Ronit Raphael does not do things in half measures.
Alongside running a luxury cosmetics company out of Geneva, she is determined to end child sexual abuse not just in Israel but across the world.
“Actually, I raise this topic in almost every business meeting that I have with clients, suppliers and partners worldwide,” reveals the Israeli businesswoman, whose viral video campaign “Tom’s Secret,” made in cooperation with the Association of Rape Crisis Centers in Israel, has been seen not just in over 600 schools across the country but in nations as far and wide as Greece and Guam.
Child abuse in Israel remains a major issue. According to a recent survey of child abuse by professors Zvi Eisikovits and Rachel Lev-Wiesel of the University of Haifa, 18 percent of Jewish Israelis and 23% of Arab Israelis were the victims of child sexual abuse – in effect, almost one in five children in the country.
“Tom’s Secret,” launched in 2013, is a short animation video that has a two-fold purpose: to guide parents on how to identify child sexual abuse and to encourage children to talk.
A short and simple video, it tells the story of Tom, who upon being told by his mother that he is going to stay the night at a friend’s house, eventually, through talking with his mother, is able to bring himself to reveal to her that he was touched inappropriately by the friend’s brother.
Child-related topics have long been Raphael’s field of interest, but only within the last three years has she been able to truly focus in on them. As the founder and head of her company, L. Raphael, her focus on high-quality dermatological skin care has led to L. Raphael spas in both the Four Seasons New York and the Kempinski hotel in Moscow, and her brand being estimated as worth tens of millions of dollars.
As a result of Raphael’s endeavors, the project is operating on a global scale, in cooperation with a wide range of child-safety organizations, including Pass the Word IL and American children’s charity Child Lures Prevention.
The focus on child abuse in Israel has grown considerably in recent years, but remains an area in which a vast amount of work is required. According to Dr. Yitzhak Kadman, executive director of Israel’s National Council for the Child, “In the past few years there has been more awareness of the subject, but we still don’t know the real scope [of the problem] and its characteristics.”
Putting things into perspective, Kadman explains in further detail that “about 60% of the sexual assaults are done by a family member or a close relative or acquaintance of the child, and only 40% of the assaults are done by strangers.”
In the Knesset, “Tom’s Secret” has made substantial impact, having been screened before the Committee on the Rights of the Child, resulting in substantial media coverage across Israeli media.
Nevertheless, the committee’s head, Kulanu MK Yifat Shasha-Biton, is acutely aware of the steps that the government needs to take.
She reveals that out of 2,349 cases of alleged child sexual abuse opened by police in 2014, 1,326 were closed due to lack of evidence, 600 were closed due to lack of public interest, and 170 were closed because of an unknown attacker.
In her view, “These numbers do not deter future offenders and lead to a gradual increase of child abuse.”
An area within Israeli society in which child sex abuse remains extremely high is among the ultra-Orthodox community.
Rabbi Nuchem Rosenberg, a haredi rabbi based in Brooklyn who gives lectures in both the US and Israel to ultra-Orthodox communities on the need to provide sex education to teenagers, presents the situation starkly.
Discussing what he refers to as the “rabbinate mafia,” Rosenberg paints a picture of communities in which rabbis are able to threaten members of their congregations with total exclusion from community life if they report any offenses against children to the authorities.
“There is so much molesting going on in the haredi community,” he explained. “The people in Israel don’t believe who their enemy is. It’s not just the pedophiles; the enemies are the rabbis. The rabbis are the ones who intervene and ostracize people.”
Though numbers are nearly impossible to calculate, due to the insular nature of much of the community, it is an issue that Kadman describes in no uncertain terms as “a very serious problem.”
Though debate rages as regards its scale, Shasha-Biton considers child sexual abuse in the haredi community an issue that the justice system deals with properly, albeit with significant room for improvement. In her view, the government’s work has “shown a positive direction toward treating sexual abuse in haredi/Orthodox society. We are still in the course of the working process in order to better strengthen the treatment in those environments.”
For Raphael, “Tom’s Secret” is doing its utmost to work with haredi groups. “Our strategy here is to partner with organizations in these communities that are open-minded and are working on making an internal change through education of teachers and parents,” she observed.
She noted that “in Jerusalem, our movie was adopted by B’kdusha, an educational center that teaches healthy intimacy within religious communities.”
As regards child sexual abuse in general, Raphael remains clear that there are basic steps that can be taken across the board to help all children become more aware of the issue. Methods she recommends include “initiating conversations with the kids at home and teaching them the difference between safe and unsafe touching; defining body parts that are considered private; encouraging them to ‘tell secrets’ when they feel unsafe or confused.”
Though her business means that she finds herself “constantly juggling from the US to Europe and Israel,” it is clear that Raphael’s desire to ensure “Tom’s Secret” and its message are spread as widely as possible is resolute.
If her success in the business world is anything to go by, a great deal stands to be gained for children in Israel and across the world from her endeavors on their part.
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