred Spaces for answers.

The organization was just recognized by the Slingshot Fund for its innovative work, and leading funders like the UJA Federation of New York and the Avi Chai Foundation, are supporting Sacred Spaces in bringing abuse-prevention resources to scale.

“Because of the respect Sacred Spaces has for faith traditions, many faith leaders are eager to work with Shira and her team in implementing training and policies, and to respond to cases of abuse with the sensitivity God expects of us,” said Victor Vieth, a former prosecutor, president of the Academy on Violence and Abuse, and Director of the Gundersen National Child Protection Training Center. “Perhaps most importantly, survivors are seeing positive steps being taken to prevent abuse within their communities and, even if it is too late to help them, many are grateful to know that future suffering may be prevented, or at least lessened.”

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