Pittsburgh-based nonprofit addressing abuse in Jewish institutions
Proactive not reactiveOrganizations need concrete plans to tackle specific issues

Pittsburgh-based nonprofit addressing abuse in Jewish institutions

Sacred Spaces is working to help Jewish organizations around the country confront abuse of power and implement preventative policies.

Ilene Rinn, left, and Shira Berkovits   (Photo by Toby Tabachnick)
Ilene Rinn, left, and Shira Berkovits (Photo by Toby Tabachnick)

The abuse of power in organizational settings is certainly not a phenomenon unique to Jewish institutions, but neither are Jewish institutions immune from it.

Now a Pittsburgh-based nonprofit startup, Sacred Spaces, is working to help Jewish organizations around the country implement preventative policies as well as protocols to address such inappropriate behavior should it occur.

Especially since the launch of the #MeToo movement, many constituents of Jewish organizations have outed accused sexual predators and other power abusers who were, up until that point, widely respected leaders, including sociologist Steven M. Cohen, philanthropist Michael Steinhardt and Jewish camp director Len Robinson.

Abuse of power has been an issue locally, too. In 2017, for example, Yeshiva Schools of Pittsburgh dismissed a teacher amid accusations of sexually abusing children.

“We know this is an issue,” said Sacred Spaces founder and CEO Shira Berkovits, an attorney and behavioral psychologist. “We have research to show this is occurring. If you open the paper you know. What if instead of being reactive to this, we could get institutions to proactively address this issue?”

Berkovits established her nonprofit in New York in 2016. When her husband took a job at UPMC in 2017, the couple moved to Pittsburgh, and Sacred Spaces opened its office within Beth Shalom Congregation a few months ago. Berkovits is working with COO Ilene Rinn, whom she credits with helping the organization gain national attention.

The abuse of power Sacred Spaces focuses on is often sexual in nature, but can take other forms, including physical or emotional abuse.

“The goal is to create Jewish institutions that are sacred spaces,” she explained. “And part of that is making sure they are healthy and built in a way to prevent these abuses of power and to ensure there is a system to respond properly to an abuse of power.”

Many institutions, when faced with an abuse of power issue, end up “scrambling” to figure out how to deal with it because they have no protocol or policy in place, Berkovits said. That often leads to a split in the community, with some members defending the accused perpetrator and some defending the victim.

“This doesn’t have to be so complicated, or so sensational or controversial,” she said. Instituting policies “deeply tailored to the programmatic realities of the institution” can help avoid or address a crisis.

That policy can include specifying protocols for hiring, transportation or even when a rabbi or other person in a position of authority can meet alone with a congregant. The policy should also include response protocol, “so that if something happens, you are really prepared,” Berkovits said. “The weakest part of most policies is on the response protocol. They typically say things like, ‘If something happens we commit to addressing it immediately up to and including termination.’ What does that actually mean? There is nothing to hold the institution accountable to.”

Details are key, she explained, such as specifying who is notified when a crisis occurs, how soon the institution will report back to the accuser, when the community will be notified and when an outside investigator should be employed. These protocols should be posted on the institution’s website and publicized to the community to ensure accountability.

Sacred Spaces provides consultation to organizations that require technical assistance in implementing policies and training. It also offers one-hour consultations to assist organizations that are either in crisis or determining if a certain behavior is problematic, and how to deal with it. In such a case — especially when the accused is a respected member of the community — it is imperative to get input from an objective source, Berkovits said.

The Conservative Synagogue Adath Israel of Riverdale in New York (CSAIR) has been working with Berkovits and Sacred Spaces to implement its “Safeguarding Our Children” program. The comprehensive initiative was not launched in response to any particular incident, but rather as part of a broader effort to make the community safer, said Cliff Nerwen, chair of CSAIR’s Safeguarding Our Children committee. Nerwen, impressed with the work of Sacred Spaces, has since become that organization’s board chair.

In addition to creating a detailed policy statement, CSAIR has provided a host of educational offerings and training to its community, and has even upgraded the safety of its building by adding windows to all doors and making sure the doors cannot be locked from the inside.

While community members sometimes are resistant to implementing new policies, or think that abuse cannot happen in their own space, “we all know this happens everywhere,” said Nerwen.

Hillel International, which recently confirmed an internal investigation of sexual harassment allegations against some of its donors, has found Sacred Spaces to be “trusted advisers on the international and campus level,” according to Mimi Kravetz, chief talent officer of Hillel International.

“Sacred Spaces has helped Hillel International go from an organization that cares deeply about issues of safety, respect and equity to one with concrete plans to improve our culture and tackle specific issues,” Kravetz said.

Sacred Spaces is not yet doing long-term prevention work with any Jewish organizations in Pittsburgh, but it has provided several short-term case consultations in the area.
To further its reach in helping to prevent child abuse, Sacred Spaces is now working on an online platform called “Safeguarding Children” or “Alenu,” which will be available to “thousands of institutions” and is funded by a grant from the UJA-Federation of New York, said Berkovits.

“It’s a web-based platform that will identify 10 best practices in child protection in Jewish youth-serving organizations,” she said. “We will be asking participating organizations to commit to two best practices a year for five years.”

While there is no research available that examines whether any particular denomination of Judaism is more likely to experience abuse of power issues, Berkovits pointed to anecdotal evidence that those in the Orthodox community are more likely to acknowledge the problem and the need to address it.

“I think that is surprising to most people,” she said. “When we work with more liberal communities, there is often a response of, ‘Well, we are very liberal, or we are all highly educated with a college education and very smart, we would know what to do here if this happened.’ And sometimes even people will say things like, ‘Oh, that’s an Orthodox problem.’ That’s too bad, because it is not an Orthodox problem, it’s not even a Jewish problem; it’s a human problem.”

While it is relatively easy for organizational leaders to pay lip service to fighting abuse of power issues, “it’s much harder to do the right thing,” Berkovits said. “I would urge anyone who is not sure to just ask themselves if they have prepared. Do they have a policy guiding them? Do they know what the best practices are in this area, and have they consulted an expert?

“It’s not as hard when you get an egregious case, but when you get a case that is gray behavior, or something ambiguous, institutions get really stuck and don’t know what to do.” PJC

Toby Tabachnick can be reached at ttabachnick@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

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