Last week, I read about how US Gymnastics is getting a major overhaul in safety. Five years since it came out that pedophile Larry Nasser abused many of their star athletes for decades, the organization is under intense pressure to create a serious cultural shift and prove that it can build a safer environment for young gymnasts everywhere. According to the WSJ, “USA Gymnastics says it is now trying to work with club owners to create, by 2024, a system of accreditation for gyms that would allow parents to consider their safety standards—not just how equipped they are to create medal winners. It is also planning to expand mandatory training for the 3,500 clubs that operate under its umbrella, starting this year with concussion training and a course called “Tough Coaching or Emotional Abuse: Knowing when the line has been crossed.”
I believe this model for creating systemic change is something the Orthodox Jewish community must adopt. There are wonderful, soul-building, life-changing schools in our community. My children are privileged to go to some of them. They take the nurture and the positivity my kids get at home and build on it. That should be the goal of a school – not just to transfer information into a human brain – but to help children find their passions, their voice, their talents, and flourish into their full human and Jewish potential.
While many schools are doing this in our community, some are suffering serious issues. Not only do they fail to create flourishing students, rather they cut children down, poisoning them with toxic messages and straight out abuse. Most of the members who come to Makom went to schools like this. Most of the people who share their torturous Orthodox Jewish upbringing with the world via books and news articles went to schools like this. The first rule of Jewish schools, like the Hippocratic Oath, must be “do no harm.” Once we can ensure that basic goal is met, then we can work on building schools that build up children.
How on earth could we as a community not want to do something to alleviate these issues? Shame is one factor. It is difficult to admit you have a problem. But anyone who feels shame should look at U.S. Gymnastics and recognize that falling short is a human problem, not a Jewish one, and we are human too. If you don’t specifically go out and create a system for better standards then there will be vulnerabilities which allow abusers and manipulators to weasel their way in and do harm. Lack of oversight and teacher training will allow teachers who grew up with unhealthy perspectives on Judaism to continue to pass on the dysfunction.
The second factor that prevents systemic change is the sheer audacity of the problem. And to that I say, “lo alecha hamelcha ligmor.” It is not up to us to finish the work, but neither are we free from attempting to do our part. Overhauling 3500 gymnastic clubs in the next 3 years will be a major undertaking. But what if we set a similar goal for our schools, then our batei dinim, kiruv organizations and shuls? What if we had a code of conduct for basic accountability for any person working in a Jewish professional capacity as well as a system for reporting allegations of emotional, physical or sexual abuse? After that was in place, we tackled Jewish and secular curriculum?
We recently told you about a secret branch of Jew in the City that has been addressing communal issues. We recently gave it a name. That name is Tikun – which means fix, repair, restore. The name is inspired by Rebbe Nachman of Breslov who said, “If you believe it is possible to destroy, believe it is possible to repair.”
We have the audacity to take this journey and we are very proud to do so. We are beginning with schools. We are creating a plan for a major overhaul in safety where it is lacking. After that, we can move onto tools for flourishing. Our goal is to help incredible insiders, who are already trying to make a difference, be more effective. We want to bring in a unified plan with strategy and urgency. We are looking for monthly micro-donors to help us make our first hire, as our efforts up until now have only been through volunteers. We are 20% towards our goal. When we sign up 50 new monthly micro-donors, we will hire someone part time. We do not have all the parts in place yet to make this dream a reality. But that’s OK. No other part of our work began with a full plan in place. We simply started and job and figured it out as we went. We are taking the first steps towards fixing, and we hope you will take those steps with us and become a monthly micro-donor today.