(June 21, 2018 / JNS) “Don’t forget to put on your sunscreen.”
“Carry your inhaler with you at all times.”
“Don’t forget to write at least one letter to Bubbe and Zayde.”
“No one has the right to touch you in a way that feels uncomfortable. It’s not lashon hara [gossip] to tell your counselor or an adult if you feel worried or confused.”
Over the years, the list of last-minute orders parents give children before they depart for camp has grown. In more recent years, the societal conversation involving improper touch or sexual molestation has found its way to Orthodox schools and summer camps.
More than 100 U.S.-based camps now require their incoming staff—be they counselors or administrators—to complete a sex-abuse prevention course that includes viewing four animated videos and passing a program test.
The camps involved are mostly serving the Orthodox community, though the program, in existence for 10 years in Israel and three in the United States, is finding its way to secular Jewish camps as well.
It’s all part of ASAP: Jewish Sexual Abuse Prevention and Treatment, a program with a mission of preventing abuse through promoting increased community awareness.
“The relaxed camp environment and lack of supervision and clear safety guidelines in camp have been sadly known to result in crossed boundaries, inappropriate affection and molestation,” ASAP writes on its website, ASAP.care. “ASAP’s online abuse prevention program helps Jewish summer camps minimize incidents of abuse and ensure that campers that have been abused in the past will be identified, supported and guided towards professional care.”
Ora Kalfa, ASAP’s program director, notes that the camp program was started after her organization learned through a program for abuse survivors in the Orthodox community of such abuse happening in what was supposed to be fun, memorable times in the summer months.
According to Kalfa, ASAP learned through years of therapeutic sessions that many of its victims were abused in camps.
“It was and is important to provide training and protocols for camp counselors,” she said. “We don’t believe they need to be experts in sexual abuse, but as a counselor, you need to know how damaging it is and how to look for signs.”
ASAP’s animated training videos show male “counselors” wearing kippot. One title is “The Role of the Counselor in Keeping Camp Safe.” Another is “Boundaries for Creating and Maintaining Healthy Relationships.” Still another: “Responding to Boundary Violations and Harmful Behavior.”
The program was created, Kalfa said, for a religious audience. That’s how the images and tsniut (modest) language were selected in designing the animation.
“Our idea is to make everyone an agent of safety,” said Kalfa. “Safety is everyone’s responsibility. Everyone we show this to has accepted it. The films don’t use the word sexual. It doesn’t get anyone’s guard up. We’ve had Orthodox rabbis tell us that we’re not being strong enough.”
One video advises that “touching a camper anywhere below the shoulders is forbidden.” High-fives and other safe touch is OK, it goes on to say.
Another suggestion is to be caring, compassionate and respectful.
Kalfa added that the problem of abuse at camp has been around for generations. “There are friends of ours who went to camp who told us of lack of boundaries, and now people are starting to be worried about it.”
Clear about boundaries and guidelines
Rabbi Ari Katz, the owner and director of Camp Mesorah, a large Jewish sleepaway camp based in the Catskills, speaks highly of the program’s importance to Jewish camping.
“It was a program that I was looking for, and as soon as they showed me the information, I went into full force,” he said just days prior to the opening of his camp.
“The staff very much appreciates the program,” he said. “It is very well-received.”
The rabbi said his staff members learn from the ASAP videos that appropriate touch is from the shoulder blades up, that high-fives are fine, but that there are boundaries in which to be aware.
This is our third year doing this,” said Katz. “Every staff member in our camp is required to watch the videos, and to take the test and be certified even if you were in camp previously.”
Kalfa stated that the program is intended to raise the standards of camps and to make sure that all staffers are clear about guidelines. She said communities say when they are ready for programs such as ASAP. Sometimes, the community will vary—say with a special-needs camp that would require different protocols.
“Abuse happens when secrecy and opportunity meet,” she said. “We help camps create guidelines so these opportunities don’t happen. But it’s time to stop just talking about these issues; it’s not rocket science. This is about accountability and professionalism. Abuse is very preventable.”