Jewish summer camps reckon with abuse prevention

Jewish summer camps reckon with abuse prevention

Talk of ‘red lines’ and ‘consent’ now part of camp experience after NJY scandal

A Camp Ramah camp. In a sign of the times, the Conservative movement camping arm is moving away from the frontal hug. Courtesy of Camp Ramah
A Camp Ramah camp. In a sign of the times, the Conservative movement camping arm is moving away from the frontal hug. Courtesy of Camp Ramah

For campers and counselors around the country, this may be the summer of the “side-hug.”

As NJY Camps, a large Jewish camping network, scrambles to recover from a sexual abuse scandal that brought down its longtime director, Camp Ramah is taking the full-on hug — a staple of the summer camp experience for campers and counselors alike — off the table.

“We’ve actually trained our staff to give side-hugs,” said Rabbi Mitchell Cohen, the national director of the Conservative movement’s camping arm, describing an embrace that does not involve frontal contact. “We encourage campers to do the same.”

Ramah’s decision comes as some camping networks are bolstering policies to prevent and report abuse in the wake of the allegations against NJY Camps’ former director, Leonard Robinson. Robinson was forced to resign from his 25-year post as executive director of NJY Camps after an investigation completed in September found that at least 11 female employees came forward with claims that he had sexually harassed or assaulted them.

Cohen spent the last several months streamlining prevention policies across the network’s 10 residential camps and five day camps in partnership with Sacred Spaces, a start-up that works with Jewish institutions to prevent and respond to abuse. The rabbi focused on shoring up background checks, staff training, and reporting protocols.

“We didn’t want the attitude to be, ‘unless you see a predator who will abuse a child, there is no problem,’” Cohen said. “Our focus is on reducing social and sexual pressures in camp and fostering a culture of respect.” The work has included “beefing up” printed materials about “consent” and establishing “red-lines” when it comes to sarcasm, verbal intimidation, humiliation (including unwanted nicknames), rough-housing, and even affectionate gestures. 

With the #MeToo movement sweeping up national consciousness about sexual predation, Ramah is not the only organization re-evaluating social mores that previously went unquestioned.

“Research tells us that individuals who cross boundaries in one way often cross other boundaries as well,” said Shira M. Berkovits, founder and CEO of Sacred Spaces. The notion that perpetrators only have one “type” — whether it be adults as opposed to children, or boys as opposed to girls — is misinformed and potentially “dangerous,” she said. “Unfortunately, too often this is exactly what happens, as an institution tries to find another way to keep a beloved leader employed.”

Rabbi Daniel Brenner, chief of education at Moving Traditions, a start-up that works with Jewish teens around issues of sexuality and gender, has partnered with several camps to help establish “context appropriate” boundaries this summer.

“Some camps use the corporate model to prevent sexual harassment, but camp is just not a corporate environment,” said Brenner, who previously worked at the Birthright Israel Foundation. “Hugging” — which Brenner joked constitutes “about 90 percent of daily activities” at camp — can’t be eliminated; rather, Moving Traditions intends to train camp counselors to “hug with consent.”

The organization will begin an intensive two-day training for counselors at the end of April, titled “Culture-Shift,” with goals to explore gender and power in summer camp and promote healthy boundary-setting practices. 

At Ramah camps this summer, vigilance for boundary-crossing behaviors will extend all the way up the food chain, said Cohen.

“While the most difficult situation we might face is a sexual predator for a minor, the inquiry for inappropriate behavior does not stop there,” he said. “Whether in the camp office or in the bunkhouse, there will be multiple avenues of reporting up and reporting out.”

The Union for Reform Judaism (URJ), which oversees 17 overnight camps, told NJJN it “adapted” some of the guidelines Ramah worked to develop with Sacred Spaces for its own use. Last year, URJ also participated in a “virtual training” provided by the Baltimore Child Abuse Center (BCAC), and continues to be a close partner.

Rachael Brill, the associate director of camping for URJ, also noted that BCAC’s executive director is a URJ camper parent and “thus has a deep and nuanced understanding of camps’ needs.”

The Foundation for Jewish Camp (FJC), a national umbrella organization, sponsored the virtual training last year as part of the group’s “Shmira” initiative, a program intended to help prevent sexual harassment, abuse, and misconduct at camp. The initiative is still underway, said Jeremy Fingerman, CEO of the organization.

New ‘Shmira’ Initiative to address sexual misconduct at Jewish camps was launched at the 2018 Leader’s Assembly. Courtesy.

“We are currently applying for grant funding…for the next phase of Shmira,” he wrote in an email. “If awarded this grant, we would commence our training and resource enhancements in the fall of 2019.”

FJC does not require overnight camps to have abuse prevention policies and would not remove a camp if it failed to institute sound policies, said Fingerman. “We are a resource,” said Fingerman. “We prefer to influence with the ‘carrot’ of potential grants and training opportunities, rather than the ‘stick’ of removal and penalties.”

Hannah Dreyfus is a staff writer for The New York Jewish Week, NJJN’s sister publication.

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