With the explosion of the #MeToo movement and the various allegations and court proceedings, sexual assault and abuse has skyrocketed to virtually all media headlines. Unfortunately, the Jewish community is no stranger to incidents of abuse. Rather than remain silent, Shira Berkovits has decided to make a difference, establishing Sacred Spaces, an organization dedicated to addressing abuses of power in Jewish institutions through “framing the issue in Jewish texts, speaking with board members to generate buy-in, and working with the community to raise awareness.”
For a long time, stories of sexual assault were surfacing largely from the Catholic community, but as times and technologies have changed, the episodes of abuse and exploitation in the Jewish community have been brought to the forefront. “The reality is this is not a Catholic problem, this is not a Jewish problem, and this is not an Orthodox problem. It’s a human problem.” Although Judaism has many Halachot dedicated to prevent these abuses of power, no human being is perfect. Judaism, in an ideal world, should create intrinsically safe spaces as “Our culture, history, and traditions set us up for success. The values articulated in the Torah are ones which should make this work.” Yet these rules and concepts are not always observed and followed to the proper extent. As Berkovits encourages us to ask: “We have that blueprint, but the question is, are we following it?”
Berkovits, who holds a PHD, JD, and is a proud and active Modern Orthodox Jew initially encountered this troubling subject matter while consulting for youth departments in New York. She found that as she dug deeper into the subject matter, few people had any practical information on the topic. She founded Sacred Spaces in 2016, creating an organization that works with various Jewish groups to establish proper policies and regulations in order to produce a safe, positive culture for everyone involved. “There was never an issue of not enough people want this work. It was always everybody wanted information and it was just could we meet the needs fast enough.” It is more than just setting policies in place, but rather an entire shift in organizational outlook, emphasizing growth and change through open conversation and instruction. “We don’t think that the way to make systemic change is from a fear-based approach. It should be proactive, preventative, and deeply embedded in Jewish values.”
Previously, many companies and schools took a lackadaisical approach to policies of abuse, simply going to lawyers or providing a definition of assault, but not establishing it as a critical component of proper conduct and behavior. Berkovits and her organization utilize a much more pragmatic and personal method, “Our policies are very different, they are very specific to the organization. We talk about specifically how do we prevent the opportunity for abuse to occur. We make it a document that anyone in the organization or the public can go to and point at the policy.” The method changes depending on the situation, meaning the same policy outlined for a yeshiva may not prove fruitful in a business or other institution. This case by case strategy allows for the personalization and implementation of a working policy which employees and participants can fully get behind and understand, much more than a simple, vague definition.
In a perfect world, the need for organizations like Sacred Spaces simply would not exist. Moving forward, the goal is to ensure that organizations take these policies seriously. “We see it with fire safety. You would never open an organization unless the building code is up to speed.” It is with this same sense of gravity that assault and abuse must be approached if positive strides are to be made. Now, Berkovits and the rest of her team are looking ahead, launching the Safeguarding Children campaign, aimed at setting standards and practices for specifically youth-serving organizations. As she emphasizes, “I’m hopeful that we can create Sacred Spaces in our community where our communal organizations, our community members, and our leaders are trained and knowledgeable and understand what to expect and not expect and don’t tolerate certain things. In five years, you are going to be looking at a new standard in the Jewish community.”
For more information, visit https://www.jewishsacredspaces.org/.