By Ann Luban
A congregant tells the rabbi that she has an order of protection against her ex-husband, who is also a congregant of the synagogue. A teacher sees bruises on the arms of a child in her class who says he didn’t fall. An older adult in the community who used to be a regular in shul is coming much less often and, when he does come, he looks disheveled and fearful.
What should rabbis, classroom teachers, or other Jewish institutional staff do in these situations? Who should be informed? Where is the relevant information to be collected and safely stored? What are the moral and legal risks of taking action and of not taking action?
The answers to these and related questions are at the core of the Partnership for Safer Communities initiative of Chicago’s Jewish Child & Family Services (JCFS). This initiative works with leadership teams in Jewish institutions to provide education and consultation and to craft protocols, guidelines, and policies in a number of specifically focused programs, including Safer Synagogues/Shuls, Safer Schools, and Safer Camps.
The Partnership for Safer Synagogues/Shuls begins with a series of three learning sessions for a team of clergy, educators, synagogue professionals, and lay leaders. The first session, “Keeping Children Safe,” presents information on how to recognize child abuse and neglect and the state requirements for mandatory reporting of child abuse and neglect. The second session explores the dynamics of abuse, including teen dating abuse, intimate partner abuse (also referred to as domestic violence), and elder abuse. Included in this presentation are the unique characteristics of abuse across the lifespan, legal issues such as orders of protection, and mandated reporting requirements as they pertain to teens, disabled adults, and older adults unable to report for themselves. The third session focuses on substance abuse, including signs and symptoms of drug and alcohol misuse and addiction, as well as how to support families struggling with abuse and addiction. Each of these presentations includes discussion of real-life scenarios that have occurred in shuls, affecting congregants, clergy, staff, and lay leaders.
Following these learning sessions, key members of the shul team meet with a JCFS professional to refine current or develop new congregational protocols, guidelines, and policies to guide clergy, professional staff, and congregational leadership if and when situations occur. Some examples include responding to suspicions or allegations of child abuse or neglect within or outside the synagogue, mandated reporting, handling orders of protection, alcohol use and where alcohol is to be stored when not in use, release of a child to a parent who appears to be under the influence of drugs or alcohol, responding to suspicions of elder abuse or abuse of an adult with disabilities, and child safety reporting and/or incident reporting. Personnel practices are also discussed, including the need for background checks in the hiring process for both staff and volunteers, and establishing appropriate boundaries between synagogue personnel and congregants, such as “friending” on Facebook and having relations outside the congregational setting.
These protocols, guidelines, and policies provide step-by-step instructions as to what to do in each situation, what information needs to be collected, and where that information can be safely stored. They address who needs to be informed, clarify who is a legally mandated reporter, and outline the process to make a mandated call to the authorities. Synagogue/shul staff report feeling great relief at knowing that there is a process that will tell them what to do and that they will not be in alone in coping with a difficult situation. Additionally, having clear policies approved by the staff and/or the board and implemented in every instance removes the question of whether anyone is “playing favorites” or “getting away with something” because of status or size of donation.
Programs to Raise Awareness in Synagogues
JCFS also works with the Safer Synagogues/Shuls team to bring programs to the congregation as a whole to educate and raise awareness of issues that can be difficult to discuss or address. These include opening up the shul to host twelve-step meetings, implementing adult education programs, teaching young children about inappropriate touching and how to protect themselves, assistance with developing newsletter articles and sermons, and substance abuse prevention programs for middle school and high school students.
Synagogues that complete the program receive a certificate during a Shabbat service or a board meeting, which provides a wonderful opportunity for a related d’var Torah or sermon. An advertisement is placed in the JUF News, the local monthly Jewish newspaper, which provides yet another opportunity to raise awareness. Some congregations include a special widget on their webpage indicating their participation in the Safer Synagogues/Shuls program and providing links to abuse related resources.
Safer Schools and Safer Camps
An initiative to promote Safer Schools and Safer Camps is similar in many ways to the Safer Synagogues/Shuls initiative. JCFS staff work with teams of professionals and lay leaders chosen by the institution to craft protocols, guidelines, and policies focusing on issues of physical and sexual abuse of children. Following extensive policy and protocol development, JCFS professionals provide training for faculty and staff about healthy boundaries, signs of abuse, mandated reporting, and how to implement the new policies and protocols. Specially trained parents and other volunteer facilitators guide students in prekindergarten through fifth grade through the Safety Kid curriculum, a program of the Magen Yeladim Child Safety Institute in Los Angeles. JCFS professionals present age-appropriate educational sessions to students in middle through high school. Presentations for parents complement student education, raising awareness for the entire community.
We deeply appreciate our partnership with the Associated Talmud Torahs of Chicago to help us bring this important initiative to the schools in Chicago’s Orthodox community, as well as our many partnerships with synagogues, shuls, other schools, camps, and other institutions. We also deeply appreciate the generosity of the Michael Reese Health Trust, which supports the development and implementation of the entire Partnership for Safer Communities initiative.
Ann Luban, MSW, MAJCS, is a program specialist and synagogue community partnership liaison at Jewish Child & Family Services in Chicago.