Safeguarding Podcast – “Be More Moses” with Rabbi Diana Gerson

In this safeguarding podcast we talk to Rabbi Diana Gerson about the Jewish faith and its role in safeguarding children online, as well as Rabbi Gerson’s interfaith approach to the issue. Shomrim, mesirah, halakha, Yiddishkeit and how being more like Moses are all explored in relation to safeguarding children in the online digital context.

There’s a lightly edited for legibility transcript below for those that can’t use podcasts, or for those that simply prefer to read.

Neil Fairbrother

Welcome to another edition of the SafeToNet Foundation safeguarding podcast hosted by me, Neil Fairbrother, where we talk about all things to do with safeguarding children in the online digital context.

Child safeguarding in the online digital context is at the intersection of technology, law and ethics and culture, and it encompasses all stakeholders between the child using a smartphone and the content or personal online that they are interacting with.

The essential teaching of Judaism is that the “Holy” manifests in three dimensions of human life, sacred time, sacred space and sacred person. In the idiom of the Rabbinic tradition this is known as Shana (year or time), Olam (world or space) and Nefesh which (soul or person) and to help guide us through this in relation to safeguarding children, especially online, I’m delighted to be joined by Associate Executive Vice President of the New York Board of Rabbis, Rabbi Diana Gerson. Welcome to the podcast Rabbi Gerson. Could you provide us please with a brief resumé so our listeners from around the world have an appreciation of your background.

Rabbi Diana Gerson

Well, first off, thank you Neil, for having me. This is such a delight and please call me Diana. I’ve never been one to trip over my yamaka! I am just absolutely delighted to have an opportunity to share with you some perspectives on Judaism for the SafeToNet Foundation.

I am a Rabbi in New York. I was ordained by the Hebrew Union College Jewish Institute of Religion on the New York campus in 2001. I’ve served congregations in Atlanta, Georgia, as well as Short Hills, New Jersey. Since 2005, I have been at the New York Board of Rabbis. I was brought on board to help develop their family violence response initiatives, working with domestic violence, elder abuse, sexual assault victims, as well as child abuse.

As my work in child abuse has grown since 2007 we became involved with an organization, an initiative by the Brooklyn DA’s office, known as Brooklyn Child Watch and we started working with Darkness to Light, which is a non-profit based out of South Carolina that’s working exclusively in the space of child sexual abuse and with a real interest in online safety. I’ve been working with them since 2007. We’ve trained thousands of adults in the New York area, interfaith because we all have the capacity to protect the children and that’s our sacred responsibility as adults. So thank you so much.

Neil Fairbrother

Okay. Now you’re also a board member of the Child Dignity Alliance. What is the CDA, what’s your role there?

Rabbi Diana Gerson

So the Child Dignity Alliance formed a few years back under the offices of the Baroness Joanna Shields and Ernie Allen. Ernie Allen is the Chairman of the WeProtect Global Alliance, but he’s also pretty much the founding father of child protection at least in the United States and if not, the world. He is the founder of the National Centre for Missing and Exploited Children, otherwise known as NCMEC and ITMEC, which is the International Centre for Missing and Exploited Children.

I was asked to be involved with one of their working groups probably about three years ago now and that working group was really on engaging space leaders and there was a small core of us who were really actually working together as NGOs around the UN, around issues pertaining specifically to children and so that’s really was my introduction to the Child Dignity Alliance, and it was really incredible because there was this unique opportunity to engage in different working groups, how we can best facilitate child protection and child dignity, specifically online.

How do we maintain child dignity? And we worked together. We helped to develop in collaboration with the Interfaith Alliance for Safer Communities, which was an initiative of the ministry of interior and the United Arab Emirates, we helped to develop a major Global Forum on Child Dignity in a Digital World. And then I got more of an opportunity to work with Ernie and certainly with Joanna and eventually Ernie asked for me to get involved as a Board member, and that’s actually fairly recent. I became a Board member, I believe the end of last year, 2019.

And we’re working in unique spaces to really try and move the ball forward as far as, how do we talk about these issues? How do we how do we support legislation? How do we really try and leverage our respective fields in order to better protect children? And it’s really just an honour and a privilege to serve alongside so many incredible colleagues in this space. So many people that I would regularly tune in to listen to their presentations and now I’m sitting alongside them and it’s just really an honour.

Neil Fairbrother

Okay. Now obviously you’re a Rabbi and I think you were one of the youngest Rabbis, I seem to remember reading. Can you take us back to some basics and very briefly describe the essential differences between Christianity and Judaism, if it’s possible to do that briefly!

Rabbi Diana Gerson

There’s really no brief way to do that, but I’ll give you the overview. First I was ordained at the age of 26. So at the time I was about the third youngest Rabbi in the country, just by virtue of the year and the time of my ordination. But when it comes to Christianity and Judaism, there are there essential differences. Judaism of course is really, if we look at the Judeo Christian context Christianity comes out of the Jewish tradition. We refer to it as the Hebrew Bible and that starts with Genesis and goes through second Chronicles. Then there is as the Christian community thought the old Testament, that’s our Hebrew Bible, and they will talk then about the New Testament, which is really based on the teachings of Jesus as seen by Paul, the Gospel, and there was a whole growth of sacred texts that came out of the Jesus tradition.

And so in many ways, we know we can actually look back and in the Talmud, which is the Rabbinic law as it’s written, and you’ll actually going to be able to find the quotes of Jesus of Joshua as a Rabbi as part of the Jewish community. There was a time you know, after the death of Jesus, that the communities were kind of growing in different ways and they divided, they split off with one group believing that the Messiah has come through Jesus, as his birth and death and having risen, and in the Jewish community that we are still waiting for that Messiah to come and to bring in a messianic age of peace and brotherhood for all people. That’s the differences in a nutshell.

Neil Fairbrother

Okay. Thank you. Now, religions, it seems to me anyway, tend to be mutually exclusive, but you, I think are a strong advocate of interfaith cooperation, particularly on the issue of child abuse. How do you see this working?

Rabbi Diana Gerson

Well, I’m a big supporter and believer in interfaith collaboration in every context. We actually have far more in common than we have different and when we get to the core of our traditions and teachings, they’re actually quite similar. And if you look at the major traditions of the world, well, we all believe in the dignity of the child. We all believe that children are one of our greatest gifts. And if a child is our community’s greatest gift from God, however we understand a divine being, or just the idea of some greater thing that has actually given us life and the world that we have, then perhaps it is incumbent upon all of us to work towards safeguarding those children.

It doesn’t matter if I’m Jewish and that child is Christian. I’m going to protect that child because I believe in that child’s inherent dignity. And therefore I would expect that all of our communities will not say, Oh, I’m only going to protect this kid or this child because they’re of my faith, but rather we have to build a safety net around all of our children and help to raise them up in a world that will not only respect their dignity, but will actually amplify it.

Neil Fairbrother

Okay. If we explore the Jewish faith a little bit, you have a word “Shomrim”, which translates as watchers or guards and in the offline world, this comprises of organizations of proactive volunteer Jewish civilian patrols that are there to help combat burglary, vandalism, mugging, assault, domestic violence, and so on, and also to help and support victims of crime. Could there be an online equivalent, an online Shomrim?

Rabbi Diana Gerson

Well, the interesting idea of Shomrim, the nature of the Shomer, the person who was supposed to guard or watch, a watchman or person for the community, it’s actually something that is really only exists in smaller communities, it’s not necessarily widespread. There’s no Shomrim patrolling my neighbourhood. And yet I know off the top of my head, we have about four or five synagogues within probably a five block, 10 block radius of my house. So there’s no Shomrim here. In fact, the NYPD, the New York Police Department, their Jewish fraternal order is called the Shomrim Society. So it’s a very broad term that is often applied to smaller groups, but you will find Shomrim, there’s a group of Shomrim that volunteer in Borough Park in Brooklyn.

There’s a Shomrim that’s connected that you’ll see, in perhaps Williamsburg or Crown Heights, and they are more of an internal volunteer group. They, you know, they are supposed to collaborate and work alongside NYPD but they are not empowered as law enforcement in any way. So there’s that aspect, but they can do a lot of good in the community because they are often trusted by the community and they act as that liaison to law enforcement and building those bridges is really, really important in order to help safeguard communities, as well as to make sure victims of crimes are heard and supported. And some very insular Jewish communities, oftentimes you’ll go and report a crime to the police, you may actually go and talk to your Rabbi first to find out if you should report it.

Neil Fairbrother

Yeah. I think there’s an interpretation of the Torah, which prohibits what’s known I think as “mesirah”, is that how you pronounce it? Which is I think the informing on a fellow Jew to non-Jewish authorities. Now, does that present a conflict at all with regard to informing the police? Should you have information for example, about a child abuser within a community, which you go to the Shomrim first, would you go to the Rabbi first, or would you go to the police first?

Rabbi Diana Gerson

Well, certainly there are communities that will say that you should go to the police first, and there are going to be communities that say that you should go to the Rabbi first. I am of the belief, very strongly, that we go to the police first. We can go to the Rabbi, we can bring the Rabbi into the conversation for crimes against the nature of domestic violence, of grand larceny, and certainly of child abuse and online exploitation of children should be reported immediately to law enforcement.

The Rabbi is not there to determine what is lawful or not and is not the judge of innocence and guilt. However, the Rabbi can also be definitely a bridge builder to create a sense of safety. We have Rabbis who are really great on these issues, really informed out there in front, and whether it’s a domestic violence issue or a child abuse issue, not only will they tell someone that they need to go to law enforcement, they’ll actually go with them.

And so you’re going to find people on every side of this issue, but a crime is a crime and a crime between two Jews, it’s still a crime. And we don’t believe in protecting perpetrators, we believe in protecting victims. And so the idea of mesirah is something that comes from the days and the times of the pogroms when we lived in places where we didn’t have citizenship, where we lived in constant fear of the government. That’s not the case today. That’s not the world we live in.

And so mesirah I think is less of an issue in the majority of the Jewish world, but, you know, there are still pockets that still adhere to that idea. And so we work really hard to make sure that we are working alongside Rabbis to make sure that they really understand the issues, which is usually a really big learning curve. They don’t automatically understand online exploitation. They don’t automatically understand the risks. And in fact, most parents don’t until we sit down and explain it to them. So it’s a need for education.

Neil Fairbrother

And is it as simple as that, it’s just sit down with people and discuss the issue with people so their understanding increases?

Rabbi Diana Gerson

Well, I think that is a really big first step. But you’re going to find people in every community that are going to be out there looking to harm somebody, there’s really no one community that is a 100% always law abiding, always perfect. There are always going to be people who have what we would call an evil inclination. What we need to do is we need to make sure that people are informed. That people really understand, and to understand that it’s not just “I’m going to learn this when my child is born. I’m never going to sit down and learn about it again.”

I remember having a cell phone back when I was ordained as a Rabbi, it was a little tiny phone, it was called the Motorola Startac or something like that. It was this teeny little thing, you couldn’t even text on it right?

Today, children are walking around town with, you know, their mom or their dad’s old iPhone or a Galaxy, or even you’ll even find some old Blackberries out there. But the fact is your child is walking around town with a computer where anybody can reach out and say hi to that child at any given moment. And giving children access to the internet is a wonderful gift in the way that we give children access to the world.

I remember going as a child to the library and I remember when they brought in the computers to the library, and it’s not even that there was internet. It was just that you could actually search on, you know, the encyclopedia and find things faster. But now with the internet, you give children access to the whole entire world. And this moment of COVID-19 children have this incredible opportunity. They can look at nature reserves in Africa, and they can look at the polar ice caps and, you know, they can learn about what’s happening anywhere in the world at any given moment and not just read about it, but actually have live video stream. How incredible!

Neil Fairbrother

Yes, it’s truly astonishing what can be done. I was talking, I think you may know the gentlemen perhaps a colleague of yours, Rabbi Baruch from New Jersey a couple of weeks ago and he was saying that he has members of his community who outside of work simply do not use the internet and they don’t allow their children to use the internet because of the fears of online harms. Do you feel that that’s a little bit extreme, a complete ban?

Rabbi Diana Gerson

I understand where he’s coming from. You know, when we give children access to the internet, we give children access to the world but we also, at the same time, we give the world access to our child. And therefore there’s a really tremendous responsibility then on the parent or any adult who’s supervising children and we have to understand that right now, how many millions and millions of children are out of school and are learning now online? Children are on the internet not because maybe their parents want them to be or not want them to be, but because it’s how they’re receiving their education right now in this unusual moment in time. And yet that means that we really, really need to be mindful. We really need to be watching.

So I wouldn’t say that there should be a complete ban on internet in a household, not permitting our children to go online, but if our children are on the line, we better be watching. We better know who they’re talking to. We need to make sure that there are parental settings in force. That we are not just watching the child with with the device in our presence, but also making sure that they’re not taking that device someplace else that we can’t see.

And that’s the biggest challenge is that, you know, kids go and they have the computer in their bedroom, or they’ve got their phone literally under their pillow at night. These are the moments of the greatest danger because it’s when no one else is looking. So I understand Rabbi Baruch’s position of an understanding why parents don’t want to even take the risk.

At the same time, we live in a social world where if our child doesn’t have any access to internet, they also miss out on a tremendous social dynamic that is often going on around them, where they would be excluded from school activities. They’d be excluded from social events because the child won’t even be able to receive that information. So it’s a little bit of a double-edged sword and I think parents make the best choices that they feel that they can in any given moment. And I really applaud parents who are really thinking about this, really trying to decide what is the right thing for their family.

Neil Fairbrother

Yes. Youth professionals, someone who’s working with youth, that suspects or becomes aware of abuse has a moral, professional and an Halakhic obligation to ensure the safety of the abused child. What is Halakhic?

Rabbi Diana Gerson

So a Halakhic responsibility… halakha is law, it’s Jewish law, Jewish legal responsibility and I would say absolutely there would be a Halakhic responsibility. The Jewish law pikuach nefesh is saving a life and to destroy a life is to destroy a world. According to the Talmud, there is absolutely no reason anyone should risk a child’s life because, “Oh, I’m not sure. Oh, I’m this? Oh, Hmm. Maybe I should check with somebody else…”

If you suspect a child is being abused, it’s your moral, Halakhic, as well as often legal responsibility. In the United States child protection and mandated reporting is a really, really diverse world. You have 26 States in the United States where all adults over the age of 18 are mandated reporters, where if you suspect child abuse, you must report it. But that leaves us with 24 States each having their own rules.

So if you’re a teacher in the State of New York, you are a mandated reporter. If you are a Rabbi or a minister, or an Imam in the State of New York, you are not a mandated reporter. If I go across the Hudson river to New Jersey, all adults over the age of 18 are mandated reporters. So it’s about understanding those responsibilities to the State, the legal, but always understanding our moral responsibility, our Halakhic standing of what we must do.

It’s not really a debate. I have to protect a life. I have to protect a child. And I think the real challenge we find is that sometimes people don’t understand the gravity of child sexual abuse online. They don’t understand that CSAM can cause long-term harm to a child. And I think that’s where we often find ourselves in these very strange conversations with people that are like, well, somebody watched the video or saw a photo, but they didn’t touch the child, so perhaps that wasn’t harmful. It wasn’t physically, you know, tangibly abusive. And I’m like, but it is, it is abusive to that child. It destroys that child’s privacy, understanding of self, sexuality, physicality, emotional, psychological. We must act on behalf of that child in that moment. And so these are the challenges. I think that sometimes people get lost in certain arguments and not understanding the impact that online abuse can have.

Neil Fairbrother

Last year you said in a an online video that when you grew up people didn’t really talk about child abuse, but now the culture has changed dramatically. In what way Diana has the culture changed?

Rabbi Diana Gerson

Well, when I was a child, nobody talked about cancer either. So everybody would sit around the table and everybody would say, you know, so and so has cancer, we would whisper it. So and so left their husband. Oh, what do you think happened? Nobody talked about domestic violence. These were culturally things that we didn’t talk about. And yet more and more they’re becoming mainstream conversation.

Cancer, in October and the United States, the entire world turns pink for Breast Cancer Awareness. Everybody’s marching, raising money, walking, buying cups of yogurt, but they’re donating money to cancer research and treatment and support for patients, it’s incredible. And domestic violence is also something that now it’s purple and everybody will wear purple. They light up the Empire State Building purple for domestic violence awareness. And child abuse and sexual assault and child sexual abuse, at least in America is the month of April, where everything turns either blue or green and for a child sexual abuse, we turn a strange kind of colour of teal.

But the understanding that this is something we have to be talking about, we have to be talking to our children in age appropriate ways about protecting their bodies and their sexuality, as well as we need to make sure that we are educating adults about how they can be real guardians of children. How do they become that Shomrim? And this is something that you have to be talking about.

For me, I remember the first time I ever talked about domestic violence from the pulpit, some people were like, you’re going to do what? And once I did it, I have to say it transformed my rabbinate because people came to me with all kinds of issues. People came to me because they were hurting. They felt that they had done something wrong to deserve to be victimized.

And all of a sudden it created this new space to talk to people about their experiences and to help them to heal because no one who’s been a victim has done anything wrong. And we want to help people go from being a victim, to being a survivor and to being a thriver.

And so we need to talk about these issues. We need to talk about them all the time. We need to be teaching our parents in our synagogues. We have to have adult education programs. We have to be talking about these issues from the pulpit. So if you’re giving a Friday night sermon, Saturday morning, or Sunday morning in a church, you know, all you have to do is look at the book of Genesis to find plenty of family dysfunction.

There are lots of biblical examples rooted in our traditions, and we can talk about it in a sacred and Holy way about how we protect and guard our communities. And so that I think is the biggest shift, is that more clergy are talking about it. And if more clergy are talking about it, that means that families are talking about it when they go home and they sit around the table and they talk about the sermon that they heard. And that’s a cultural shift that I am grateful to have been part of, but yet at the same time to understand, I never saw it coming.

Neil Fairbrother

Talking about churches and speaking in the pulpit and so on. In my introduction, I referred to sacred spaces and the church is obviously a sacred space – are sacred spaces and safe spaces the same thing?

Rabbi Diana Gerson

Well, shouldn’t they be? Shouldn’t a sacred space also be a safe space? Now when I was a kid, I would often disappear from my Hebrew school class. I was notorious, I would just kind of like, “I’m going to the ladies’ room” and I’d be gone for an hour. And they’d often find me in the sanctuary, sitting on the pulpit, sitting on what we call the bima under the Ner Tamid, under the eternal light, having my own conversation with God.

Often the Rabbi would find me, but I was often there because for me, the synagogue was my safe space. So being in that space, nothing bad could happen to me there. And I believe all children, all adults should have that same feeling. And if they don’t, then those who have defiled those sacred spaces need to be held accountable. Everyone should have a safe space and that safe space can be sacred and Holy, wherever it is.

We don’t need to go to church or synagogue or mosque to pray. We can find God everywhere. So if you find your conversations with God are happening on a hike or by the beach, or while sitting on your back porch, then that is sacred space and sacred time. And we need to make sure that all people can find that space, if they’re seeking it.

Neil Fairbrother

In a talk on trafficking in 2016, you drew a comparison between Moses freeing the slaves and said that we have to be Moses and that struck me as being a curious phrase. What did you mean by that?

Rabbi Diana Gerson

Well, Moses was an interesting character, deeply flawed human being like all of us, because Moses was human. However, we do see certain things about Moses that are rather remarkable. Moses fled Egypt in his younger years. Why? Because he had struck and killed an Egyptian taskmaster who was beating an Israelite slave. He saw that kind of abuse of power to be wrong. He stopped it. He stepped in where perhaps very uncomfortable for him. He got out of his comfort zone as being a Prince in Pharaoh’s palace and stood up for someone who was being victimized. He then finds himself in the desert and he’s taken in and he is now become a shepherd. And yet when one of his flock goes off, Moses goes looking for that, you know, for that animal and brings it back.

The caretaker, the need to be caring and compassionate, to bring people back into the community. We need to do that with people who are victims, we need to make sure that they have safe spaces within our community. They need to know that we’re there for them.

And yet Moses, again, feeling perhaps out of his depth, certainly as he argued with God saying, God, why do you want me to be your spokesperson? I’m slow of tongue, right? He had all the excuses in the world. Why would I go back? And yet God said, you have to go back. You have to go to free the people. And yet there’s a tremendous responsibility there. Well, we do need to be like Moses. We have to get out of our comfort zones. We need to be outspoken. We need to talk about these issues.

I remember many years ago I had come see my parents. My grandparents were there and we were sitting at the table having lunch. It was a Sunday afternoon. My grandfather looked at me and goes, “So what did you talk about this Shabbeth?” And I probably pulled out a story about child abuse out of Genesis. And he looks at me, puts his hands in his head and he goes, “Oy vey! Diana, talk about Yiddishkeit, talk about nice things, pleasant things”.

And I said, “But Grandpa, I am! I’m talking about the dignity of all people, I’m talking about the dignity of children and our responsibility, this incredible sacred responsibility that we have to protect them. If that’s not Yiddishkeit, I don’t know what it is”.

So I think that’s the message. We have to force ourselves into those uncomfortable spaces sometimes not just for ourselves, but for our community. I mean, you should see the people starting to, you know, to kind of get uncomfortable in their chairs when you get talking about certain things, but that’s what changed starts, you know, getting out of that comfort zone and really trying to see the world through perhaps a different lens.

Neil Fairbrother

A fundamental part of the Jewish teaching is that all holiness requires safeguarding or guardianship and this guardianship is known as Shmirah. Based on everything that we’ve discussed so far, do you think the Jewish faith as an institution is doing enough to safeguard children, especially in the online context?

Rabbi Diana Gerson

Wow. I think that’s a really great question Neil and I have to tell you, it is a really complicated answer because I think, well, when you look at certain States and certain denominations, they’re really well organized. The Jewish community is not so well organized. There is no necessarily overseeing body that has supreme power over everybody else to dictate change.

And so the Jewish community is kind of a steeple by steeple, school by school, synagogue by synagogue, temple by temple challenge. And so we can go to our respective denominational bodies and we can say, we need to have policies and we need to do things and we need to change the way we’re doing business. And they’ll look at you and they say, that’s great, Diana, but we don’t really have that power and authority to go to each congregation, to start to make changes.

Now they’ve made certain changes along the lines of youth group activities and camping. So any denomination that oversees day campers, sleepaway camp, anyone that’s overseeing regional youth groups that, they’re pretty good about those things. They all have policies and procedures in place, but when it comes to the individual congregation, that’s where somebody like me really spends a lot of my time talking to Rabbis and talking to educators and saying, you know what? We really need to try and raise some awareness in the community. And so often I get invited into perhaps to come and speak for Shabbat or to come and do a scholar in residence, or perhaps the Jewish family services. And the community says, you know, what, can you come and speak to and do a training for our for our Rabbinic Council.

And that’s really where I gain a lot of traction because once they realize that how big the issue is they go, Oh, it’s like they’ve been asleep at the wheel or something. And they then say, can you come to now to the congregation? Can you now help us to, you know, develop policies? What can we do?

The only other time I get called in is usually because there’s been an incident. And when I say an incident, I don’t mean that there’s necessarily has been an accusation or a case of child abuse, but the incident can sometimes be something as simple as the liability insurance for a congregation, which is something that is changing throughout the United States, right now, the insurance company is now requiring them to have child protection policies in place. And they’re requiring them to be doing training, to think about their facilities, what, you know, the access to the internet, things of that nature.

So all of a sudden it becomes a new way of examining this and an opportunity. The congregation usually calls me up, right when the insurance is about to say, we’re pulling the insurance and they go and like, no, no, no, Diana’s coming to do a training. And that makes things change because all of a sudden they’re sitting there and they’re like, Oh, Oh, we didn’t realize how bad this was. We didn’t realize that we had a responsibility here. We didn’t realize that this was, you know, that’s something that potentially could be happening in our own facility.

You know there was a case a number of years ago, a Jewish community centre had a day camp and there was a staff member and he was taking video and photos children while they were changing after swim. And he was selling those videos to a website, I think it was based somewhere in Eastern Europe. Parents had, you know, considered the guy to be a little off. And they had gone to the, you know, to the, to the administration, they said, you know what, this guy, I don’t know, there’s something not right. You know, the kids are saying, something’s not right.

And they said, Oh, well, he’s been an exemplary employee. He hasn’t done anything wrong. No one’s really made a formal complaint. Well, they brought him back for a second summer and it seemed to be smooth sailing until the FBI showed up because they had found that he had his entire, you know, drive full off CSAM, child sexual abuse material. And they were able to trace all of it. And that meant that there was a real reckoning in the community saying, you know what? We have to do better. We have to do something because we really need to change the way we even think about this.

There’s often this assumption that is happening somewhere over there, you know, the infamous “not in my backyard”, but no community is really safe. This is a crime that happens across borders, across communities. And we see with the uptick right now during COVID of images uploaded, but also viewership.

You know, it’s not like that people are just, you know, looking in one part of the world or another, this is a global problem. And we need to think about this in much broader terms. So the Jewish community is slowly, slowly making strides in this area. Is there room for improvement? Of course, every community has room for improvement. And I think all of our faiths are really, you know, are trying to wrap their arms around us in a way that’s meaningful. It’s just not a very fast process. And I wish it were, but human change has never been fast.

Neil Fairbrother

Well, that’s for sure. Diana, we’re rapidly running out of time if we’re not already over time. So one last question, if I may. There are, I believe 613 Commandments in the Jewish Bible, 365 of which are don’ts and 248 are dos. Just to make a long list a little bit longer, what extra do and what extra don’t would you add in the context of safeguarding children online?

Rabbi Diana Gerson

Well, I’m going to start with the dos. I try to be as positive as I can be. I think that we need to really be thinking about our password protections and our parental controls. I think that we have to consider our surroundings, especially to clergy that are hosting. A lot of services now have gone online. People are, you know, they’re like, Oh, we’re on Facebook live or Instagram live, or we’re live streaming live, or from our synagogue website. And they’re celebrating moments with children and they’re giving far too much information about children online. They’re telling you, this is, you know, this is Johnny and he lives here. His favourite basketball player is this… why are you giving every perpetrator on the planet all this information about a child? Let’s try and make sure that we are protecting children’s identity and let’s consider the surroundings when we’re, you know, when we’re online and any kind of video circumstance, especially.

But even parents are posting pictures online of their children. There’s no reason to give away your child’s identity. They didn’t consent to that. They’re not old enough to consent. So we need to be more mindful. We need to be making sure that our devices, our systems are up to date. We need to have safe modes. We have to make sure we’re doing things with location IDs. We need to really be making sure that we’re looking at all the open windows in our virtual worlds. We want to make sure that when we go online, we’re on secure websites. We need to make sure that our children are not online without us. It’s really, really important. And we need to make sure that we are being mindful of who our children are talking to. Not just when they’re in school, but also when they’re gaming and they’re doing things of that nature because there is a whole online, conversational community happening there. And it’s not just Snapchat and it’s not just Facebook and it’s not just Instagram.

So we need to really be looking at all the different activities that our children are doing, know who they’re talking to and set some limits.

But I also think it’s important to make sure that we’re having fun. So we want to make sure the children are going online to stay connected to their friends, especially in a time of COVID-19. We need to make sure that, you know, the activities that our children are doing online are ones that are mentally stimulating, that are making them think, perhaps things that are creative in nature. And I want people to think about things that we can do, learning about the different, you know, the different organizations out there, what makes our children interested about how we can help our communities. And we want to make sure that we make sure the kids are thinking in creative ways, how they’re spending their time, understanding their responsibilities as they grow up.

And the one thing I don’t want people to do, I’ll only give you one don’t; don’t assume. Don’t assume that your child is always following your rules. Don’t assume that they know everybody’s identity. Children are really, really good at kind of recognizing somebody in person that may not be a good person. They kind of get that “oh oh” feeling, or the hair stands up on the back of their neck. Well, when they meet somebody online, all those natural defences, all those natural ways that they can interpret somebody’s body language and spoken word, those disappear. So don’t assume that a child really knows the identity of people. And don’t assume that it’s not going to happen in your community. Be mindful, be present, be paying attention to what our kids are doing. And, you know, we may not be able to be every child’s parent, but we can be their protector. We can be their guardian. There is great opportunity out there to have a generation of children who grow up in a digital world, safe and whole.

Neil Fairbrother

Rabbi Diana Gerson we’re going to have to wrap it up there. Thank you so much for your time. It’s been absolutely fantastic discussion. Very interesting, indeed. And I wish you all the very best for the future.


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