If Not Now When — Responding to the Tragedy in Virginia Beach

In the wake of a tragedy such as the drowning of Rabbi Reuven Bauman in Virginia Beach, we must provide solace and comfort to the family that is hurting. The family should not be asked to account for why the tragedy occurred, nor should they be expected to shoulder the responsibility of the communal failure. We should come together and help his family financially. However, as a community, the time to ask “why” is while these events are fresh in our minds. How can we change our communal approach to avoid these tragedies in the future? The responsibility sits on all of us to change our ways in response to save future lives.

Initial news reports indicated that a group leader had been warned by a witness to not go swimming and that the boy who needed rescue was reportedly on a boogie board. Facebook comments dispute this narrative and call it a hike gone wrong, an unavoidable accident. Whichever set of facts are correct, something went terribly wrong in Virginia Beach that day to cause a father to not come home and send a child to the hospital.

What is incontrovertible is that safety requirements at the Wildlife Refuge require permits for groups over 10 and do not allow swimming, precisely to avoid accidents like what happened. Swimming beaches nearby had red flags posted that day, but of course, no physical red flags were placed on beaches where swimming was already prohibited.

Rabbi Gershon Litt, a local rabbi, in a now viral Facebook video, tried to address the conflicting narratives. He acknowledges that there were 20 children as young as 10 at the beach, many wading in the water with no lifeguard. Rabbi Litt reports that only one of two chaperones could swim well, and he was dressed in his full yeshiva suit, certainly inappropriate for a hike or day at the beach. It is certainly heroic that Rabbi Bauman risked his life to save another, but we should honor his sacrifice by figuring out how to prevent such tragedies in the future.

As for responsibility, Rabbi Litt dismissed the news coverage as “fake news”. In my opinion, the term “fake news” is a cavalier and offensive dismissal of serious questions raised about the safety of the trip by the media. Rabbi Litt then declared he was going to “Change the Story”, and proceeded to make a narrative about the wonders of the Jewish community. He took the time to recount the miracle of a rescuer who appeared out of nowhere and used a board to save the boy (was that the boogie board mentioned initially?)  Rabbi Litt acknowledged there were warning signs to not swim, but said nobody reads those anyways. This excuse that “nobody reads signs” would be weak for a family outing, but in my opinion is inexcusable for a summer camp taking children on an official camp trip.

All of these questions demand answers so we don’t repeat this tragedy in hundreds of other camps! But all we are hearing is Mi K’Acmcho Goy Ba’Aretz, with stories about how crews from up north came down to search the beach. We hear how beautiful it was that so many people took to boats and planes to find the body. We marvel at the grief counselors that came in to help the children and family to recover. But we can’t ask how to avoid it in the future because “now is not the time”. If not now, when?

If now is not the time to ask “why”, it is most certainly not the time to pat ourselves on the back for a job well done!

This year we have seen numerous major institutions in the news for failure to protect children. The revelation of sexual abuse at many prominent day schools has challenged our community’s idea of safety. In response, the organization of Jewish Day Schools, Prizmah, invited George Couros to speak at their annual conference. His message? “We need to make the positive so loud that the negative becomes almost impossible to hear” Certainly, our community is doing just that when we praise the response to the tragedy, and refer to any implication something was done wrong as “fake news”.

I vehemently disagree with George Couros and with Rabbi Litt. The “negative” is communal failure and we can’t cover it up with grief counselors and search-and-rescue teams. It is 2019, but imagine if we did communal introspection after a child was killed in 2007 at a day camp in Monsey (in that case, the child was blamed for the camp’s negligence). Or in 2016 after 34 Orthodox Jewish teens from Stamford Hill had to be rescued from a hike along the coast. The story repeats, with similar stories of kids being stranded on mountains, from teens at Gateshead Talmudical College to girls from Beth Jacob in Hackney. Many times the same failures as Virginia Beach are mentioned – inexperienced chaperones and unsafe clothing for a day outside. The chaperones are often not to blame, but nobody asks, “Who sent them on these trips with no guidance and no training?”

To go further, is the suicide of an LGBTQ teen on a B’nai Akiva trip an opportunity to ask whether or not the B’nai Akiva movement is doing enough to promote diversity and tolerance? Are abuse allegations at SAR Academy, YUHS, Englewood’s Ahavath Torah an opportunity to question if we have proper child safety policies in our day schools? Why is Facebook full of commentators praising their favorite institutions, instead of demanding answers?

In the Torah, we have a law for how to handle it when a body of a wanderer is found and we cannot identify the murderer. It is called the eglah arufah, a ceremony where the elders of the town must declare that their hands didn’t shed the blood. As nobody accused the elders of murder, why is it their responsibility to say such a thing?

The Gemara states that the leaders are responsible since they failed to provide for the wanderer (Sotah 38b). Nechama Lebowitz explains, “We see then that responsibility for an evil act does not fall only on the perpetrator and not just on the abettor. The crime does not only involve cooperation, but also negligence, omission, and inattention.”

It is this communal negligence we must examine in the wake of a tragedy. We should certainly come together after tragedy, but we must not pat ourselves on the back for our unity and share stories of miracles. We should never dismiss those who question our negligence as spreading “fake news”.

Take concrete action today! Call the director of the camp where you send your child and ask them for a copy of their camp safety policy. How do they handle chaperones for group trips? How do they prevent grooming by possible abusers? Do they have an anti-bullying policy? Do they follow safety guidelines on outings and in the pool? It’s all about best practices to keep our kids safe, and we fail as parents if we don’t ask. Ask these questions now before you forget and we are here again next summer with another tragedy.

Note: You can help the family of Rabbi Reuven Bauman here.

About the Author
Joel Avrunin is a leader in building technical sales teams, with a passion for technology, teambuilding, coaching, and helping people develop their careers. Experiencing the heartache of being a father to a victim of clergy child sex abuse has motivated him to be a vocal proponent of robust child safety and anti-grooming policies in our schools, houses of worship, and summer camps. He lives in Atlanta, Georgia with his wife and children, where he enjoys long runs down the Atlanta Beltline and hikes in the North Georgia mountains with his family.
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