Almost thirty years ago, as a young pediatrician-in-training on an ambulance transport team, I encountered my first case of child abuse. Arriving at the emergency room, I saw an unconscious child on life-supporting machines and medications. I spoke to the tearful parents, telling them that we would take good care of their precious child, but despite our best efforts, the child died the next day. Later that week, the father was arrested; he was responsible for his son’s death.
For years I was a “responder,” passively reporting encounters with child abuse. But my real desire was to be a “preventer,” to actively prevent child abuse from happening, to keep children safe and healthy, particularly in my own community. Almost six years ago, I met Dr. Shira Berkovits PhD, now the CEO of Sacred Spaces. Shira guided me and a group of lay leaders and professionals at my synagogue, The Conservative Synagogue Adath Israel of Riverdale (CSAIR), in developing a child protection policy. Over 18 months, we discussed the principles of child protection, increased our awareness of and sensitivity to the topic; developed a robust policy statement, Safeguarding Our Children; A Child Protection Policy; and, most importantly, engaged the community in taking responsibility for youth’s safety.
The work at CSAIR, along with similar work at other institutions, forms the foundation of Aleinu: Safeguarding Our Children, a program of Sacred Spaces. Aleinu is working to raise the standards of child protection in Jewish youth-serving organizations. It is based on the belief that many organizations want to better protect their youth but lack the knowledge, resources, and capacity to do so. Under the leadership of Program Manager Danielle Pitkoff, Aleinu has developed an online platform and trainings to support Jewish youth-serving institutions as they embark on a path of child protection. Through office hours with experts and collaboration with other organizations, Aleinu helps organizations to establish a culture that prioritizes child protection and implement systems to reinforce it.
Aleinu was formally launched in March 2020 with twenty-five Jewish youth-serving organizations, representing over 22,000 youth. As organizations continue to express interest in joining, I am excited that, with the generous support of UJA-Federation of New York, Sacred Spaces is opening Aleinu enrollment for a limited time to all Jewish youth-serving organizations in New York City, Westchester, and Long Island. To learn more, watch this short video, visit this website, or read the FAQs.
I often think about that child who was so badly hurt almost 30 years ago and the others I have encountered since then. I believe we can save lives and prevent abuse by engaging in child protection activities -- community-wide forums and discussions, robust child protection policies -- allowing us all to take responsibility for the wellbeing of our most vulnerable and precious community members: our children.
Cliff Nerwen MD, is a pediatrician in NYC, the president of his synagogue (CSAIR) and a founding member of its Child Protection Committee, and the Board Chair of Sacred Spaces.