Startup Org Shines New Light On Abuse Policies


In his first summer as director of Camp Ramah Berkshires, a large Conservative sleepaway camp in the rolling hills of upstate New York, Rabbi Ethan Linden is intent on ensuring that all the camp’s policies and procedures are up to code.

That includes, among medical policies, security policies and fire safety procedures, measures to prevent child sexual abuse.

“The core mission of the camp is to care for children,” said Linden, who will have 750 campers under his supervision over the course of the summer. “Coming in new, it was a good opportunity to work with someone who has expertise in preventing the sorts of nightmare scenarios that keep camp directors up at night.”**

“People are not thinking through these issues in advance,” said Berkovits.

Shira Berkovits, founder and executive director of Sacred Spaces, a nonprofit launched a year ago that aims to help Jewish communal institutions develop policies and training to prevent and respond to abuse, is that someone.

“People are not thinking through these issues in advance,” said Berkovits, a lawyer, psychologist, consultant and Jewish educator. “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.”

The presence of Sacred Spaces, which is now working with 10 institutions, mostly in the New York area, is being bolstered by a just-released study by the innovative nonprofit support group Jumpstart that documents “critical gaps” in schools’ and camps’ anti-child sexual abuse policies. (See exclusive story.)

Taken together, the study and Berkovits’ work appear to be signaling a shift from what has heretofore been a focus on helping abuse victims and exposing offenders to reshaping institutions. Though Sacred Spaces’ first cohort of institutions is focused on preventing child abuse, Berkovits hopes future initiatives will tackle a wider range of abuse issues, including sexual harassment and elder abuse.

Today, Berkovits wants camps, schools, and synagogues to be less “reactive” and more “preventative” by putting in place policies based on best practices. She envisions, in the not-too-distant future, an accreditation system for communal institutions.

Though the Jumpstart study did not focus on synagogues, a 2013 study conducted by Berkovits found that 67 percent of 112 synagogues had no policies on child sexual abuse prevention at all; 82 percent of youth directors had never been offered training.

Her results focused on the three largest denominations (Orthodox, Conservative and Reform). Though Orthodox synagogues had the highest percentages of an absence of policies and training — 91 percent of Orthodox youth directors had no training on child-abuse prevention, and 75 percent of Orthodox synagogues had no policies on the matter — Conservative and Reform synagogues also proved sorely lacking.

91 percent of Orthodox youth directors had no training on child-abuse prevention, and 75 percent of Orthodox synagogues had no policies on the matter.

Sacred Spaces’ guide for synagogues suggests some of the training Berkovits’ research recommends. One such hands-on example, a bystander intervention workshop intended for synagogue congregants, details a scenario: At a kiddush lunch, you notice a congregant help a child to reach a cookie. As the congregant gives the child the cookie, the congregant strokes the child’s bare arm and kisses the child’s head. The child squirms and looks uncomfortable.

The question: How does one effectively intervene? Congregants will conduct a role play, discuss what might hold someone back from intervening and discuss the most effective way to get involved.

The workshop, and others like it, is part of a process that includes a review of current policies and procedures, interviews with staff, parents and children, a building and grounds assessment, the development of new policies and ongoing evaluation.

The chair of the child protection committee at a medium-sized New York synagogue that is working with Sacred Spaces said that he was “surprised” by the lack of knowledge among his fellow synagogue leaders on the topic.

“The stigma around sexual abuse is a huge challenge,” he said. (He, like several institutional officials contacted by The Jewish Week for this article, requested to remain anonymous to shield the synagogue’s identity; they did not want their cooperation to imply that their institutions had an issue with child sexual abuse.) “Educated, well-meaning individuals were dubious. They think this [sexual abuse] is something that happens over there, not over here.”

“The stigma around sexual abuse is a huge challenge.”

The committee chair — himself a practicing pediatrician who has worked on matters of child protection for years — said the process of instituting policies to protect children from abuse was “eye-opening.”

“I can barely imagine how challenging it might be for someone not initiated to the topic,” he said.

The synagogue — which he described as “very proactive about inclusion and protection” — began taking the abuse issue more seriously after Rabbi Jonathan Rosenblatt, former rabbi of Riverdale Jewish Center, became embroiled in controversy over his habit of inviting young men to go with him to the sauna.

“We realized the importance of establishing red lines,” he said.

After nearly two years of consulting with Berkovits, working through policies with the board of trustees, and introducing the initiative to the community though small discussion groups, the synagogue in nearing the implementation stage. Policies are set to take effect in September.

Berkovits hopes to use the synagogue’s policies as a model for other synagogues.

“The issue is very charged. People have put up all kinds of defense mechanisms to believe it couldn’t happen in their community,” the chair said. “The truth is, it can and it does. But changing a culture takes a lot of time.”

Not An ‘Orthodox Problem’

Though the charedi community has shouldered the brunt of negative publicity on the issue of abuse, Berkovits said that she has been “surprised” at how receptive Orthodox communities are to initiating the conversation — often more so than “more liberal communities.”

Abuse, she stressed, is not an “Orthodox problem.”

“The fact is that institutional abuse, sexual abuse, abuses of power, they are not Orthodox problems, or even Jewish problems; they are human problems impacting every community. Unless a community has invested significant time and resources to address this issue, they will not be prepared to responsibly handle abuses of power when they occur — and they will occur.”

Support for Berkovits’ project spans the denominational spectrum. Rabbi David Ingber, the senior rabbi at Romemu, a Renewal-inspired congregation on the Upper West Side, plans to work with Sacred Spaces to evaluate his own synagogue; he also hopes to serve on the advisory board of the organization.

“The Jewish community is radically unprepared to deal with this issue,” said Rabbi Ingber. “I’m galvanized by what Shira is doing — people need to know that her work can help avert so many future disasters.” He referred to the work as pikuach nefesh — saving a life. “If you can save one child, you can save a whole world … we can no longer stand idly by.”

“I’m galvanized by what Shira is doing — people need to know that her work can help avert so many future disasters.”

Rabbi Judah Isaacs, director of community engagement at the Orthodox Union (OU), the largest Orthodox umbrella organization, said Berkovits’ work is critical to help congregations navigate tricky situations, like how to respond to someone convicted of child abuse if/when they want to rejoin the congregation. The OU has worked with her on a case-by-case basis over the last five years.

“Shira has helped our synagogues navigate that difficult space,” he said. “It is critical that our synagogues have professional help, and don’t try and navigate these situations themselves.”

Changing the Culture

Guila Benchimol, a consultant for Sacred Spaces with a master’s degree in criminology and criminal justice policy, is working with a large Orthodox day school in Toronto to establish abuse-prevention policies. This month, it will be piloting a detailed list of policies and protocols developed with help from Sacred Spaces. They include: limitations on students riding in cars with staff members; limitations on students being alone in the building with staff members; methods of communicating with parents about concerns; and involving government agencies to work with school on reporting abuse. (The problem of self-policing — reporting abuse to rabbis rather than law enforcement — has been particularly troublesome in the Orthodox community, though there are indications that this is changing, Benchimol said.)

“When we started this work a few years back, people warned us, ‘You’re going to make enemies.’”

“When we started this work a few years back, people warned us, ‘You’re going to make enemies,’” said Benchimol, who is writing her doctoral dissertation about sexual abuse in tight-knit communities, including the Orthodox community. “Then, people really weren’t open to talking about it.”

Today, that’s changed, she said. “Now, people want to know more. When you talk about what needs to happen, that’s when resistance starts.”

Still, it is the responsibility of leadership and staff at Jewish institutions to start “changing the culture.”

“In the community, abuse is still a difficult story to tell,” she said. “But it should not be the responsibility of abuse survivors to force us to change. Their stories should not have to shock us into action. The onus is on us — to take initiative, to change our institutions, so there doesn’t have to be another story.”

Sacred Spaces received start-up grants from several organizations, including the Natan Fund, a giving circle of young Jewish professionals, which gave the organization its first foundation grant, and the Jewish Women’s Foundation of New York (JWFNY) which provided a $15,000 general operating support grant.

“We hoped that this grant would not just provide financial support as Sacred Spaces got off the ground, but also serve as a statement about the importance of this issue and the great promise of this particular approach, envisioned and executed by these excellent leaders,” said Felicia Herman, Natan’s executive director.

JWFNY’s executive director Jamie Allen Black said she is “proud to partner with [Berkovits] on this important work.”

Inspiration From Other Faith Communities

Berkovits, 33, began thinking about ways to keep children safe as a youth director for the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale in 2005, and later as a consultant for the OU.

Then a student at Cardozo Law School, she connected with Victor Vieth, founder of a national child protection training center and an expert in addressing child abuse in small communities. Vieth, a devout Lutheran, invited Berkovits to stay with his family in rural Minnesota to shadow him on the job; it was officially a legal internship.

“I remember at the dinner table his family thanked Jesus for bringing me to them safe and sound,” she recalled, laughing. “No one had ever thanked Jesus for my existence before.”

The Jewish community has much to learn from other faith communities who have tackled this issue, she said.

“In the Jewish community, the anti-abuse organizations that exist rarely speak about God or reference Judaic texts in their work,” said Berkovits.

“In the Jewish community, the anti-abuse organizations that exist rarely speak about God or reference Judaic texts in their work,” said Berkovits, noting that Vieth consistently framed his work as a religious imperative — part of leading a “Godly life.”

“At Sacred Spaces,” Berkovits said, “we see our mission of creating healthy Jewish organizations as a positive commandment that goes to the core of our Jewish values and tradition. … One cannot claim to be religious and turn a blind eye to abuse.”

In addition to launching Sacred Spaces, Berkovits has written a book on the topic: “The Child Safeguarding Policy Guide for Churches and Ministries” (New Growth Press). Rights to the book, due out this fall, were bought by GRACE (Godly Response to Abuse In Christian Environments), a nonprofit founded in 2003 to assist evangelical groups confronting child sexual abuse. Boz Tchividjian, director of GRACE and the grandson of famed Baptist minister Billy Graham, co-authored the book with Berkovits. (Recently, GRACE launched an accreditation program similar to the one Berkovits is working to create.)

Berkovits was prompted to write the book after being “inundated with phone calls” following a 2013 resolution put out by the Rabbinical Council of America — the largest body of Orthodox rabbis — calling upon all synagogues and schools to adopt policies geared towards preventing sexual abuse. (The resolution was based upon some of her early writings.)

Even as organizations understand that the work has to happen, there is still a long way to go “in our communal conversations and awareness,” said Berkovits.

“Part of our work with organizations is helping them to shift their assumptions and approach to prevention, so that they take pride in their efforts,” she said.

“Organizations worry that by taking preventative steps they might somehow be perceived as having ‘an issue with abuse,’” she continued. “What everyone should understand is that taking steps to prevent abuse is not something that should be reserved for those who have had incidents of abuse.

“By then,” she concluded, “it is too late.”

**In 2016, a former camper at Camp Ramah Berkshires (identified by the pseudonym John Doe in legal papers) filed a lawsuit against the Jewish Theological Seminary and the National Ramah Commission alleging that a counselor forced him to perform a sex act in the woods one summer as a young boy. The suit accuses camp officials of aiding in a coverup and allowing alleged abuser Harvey Erlich to sexually abuse four other boys during the 1970s and 1980s. The plaintiff is seeking $20 million in damages. 

JTS told the Jewish Week that they filed a motion to dismiss the case late last year and are still awaiting a decision.