By Aaron Steinberg
Are synagogues safe? I think they are.
If they weren’t, I wouldn’t bring my family to one each week; I wouldn’t let my children out of sight while I prayed; I wouldn’t seek serenity in the pews. Yet every time I enter a synagogue, I am reminded that perhaps not everyone feels this way. Professional and volunteer guards stand at the doors; emergency procedures are rehearsed regularly; and additional, less public measures are in place as well. We have clearly heard the alarm bells in Pittsburgh and Poway and paid heed to the threat of violence. My synagogue was recently on lock down as a result of a false alarm, resulting in a half hour of tense fear for hundreds of children and adults.
Unfortunately, there is another danger our communities face that receives less attention, funding and people-power than it deserves. I was recently forced to reckon with the reality that some people in positions of authority want to harm or abuse children after an administrator at my children’s school was arrested by the FBI. Thankfully the response by the administration and leadership was swift and focused on the wellbeing of students, not the reputation of the school or its leaders.
This recent incident reminded me that when I was a teenager working at summer camp for the first time, a then prominent rabbi tried to groom me for his personal gratification by inviting me to play squash followed by a trip to the shvitz. I was not significantly affected at the time: I simply rebuffed the offer of a bizarre and off-putting man. But it is a reminder that, unlike terrorist attacks that are rare in their occurrence, exploiters of children have already intersected my life multiple times.
The sheer volume of physical and sexual abuse against children is shocking. According to the Centers for Disease Control, 1 in 7 children are victims of abuse and/or neglect each year. “Stranger danger” accounts for only a small fraction of those attacks; more than 90% are committed by people known to the victim: family members, family friends, and acquantaintances. The Jewish community is no exception to this horrifyingly common phenomenon, and this threat from within is as important to address as the terrorist threat from without.
Yet, I maintain, synagogues are safe.
My family’s synagogue in White Plains (NY) has had the fortune to join a pilot program of Sacred Spaces’ Aleinu: Safeguarding Children Campaign. We are learning about how to better protect children and ensure that our synagogue has policies and procedures in place to drastically reduce the risk of abuse.
Our committee has reviewed and upgraded our hiring and screening processes, we are conducting a detailed analysis of our physical space, and we have started educating the community about child protection. And that’s just the beginning. We will be instituting enhanced training protocols for staff and volunteers, drafting more robust policies to outline appropriate interaction between children and adults, establishing a standing committee to respond to breaches of those policies, and much more.
I’m optimistic that the Aleinu Campaign is expanding beyond the pilot phase to include 25 youth-serving organizations in the New York area. The work of keeping children safe is strengthened when done broadly across institutions, and this campaign is designed to help any organization implement best practices. I am so proud that all five White Plains synagogues have already begun collaborating to enhance child safety throughout the city.
We need to right-size the danger we face and the preventive measures we employ. Catastrophizing any threat – making people think an active shooter or a child abuser is lurking behind every corner – is an attack on the emotional security of our children. Our Safeguarding Children Committee is guided by the principle that children should be safe and feel safe, which requires a balance of reasonable safeguards alongside supporting the agency of children to engage with the world.
As I see it, the current balance in the American Jewish community is disproportionate to the risks we face. Organizations may focus so exclusively on preventing violent attacks that they are taking counterproductive measures, such as installing lockdown barricading hardware that poses a serious risk to children and others who might be taken advantage of in an easily concealable space. I appreciate that the security director at my synagogue understands the balance required for comprehensive safety measures with competing needs.
So I invite you to join me in affirming the safety of our synagogues and youth serving organizations. Just as we buy fire extinguishers and participate in fire drills without constant fear of a fire, so too can we establish reasonable best practices to keep children safe from would-be abusers, and our communities safe from would-be attackers. All of this is possible without losing the warm and welcoming atmosphere of our synagogues. Synagogues are safe. Join me, and Aleinu, in ensuring that remains true.
Visit www.AleinuCampaign.org to learn more about how your organization can join the Aleinu: Safeguarding Our Children Campaign.
Aaron Steinberg is the Deputy Director of the Bronfman Fellowship, and chair of the Safeguarding Children Committee at the Hebrew Institute of White Plains.