Keeping our children safe during the High Holidays 
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Keeping our children safe during the High Holidays 

Rosh Hashanah is a time of celebration and coming together. But our children must be our priority. Following this checklist will help to keep our children safe these High Holy Days.

Photo: Antoni Shkraba/Pexels
Photo: Antoni Shkraba/Pexels

Synagogues are supposed to be places where children are safe from harm. But this safety can only be assured if all adults – religious leaders, synagogue leadership and administrators, volunteers, parents and the community – play their part to keep our children safe.

Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Succot are the busiest times of the year for our synagogues. Many families, who don’t attend services for the rest of the year, will come to synagogue for the High Holy Days. So, what can we do to make sure every child is safe over the next few weeks? Here is a checklist for the community to use.

First, check that your synagogue has a child protection policy. A policy alone will not protect children from harm, but it sends a clear message that child abuse is not tolerated. A policy is also a checklist of steps taken by the synagogue to keep children safe. If there is no child protection policy on your synagogue’s website, please call and ask for a copy. Policies must be updated according to government requirements. In Victoria, organisations were mandated to comply with new Child Safe Standards by July 1, 2022, and in NSW these come into effect on February 1, 2023.

Second, does your synagogue run a childcare service or children’s program during the High Holy Days? Adults should run these services or programs. All adults should be thoroughly screened following safeguarding procedures. Screening includes seeking 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 volunteers or paid (some synagogues pay for external childcare service providers during this busy period) should be interviewed and reference-checked to assess potential risks.

If young people under 18 are involved in these programs, they are not eligible for Working with Children Checks. Nonetheless, they should also be interviewed, reference checked and trained.

Regardless of who is running a children’s program, parents always remain responsible for the supervision of their children. A group of parents might need to volunteer to share that supervisory role if there are no other childcare options.

Adults responsible for the care of children should be trained on the indicators of child abuse, responses and how to report a disclosure. A synagogue policy should specify to whom a report is made. Ultimately, all adults are responsible for reporting to child protection or police if they believe that a child has been abused.

Third, consider the informal interactions children may have with adults at synagogue. Some of us fondly remember the lolly man or woman at synagogue. Today, the offering of a lolly might be seen as a sign of grooming or simply an unwanted transaction between adult and child. A lolly person should be treated like any other volunteer. They should undergo the same screening and training process.

Special guests, rabbis, choirs and volunteers are often a highlight in the synagogue High Holy Day program. Screening is more complicated for those coming from overseas. Synagogues should seek specialist advice on screening, international police checks, visas and reference-checking procedures.

Fourth, on the safeguarding checklist is having a conversation with your children about keeping safe. Children are not responsible for their safety. But conversations about body safety empower children to know who they can turn to if they feel unsafe.

What do we tell our children? Children need to be taught to identify and trust their feelings. Talk about what makes them feel safe and unsafe. Children need to know it is good to tell someone if they feel unsafe. Tell them that if they are not believed, to keep talking until they are. If they are told not to tell you about something that makes them feel unsafe, that is wrong. That secret should not be kept, and they can always tell their mum, dad or another trusted adult.

Teach children the correct names for body parts. Identify their private parts and tell children no one has the right to touch them. In the same way, they should not touch other’s private parts. Children should also know that if someone does touch their private parts, it is not their fault, and they should tell an adult. There are some excellent resources available to educate your children on the Body Safety Australia website.

Where child sexual abuse is concerned, we cannot reduce a risk we do not understand. Peer-on-peer sexual abuse is the least understood and expected 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 do engage in harmless sexual curiosity or play. One indication that sexual behaviour between children is more than curiosity is when the behaviour is secretive or accompanied by a sense of shame or blame. The conduct is problematic when a child is hiding behaviour or luring another child into an unseen area.

Be familiar with your synagogue’s premises. Walk around the grounds to make sure your child is always in sight of others. Today, synagogues should have windows and glass panel doors. If not, doors should be left open to ensure that line of sight for responsible adults.

Children with a disability are three times more likely to be sexually abused. Staff supervising these children must also be screened and trained. As a community, we should all be educated to understand the scope of this problem and know 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 to keep our children safe these High Holy Days.

Dr Michelle Meyer is president of Maoz, a child safeguarding unit in the Jewish community that works in partnership with the Jewish Community Council of Victoria. For more information contact maozaus@gmail.com.

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