There was one big difference between this year’s event and last year’s, however.
“I felt that people who came this year knew what they were coming to,” Magenu Director and Co-Founder Shani Verschleiser said. “They were coming because they were supporting our cause, which is a great thing.”
Verschleiser is referring to Magenu’s goal of teaching Jewish youth about sexual abuse. While last year, at her first Safety Day, she kept that portion of the program somewhat subdued, this year Verschleiser said she felt more “empowered” to make discussions of children’s safety a major focal point for the day.
That confidence has come from a year’s worth of high success for Magenu, which Verschleiser founded about three years ago with her husband.
Since its inception, Magenu has trained dozens of Hebrew schools and Yeshivas throughout the country on how to address sexual abuse by providing in-service training to the parents, staff and student body with a full educational program and curriculum.
In 2015, Magenu expects to implement this same curriculum in 250 schools. In the last year, Verschleiser has received calls from countries across the world — Australia, England, Israel — asking for her to introduce Magenu’s program to their schools.
She began the program three years ago, after she and her husband had been volunteering their time with another organization, Our Place, for over ten years. Our Place is an organization that helps Jewish teens at risk for drug abuse and substance abuse, and provides them with a safe place to get the help they need.
“I was talking to these kids for years and years and it’s very painful, very difficult,” Verschleiser said. “And about three years ago I was talking to my husband and saying that we have to go backwards if we want to help. We have to stop these kids from ever getting to this point.”
From her discussions with teens, she knew that sexual abuse was a common thread in many of their stories. That was why she co-founded Magenu, which teaches young children about their bodies, how to stay safe, how to say no in inappropriate situations and how to tell someone if something does happen to them.
“Education is the goal, is the key to protecting children. Not just to say no but to tell,” Verschleiser said.
“Telling is the most important aspect, because this happens with fathers, uncles, brother, cousins and it can be very hard to say no to somebody like that,” she added. “But even if they get abused, even if they can’t say no, it still wasn’t their fault no matter what. And if they can tell, then they’ve done the right thing.”
This was the goal for the second annual Safety Day, which was attended by representatives from the NYPD, FDNY and EMS; Hatzolah, an EMS service that caters mostly to Jewish neighborhoods; Jewish neighborhood watch groups; local politicians; and educators and rabbis.
In addition to educating children, Magenu teaches parents about how to talk to their children. Parents were given educational pamphlets on Sunday.
For Verschleiser, the importance of Magenu comes from the fact that many people have questions about abuse but have no one to talk to, particularly in the Jewish community, as she explained, because “many things are considered immodest.”
She felt that Safety Day was a great success for the nearly 5,000 people who attended, including members from the Hasidic community, who did not attend the event last year.
“I want people to understand that the Jewish community, we’re not just sitting back and ignoring this,” she said. “There’s been a lot of backlash about abuse in the Jewish community with a lot of high-profile cases.
“I want people to understand that we really are taking on this topic as something to be dealt with, and we have so many people in the community who are doing this with us and supporting us,” she added.
Now, Magenu will focus on making the program easily adoptable for schools and communities across the world. In Verschleiser’s mind, the end goal is to have Magenu be a program in all public schools, not just in the Jewish community.
“Really, the truth is, all kids from all walks of life should be in the same boat and get this education,” she said. “There’s no reason not to include it in all schools.”