As we leave Rosh Hashanah and head into Yom Kippur, the sound of crying is echoing in my ears. The theme of crying appears throughout the liturgy we recite, it’s mirrored in the sounds of the shofar, and it pours forth from the souls of members of our community.
In recent years, we’ve heard more and more stories, more and more cries of sexual abuse in the Jewish community coming to light, across the globe and across denominations. What once perhaps felt shocking and unreal has become tragically commonplace as scandal after scandal unfolds. It is painful and tragic for our community.
The true tragedy, though, is not the embarrassment and shame we feel when abuse is exposed. The true tragedy is that innocent and vulnerable children have been harmed in ways that are permanently scarring – physically, emotionally and spiritually, and we as a Jewish community have many times failed in our responses.
On Rosh Hashanah, we read two Torah portions that share a common, powerful theme. They are both the stories of vulnerable youths saved from terrible harm at the last minute by a compassionate God. Sarah and Abraham cast Ishmael out to the desert. His mother Hagar was unable to bear his cries for water so she abandoned him by a bush to die. God stepped in and provided immediate healing and a path to a bright future for Ishmael. So too with Isaac. Abraham, acting on God’s command, nearly killed his own child until God’s angel stopped him at the last minute, calling out “do not lay a hand upon the child!”
Our world today is not a world where God or angels visibly, miraculously intervene in the lives of vulnerable children, saving them from harm.
God has handed the responsibility to protect the most vulnerable to us in the commandment: v’halachta bidrachav, and you shall walk in God’s path. Maimonides, in his Guide to the Perplexed (1:54), identifies, chessed, tzedakah and mishpat, lovingkindess, righteousness and justice, as the Godly path we are to walk in.
Tragically, when it comes to protecting children from abuse, over and over again our community has stumbled. We have failed to both prevent abuse of children and then to respond to it appropriately, leaving many with the double trauma of abuse and then abandonment by the authority figures and communities that are supposed to help and heal.
To be sure, this is not just a Jewish issue. Child abuse and the subsequent denials, cover-ups, the shielding of abusers, silencing victims, etc. appear in all religions across the globe. And it's not just a faith problem either; abuse scandals have erupted in entertainment, sports, politics, and more.
It is a universal problem, but it calls for particular answers. For us, that means answers that reflects the unique realities of Jewish communities. The time for pretending that this problem doesn’t exist in our community is over. The time for limiting ourselves to only being reactive to occurrences of abuse is over. Now is the time for taking proactive, concrete steps towards prevention is now. This year, 5776.
Sensitive, carefully thought out policies, procedures and education can prevent abuse, lessen its damage when it occurs, and help communities move forward in healthy, productive ways.
This new year calls on any Jewish institution that engages with children to carefully review its policies in place and to ask the tough questions to help make things better.
Some of these questions include:
● Are we teaching our children the words and empowering them to talk to us about abuse?
● Do the institutions our children participate in (schools, synagogues, camps) have sound policies and procedures for concerning abuse prevention and response?
● What support do we provide to victims of abuse?
These are not questions with boilerplate answers. They require real thought and investment from communal leaders. Thankfully, there are resources to help guide us in these areas. Experts in the field of abuse and prevention are generating guides to help us in this critical work. The Center for Disease Control has a helpful guide called Preventing Child Sexual Abuse Within Youth-serving Organizations: Getting Started on Policies and Procedures that is available online.
At the synagogue I have the honor of serving, the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale – The Bayit, a committee of lay and professional leaders began taking steps in this journey last winter. When we began meeting last spring, our goal was to be proactive instead of reacting to crisis. It has been a deliberate, challenging and meaningful journey for our community. We have not answered all the questions yet, and our committee still has a long way to go, but we are invested in putting in the time and energy to ensure we are doing everything we can to make our community a safe space for children.
This is the season where we reflect on and are judged by what truly matters. In the Beit Din Shel Maala, the Heavenly Courts, our community will not be held accountable for the quality of our kiddushes or numbers of member units. We will be judged by how we protect those most vulnerable in our midst. Across the Jewish world we have heard the cries and seen the silent tears of those who have been abused – let’s make this the year we respond.
Rabbi Ari Hart serves at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale-The Bayit.