Need for zero tolerance for all forms of abuse in community

  • WendyHendler
The South African Jewish community has made strides, but it is still a long way from being a community that is safe from abuse.
by WENDY HENDLER | Sep 06, 2018

Many changes need to happen to bring our community in line with best practice around the globe. One major development is the changing conversation around abuse, with a far greater awareness and willingness to acknowledge and address these uncomfortable issues.

Until a few years ago, abuse used to be a taboo topic, one few people felt safe to admit or seek help for. Due to the work of organisations tackling abuse, the conversation is being changed significantly, as abuse is being accepted as a reality in our community.

There are many cases of women trapped in abusive relationships who experience a range of different controlling behaviours. Domestic abuse occurs in all communities, and the local Jewish community is by no means immune.

In order for our community to become safe from abuse, people need to be educated about the nature and prevalence of this scourge. Education is vital for people who are starting relationships. It focuses on raising awareness of the warning signals that are generally present in the early stages of the relationship. People tend to dismiss these as unimportant, but looking back, they will often acknowledge that the signs were there.

It is also crucial to train rabbis, shadchans (matchmakers), teenage girls about to go on their gap year, and health-care professionals how to identify these signals and how to support women in these relationships. The fact that there is an increase in the numbers of cases referred to various organisations fighting abuse in the community is promising.

In spite of these positive changes, there are increasingly worrying trends with regard to children. Parents need to take strict control of their children’s access to technology. As children become accustomed to graphic material online, they begin to see this as normal, and slowly get drawn into darker content.

They may then try these behaviours out on other children, with potentially devastating long-term consequences. This is a global trend, and our children are affected. The strategy to address this is twofold. The first is through targeted abuse-prevention programmes in schools, the second, talking to parents.

While abuse prevention programmes are becoming accepted as part of the curriculum, parents cannot rely solely on them. They have to educate themselves about how to talk to their children about body safety and online safety. Parents today no longer have the luxury of ignoring the threats posed to their children.

Another challenge is the bystander’s lack of understanding of their legal obligation to report actual or suspected cases of child abuse to a statutory body or the police. The aim of reporting is to open up a basket of services for the child. If people who suspect or know about abuse refuse to get involved as they fear it may be unpleasant for them, they leave the vulnerable child unprotected and allow the abuse to continue unabated.

Our community will be safe only when people adopt a zero-tolerance attitude towards abuse of any kind. This means actively reporting cases, so that the curse of secrecy is broken.

Abuse experts say that the fear of retribution is the best way to deter predators. The only way to stop predators is to make them fear being caught. We need to make sure our children know how to recognise the danger signals, what the rules are for body safety, and that they have a safety network of trusted adults to whom they can turn to for help. An educated child is a child less likely to be targeted by a predator.

In today’s global community, it is very difficult for parents to take back control over their children’s access to technology. They need to be informed, get educated, and make use of the tools out there to monitor their child’s access, and make responsible decisions regarding internet use. Being ignorant about access to technology is akin to putting a loaded gun into your child’s hands.

International experts claim that the only way to stop predators is to ensure that our private and public areas become unsafe spaces for these criminals. A predator will find it difficult to operate in spaces where there is close supervision of children and where there is a raised level of awareness and clear channels for reporting.

Due to the fact that there have been numerous cases of child abuse on shul campuses, abuse organisations in the community have responded by formulating policies specific to the South African Jewish context. This serves to improve the safety of these campuses. These policies require a small task team at each shul or within each community organisation to manage their implementation so that they become living, breathing mechanisms which oversee all aspects of shul functioning.

Having a policy, which all members are in favour of and bound by, will go a long way to making these safe spaces for our children. It is incumbent upon aware and responsible community members to lobby their rabbis, community, and organisational leaders to implement these policies sooner rather than when faced with a problem that has already occurred.

Worldwide trends such as the #metoo campaign have enjoyed much attention in the media, creating safe spaces for people to open up and disclose their abuse.

The South African Jewish community needs to come on board and lift the longstanding veil of secrecy, denial, and brushing things under the carpet. In the end, abuse prevention cannot be the responsibility of any single organisation. We all have a vital part to play in building a safe community, one which we can all be proud of.

  • Wendy Hendler is a co-founder and Director of Koleinu, a Jewish organisation that provides a support service in the form of a helpline for victims of abuse in the Jewish community. Koleinu’s helpline number (on Monday and Wednesday between 09:00 and 12:00, and Tuesday and Thursday between 19:00 and 22:00) is 011 264 0341. You can also send an email to [email protected] or go to their website:


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