September 22, 2018

Rochel Leah Bernstein: Protecting Children From Sexual Abuse

Rochel Leah Bernstein is on a mission to protect children from sexual abuse at schools, congregations, camps and after-school programs.

With the support of the Jewish community business incubator Jumpstart Labs, Bernstein has launched The Child Safety Pledge, which seeks to have funders of youth-serving organizations require those organizations to take measures to prevent and respond to child sexual abuse within their operations and programs.

“I am urging funders, philanthropists in the Jewish community and the community at large to step up,” the 33-year-old Bernstein said. “There’s so much money spent in the Jewish world on Jewish education, and Jewish education is not enough without child safety. So, to me, anyone who funds Jewish education is someone who should be — if they are not already — funding child safety.”

The Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation is one of four founding signatories to the pledge.

Bernstein, a survivor of sexual abuse, said that Erin’s Law — legislation first adopted by Illinois in 2013 and then by 30 other states, including California, after a campaign by sexual assault survivor Erin Merryn — provided her the inspiration for the pledge. In addition to her personal experience, she also was guided by the philanthropic example set by her parents. Her late father, Zalman Bernstein, was a billionaire businessman who endowed the Avi Chai Foundation, which functions in Israel and the United States, and the New York-based Tikvah Fund, and gave hundreds of millions of dollars to Israeli causes and other charities. Her stay-at-home mother volunteered to aid the sick and the disabled.

“At home I saw, on a small scale and on a large scale, a dedication to the community,” she said.

Bernstein, who is divorced, has three daughters — ages 4, 6 and 10 — and an 8-year-old son. She is raising them shomer Shabbos and in a kosher household, though she does not subscribe to any denomination. Although she was raised observant — “frum from birth,” she said — she has gone through many phases in her spiritual journey.

“I try very hard not to be labeled,” she said. “It’s not my thing.”

Bernstein also volunteers at Tomchei Shabbos, an organization that provides free groceries to low-income families. At Tomchei Shabbos, she has started an event that invites children to wrap gifts and make cards for children in need.

“Anyone who funds Jewish education is someone who should be … funding child safety.”

“I try to make my home and my family an environment where my kids are learning about giving,” she said.

For several years, Bernstein funded and helped implement healthy eating and nutrition programs at her children’s Orthodox day school.

“I don’t know about Reform and Conservative schools,” she said, “but Orthodox ones have issues with nutrition.”

She is confident her work can make a difference in the community.

“At the end of the day, unfortunately, I don’t know that we are able to — by ‘we’ I mean society — eradicate child sexual abuse,” she said. “But I believe if we make our institutions unsafe for predators, they won’t come to our institutions.”