By COLlive reporter
Merkos L’Inyonei Chinuch, the central educational arm of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, has for the first time released a public statement responding to the child abuse scandal at Australian Chabad schools, last week.
It said that the testimony shared at Australia’s Royal Commission proceedings on Institutional Responses to Child Abuse at the Sydney and Melbourne Yeshivas was “extremely alarming” and “utterly disturbing,” and mentioned “Child Safety Code guidelines.”
It went on to say that “the unfortunate incidents alleged to have occurred in Australia may have well been avoided if the institutions in question would have adhered to the Child Safety Code guidelines of the Merkos Educational Office.”
Following an inquiry of COLlive.com, Merkos has provided the 20-page document titled “Guidelines for Schools – The Safety of Our Children” to be available to the public. You can read or print it here.
Rabbi Nochum Kaplan, author of the guidelines, says he plans to make additional improvements in the document following the Australia scandal and see how they can be better implemented at all Chabad schools.
Rabbi Kaplan is the Director of the Merkos Chinuch Office, the educational division of Merkos L’Inyonei Chinuch, serving Chabad-Lubavitch educational institutions. He is also the director of the office of Vaad Rabbonei Lubavitch – The Central Committee of Chabad-Lubavitch Rabbis in the United States and Canada.
3 years ago he also launched the Safety Kid® program which has trained every child from age 3 through 8 in all Crown Heights Jewish educational institutions how to protect themselves against predators.
Here are 9 questions COLlive.com presented to Rabbi Kaplan in an exclusive interview:
1. Can you tell us more about Merkos’ Guidelines?
I wrote the guidelines around 13 years ago after much consultation with a variety of professional sources. Later, attorneys went through it with a fine tooth-comb and it was also reviewed by Vaad Rabonei Lubavitch. The process took a half a year and it required that we had to go through a number of drafts to assure that the Guidelines met both legal and Halachic demands.
2. What led to writing it?
This was was one of the first initiatives of the Chinuch Office when it was created. I had been a yeshiva principal for 30 years [many of which were] at non-Chabad schools, and during that time I unfortunately met up with numerous cases of abuse. I realized that many of the tragedies could have been avoided had there been strong guidelines, but there was nothing systematic in place. I felt that since I had assumed a position which allows me access to so many schools, I had to do something. This was before we knew the data of the devastating effects of abuse that we know now.
3. What do the Guidelines offer?
It outlines what constitutes abuse and how to recognize it. What should a teacher or principal look for in a child, what signs are there that something is going on. And then, how to ferret out the information if something happened. Schools are expected to give these Guidelines to teachers and also look out for signs of abuse in the home, not only in schools.
4. Why is the public unfamiliar with their existence?
The reason too many people don’t know about the Guidelines is because like many issues, this one was dealt with directly from Chinuch Office to schools. While at that time we did not publically promote the Guidelines nor talk about these kinds of things in a public forum, they were publicized to the Chabad school network. It’s different today, we talk more openly about the problems of abuse and that’s a positive thing. But people shouldn’t assume we aren’t dealing with them – we just deal with them institutionally.
5. How do Chabad institutions compare to others in this aspect?
I think our people and schools are very sensitive to all children’s issues as compared with the other schools. We were one of the first to put such guidelines into place. No one in the wider Jewish community had anything like this at the time. It was not done in a vacuum, I had a number of our mechanchim involved.
In the last few years there’s been a great deal of sensitivity to the issue of child safety in our society. We made a big deal out of the Safety Kid Program because we had to involve the parents. The whole community cooperated; we implemented it in our schools through the good work of many volunteers, with no problems; all the schools are on board.
6. How many Chabad schools are using your Guidelines, and what will it take for more to join?
We encourage all Chabad schools to sign it, but we don’t know exactly how many have implemented it. We make it available, we promote our policies and we educated mechanchim about it at our annual Chinuch Conferences.
7. Why haven’t Vaad Rabbonei Lubavitch issued a halachic ruling on how to deal with abuse/abusers?
A statement of Vaad Rabbonei Lubavitch at the time seemed superfluous because they approved the Guidelines. Whenever it arises, you must get authorities involved. Additionally, there are some cases which need to be dealt with individually based on specific halachic parameters. Rabbi Yosef Shalom Eliashiv A”H and others have written Teshuvahs on this.
8. A related question, our children are being exposed to all kinds of things as a result of electronic communication and social media, can anything be done to inoculate our children from the undesired consequences?
Among other programs in the planning stages, we are in the process of creating a curriculum for young men about the concepts of Kedusha and of Taharah, according to Halacha and Chassidus, interwoven with stories and personal encouragement as well as personal responsibility. A commission of educators from across the country are involved in this effort. The curriculum will be presented for implementation in all our schools in grades 7 – 10. We have spent months working on it and it will completed in about a year or so.
9. Are you saying our children are safer today?
Absolutely. The whole atmosphere is different, things have changed over the last 20 years. The fact is that our schools have been greatly sensitized and we deal all of this in a very mature way.