A national group representing more than 700 Orthodox day schools recently adopted sexual abuse prevention guidelines that were developed by a department of the Jewish Family Service (JFS) in Los Angeles.
Nearly all of the two dozen Orthodox schools in Los Angeles had signed on to a similar policy last year aimed at preventing and reporting verbal, emotional, physical and sexual abuse. Torah U'mesorah, The National Society for Hebrew Day Schools, adapted its new policy from the one implemented in Los Angeles.
"We need to develop a culture of creating safety," said Debbie Fox, director of Aleinu Family Resource Center of JFS, which wrote the guidelines. "It's not only, 'don't abuse the child,' but watch the way you talk with them, watch the way you correct them or encourage them to change, watch the teasing that goes on."
A version of the policy will be discussed at a training session for camp directors next week, and Fox encourages parents to ask camps whether their counselors have signed on to the guidelines.
Last summer, when the abuse policy was in its final draft form, David Schwartz was accused of molesting 4-year-old boys at an Orthodox day camp in Culver City. He is currently serving one year in a residential facility, after which he will be on probation for five years.
The Schwartz case was one in a string of abuse incidents that has rocked the Orthodox community over the last few years. Locally, Rabbi Mordechai Yomtov is currently on probation after serving a year in prison for molesting boys at Cheder Menachem school in the La Brea area.
Nationally, an Orthodox Union report found Rabbi Baruch Lanner guilty of widespread and long-term sexual, physical and psychological abuse of teens in three decades of work at the National Conference of Synagogue Youth. Lanner is free pending an appeal after being sentenced last June to seven years in prison for sexually abusing two girls when he was principal of a New Jersey yeshiva in the 1990s.
The Lanner case, in particular, opened up Orthodox channels of communication regarding the abuse issue and led to an increased vigilance among institutions.
The high-profile cases went along with what Fox was seeing through the lens of Aleinu's caseload. When Fox came three years ago, the Orthodox Counseling Program, which recently changed its name to Aleinu, had 11 cases. Today it has about 50 clients and a program of placing social workers in schools, through which it serves about 150 children a week.
In addition, Aleinu runs Nishma, a hotline that was initially conceived as a spousal abuse line, but, like Aleinu, has broadened its mandate after receiving a wider range of calls.
"What we deal with every day are the problems, but that is not an indication that the Orthodox community has significantly more problems than anyone else," Fox said. "It is an indication that we are creating an environment where we can face these issues and invite them to come forward, so we can deal with them as well as we can."
One of the issues she saw was sexual abuse. Early last summer, Fox convened a meeting with the Halachic Advisory Board of Jewish Family Service and the Rabbinic Council of California's (RCC) Family Commission, two groups that work closely together.
With input from parents, educators, mental health professionals and the scrutinizing panel of rabbis, plus endorsement from leading halachic authorities, Aleinu developed the Conduct Policy and Behavioral Standards for Orthodox Schools.
The policy goes further than forbidding sexual contact or even the use of explicit language, materials or sexual innuendo. It warns teachers and staff never to be secluded with a child. There is strong wording against the use of physical force and any unwelcome physical contact, as well as against making any comments about a student's body or clothing.
Teachers and staff are warned against denigrating students or attempting to manipulate students through psychological means, and they are forbidden from instructing students to keep secrets from parents or administration.
All teachers, staff, administrators and clerical and custodial staff are required to sign the guidelines.
When abuse is suspected, either at home or in school, Aleinu guides the family through the legal system and makes sure all their needs are met -- from finding a Jewish foster home, if necessary, to making sure a carpool is arranged to going into the school to talk with teachers, principals and other students.
Rabbi Berish Goldenberg, principal of Yeshiva Rav Isaacsohn-Toras Emes and chair of the RCC's Family Commission, noted how far the Orthodox community has come in tackling difficult issues openly.
The embrace of an Aleinu social worker and the adoption of the abuse guidelines at Toras Emes -- where much progress has been made in the last few years away from an old-school style of education -- are indicative of the community's newfound willingness to combine modern psychological sensibilities with a strictly observant mindset.
Goldenberg attributes the leap to the growing roster of problems today's families face and an awareness that professional help is neither treif (non-kosher) nor a shandah (humiliation).
"And there are many Orthodox people in the mental health professional world today, so there is more trust," Goldenberg added.
The advisory board rabbis, who themselves go through psychological training, are available around the clock to answer halachic questions and counsel clients. In one instance, a rabbi sat in on a counseling session to answer a 16-year-old girl's question about whether testifying against her father violated the mitzvah of honoring your parents. Another time, a rabbi and social worker together counseled an abused wife who wanted to know whether she was required to go to the mikvah to perform the ritual bathing that would make sex with her husband permissible.
When Schwartz was sentenced, both Goldenberg and Rabbi Gershon Bess, one of the most respected rabbis in the city, spoke in court to offer support to the victims. When Schwartz is released in February, he will be -- willingly or not -- in the jurisdiction of the RCC's beit din (rabbinical court), which might impose limits on where he may go to shul, which simcha (celebration) he may attend and whether he may enter public restrooms alone.
Like all of Aleinu's programs, even the beit din's monitoring will most likely have a restorative angle, guiding Schwartz through therapy, for example.
"The beauty is that the rabbis are so sensitive to mental health issues and to understanding what we do so clearly, that their response is very sensitive to the issues of the person," Fox said. "It's a beautiful thing."
For more information on Aleinu or to sign up for "Keeping Our Campers Safe," on Thursday, June 26, 9-11 a.m. at 6505 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles, call 323-761-8816.
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