Synagogues are meant to be places where children are safe. But that safety can only be assured when all adults—religious leaders, synagogue leaders and administrators, volunteers, parents, and the community—do their part to protect our children.
Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot are the busiest times of the year for our synagogues. Many families who will not attend services for the rest of the year will come to synagogue on the High Holy Days. So what can we do to ensure every child is safe in the coming weeks? Here is a checklist for the community.
First, check if your synagogue has a child protection policy. A policy alone will not protect children from harm, but it will send a clear message that child abuse will not be tolerated. A policy is also a checklist of steps taken by the synagogue to ensure child safety. If your synagogue’s website does not have a Child Safeguarding Policy, please call and request a copy. Policies need to be updated according to regulatory requirements. In Victoria, organizations have been mandated to comply with the new Child Safe Standards by 1 July 2022 and in NSW these come into effect on 1 February 2023.
Second, does your synagogue offer childcare or a children’s program during the High Holy Days? Adults should run these services or programs. All adults should be thoroughly screened according to protection procedures. Screening includes looking for a current Working with Children Check (Vic, NSW, WA), Blue Card (Qld) and Working with Vulnerable People Cards (SA, Tas).
Adults caring for children, whether volunteer or paid (some synagogues pay for outside childcare services during this busy time), should be interviewed and references checked to assess potential risks.
If youth under the age of 18 participate in these programs, they are not eligible for Working with Children Checks. Nevertheless, they should also be interviewed, references checked and trained.
Regardless of who runs a children’s program, parents always remain responsible for the supervision of their children. A group of parents may have to volunteer to share this oversight role when there are no other childcare options.
Adults responsible for the care of children should be trained on child abuse indicators, responses and how to report a disclosure. A synagogue ordinance should specify to whom a report is to be made. Ultimately, all adults have a responsibility to report child protection services or the police if they believe a child has been abused.
Third, consider the informal interactions children may have with adults in the synagogue. Some of us fondly remember the lollipop man or lollipop woman in the synagogue. Nowadays, offering a lollipop could be seen as a sign of nurturing or simply an unwanted transaction between an adult and a child. A lolly person should be treated like any other volunteer. They should go through the same screening and training process.
Special guests, rabbis, choirs and volunteers are often a highlight of the synagogue’s high festival program. The screening is more complicated for those coming from abroad. Synagogues should seek expert advice on screening, international police checks, visas, and procedures for checking references.
Fourth on the protection checklist is to have a conversation with your children about safety. Children are not responsible for their safety. But conversations about body safety empower kids to know who to turn to when they feel unsafe.
What do we say to our children? Children need to be taught to recognize and trust their feelings. Talk about what makes them feel safe and insecure. Children need to know that it’s good to tell someone when they’re feeling unsafe. Tell them that if they don’t believe them, keep talking until they do. If they are told not to tell you anything that makes them insecure, that is wrong. This secret should not be kept and they can always tell their mother, father or another trusted adult.
Teach children the correct names for body parts. Identify their private parts and tell children that nobody has the right to touch them. Likewise, they should not touch the private parts of others. Children should also know that if someone touches their private parts, it is not their fault and they should tell an adult. There are some excellent resources available on the Body Safety Australia website to educate your children.
When it comes to child sexual abuse, we cannot reduce a risk that we do not understand. Sexual abuse among peers is the least understood and least anticipated risk in the synagogue context. One in three cases of child sexual abuse is peer-on-peer abuse.
Those responsible for the supervision of children need to be aware of how to identify and manage peer-on-peer abuse. Children engage in harmless sexual curiosity or play. An indication that sexual behavior between children is more than just curiosity is when the behavior is mysterious or accompanied by feelings of shame or guilt. The behavior is problematic when a child hides their behavior or lures another child into an unseen area.
Familiarize yourself with the premises of your synagogue. Walk around the grounds to make sure your child is always within sight of others. Nowadays synagogues should have windows and glass doors. If not, doors should be left open to ensure that line of sight for responsible adults.
Children with disabilities are three times more likely to be sexually abused. The staff supervising these children also need to be screened and trained. As a community, we should all be educated to understand the magnitude of this problem and how to protect these children.
Rosh Hashanah is a time of celebration and coming together. But our children must be our priority. Following this checklist will help keep our children safe on this high holiday.
dr Michelle Meyer is President of Maoz, a child protection unit in the Jewish community that works with the Jewish Community Council of Victoria. For more information, please contact [email protected]
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