Child abuse is one of those very urgent but very uncomfortable topics that make people either squirm with unease, get angry, go into denial, set up an enraged bashing blog, examine alleged predator registries, become disillusioned with their leaders, or just pray.
Rabbi Moshe Bak chose a different path. He admits he didn’t know very much about child abuse prevention a decade ago, even as educators much older than he approached him for ways to tackle the horrifying scourge. He was a 30-year-old curriculum developer/teacher trainer for Torah Umesorah and the energetic, forward-thinking publisher of (the now-hibernating) Rayonos magazine — a trade journal for Jewish educators — so he was a natural go-to source for mechanchim in need of solutions.
Rayonos magazine, which published from 2003 to 2009, was a platform for honest pedagogical discussion, and Rabbi Bak began receiving e-mails and faxes from rebbis and teachers: What do we do if we suspect a student is a victim of abuse? How can we identify it? What if a child confides in us?
Rabbi Bak didn’t have the answers (“I was pretty naive,” he admits. “Why someone would hurt a child was beyond me”) but he was determined to find them. Today, Rabbi Bak — currently head of school at ShalomTorahAcademy, a now-thriving kiruv day school inMorganville,New Jersey, that had been on the verge of collapse — is convinced the organization he subsequently founded is making our schools, shuls, and communities safer for Jewish children.
When he drew up an initial proposal in 2007 for what would develop into Project Innocent Heart, Rabbi Bak wasn’t sure where he was headed, but he knew where he didn’t want to go. “Although we hear and read horrific stories of abuse and neglect and we’ve become forced to anticipate the unimaginable, what I didn’t want to do was get on a soapbox and scream that kids are being abused. There is no shortage of people who are doing that. Yelling about things people can’t bear to hear turns even a valid message into noise. I understood that if we want real solutions, we need real answers for parents, teachers, and rabbanim, and I knew it would involve training, workshops, curriculum, and across-the-board cooperation. I also knew we would have to speak a language of inclusion, one that would resonate with the social worker in New Jersey yet wouldn’t alienate chassidish and bnei Torah communities inBrooklyn.”
It meant bringing on board world-class trauma clinicians, developing appropriate literature and curriculum, creating an education base for teachers and parents in both prevention and early intervention, and creating a general atmosphere where predators would no longer feel safe.
A tall order, but maybe only natural for a consummate educator whose family roots and father’s legacy demonstrate the mechanech’s power to effect real change. When it comes to the welfare of Jewish children, the men in the Bak family have never been afraid to overcome the most daunting hurdles.
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