A month ago, many Jewish bookshelves around the world still had volumes of inspirational books that quoted children as an empowerment and teaching tool. When multiple allegations emerged that the author behaved inappropriately with women and children, Jewish institutions and homes worldwide tossed the books away. Then came the difficult part of explaining the absence of the once-popular books, the allegations against its author, the lives that were damaged, and preventing such incidents from happening to our children.
At the Young Israel of West Hempstead, there are many mental health professionals with the experience and qualifications to speak on the matter. This past Motza’ei Shabbos, they spoke in a virtual forum sponsored by the shul’s sisterhood.
“Those in positions of leadership must create an environment in which victims are encouraged and feel safe to report abuse, and they must promote public awareness and discussion of credible allegations of abuse. We must teach the proper interpretation and application of such noble Torah principles as lashon ha’ra, dan l’chaf z’chus, halbanas panim, and pikuach nefesh, and not use them to silence victims or thwart communal safety,” Rabbi Mark Dratch, executive vice president of the RCA, said in his introduction to the panel. “The Torah, the elixir of life, promotes safety and supports the vulnerable. Failure of our community to act responsibly and appropriately on behalf of victims constitutes a chilul Hashem, a desecration of G-d’s Name.”
“The way to understand the challenging events of the past week is that we are not immune. The chiyuv is to protect victims and educate our children,” said Dr. Rona Novick, the Dean of the Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education and Administration at Yeshiva University.
Dr. Rachel Fryman, LCSW, moderated the forum, asking how one should address the topic of abuse and the sudden disappearance of the books to children.
“When it comes to things like this, it’s age-dependent. The school-home partnership is important,” said Dr. Elana Dumont, the school psychologist at the Yeshiva of Central Queens. “Knowing what they’re seeing and hearing is important. Have an open dialog.”
Rabbi Dr. Chesky Gewirtz, who has a private practice in Cedarhurst, noted that the dialog should be honest and based on each child’s needs. “We might not always have the answers. Be able to be honest. Know what your child could manage. Just to be there is so important.”
Dumont said that when a child experiences a traumatic incident, it is equally troubling when a child’s question or opinion is not acknowledged. “They have a very concrete question about what’s bothering them.” Concerning the failures of leaders in living up to their professed moral standards, Novick provided a specific message for parents.
“We raise our children in an environment that gives kavod to leaders. Even the most respected individual cannot act in inappropriate ways. We expect to hold them accountable.”
Explaining the removal of the alleged rapist’s books from her home, Novick spoke of it as sending a message. “If we had a guest in our home, we would not want our guest to feel uncomfortable.”
Gewirtz said that when a child asks about the sudden disappearance of Kids Speak, it can open a conversation on being a mentch and when people experience betrayal.
The panelists said that as schools have fire drills, and mikvaos have posters for spousal abuse hotlines, discussions on consent and self-defense should be provided by all schools. “We need posters for all forms of abuse,” Novick said.
Such posters and literature should note the warning signs of abusive behavior. “We actually know a lot about predators’ grooming behavior, how they select victims, make them feel special, and tell them that they are not to talk to their parents,” Novick said. “You can be reasonably cautious.”
Concerning suicide, the panelists said that when signs of despondency appear, it is vital to be there for such children so that they do not feel lonely. “I am not leaving you until these feelings become manageable for you,” Novick said. Whether it is abuse, suicide, or both, the longstanding communal taboo against discussing these matters must be shattered to save lives and prevent further incidents
“There is a popular myth that talking about it causes more problems,” Gewirtz said. “If a child is bringing it up, it is an opportunity to talk about mental illness and how devastating it can be.”
Resources for Families
The forum included a set of resources for families, shared Samantha Spolter, MSW, that address the topic in a way that is discreet, honest, and on the level of a child’s understanding. Spolter is the Safer Communities Coordinator at JCFS Chicago, where she offers psychoeducation to Jewish Day Schools and institutions on abuse prevention.
- Don’t Touch My Hair By Sharee Miller
- I Said No! By Zack and Kimberly King
- My Body Belongs to Me By Jill Starishevsky
- Consent (For Kids!): Boundaries, Respect, and Being in Charge of You By Rachel Brian
- My Body Belongs to Me from My Head to My Toes Created by Pro Familia
- The Recess Queen By Alexis O’Neil and Laura Huliska-Beith
- Let’s Stay Safe! The Malka and Arthur Krausman Edition – ArtScroll Youth Series
Spolter also shared a list of organizations in the Jewish community that specialize in abuse treatment and prevention:
- Amudim www.amudim.org
- Zaakah www.zaakah.org
- Rainn www.rainn.org/get-help
- Shalom Task Force www.shalomtaskforce.org
- The Bayar Group www.thebayargroup.com
- Sacred Spaces www.jewishsacredspaces.org
- Magenu www.magenu.org
By Sergey Kadinsky