By Michael Orbach (The Jewish Star)
May 5, 2010
More than a hundred representatives of 30 Orthodox summer camps attended a two-hour meeting in Flatbush last week to discuss ways to deal with sexual abuse in a camp setting. The event, organized by Sacred Lives, an organization that advocates for sexual abuse victims and for greater education inside the Jewish community, was closed to the media. Several journalists, including a freelancer for The Jewish Star, were ejected, but the materials used at the meeting were leaked and published online the next day by the news website vosizneias.com.
They included a manual, as well as a form letter and information prepared with the approval of the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah, the ruling body of Agudath Israel of America, that the camp administrators were advised to mail to parents of all prospective campers before the summer.
"The purpose and the content was two-fold," explained Beth Kaplan, the founder of Sacred Lives. "To educate about the reality of childhood sexual abuse and the impact and the implications it has on the victim, and to provide a protocol for camp directors to use as a guide if this happens in their camp, if a camper or a staff member discloses that they were sexually abused." She described participants as "receptive and grateful."
"The ultimate achrayus (responsibility) of dealing with any individual situation of alleged improper conduct rests with us as camp directors," wrote Meir Frischman, director of the Association of Jewish Camp Operators. One section of the manual called, "Listening to the Victim," stressed that a camper or staff member should be believed when they report being sexually abused. "People rarely lie or make up stories about sexual abuse," the manual advised. The manual explicitly stated that camp directors are mandated reporters in the event that abuse is alleged. Kaplan said her organization is in the process of planning a conference for pediatricians who practice in the Orthodox community.
Mark Appel, the president of Voice of Justice, a sexual abuse activist organization and one of the sponsors of the conference, called the event a "breakthrough." "It's the first time that Agudath Israel participated in an event where there was specific training," commented Appel. "It was explicit to the camp directors explaining the process of going to the authorities and I think that the information was very thorough. It really spelled out how counselors and campers and directors should deal with this subject."
Other activists were not as charitable to Agudah.
“The Agudah handbook represents progress from an organization who’s rabbinic leadership has enforced a policy of cover-up for the past 40 years,” said Ben Hirsch, president of Survivors for Justice, an organization that advocates for victims of sexual abuse inside the Jewish community. “It is heartening to see the very camp that employed and protected Yehudah Kolko addressing this issue in a semi-public manner. Clearly, a lot more needs to be done by community members to properly and effectively educate the Agudah and other rabbinic leadership on how crucial it is that they remove themselves from any matters related to childhood sexual abuse. The simple message–report all complaints of sexual abuse directly to the police– does not require a handbook or any rabbinical involvement.”
The posting online drew a variety of responses ranging from praise to questions about the camps that did not attend the meeting. "As a camper who experience and witness horrible things, i (sic) will NEVER send my male children to sleep away camp," one poster wrote.
Other organizations that collaborated to arrange the event included the Association of Jewish Camp Operators, an arm of Agudath Israel of America, FEGS, The Jewish Board of Family and Children's Services, and the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty.
The manual can be read here.