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Thursday, September 18, 2014

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It’s my body

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We received a gift for our 10-month-old daughter: a two-CD set titled Kids’ Greatest Hits. Buried somewhere on the first disk is Head and Shoulders, a classic I remember from my own childhood. I remember, as a kid, giggling while trying to point to the right body part as the song’s tempo increased: “Head and shoulders, knees and toes; eyes, ears, mouth and nose.”

At the end of bath time with our daughter, we sing the song, point to the right body part, take her out of the bath, and pat her dry. The song is a good transition, indicating the end of the bath and the beginning of our bedtime ritual.

When we first played the CD, we noticed that the words on this newer version have changed. “Head and shoulders, knees and toes; it’s my body.” A change that we initially chalked up to a variant text.

In the last few weeks, since the Jewish Daily Forward reported allegations of abuse by staff at the Yeshiva University High School for Boys from the late ’70s to the early ’90s, the variant text has come into focus.

Abuse in religious institutions is too common. In my relatively short career in education, I have worked at three organizations shaken by abuse. After the shock, come investigations and apologies, genuinely honest. Then, committed and caring leaders have confronted the difficult question: how can we proactively stop the abuse of power that is only magnified by the power of religious authority?

Policy is a start, but it’s not enough.

Years ago, when I began to work at a summer camp in the United States, I was required to complete a criminal background check. While these checks remain an important tool, the background check only attested that I had not been arrested in that state. But before arriving at camp, I had never set foot in that state.

Coupled with policy, institutions and families must begin a difficult culture change.

When I began running Shabbatonim, weekend retreats for high school students, my supervisor pulled me aside and reminded me that I was vulnerable. As a young, single teacher close in age to program participants, I needed to be extra vigilant. Throughout my work with the program, I was blessed with a male colleague who spent nights with me schmoozing with participants and checking the dorms. Partially out of fear and partially out of a sense of responsibility, I was never alone with the students. While some would argue that this distance dulls the impact of a holistic education, it drives home a moral value of safety and caring.

Similarly, a new culture of awareness and empowerment must be developed in our children. My daughter’s CD is one small piece in changing the culture.  From the youngest age, we – parents and educators – must teach our children what is inappropriate. We must instil in them a sense of confidence and security to raise questions, lodge complaints and report abuse.

As difficult as it will be, in my mind, I am already planning the conversation to explain to my daughter why the song’s ending has changed from “eyes, ears, mouth and nose” to “it’s my body.”

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