addressing abuse

A new set of sample policies aims to help Jewish groups prevent and address sexual misconduct

Sacred Spaces, which combats sexual abuse, hopes that having clear language and regulations will lead to a cultural shift around the fraught issue. 

In recent years, a number of Jewish institutions across the ideological spectrum have confronted allegations of sexual misconduct. And in many of those cases, victims say they tried to report the alleged abuse — only for the complaint to go nowhere. 

Now, Sacred Spaces, a Jewish organization that combats sexual abuse, is unveiling a set of policies that Jewish groups can use to prevent misconduct and address it when it happens, eJewishPhilathropy has learned. The organization hopes that having clear language and regulations will lead to a cultural shift around the fraught issue. 

“Whatever your institution is, you’re dealing with a million things, including the very thing you were created to do, so to start to draft your forms and your protocols and all of this, when this isn’t your expertise — you probably don’t have the capacity to do this all on your own,” Shira Berkovits, Sacred Spaces’ founder and CEO, told eJP. She added, “I don’t think we’re all doing our best, because doing our best means putting in place a system before there’s a problem.”

The policies, collectively called Keilim (Hebrew for “tools”), will include six sections — ranging from “Prohibited Conduct,” which helps organizations define unacceptable behavior; to “Screening,” which covers hiring practices; to “Organizational Response,” which covers how groups should act when allegations emerge. “Prohibited Conduct,” “Organizational Response” and an initial section called “Foundational Values” are all launching today. The three additional sections will go online in the fall. 

Much of the project’s content isn’t explicitly Jewish. The bulk of the material involves technical language concerning sexual misconduct, discrimination or bullying that would fit just as well in a non-Jewish organization’s employee handbook. But the project is interspersed with Jewish language, including a d’var Torah, and adjusts its word choice to include terms like “lay leaders,” “funders” and “rabbis.” Beyond that, Berkovits feels there’s value in presenting the policies in a Jewish context. 

“If this material — the ideas of safety, respect and equity — if you’re like, ‘We’ll just take the legal terminology,’ or, ‘This doesn’t have to be our Jewish values,’ what kind of message is that?” she said. “Of course our Jewish values need to inform every decision we make on this because this goes to the core of treating human beings in the image of God.”

The project grew out of two cross-denominational cohorts of synagogues, in Chicago and Washington, D.C., that Sacred Spaces formed in 2019 and worked with to develop policies, conduct trainings and discuss best practices regarding preventing and responding to sexual misconduct. Sacred Spaces has launched two new cohorts this year: one made up of Jewish organizations in southern Arizona and another consisting of Conservative synagogues nationwide. 

One of the synagogues in the D.C. cohort, Kesher Israel, a Modern Orthodox congregation, confronted its own sexual abuse scandal in 2014 when its rabbi was arrested (and later convicted) for committing voyeurism against dozens of women using the mikvah, or ritual bath. The current rabbi, Hyim Shafner, told eJP that that experience led the synagogue to place a high priority on addressing misconduct. 

“We felt that it’s really important not just to have responded once to something tragic, but to make sure that the consciousness was ongoing, the consciousness of safety for staff, for congregants,” he said. “It’s not something we want to ignore… Kesher knows this: You don’t want to wait until something bad happens to pay attention to these things.”

Like other cohort participants, Kesher’s work on a misconduct policy was stalled by the onset of COVID-19. The head of the synagogue’s committee on the issue, Moriah Gendelman, told eJP that the synagogue does have a policy but that it could be more comprehensive. She added that discussing the issue in a Jewish context was valuable because Jewish organizations have their own specific sets of relationships. 

“There are so many other power dynamics at play in a Jewish organization that go beyond being taken advantage of sexually,” she said. “You have major donors that have a lot of money; what power does money give you? What power does being a major donor give you? You obviously have clergy, and clergy come with their own set of powers. You have a board…. There’s just a lot of different power dynamics at play when you have a multigenerational space.”

Berkovits said that the unique circumstances Jewish institutions face are what motivated the creation of Keilim, and that Sacred Spaces hopes to give them a path toward formulating manageable policies. 

“The policy is not about your dreams,” she said. “Your dreams should be reflected in there, but this also has to be realistic because you have to be able to implement it.”