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Keeping Communities Safe

Center for the Jewish Future Hosts Conference for Rabbis on Addressing and Preventing Child Sexual Abuse in Jewish Communities

On February 25, Yeshiva University’s Center for the Jewish Future hosted an educational and training session for rabbinic leadership focusing on the unique challenges of addressing and preventing child sexual abuse in religious communities.

Victor Vieth, executive director emeritus Victor Vieth, director emeritus of the Gundersen Health System's National Child Protection Training Center

The conference was one of several programs and efforts by YU to promote child sexual abuse prevention and awareness and provided an overview of the latest research about abuse in faith-based communities as well as guidelines to help synagogues institute policies and procedure aimed at preventing and addressing allegations of child sexual abuse. The program included addresses from Andrew (Avi) Lauer, Esq., vice president for legal affairs and secretary and general counsel at YU; Dr. Shira Berkovits, a postdoctoral psychology fellow at YU's Albert Einstein College of Medicine's Early Childhood Center, part of the Children's Evaluation and Rehabilitation Center /Rose F. Kennedy Center, and a student at YU’s Benjamin N. Cardozo Law School; and national child sexual abuse expert Victor Vieth, director emeritus of the Gundersen Health System’s National Child Protection Training Center.

Vieth presented an extensive overview of recent studies about abuse in faith-based communities, followed by a session by Berkovits and Lauer focusing on the development and implementation of policies and procedures pertaining to the prevention of child sexual abuse within synagogues. Vieth also discussed the common misconception that abusers are usually “strangers” or adhere to a common prototype, noting that 90 percent of abused children were abused by someone they knew or even other children.

“Child sexual abuse is 75 times more common than pediatric cancer, 167 times more common than autism and infinitely more common than a terrorist attack, yet we invest heavily in efforts to treat these diseases and disorders and security to prevent terrorist attacks in our yeshivas and our schools,” said Berkovits. “But we have done little to actually prevent child sexual abuse in our communities. As rabbis, the most vulnerable of the Jewish community are in your hands—I hope you will join me today as we seek to change this.”

Andrew (Avi) Lauer, Esq., vice president Andrew (Avi) Lauer, Esq., vice president for legal affairs and secretary and general counsel at YU

The event also featured a panel discussion reflecting on the specific implications for rabbis and community leaders with Lauer; Dr. Chaim Nissel, YU dean of students; and Rabbi Kenneth Hain, senior rabbi of Congregation Beth Sholom. Rabbi Hain stressed the complex role that rabbis play and encouraged his colleagues to act responsibly and proactively to protect the children and those most vulnerable within our communities.“Community rabbis must take a leadership role in promoting child sexual abuse prevention and awareness, as well as developing and implementing policies and procedures to deal with the issue within their communities," said Lauer.

“Child sex abuse is unfortunately a very real and serious issue and it is critical that we give our rabbis and community leaders the tools they need to both prevent abuse and to recognize it and respond appropriately to it when it unfortunately occurs,” said Nissel. “Considering the long-term damaging effects of abuse, I believe this program and similar ones to it will save lives.”

Dozens of rabbis from shuls, schools and youth organization participated in the session in person and via a web-based national simulcast.

“It’s especially vital for us as rabbis to have this training because of our ability to impact change in shuls and schools within our community,” said Rabbi Joshua Strulowitz of the West Side Synagogue, an alumnus of YU’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, who ran a similar program in conjunction with YU at his shul last year. “Who else are our congregants hearing from on a weekly basis, from the pulpit or in other communications? It’s our responsibility to educate and spread awareness within our communities about what’s safe, what’s appropriate, and what to look out for, and to be proactive in protecting our most vulnerable children.”

“A conference like this is so important because we know from studies that many abused children have spiritual questions that need to be addressed to help them heal, and if there is no one to answer their questions, they don’t cope as well physically or emotionally,” said Vieth. “’It’s critical that we educate and train our religious leadership to be able to support this community. These are the shadow children of our country—boys and girls, young and younger, who from the corners of their rooms ask us, ‘Is it safe to come out now?’ By your presence here today, you have dedicated yourselves and your communities to the proposition that we should answer this question: ‘Yes, it is.' ”