By Larry Gordon
He is bold and outspoken about topics that many of us are uncomfortable with. And that makes Rabbi Yakov Horowitz of Project Yes and Yeshiva Darchei Noam in Monsey, New York, the in-demand and sought-after personality that he has become. This Shabbos, October 18–19, the rabbi is scheduled to speak at Congregation Beth Sholom in Lawrence about a subject that is near and dear to us all: the matter of protecting our children.
Rabbi Horowitz is a yeshiva graduate who had once planned to go to dental school but instead developed a remarkable career for himself in Jewish education. We are all better off because of that decision.
Rabbi Horowitz, the founder and principal of an elementary school with 250 students, has become the go-to individual who bridges the communications gap when it comes to occurrences that are difficult to discuss but, at the same time, must be talked about. And such matters affect us all, especially in this day and age.
His primary objective is to educate parents and children alike about the procedures that should be applied in order to keep a young child out of danger. “How can a 40- or 50-pound child defend himself or herself against a 200-pound man?” Rabbi Horowitz asks. And the rabbi plans to expand on that theme this coming Shabbos on three occasions—once on Friday night and twice on Shabbos, including the derashah following davening at 11:00 a.m.
Rabbi Horowitz was catapulted into the news last year when he was rather outspoken and took a firm stand in the bizarre and disturbing case of the Satmar community “therapist,” Nechemya Weberman, who was convicted of systematically abusing a young woman from the community over many years before being accused, tried, convicted, and eventually sentenced to 50 years in prison for his unsavory and damaging behavior.
From the start, Rabbi Horowitz came under blistering criticism from within that community, which at first was very supportive of Rabbi Weberman. Rabbi Horowitz said that after speaking with four additional victims of Weberman—all of whom told chillingly similar stories, despite not knowing each other—he was quickly convinced that she was indeed a victim of extreme abuse. This provoked a community that did not necessarily want to support an abuser of children but rather was in denial that a person of stature in their community, someone respected and admired, could stoop to such a level.
The conviction and sentence put many of those sentiments to rest, and also did a great deal toward bringing the issue of abuse of children into people’s conversations. And that, Rabbi Horowitz says, is a primary ingredient for prevention—that is, open communications and talking about these sensitive issues.
In dozens of articles published over the last few years, the best-selling Let’s Stay Safe child-safety book, and a series of online videos that are available to parents and schools alike, Rabbi Horowitz discusses these issues in a forthright and comprehensive fashion. And his thoughts and ideas on protecting children and keeping them safe cannot be sufficiently reiterated.
The messages seem to be basic and fundamental, but until they were articulated by Rabbi Horowitz, we as a community mostly thought they weren’t relevant to us. But the sad fact is that they are vital to our children’s success as young people and, eventually, healthy adults.
The news is replete with scandalous stories of all kinds of abuse. Most damaging and disturbing are the stories of children sexually exploited by authority figures, but the vast majority of abuse is committed by family members, friends of the family, and kids on the block. It happens in our schools and in our shuls, and we have to instruct our children on how to be effectively aware of the potential danger. “Predators set their sights on children who they know have a strained relationship with parents,” Rabbi Horowitz says. That’s why he adds that it is extremely important to always have open communications with your children. He advises that parents engage children every day about what took place in school, whom they spoke to, and what they talked about. It’s important that the exchange not be an interrogation, but rather that it take place in a conversational tone and fashion.
Beyond that, Horowitz spells out some basic rules and guidelines to prevent children from becoming objects of abuse. The first, he says, is that children have to know as early as they can possibly understand that there are to be no secrets from parents. They have to be taught that when a non-family or even a family member asks them to keep a secret, that it is a sign of potential danger.
Secondly, he says, children have to know and understand that their bodies belong to them and only them. It is their domain and absolutely no one has the right to invade that space or realm. At the same time, he says, parents need to instruct children about how to recognize and distinguish between good touching and bad touching—a subject he addresses in his books and videos.
And perhaps just as important as any of the above is to teach children to have the ability and fortitude to walk away from a situation that makes them uncomfortable.
One of the questions that needs to be asked, though there may not be an answer yet, is how did this happen; how did a segment of the frum community spiral down so low as to have to marshal the services of experts and professionals to educate us about how to protect our children from predators?
Rabbi Kenneth Hain of Congregation Beth Sholom in Lawrence, the individual whose initiative it is to bring Rabbi Horowitz to town, says, “He is an important and even heroic voice in our community.” Rabbi Hain salutes Yakov Horowitz for standing up for those who suffered abuse, even when somehow it seemed less popular to do so.
On the matter of whether he thought that Rabbi Horowitz’s voice should be heard, and whether his message should be directed exclusively at the chassidic or chareidi community, Rabbi Hain says, “The problem of abuse in the Orthodox community is pervasive and transcends all boundaries.”
Horowitz’s message covers a great deal of ground. He will no doubt discuss the reluctance and misgivings of reporting pedophiles or abusers to the police. This has been, and continues to be, a point of contention and debate as some of our communities, steeped in and holding onto European traditions, also carry a suspicion and mistrust of authority and especially government.
He will also focus on the sometimes complicated matter of communicating with our teenagers. “Teens need to be spoken to in a sensible way,” Rabbi Horowitz says. “Kids want to do the right thing,” he says, even if it seems that there are consistent disagreements with parents. Horowitz adds that today adults have trouble dealing with adolescents because being a teen today is very different from what it was 20 or 30 years ago.
And perhaps his most innovative idea is how to teach children how to interface with technology. His motto in that area is a very apt: “Postpone, Protect, and Prepare.” That is, do not encourage Internet use at too early an age, and protect children by using effective Internet software and filters that help shield children from messages that can potentially do damage. And, finally, he says that we need to recognize that at some point the children have the ability to do whatever they want online without parents knowing about it.
In the short time I spent with Rabbi Horowitz on the phone the other day, I heard a calm and professional voice of reason that explains why his message resonates with so many and why he is so much in demand as a man of insight and vision in troubling times. v
Comments for Larry Gordon are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.