What happens when a Jewish institution faces competing demands while trying to keep its building safe?
In a live shooter situation, the objective is to keep those in the building hidden away; in protecting children from potential abusers, the general protocol calls for transparency — open windows and unlocked doors. So what to do?
As chair of the safeguarding children committee of the Hebrew Institute of White Plains, a Modern Orthodox congregation, Aaron Steinberg considered the dilemma. His committee explored several options with the team at Sacred Spaces, a national nonprofit that describes itself as helping to “build healthy Jewish communities by partnering with Jewish institutions to prevent and respond to sexual abuse and other abuses of power.”
They came up with some practical solutions.
“For example, we decided that windows in our synagogue should have shades,” he said, “and the shades should always be up — unless there is an emergency going on.
“It’s a balancing act between outside and internal threats,” he added, noting the need to assure a safe environment without being overly protective of children. “We’re excited about working with Sacred Spaces, and I think this method can be a model for others by taking a rational approach,” focusing on safety but “trying not to be alarmist.”
The Hebrew Institute is one of several youth-serving organizations participating in a web-based pilot program with Sacred Spaces, which since its launch two years ago has become the go-to resource in the Jewish community for clients developing policies to prevent abuse and deal with it if it occurs.
Next week, Sacred Spaces plans to launch the first three of a planned 10-step online program that it says is practical, easy to use and affordable. It is called Aleinu: Safeguarding our Children and will serve as a highly subsidized how-to guide for Jewish organizations that work with children, including schools, synagogues, community centers and camps.
The cost to join will be $750, and the organizations that sign up will work through the steps on their own schedules.
Shira Berkovits, founder and CEO of Sacred Spaces, is a behavioral psychologist and attorney. She noted that many Jewish organizations realize that they need to focus on child protection but don’t know how to go about it.
“In response, we’ve been building a web platform that offers the tools for any group to implement best practices, one step at a time,” she said. After extensive research and consultation with experts, “we hope to establish a new norm in the next two to three years that will change the Jewish world. This is a cutting-edge project.”
The primary grant to build the online platform came from UJA-Federation of New York. Aleinu will initially serve as “a unique and critical resource to New York Jewish organizations,” according to Adina Frydman, executive director of community resources for UJA-Federation.
She told The Jewish Week that the Federation is committed to “helping our organizations not only meet their critical missions but also meet the standards of safety for our most precious community members — our children.”
Frydman noted that the New York Jewish community has an estimated 1,000 youth-serving organizations — including 600 synagogues and 250 day schools — that could benefit from Aleinu. “Our goal is to raise the standards and allow the organizations to use the platform in their own way and at their own pace.”
As a do-it-yourself guide, Aleinu’s first three steps will deal with how to create a child safety committee, fostering community dialogue (addressing the concerns of parents, board members and other members) and assessing the safety of the organization’s physical space. The instructional tools include videos, interactive worksheets, sample policy language and written guidelines based on the work of experts in the field.
The other best-practice steps, to be rolled out about every two months, include learning the process of hiring and screening workers or volunteers for the institution, implementing guidelines for interacting with children, training adults to recognize red flag behaviors among adults or other youth, and developing protocol for responding to instances of abuse.
Initially, Aleinu will be limited to the first 25 organizations that sign up when it is launched. “We want to go slow and make adjustments based on the feedback we get from those using our tools” before expanding the program, Berkovits said.
Danielle Pitkoff, Aleinu’s program manager, pointed out that each tool has gone through six steps of evaluation and review. A recent graduate of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, where she ran a 24-7 crisis center on campus dealing with sexual assault, Pitkoff said her experience helps her appreciate how the close connections between Jewish communal leaders and their constituents “can effect positive change in creating new norms and policies.” She stressed the need for “community dialogue” on the delicate but important subject of child abuse and its prevention.
The Sacred Spaces team emphasizes that it is not seeking to impose policies on organizations but rather is encouraging them to develop their own, based on their own particular ethos and national standards. “A lot of this work is about balance, valuing the warmth of the culture but recognizing the need to draw lines somewhere,” Pitkoff said. She gave the example of adults hugging children. “We don’t say avoid all physical interaction, but rather, think about your norms.” Those may differ depending on the age of the child and the circumstances, and may call for the adult to first ask a child for permission to hug.
“It’s about knowing your community,” Pitkoff said.
Describing the need for Aleinu, Michelle Friedman, a psychiatrist and board member of Sacred Spaces, said that parents have a right to know that their children are in a safe environment, whether it’s a preschool classroom, a teen travel program or a bar or bat mitzvah lesson. “Asking questions about an institution’s policies and guidelines on abuse prevention communicates our love for our children and our respect for organizations that serve our youth,” she said. “And though many of us feel awkward asking such questions, the path forward demands that we challenge deeply held fantasies that ‘this won’t happen in my community.’”
Friedman described Aleinu as a “positive, proactive campaign that can transform child safety in all Jewish communities.”
The “positive” aspect is key, she says, particularly in shifting the recent focus from organizations being criticized for not doing enough to prevent child abuse to appreciating and even celebrating those who choose to step up and step forward.
Pitkoff noted that “Aleinu” was chosen for the project name because “it means ‘it’s on us’ – it’s our moral and Jewish obligation to not just say we care about our children but to take action and be responsible for their safety.”