In anticipation of the first summer since the emergence of the national #MeToo movement, the Foundation for Jewish Camp (FJC) — the largest Jewish camping umbrella organization — announced the launch of an initiative to help prevent sexual harassment, abuse and misconduct at camp.

Titled the Shmira (Hebrew for “guardian”) Initiative, the effort was unveiled in March at FJC’s biennial Leaders Assembly, in an effort to better equip camps to “address these issues head on, with immediate action in conjunction with parents and law enforcement authorities,” the organization announced via press release at the time. An initial $100,000 is intended to support the development of staff training and virtual learning opportunities for the foundation’s 300 member camps.

But in a recent interview with The Jewish Week, FJC’s chief executive, Jeremy Fingerman, suggested that the new effort, at least in its early stage, will address “changing camp culture” rather than focusing on solidifying camps’ “best practices” when it comes to handling allegations of sexual abuse and harassment.

The first organization to sign on to the initiative, Moving Traditions, a group that works with teens to challenge sexism and gender norms, does not deal with abuse prevention.

Jeremy Fingerman, CEO of Foundation for Jewish Camp.

“One will lead to the other,” said Fingerman, in terms of changing camp culture leading to best practices and policies. He stressed that the Shmira Initiative is intended to be a “multiyear effort.” (The two-stage, multi-year nature of the initiative was not spelled out in the project’s rollout.)

“Opening up conversations at the highest levels about sexuality, gender and body-respect is the first step to combating abuse in camp settings,” said Fingerman.

The conversation about sexual abuse and harassment at camps, youth groups, schools and JCCs has moved rapidly onto the communal agenda after a series of recent and dramatic revelations. Last December, The Jewish Week reported exclusively on the admission by a West Coast leader of United Synagogue Youth, the Conservative movement’s youth arm, that he sexually abused two teenagers in the program in the late 1980s. In January, the paper reported on detailed allegations lodged by the families of three Baltimore boys against the head of the lower boys’ division of a Baltimore-area Orthodox summer camp, who also was employed as a teacher at a Baltimore day school.

And last month, the longtime director of the NJY Camp network in New Jersey, Len Robinson, was forced to resign after a number of women came forward with allegations of sexual harassment, some stretching back decades.

All of this, along with a nationwide effort on the part of major philanthropic foundations to pledge to fund only those camps and schools that employ best practices to prevent abuse, is throwing a spotlight on efforts like the Shmira Initiative.

The initiative’s emphasis on “changing camp culture” first is being questioned by experts.

Illustrative photo of Members of USY celebrating at the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism’s 2015 convention. JTA

Marci Hamilton, a legal scholar and CEO and founder of Child USA, a nonprofit that seeks to end child abuse, said that the “key” to ending child abuse at youth-serving organizations is “sound prevention policies and reporting procedures.”

“You can talk about gender dynamics and sexuality all you want, but if campers and staff don’t know where, how or when to report abuse or suspicions of abuse, you’re not addressing the problem.”

“You can talk about gender dynamics and sexuality all you want, but if campers and staff don’t know where, how or when to report abuse or suspicions of abuse, you’re not addressing the problem.”

Moreover, according to FJC’s 2018 guidelines, disseminated in January, member camps are not required to have any harassment or abuse-prevention policies. (Guidelines for acceptance into the FJC umbrella include celebrating Shabbat, demonstrating a connection to Israel and demonstrating fiscal health.) And, despite the Shmira Initiative’s expressed commitment to helping camps develop prevention and response plans, member camps would not be removed from the umbrella organization if abuse-prevention policies are absent, unenforced or outdated, said an FJC representative.

In the wake of Robinson’s forced resignation, Fingerman released a statement affirming FJC’s commitment to “supporting camps across North America as we continue our efforts to review and improve policies and procedures to keep our institutions safe.”

Further complicating the Shmira Initiative’s mission is a question of optics.

The Jewish Week has learned that the organization FJC is consulting with on the abuse-prevention part of its strategy is the Baltimore Child Abuse Center (BCAC). The center figured in Jewish Week articles about Rabbi Shmuel Krawatsky, the Baltimore camp official and teacher who was eventually fired from his teaching post at Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School after the paper’s investigation in January. BCAC was hired to review the school’s sexual abuse-prevention policies after Rabbi Krawatsky rejoined the middle school staff in February 2016; the rehiring came after Baltimore Child Protective Services’ initial ruling that there was ample evidence to conclude that Rabbi Krawatsky sexually abused the boys who lodged complaints against him. (Rabbi Krawatsky has filed a lawsuit against the parents of the three boys alleging defamation; the parents have filed a motion to dismiss the case.)

It’s unclear what steps, if any, BCAC took at Beth Tfiloh in the wake of the allegations against Rabbi Krawatsky. A comment by Drew Fidler, the group’s representative at the school, in a December 2017 interview with The Jewish Week, left the impression that Beth Tfiloh did not abide by best practices while under her consultancy.

(Fidler’s father, Josh Fidler, is on the board of Camp Shoresh, the day camp where three children were allegedly raped by Rabbi Krawatsky during the summer of 2015. The Fidler family is also a long-time benefactor of the Beth Tfiloh school, where Ms. Fidler was hired in June of 2017 to audit the school’s child sexual abuse prevention policies)

A comment by Drew Fidler, the group’s representative at the school, in a December 2017 interview with The Jewish Week, left the impression that Beth Tfiloh did not abide by best practices while under her consultancy.

Fidler has been tasked with co-hosting FJC’s webinar training series on procedures regarding sexual harassment reporting, intervention and prevention. She also led several seminars on “Keeping Kids Safe at Camp” at the recent FJC Leaders Assembly. Fidler is on maternity leave and was not available for comment.

Fingerman told The Jewish Week that the organization is not “partnering” with BCAC on the Shmira Initiative, but rather employed the center’s services before the initiative launched.

Several experts told The Jewish Week that working with an agency connected to an ongoing sex abuse scandal — even tangentially — is a poor and potentially compromising decision.

“I would not choose to partner with an organization that is currently under scrutiny for anything,” said Katelyn N. Brewer, CEO of Darkness to Light, a nonprofit organization that works to prevent child sexual abuse primarily in Christian settings. “It is not in the best interest of my organization.”

Hamilton called the decision “reckless.”

Fingerman said the organization chose to use BCAC despite its recent connection to the child sexual abuse scandal because of the “organization’s expertise in abuse-prevention policies.” The organization provides child abuse trainings for a wide array of Jewish (and non-Jewish) youth-serving organizations, including BBYO International, B’nai B’rith Perlman Camp and five URJ Camps, including URJ Eisner & Crane Lake and URJ Camp Coleman.

At the most recent FJC Leader’s Assembly, BCAC was the only organization that presented on the topic of abuse prevention and reporting protocols.

Adam Rosenberg, executive director of BCAC, said that the Shmira Initiative is a “great concept and necessary to protect camps and most importantly campers from abuse and harassment.”

In the coming weeks, senior educators from Moving Traditions, hired by FJC to “change camp culture,” will be facilitating three regional trainings for FJC in which staff members will learn how to navigate delicate social situations between campers and create a positive camp culture, according to Moving Traditions’ CEO Deborah Meyer.

Moving Traditions, however, told The Jewish Week that its staff has no professional training in child sexual abuse prevention or reporting policies.

“We’re going to focus on how campers talk to each other, how we deal with sexuality at camp,” Meyer told The Jewish Week, giving examples of how to welcome LBGTIQ campers and challenge “hookup culture” between campers. (“Like when a girl comes back from a ‘Shabbat walk’ with a boy and her bunkmates put her the center of the room and ask: ‘What happened?’” she explained.)

Moving Traditions, however, told The Jewish Week that its staff has no professional training in child sexual abuse prevention or reporting policies.

“We don’t cover abuse prevention,” said Meyer. For example, the center would not be equipped to provide professional guidance on what a camper or counselor should do if someone in a position of power — i.e., a camp executive — sexually harassed or abused him or her, Meyer said.

Several experts doing work in the field of abuse prevention told the Jewish Week they independently offered services to FJC before the Shmira initiative was launched in March; speaking off the record for fear of professional retribution, they said the offers were turned down.

Experts doing work in the field of abuse prevention told the Jewish Week they independently offered services to FJC before the Shmira initiative was launched.

The data that has thus far been collected on abuse-prevention policies at Jewish summer camps has only reinforced the magnitude of the problem.

A recent study conducted by Jumpstart, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit that funds and supports Jewish innovation, in conjunction with FJC found that while 95 percent of the 90 Jewish overnight camps surveyed had a written policy to deal with child sexual abuse, the detail, breadth and application of those policies remained lacking, according to project director and CEO of Jumpstart, Joshua Avedon. (Two hundred Jewish overnight camps and 140 Jewish day schools were contacted for the study.)

Four major philanthropic organizations pledged in November 2017 to limit grants to organizations with sound abuse prevention policies. They are the Samuel Bronfman Foundation, the Ruderman Family Foundation, the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation and the Leichtag Foundation. Two of the four are donors to FJC, and the Schusterman Foundation’s vice president, Lisa Eisen, presented on the panel following the initiative’s launch.

(Panelists later clarified that the subject matter of the panel following the Shmira Initiative’s launch was not child abuse prevention at summer camp, but rather creating equitable Jewish workplaces. None of the panelists — whose group photo was used in promotional materials for the Shmira initiative — have expertise in child abuse prevention at summer camp, each separately told The Jewish Week. Each denied association with the initiative.)

Illustrative photo of campers kayaking at a Jewish summer camp – Camp Gilboa near Los Angeles. JTA

Schusterman — a signatory of the November 2017 Child Safety Pledge and a prominent donor to FJC — wrote in an email to The Jewish Week that, “In general, we are pleased that FJC is prioritizing this issue” and that the organization’s efforts are “in the spirit” of the Child Safety Pledge, though they fail to at this point meet the Pledge’s criterion. “This work is important and takes time to implement correctly,” explained a Schusterman representative. The Foundation “did not mandate a specific timeline” for this work.

Thus far, no grants have been withheld due to a lack of sound prevention policies, according to representatives from all four organizations.

Initiatives that create the illusion of addressing the problem of abuse — with webinars and one-off staff trainings — can do more harm than good.

Boz Tchividjian is a former assistant state attorney in Florida who served as chief prosecutor in the Sexual Crimes division and the founder of GRACE, a nonprofit organization that helps Christian organizations implement abuse prevention policies. He said that initiatives that create the illusion of addressing the problem of abuse — with webinars and one-off staff trainings — can do more harm than good. (Tchividjian has no personal knowledge of the Shmira Initiative.)

“I’m always suspicious when an organization makes a lot of noise but doesn’t show a lot of substance,” he said. “It creates a false sense of security and misleads parents and communities into thinking the problem is being addressed.”