As Jews living in the 21st century, we are well aware of the importance of physical safety. Alarm systems, locks, security guards and emergency drills are becoming increasingly necessary. In addition to taking reasonable precautions to ensure the physical safety of our Jewish youth, we have a responsibility to tend to their emotional safety as well.
Creating safe space for youth takes the full participation of parents, schools and community organizations. Safe space ensures that all youth can be authentic and honest — where their beliefs, values, ideas and expression are honored.
Create a Values Statement
Whether you are a parent, teacher or community leader, consider creating a written declaration of values. A values statements can be as simple as, “In our family, we treat all people with respect and kindness.”
An organization or classroom values statement could read, “We serve every youth who walks through these doors. We are committed to valuing each young person, irrespective of gender, race/ethnicity, sexual orientation, identity or expression, abilities or background.”
A values statement can draw on Jewish values that reflect your intent to put belief into action.
According to Rabbi Sidney Schwarz, Founder and President of PANIM: The Institute for Jewish Leadership and Values, “Judaism has some wisdom that is in short supply, both in the world as well as in America. Increasing numbers of Jews are coming to see that within Jewish texts, there are truths and insights that are badly needed in the world.”
Have zero tolerance for harassment and bullying
Harassment is never okay! It is vital for adults to step in and stop it immediately. Remember that harassment and bullying take many forms and hurt the person who is attacked, the witnesses to the abuse, and the perpetrator.
Harassment and bullying can happen to — and be perpetrated by — the youth we work with and love. Whether our children are the ones being bullied or the ones doing the bullying, we must make it clear that this behavior will never be tolerated.
By identifying the harassment using clear, comprehensible language the perpetrator will recognize you are aware of the harassment and you are not afraid to point it out directly.
Being clear about the consequences of this type of behavior lets the youth know there are repercussions and reinforces your values statement.
By identifying the harassment publicly, you let others in the vicinity know of your zero-tolerance policy while supporting your statement of values.
Appropriate language role modeling
An important component in creating safe space for youth is to be cognizant of the language we use at home and in the community. Words are powerful and convey attitudes that can have a positive or negative impact. The language we use in front of our children can determine their perception of an individual, group or culture.
Children and adolescents look to adults in their life for direction. Children emulate adult behavior and assume the information they receive is accurate. According to the publication “Diversity in Diction: Equality in Action,” a guide to using appropriate language, “if we are truly to demonstrate respect, understanding and fairness, tackle discrimination and exclusion, we need to ensure that the language we use is consistent with those intentions.”
As role models we must be vigilant in using appropriate language. Children absorb every word and non-verbal action. We should ensure that our tone of voice, demeanor and body language convey the same message of inclusiveness and properly reflects our values.
Being aware of our language, both personally and professionally, does not mean we should expect to change our patterns overnight. It means we are aware, and we are taking steps to improve appropriateness.
Try using gender-neutral terms such as police officer and firefighter. Emphasize a person first and a disability second and avoid using terms such as confined to, victim of, or afflicted with. These small changes in language can make a huge difference.
Role models such as teachers, parents, clergy and community leaders have a responsibility to do regular self-assessments to recognize our own attitudes and biases. Once we are aware of our own gaps in knowledge or experience, we can take advantage of opportunities for improvement. If the terms “transgender” or “gender queer,” for example, are unfamiliar, you may choose to consult a local GLBTQ resource. If you are unsure of how to appropriately refer to a particular ethnic group or what the various movements in Judaism believe, you may consider enrolling in a class, attending a lecture, or engaging in independent study.
Creating safe space for our Jewish youth is one of the first steps we can take as a community in the path to tikkun olam — repairing the world. Loving, caring for, and supporting our youth by honoring their feelings, beliefs and expression will help determine the course they take in life and how they treat others along the way.
For more information on steps to stop harassment or attending a cultural competency class contact Tammy Kaiser, director of the Jewish Education Council’s Adult Jewish Learning program, at firstname.lastname@example.org