A Brooklyn-based organization wants to educate yeshiva kids about the dangers of sexual abuse.
But rather than dwell on that uncomfortable topic, which can be jarring, Magenu focuses on subtle messages in the larger context of physical safety.
At a recent event in Marine Park titled Safety Day, Magenu, Hebrew for “our shield,” invited firefighters to talk about how to prevent fires and escape from them, as well as police officers talking about the importance of seat belts. Representatives of the city’s Office of Emergency Management talked about disaster preparation.
And represenatives of the Brooklyn District Attorney’s office offered information about avoiding and recognizing predators.
“We want the kids to empower themselves,” said Eli Verschleiser, who co-founded the organization with his wife, Shani.
“The way that topic is taught to children in all societies .. is that you can’t just walk into a school and tell a child don’t get molested. What you have to do is teach them about safety and that’s one of the topics.”
While there is growing awareness in the chasidic and haredi community about the perils of abuse there is a range of opinions on how to deal with the problem and how widespread it is.
Some leaders have insisted that allegations of sexual abuse by screened by rabbis before being presented to authorities. The issue has become highly contentious in the Orthodox community, where some believe abusers are being shielded from arrest and prosecution. But all agree that kids need to be alert.
Part of the impetus for Magenu was the horrific murder of Leibby Kletzky, an eight-year-old who was kidnapped while walking home from camp in the summer of 2011, and also several high-profile abuse cases involving yeshiva kids as victims, often involving teachers, camp counselors or rabbis.
Eli Verschleiser, a real estate investor, is also the founder of Our Place, a hangout and shelter for troubled teens. He says he has seen more than 20 kids die from drug overdoses, many of whom had been abused as kids, setting them on the path to dysfunction and rebellion.
Shani Verschleiser licensed a curriculum, Safety Kid, from Jewish Family Services of Los Angeles and adapted it using characters that look like yeshiva kids offering advice how to protect their privacy, keep safe and recognize inappopriate situations. They also produce PSAs in the form of comic strips that appear in Orthodox newspapers. A summer safety booklet is available for free download from the organization’s web site.
Eli said that teaching kids about “stranger danger” has been de-emphasized today. “Ninety percent of chidren who are abused know their perpetrators,” he said.
In the year since it was started Magenu, operating on donations of about $100,000, has reached over 2,500 children through more than 300 program events and more than 100 classrooms and trained over 1,000 parents.
“It’s been a pretty crazy ride,” said Eli Verschleiser. “Thank God, after so many years, parents are being trained to spend their time talking to kids about safety, and all the issues that go with it.”