Top Funders Target ‘Uneven’ Anti-Abuse Policies

By Steve Lipman (The Jewish Week)
March 29, 2016

A Los Angeles-based Jewish think tank will unveil an innovative approach next week to help reduce the problem of sexual abuse in the Jewish community, The Jewish Week has learned.

Jumpstart, a “philanthropic research & design lab” launched eight years ago, will announce on Sunday a Funders Pledge strategy that will commit at least a dozen influential philanthropists to support only those Jewish schools and camps and other groups working with children that take specific steps “to prevent, report, and investigate sexual abuse of minors.”

The announcement, to be made at the Jewish Funders Network annual conference in La Jolla, Calif., follows a study conducted over the past year about policies and procedures of Jewish day schools and camps to prevent sexual abuse.

According to the survey’s preliminary findings, directors of day schools and overnight camps “report an uneven patchwork of policies and procedures to prevent and respond to incidents of child sexual abuse.”

The Jumpstart study was conducted by sociologist Steven M. Cohen and abuse expert Shira Berkovits in consultation with the Foundation for Jewish Camp (FJC) and the RAVSAK network of community Jewish day schools. It did not seek to measure the extent of sexual abuse in those Jewish institutions, but rather asked about their awareness of the problem and acts they have taken to combat it.

Eighty-nine camps and 68 schools responded to the online questionnaire, a response rate of 45 percent and 49 percent, respectively, said Joshua Avedon, co-founder of Jumpstart; response rates to such surveys of 10-20 percent are usually considered successful.

Avedon said the Funders Pledge is in the spirit of other philanthropists’ efforts to effect change in institutions they support, particularly “Lynn Schusterman’s requirement that her grantees implement diversity and LGBT inclusion policies.”

Schusterman is among the founding signatories of the pledge, as are Jay Ruderman, president of the Ruderman Family Foundation, and Felicia Herman, executive director of The Natan Fund. Additional signatures are expected.

The preliminary report found that “while the vast majority of [those institutions] have child sexual abuse policies, the content of those policies, and the procedures required by them, are not always consistent with best practices. It appears that camps and schools take the problem seriously, but are nonetheless under-informed about the specific guidelines necessary to make the organizations safe from sexual predators.”

The study attributed lack of sufficient discussion of the issue among lay and professional leaders of Jewish educational institutions as one factor. It also noted that “there is no central communal address to increase that awareness and advocate for better standards.”

Existing policies “are all over the place,” said Berkovits, a psychologist and attorney in New York who has served as an advisor to many Jewish organizations in developing child-protection policies. Most schools and camps have differing approaches to the issue, she said.

Berkovits suggested that the Funders Pledge apply also to synagogues and Jewish community centers and other institutions that serve Jewish children. She said they should take into account areas such as the physical layout of buildings, the amount of access to those sites, the screening and hiring of employees, the training of employees and volunteers, response to allegations of abuse, and standards of conduct at such events like Shabbaton programs and other events where there is “any interaction with children.”

The incidence of child abuse in the Jewish community is not known to be any higher than in other communities, she said, but Orthodox Jews who sought to report suspected abusers to the criminal justice system have faced the accusation of “mesira” (informing), which some rabbinic authorities consider a violation of Jewish law. But she noted that reluctance to seek redress from police and secular courts is lessening.

In emphasizing the Funders Pledge, the preliminary report noted that “while foundation and philanthropic funders represent a relatively small proportion of the Jewish donor base overall, they exert disproportionate influence on the behavior of the organizations they fund.

Berkovits believes the pledge “will create conditions that prioritize and incentivize organizations to address the problem,” said Berkovits, who is writing a book on preventing child abuse. She added that “policies clarify acceptable and unacceptable behaviors and serve as a deterrent, sending a clear message to potential abusers.”

Rochel Leah Bernstein-Deitcher, who initiated the pledge, said “frustration about the lack of oversight in this area” was her motivation. “As a philanthropist and especially as a parent of young children, I believe it’s critical to hold our institutions accountable for protecting children,” she said. “The Jewish community has been silent for too long about child sexual abuse, and has not addressed this issue from a broad policy standpoint.”

Cheston Mizel, a philanthropist in Los Angeles who signed the pledge, called it “an opportunity to harness the power of the philanthropic world” and “an example for others [philanthropists] to follow.”

Details of the Child Safety Funder Pledge will be announced within the next month or two, Avedon said, adding that preliminary results of the survey are being released now to increase awareness about the issue among leaders of day schools and camps, and to start a conversation about increased vigilance.

In recent years, much public attention about child sexual abuse in the United States has focused on the Catholic Church; “Spotlight,” winner of the 2016 Best Picture Academy Award, profiled the Boston Globe’s coverage of sexual abuse by priests and the subsequent cover-up.

In the Jewish community, notable examples of child sexual abuse have included Rabbi Baruch Lanner, the one-time NCSY leader who was sentenced to seven years for abusing two teenage girls; 2015 accusations that the Yeshiva University high school for boys covered up decades of molestation by a former teacher; child porn accusations against faculty members of day schools here, in Toronto and in Chicago; and a series of charges that various charedi schools abetted abuse committed by teachers.

The number of charedi schools that responded to the survey is not known, but membership in RAVSAK largely ranges from unaffiliated community schools to Modern Orthodox.

While the survey was conducted anonymously, with reactions not available from individual schools and camps, leaders of RAVSAK and the said member institutions are glad to have the increased input of philanthropic backers.

Mark Kramer, co-executive director of RAVASK, noted that “the initial research piloted by Jumpstart seems to indicate that Jewish summer camps and day schools play close attention to protecting children.” He added that “there is always more that can be done at both the policy and implementation levels … we hope that the Jumpstart Funders Pledge will heighten sensitivities and strengthen existing safety nets.”

Jeremy Fingerman, FJC’s chief executive officer, said in an email that he welcomes “more attention on child safety.”

“Jewish camps … take these issues responsibly and seriously,” he wrote, adding that there will be “future conversations and efforts to better improve the annual training offered during staff week and throughout the summer.”

The pledge, according to a preliminary statement, will “encourage the adoption of comprehensive anti-child sexual abuse policies … institute necessary procedures and systems to prevent child abuse through rigorous hiring and training practices … [and] provide sufficient continuing education and support for staff and volunteers for them to recognize signs of abuse and know how to respond effectively to suspected incidents.

“Our goal is not to create a universal set of standards, but rather to have every funder insist upon the standards they feel are appropriate to garner their support,” the statement says.

Rabbi Mark Dratch, whose three decades of anti-abuse work in the Jewish community included the founding of JSafe, an organization working against domestic violence and child abuse, welcomed the new initiative. “In the beginning there was a lot of denial” in the community, said Dratch, who is executive vice president of the Rabbinical Council of America. “We’ve seen a big change in attitude. The more people who are dealing with this, the better we are as a community.”