How Milwaukee Launched an Effort Against Sexual Abuse and Violence

By Tziporah Altman-Shafer

I never expected one article online to redefine my priorities in Jewish education.

My background is in Jewish education. I have worked in camps, supplementary schools, and day schools, as a classroom teacher and an administrator. Starting in 2015, I became the Jewish Education Community Planner for the Milwaukee Jewish Federation. Each role was meaningful and fulfilling, all of it a prelude to what I was about to read one day approximately a year and a half ago.

The article in eJewish Philanthropy by Shira Berkovits profoundly changed my approach to Jewish education. Berkovits pointed out that schools have plans for fire safety and bomb threats but do not have policies and procedures to keep children safe from abuse. This made a lot of sense to me; I started talking to professionals in Milwaukee about how to address this issue in our community. This was not a response to a specific crisis; rather, the article made me aware of a need and I felt it important to be proactive. I believed this to be an area where the Milwaukee Jewish Federation could provide support to all Jewish agencies in our community who work with children. Our children cannot thrive and learn unless they are safe.

This was the beginning of many conversations. As we started firming up our plans, the #MeToo movement began to take hold in the United States. At first, I thought concern over sexual harassment would draw the attention away from an initiative about child sexual abuse. Fortunately, thanks to the vision of our President and CEO, Hannah Rosenthal, we began to think bigger and bigger.

We wanted to create something that met the needs of our entire Jewish community; we started with a community meeting in June to determine what our local schools, synagogues, and agencies wanted from us. The outcome was an initiative of the Milwaukee Jewish Federation called SHOFAR: Safeguarding Healthy Families and Relationships. The multi-year initiative has already raised and will continue to increase awareness, train leaders and educators, and provide resources to the Jewish community for all people who suffer violence and abuse – adults and children – regardless of their gender identity, sexuality, or religious denomination.

Our kickoff event was a moderated discussion with Aly Raisman. Almost 1,000 people attended, heard Aly’s story, and learned about SHOFAR. Two days later, we brought Shira Berkovits, Ph.D. from Sacred Spaces, to do an all-day workshop on child maltreatment. Forty-four professionals from thirty local agencies participated. They will bring back what they learned to their organizations. We hope that many will participate in Sacred Spaces’ Aleinu: A Safeguarding Children Campaign.

Feedback from the workshop included the following comment: “This was without a doubt the best seminar/training that I have been to in the 14 years that I am a rabbi. Shira was absolutely fantastic! It was so practical, informative, enjoyable and so necessary!”

At the Sacred Spaces training, we took the next step by launching our anti-domestic violence campaign. We gave each organization posters to hang in their bathrooms to remind people that they are not alone and that help is available. Each poster has a tear off pad with a hot-line number to call and a website to access.

In addition to Sacred Spaces, we are partnering with some amazing local organizations:

  • Sojourner Family Peace Center, which runs Milwaukee’s official and confidential 24-hour domestic violence hotline. Sojourner has an emergency shelter that offers a safe respite for battered women and their children as well as in-house services including medical care, advocacy and counseling with Jewish Family Services therapists funded by the Milwaukee Jewish Federation. Sojourner will do everything they can to accommodate kashrut and Shabbat observance and other needs of Jewish community members.
  • Jewish Family Services, a leading provider of social services in the greater Milwaukee area for individuals, families and children. JFS has trauma therapists and support groups to help people who are experiencing or have experienced abuse.
  • SHALVA, which offers confidential domestic abuse counseling services to the metropolitan Chicago Jewish community, including many clients from the Orthodox community, and has welcomed many clients from Milwaukee over the years.

What’s next for SHOFAR? In the next two years we plan to:

  • Hold a training for professionals on sexual harassment
  • Have “Healthy Relationship” Shabbat dinners through our outreach department
  • Conduct programs for teens through local Jewish youth groups about healthy dating and relationships
  • Hold a training for clergy about how to respond to domestic violence within their congregations

As we go along our plans will certainly evolve. The initiative has had an immediate impact upon many people in Milwaukee. I have gotten phone calls from women who have been victims of domestic violence for decades and have been waiting for the Jewish community to take the lead in addressing this problem. I have heard from professionals in our community who are extremely grateful that we are providing resources. Wherever I go, people are asking me about SHOFAR and what will come next.

When I think back to that moment when one article changed the trajectory of my career, I am so grateful I took time out of my busy day to learn and grow. Thank you to Shira Berkovits, Sacred Spaces, and eJewish Philanthropy. Thank you to the amazing team I work with at Milwaukee Jewish Federation and to the generous donors who are making this effort possible.

Tziporah Altman-Shafer is the Jewish Education Community Planner and Director of the Coalition for Jewish Learning at the Milwaukee Jewish Federation. Tziporah has worked in Jewish education for over 30 years. She lives in Milwaukee with her husband and three children.