The seeds for Shira Berkovits’ organization were planted in rural Minnesota at the breakfast table of a devout Lutheran family.
The table belonged to Victor Vieth, founder of a national child protection training center and an expert in addressing child abuse in small communities. During the summer of 2013, Berkovits, who is Orthodox, lived with Vieth and his family in order to absorb everything she could about systematically preventing abuse.
“We’d sit at the breakfast table and start brainstorming,” recalled Berkovits, who was a law student at Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at the time — the summer experience with Vieth was a legal internship.
“I remember saying, ‘Victor, what would it look like if we did all this in the Jewish community?’”
Sacred Spaces, a nonprofit that aids institutions across the broader Jewish communal landscape in developing policies to prevent institutional abuse and properly handle it when it occurs, is the realization of that dream. Launched last July, the initiative aims to train Jewish community professionals around the world about child protection policies, best practices and boundary violations. The end goal is to create an accreditation system for the Jewish community.
Unlike other initiatives that have sprung up to address this problem, Sacred Spaces is not focused on helping victims or exposing offenders — it is aimed at reshaping institutions.
“I’m convinced that the answer is in policies,” said Berkovits, who is a behavioral psychologist, attorney and author of the forthcoming book, “Preventing and Responding to Child Abuse: A Policy Guide for Synagogue Professionals and Lay Leaders.” “When an issue comes up, people are scrambling to come up with fixes. If we had a code — just like a fire safety code — our community could start to think about the issue of abuse in a different way.”
Organizations, she said, are desperate for information: 82 percent of 110 synagogue youth directors she surveyed from across the denominational spectrum in 2013 had no training in preventing child sexual abuse. “I realized this was bigger than me.”
She knows how to throw a party: Berkovits hosted her 30th birthday party at Orchard Beach in the Bronx. Festivities began with sunrise yoga, followed by a musical minyan, and ending with a drum circle. She hopes her book party will include indoor skydiving or trapezing.