Rabbi Yakov Horowitz is on a mission: Keep all Jewish children safe. Over the past quarter-century, the 62-year-old native of Monsey has tirelessly devoted his work life to this calling, a challenge he knows from up close.
In 1982, he began teaching Gemara to eighth graders at a yeshiva in Brooklyn, while also volunteering to work with boys who were struggling in their studies. Fifteen years later, he opened Yeshiva Darchei Noam, a boys’ elementary school in Monsey, where he served as dean for 20 years. “I taught these kids for 15 years and my frustration was that so many of them were getting fed up with school and religion and life and dropping out—something I felt was often avoidable,” Horowitz said.
That year, he started making his case to the wider Jewish community, beginning with a 4,500-word essay, “An Ounce of Prevention: Reaching Today’s Underachievers Before They Become Tomorrow’s Dropout Teens,” in the Jewish Observer, a charedi monthly published by Agudath Israel of America. “My quiet life ended the moment the issue hit the stands,” he recalled: “I got hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of calls and letters. Five percent of the people said that I’m a messiah; 5% said I’m Amalek or whatever, that I’m knocking the schools; and most of the people just called begging for help. Aside from Ohel Children’s Home and Family Services, there were very few agencies at the time.”
The article had hit a communal nerve: Horowitz was invited by Agudath Israel of America to help launch Project Y.E.S. (Youth Educational Services) as a way to reach and support at-risk teens and their parents. Through the organization’s mentoring program, Horowitz began to learn that a considerable percentage of teens had been abused as children.
He wrote several pieces for the Jewish media, describing what he was encountering, and in 2008, Horowitz turned up the volume, raising the subject of sexual abuse in “The Monster Inside,” a candid three-part series for Mishpacha Magazine.
Horowitz set out not only to understand the issue of sexual abuse but to find a way to keep kids safe. “How do you stop this? It was almost a sense of hopelessness: How can you protect little kids if a 200-lb. abuser wants to start up with them?” he said. “I’m not a therapist. I went around and talked to anyone I could. I studied at the feet of the experts—secular, Jewish, I didn’t care.”
In response, Project Y.E.S. created the Karasick Child Safety Initiative with the generosity of the organization’s vice chairman, Mark Karasick, and his wife, Linda. To date, the initiative has conducted child safety classes in more than 100 communities worldwide. Horowitz has presented at dozens of rabbinic and educational conferences around the world, across the widest spectrum of Orthodox Jewry.
In 2011, the Karasick Child Safety Initiative commissioned author Bracha Goetz and illustrator Tova Leff to create the children’s book “Let’s Stay Safe!” published by Mesorah Publications’ ArtScroll Youth Series. Through rhyme and colorful illustrations, the book describes various dangers that children and families can learn to discuss and address, including “stranger danger,” without frightening young readers.
“We were getting communications from parents two weeks after the book came out, saying that their children came forward and spoke about abuse that had already happened,” Horowitz said. “People were telling me that it stopped the children from being abused, that it literally saved their children’s lives.”
Since then, Horowitz has been working to get a copy of the book into the hands of every Jewish couple with young children and every Jewish early childhood classroom in the U.S. and Israel. He’s up to around 120,000 distributed copies, published in English, Yiddish and Hebrew, and tailored to meet the cultural needs of the chasidish, charedi and Dati Leumi communities.
In addition to selling the books in Judaica stores and online, and offering bulk purchases at a discounted rate, the Karasick Child Safety Initiative has been approached by generous donors. Frank Storch was an early supporter who purchased several hundred copies to donate to Baltimore-area Jewish day schools via his nonprofit organization, Project Ezra of Greater Baltimore. Storch and Horowitz have been friends for many decades. “Rabbi Horowitz is an inspiration to the world because of his caring for kids,” Storch said. “He has a big responsibility on his shoulders, since he was one of the first people who dealt with these issues. The book reinforces everything that he says all the time about trying to be careful.”
Just this year, Stamford residents Michael and Sharon Feldstein, longtime Project Y.E.S. supporters, made a similar donation of “Let’s Stay Safe!”
“When Sharon and I wanted to make a contribution to Bi-Cultural Hebrew Academy of Connecticut, our local day school, we could have sent a check—and the money certainly would have been used for good purposes,” Michael, a Jewish Link columnist, said. “However, we thought a tangible and physical item that directly went into the hands of students at the school would be a more appropriate gift. That’s why we used our donation dollars to purchase hundreds of copies of Rabbi Horowitz’s book. We hope it will have a lasting impact on the young students at the school, as well as their parents and siblings.”
Michael first shared the book with Rachel Haron, associate director of the BCHA Lower School. “I loved it because it really hits the nail on the head regarding the issues that children and families grapple with regularly,” Haron said. “The verbiage is student-centered and the illustrations are carefully selected.”
Haron distributed copies to the lower school teachers, who read and discussed the book with their students. When the Feldsteins offered to provide a copy for each BCHA Lower School family, Haron was thrilled that these crucial discussions would now extend beyond the classroom and into homes. BCHA presented the book as a gift on the last day of Chanukah, along with a letter from Haron on the importance of relaying critical lessons about potential dangers without causing undue fear or trepidation.
“We have heard from many families about how beautiful a book it is, especially effective in a busy, digitized world,” Haron said. “It’s also written through the Judaic lens, emphasizing love of Hashem.”
Horowitz continues to pursue his passion for keeping kids safe as a speaker in the U.S. and as director of the website Bright Beginnings, home to the Karasick Child Safety Initiative and constructive parenting videos and resources. He has told Michael that he won’t rest until he reaches every Jewish home with young children.
“Rabbi Horowitz is such a mensch,” said Storch. “He spends all his time and effort to protect children and he inspires us to keep doing more and more for the community.”
Rabbi Horowitz can be reached at [email protected]. “Let’s Stay Safe!” can be purchased through the website, on Amazon or from other book sellers.
By Cynthia Mindell