Not looking the other way

Kav L’Noar brings together two speakers to discuss the subject of confronting abuse in our communities.

Dr. Ron Wachtel 521 (photo credit: SETH J. FRANTZMAN)
Dr. Ron Wachtel 521
(photo credit: SETH J. FRANTZMAN)
The cute and playful cover of Let’s Stay Safe belies the book’s powerful message: Keeping children safe is as much about teaching them to look both ways before crossing the street as it is about teaching them to avoid child predators.
The Artscroll children’s book was on display last week at the offices of Kav L’Noar: Center for Families and Young Adults on Keren Hayesod Street in Jerusalem. Dr. David Pelcovitz, a professor of education and psychology at Yeshiva University, explains the logic behind this approach to educating children to be aware. “Parents need to know how to talk to their children. I want to show that the topic of abuse or unwanted touching is no different than other child safety discussions; how to be careful with fire on Hanukka, not crossing on a red light and teaching them about unsafe touching.”
The very sensitive topic of how to confront abuse is the subject of a one-day conference hosted by Kav L’Noar on January 22 at the Ramada Hotel. Yeshiva head Rabbi Zev Leff of Moshav Matityahu and Pelcovitz will be speaking on the topic “Confronting Abuse in Our Community: Awareness, Education and Prevention.” Conference organizers, who are charging a NIS 25 entrance fee, expect that more than 600 people, mostly from the English-speaking community in Israel, will attend their eighth annual conference. Previous conferences have been on other subjects.
“When I came to Israel in 2002, I wanted to capitalize on my experience as a school psychologist of working with adolescents all my life. However, I found that there was no address where Englishspeaking families could come to be helped with their kids,” says Dr. Ron Wachtel, the energetic director of Kav L’Noar.
Since its establishment in 2004, the organization has expanded to helping not only English-speakers but other communities as well. Today it works with around 100 families.
“We serve as an address for families seeking assistance and provide them with a setting that is warm, comfortable and safe. The issues they face with their adolescents are challenging and painful. Reaching out for help is a major hurdle and challenge. We offer them individual family counseling, marital counseling, as well as a dynamic therapeutic mentoring program,” says Wachtel.
Kav L’Noar works mainly with religious Jewish families, but it stresses that it works with all types of people in Israel. The issue of confronting sexual predators and abuse, however, is one that is particularly pressing and difficult to discuss. There is an added level of difficulty in addressing it in the religious community.
“There has been a recognition within the community that they are not immune from these issues. They are searching and desirous of hearing and getting direction, what we call in Hebrew hadracha. Creating an awareness, providing them with a vocabulary, helping parents speak with their children and creating a level of trust so that the children can go to their parents and be believed,” Wachtel explains.
This issue was given heightened attention when it emerged that, according to media reports, a pedophile ring had operated in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Nahlaot and that several men were arrested in the fall of 2011, with more arrests made this week. Many people in the neighborhood who were interviewed noted that they had trouble speaking to their children about the events and that they were shocked that predators had operated in a closed community for some time before being discovered. The Nahlaot story is well known at Kav L’Noar because it has aided a family that suffered from the events.
“In Nahlaot, many people didn’t have a clue [how to discuss the issue],” says Wachtel. “That is the service [discussing the issue] we want to provide.”
Rina Berkus, who made aliya from Florida in 2007 and works as the clinical supervisor at the organization, thinks it is important to try to understand whether we are dealing today with more abuse or merely more awareness.
“It has become clear to us that abuse has become a major issue. I’m not sure there is more today than in the past, but it has become much more of a public issue. Within the religious community there has been concern about that. We thought it would be a good thing to have a public forum and introduce it to the community, and hopefully out of this will come a more organized way of dealing with the problem.”
Norman Blaustein, chairman of the organization’s board of directors, notes that an issue they often come up against is that families find it difficult to seek help.
“There is embarrassment. For a family to get involved with us [to seek help], they must overcome perceptions of shame… Something we need to get across is that we are here, and our offices are quiet and private,” he says.
This is particularly an issue in the religious community. However, he looks forward to a day when they can provide solutions, not just assistance.
“We want people to know there is a place they can turn to. Besides the mentoring and counseling, we also want to have workshops and more events in the Jerusalem area,” says Blaustein.
To realize these efforts, the organization has been reaching out to Jerusalem area schools. Blaustein says they are involved with four schools and hope to double or triple the number.
Another issue that concerns employees of Kav L’Noar is the issue of libeling the religious community. This is an important problem, especially in today’s Israel where a secular-religious divide has recently reared its head over accusations of segregation of Orthodox women on public transportation used by haredim. When asked about how they make sure that discussing abuse with religious people does not become a story about abuse being a special problem for which the community is slandered, all the members of the staff express how important this perception is.
“It was hard to take on the topic,” says Sharon Feifer, the administrative assistant. “It may make the religious community look bad; but by making the community aware that the problem exists, people will be less likely to keep it secret. It is human nature to keep things secret. There are people with problems everywhere, and the Orthodox community has problems just like everywhere else,” Feifer elaborates.
Blaustein clarifies that “We are not talking about gangs of people but a small number of individuals preying on children.”
Wachtel adds that what is most important is understanding that abuse does not only come from strangers but also relatives and people who might be well known in a community.
IN SPEAKING to a religious audience, Pelcovitz, who comes from an Orthodox family and studied in a yeshiva, found there were specific issues to deal with.
“Religious Jewish children are taught to always have respect for people who are older and are more likely than a secular audience to accept what adults do to them, even if it is abusive. One must teach children it is not chutzpah, it is not lack of respect to tell an adult to stop and tell your parents. Nor is it slander, lashon hara, to protect oneself. Everyone would argue that they need to do what is necessary to protect themselves. That is one cultural issue.”
Another problem is the subject of modesty.
“To talk about it doesn’t need to violate modesty. [One way to deal with this is to] say [to the child that] any part of your body covered by a bathing suit, no one has a right to touch. Haredi people might be hesitant to use certain language, but saying it this way poses no problems for them,” he says.
Pelcovitz, who was born in Connecticut and has been working on educating about abuse for more than 30 years, thinks the conference is a wonderful venue to address this topic.
“This may be difficult to talk about with a large audience, but just being able to talk to your kids about how to deal with unwanted touching is enough to get kids to realize that they can go to their parents and they won’t get into trouble. It makes a difference. And from that standpoint, what I found is that very often when children are told ‘Listen, if someone touches you in a way that makes you uncomfortable and gives you that “oh oh” feeling, you need to tell your parents and make sure someone you trust knows about it,’” he says.
Over the years Pelcovitz has found that very often the best thing for parents to do is to leave an opening to broach the subject with their children without terrifying them.
“For that reason I wanted to show that this is no different than other child-safety discussions,” he explains. When the discussion is in the context of safety issues, then parents can talk in a way “that opens the door for the children to come to them.”
Pelcovitz also argues that for many years some religious Jews felt that having a close-knit observant community protected them from the dangers of the outside world, especially abuse, which was perceived as a problem of secular communities.
“It is the reality in any community. Having a more insular lifestyle doesn’t necessarily protect the community from this problem. We have to overcome the natural tendency to look the other way,” he asserts.