Too Silent for Too Long

Too Silent for Too Long
It’s time for the Jewish community to take a stand against child sexual abuse.

By Joshua Avedon, Dr. Shira Berkovits and Rochel Leah Bernstein-Deitcher

For a people that takes pride in creating community-wide systems to preserve tradition and ensure the future, we seem to have a major blind spot when it comes to one threat to our children: sexual abuse. Our children have always been a primary concern for the organized Jewish community. Millions of charitable dollars are invested in programs focused on raising the next generation of committed and engaged Jews. These places and programs, which are supposed to be safe and encouraging settings, have made transformational progress in ensuring the wellbeing of children with different backgrounds, orientations, identities, and abilities. Now they must do a better job of protecting all our children from sexual predators.

Movies such as Best Picture Oscar-winner Spotlight have told the story of how predators exploit relationships with families and children wherever adults work closely with kids. But the sexual abuse of minors isn’t a religious problem; it’s a human one. Experts agree that any organization that provides regular interaction between adults and children will attract sexual predators. Child molesters seek out these settings to gain access to their victims. In the Jewish world, those settings include Jewish schools, camps, youth groups, and synagogues.

Recent scandals in the Jewish media and in broader society have begun to focus attention on this issue. Yet despite the outrage that accompanies each new revelation, no systemic solution has been proposed or implemented to dramatically change the organizational landscape with regard to this issue. There are numerous advocates and organizations that have focused on child sexual abuse and done excellent work in areas such as training, education, victim-support, and advocacy. But they have largely been operating on their own, exerting herculean efforts with minimal resources, and helping one victim, one organization, at a time. Over many years, their hard work and persistence has shifted the conversation about what can and should be done in every organization that works with children, across the entire communal system.

We believe that the time has come for that system-wide solution. To that end, we have been assembling a consortium of funders who support the creation of a broad-based, universally observed pledge by funders to support only those organizations that have adopted and implemented adequate measures to address the issue. The idea is to communicate a clear message to organizations seeking funding from institutional grantmakers, philanthropists, and individual donors: “in order to receive funding, your organization must have certain minimum verifiable standards in regard to the prevention and reporting of child sexual abuse.”

Our research confirms that many Jewish institutions working with minors are ready and willing to improve but are not always able to create comprehensive policies that would help prevent and respond to child sexual abuse. Strategic philanthropy can lead the way toward changing that for the better. While foundations and philanthropic funders represent a relatively small proportion of the Jewish community donor base overall, they exert disproportionate influence on the behavior of the organizations they fund. Resource providers can exert their unique capacity to shape policy across a wide range of Jewish organizations to enhance the safety of children in their care.

This weekend at the Jewish Funders Network International Conference in San Diego we will formally lay the groundwork for a Child Safety Funder Pledge to help funders and organizations hold themselves, and our community as whole, more accountable for our children’s safety. We are honored to have initial support in this effort from Dana Raucher (The Samuel Bronfman Foundation) and Jim Farley & Charlene Seidle (Leichtag Foundation), joined by Marcella Kanfer Rolnick & Jonathan Woocher (Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah), Lisa & Joshua Greer, Jay Ruderman (The Ruderman Family Foundation), Felicia Herman (Natan Fund), Lynn Schusterman (Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation), Nancy Friedberg (Albert and Nancy Friedberg Foundation), Cheston Mizel & Courtney Mizel (The Lion Heritage Fund), and Selwyn & Glynis Gerber.

We recognize that the details of the policies will vary, reflecting the circumstances and organizational values of diverse organizations. This has been confirmed by our initial research findings, which we will share at JFN, and by our collaboration with Foundation for Jewish Camp CEO Jeremy Fingerman and RAVSAK Co-executive Director Marc Kramer. FJC and RAVSAK were Jumpstart’s pioneering partners in this first-of-its-kind Jewish policy research, which was conducted by sociologist Dr. Steven M. Cohen and in consultation with Dr. Shira Berkovits, a psychologist and attorney (a co-author of this blog post) who works with numerous committed organizations to develop policies to prevent child sexual abuse. FJC’s and RAVSAK’s leaders, who are so committed to the well-being of the children attending our camps and schools, have given us a unique view into how their affiliates deal with child sexual abuse policies and procedures.

We also know there is no dispute about what a strong anti-child sexual abuse program includes. Policies must start by addressing how staff are hired, how they are informed of organizational procedures, and how they are permitted to interact with children. Written policies that are crafted with active input from experts and lay-leaders which are then broadly communicated to stakeholders are considered most effective. Organizations need detailed information on both how to respond to and how to report suspected abuse. They also must perform regular training and education – both for staff and for children. Policies must be created with a clear understanding about the nature of the threat, and with knowledge of the legal requirements for adults working with children.

Our people has survived thousands of years because we are simultaneously realists (in how we see the world) and idealists (in what we hope for the world). When it comes to child safety, the reality is that we are falling short in protecting our children. But we also know that this is an addressable problem. With the correct expertise and resources, our schools, camps, youth groups, and synagogues can be made safer. The Child Safety Funder Pledge will help make that a reality. All it takes is the collective will for everyone – funders, executives, volunteers, and parents alike – to stand up together and say that enough is enough.

 Joshua Avedon is co-founder and CEO of Jumpstart, a global research and design lab for creative philanthropy and social change. He has spent the past decade writing, teaching, and advocating around the globe for philanthropic and programmatic innovation within the Jewish community – and beyond. He advises, mentors, and coaches both emerging leaders and changemakers within established organizations, helping them develop the knowledge and connections necessary to achieving their visions.

Dr. Shira M. Berkovits, Esq., is a psychologist and attorney with extensive experience advising Jewish organizations on the development of child-protection policies. Her forthcoming book, Preventing and Responding to Child Sexual Abuse, offers a detailed roadmap to implement such policies. Dr. Berkovits is currently creating a new nonprofit organization that will aid institutions across the broader Jewish communal landscape in preventing institutional sexual abuse and properly handling it when it occurs.

Rochel Leah Bernstein-Deitcher is a dedicated advocate and independent philanthropist. A passionate supporter of causes that strengthen the Jewish community both in the U.S. and Israel, Rochel Leah focuses her funding on Jewish education and leadership, with special attention to preventing child sexual abuse as well as to developing philanthropic habits in parents and young children.