Bracha Goetz reads from one of her recent books to her two grandchildren. (photo from Bracha Goetz)
Many of us were raised to not talk to and be wary of strangers, but the sad fact is that kids are much more likely to be taken advantage of or abused by someone they know and think they can trust. This reality was the driving force behind Bracha Goetz’s book Let’s Stay Safe, which was published in English in 2011, and just came out in Yiddish this summer, as Zai Gezunt.
Born in Queens, N.Y., Goetz graduated from Harvard and started on the road to becoming a psychiatrist before heading to Israel for what was to be one summer. However, while in Israel, she become observant, and ended up staying. There, she did a further 11 years of study, got married and had a family.
Goetz and her family have since moved to Baltimore, where she coordinates a Jewish Big Brother Big Sister (JBBBS) program. As well, she writes children’s books and, to date, has published 36 of them. “They are all spiritual children’s books,” she said. “Originally, I was just writing Jewish children’s books, but now I’m also writing spiritual children’s books for anybody.
“I always wanted to write spiritual books for everyone, but I just recently found a publisher that was interested. It’s not easy. It took a long time, but I’m very happy to do that, because, although these are Jewish concepts, they are also actually universal concepts that I’d love to share with any child.
“I try to write books that I wished I could have read as a child, to answer the spiritual questions I had as a child that weren’t answered,” she continued. “They were answered for me when I was 22, but I try to write about the deepest spiritual concepts on a simple level so any child can understand them. I also try to do it in a joyful, delightful way, so that it can go right into their soul.”
In her role at JBBBS, Goetz witnesses firsthand how sexual abuse affected children. This made her think about how she was teaching her own children about such dangers.
“I realized that I didn’t raise my children with an awareness about it,” she said. “I taught my children about ‘stranger danger,’ but, when they were little, we weren’t as aware as we are today that, with most sexual abuse, the perpetrators are known to the children; that’s how they get access. It’s rare that it’s a stranger. It’s most commonly someone the child already knows. There was no book like this in the Orthodox community and some of the books (in the general community) are not culturally relevant for Orthodox people.”
Goetz wanted to write a book that would be accepted by the Orthodox Jewish community specifically, as the subject tends to be less discussed in these communities. So, she wrote Let’s Stay Safe, but could not find a publisher. That is, not until Rabbi Yakov Horowitz, dean and founder of Yeshiva Darchei Noam in Monsey, N.Y., agreed to help and got the book accepted by ArtScroll.
“He really worked at it, and it was a really groundbreaking book,” said Goetz. “There was nothing like it out there. We wanted readers to understand that these were additional normative safety rules that needed to be adhered to by children to be safe. Of course, the book is also for parents, because, when parents read it to their children, they also gain an awareness.
“It’s not a good idea to leave the safety responsibility of children up to the children. It’s the parents’ responsibility. But, the parents also need to teach the awareness to their children and remind them about it every so often. As they come upon new circumstances, they need to review the guidelines.”
To take the book a step further, especially in Chassidic communities, Horowitz spearheaded a Yiddish version. “In certain Chassidic communities,” explained Goetz, “their mother tongue is Yiddish. We wanted to reach as many people as possible, so that they would bring this book into their homes and share it with their children. Even the pictures were altered to be more Chassidic-looking. We don’t want anything to stop the Yiddish-speaking population from getting this information.”
One of the concepts Goetz wanted to stress in the book was that children speak with a parent even if somebody touched them inappropriately a long time ago. It is important for these experiences to be told, she said, so that survivors can heal, and also so that the perpetrators cannot continue abusing children.
Another concept she wanted to convey clearly is not to trust someone just because she or he is dressed in Orthodox clothing, as that does not automatically mean they are safe people.
“There’s one picture of an older teenaged boy at a camp,” Goetz said, by way of example. “Many times, it’s a familial problem, where it’s an older brother, an uncle, a step-brother who is the perpetrator. Just this week, I was in a community different than I was usually in, but the people knew I was the author of the book … and, this happens a lot, people come to me with questions. I was outside watching my grandchildren and a mother came by and said, ‘Does this seem right? There’s a teenaged boy and he’s playing with all these little children. He’s playing ball with them. He doesn’t live in this community. And why is he here? He’s Orthodox, as well, just as the children, but he didn’t know any of them. Why was he playing with them?’ I said that’s definitely a red flag.
“This kind of awareness was not typical before the Let’s Stay Safe book was published. The incident illustrates the impact that the book has had. Now, there is a general awareness in our community, because there has been consciousness-raising on the issue of child sexual abuse.”
Books written by Goetz are appropriate for kids ages 2 and up, but are better starting at the ages of 3 or 4.
“This book is often read to 4- to 8-year-olds but, the truth is, older children love reading this book, too,” said Goetz. “And what I find so interesting is that a lot of children tell me it’s their favourite book of mine, which I never expected because it’s all about rules and guidelines. But, they love it. It gives them a sense of safety and security, and children ask for it as their bedtime story.”
Other books written by Goetz touch upon topics like eating healthily (and enjoying it), teaching children sensitivity, and teaching people how to interact more naturally with children with special needs.
Rebeca Kuropatwa is a Winnipeg freelance writer.