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What they do, not who did it

Important take-aways from the sex-abuse charges against ZAKA co-founder, Yehuda Meshi-Zakav
Yehuda Meshi Zahav, head of Israel's Zaka rescue unit, at the scene of a suicide bombing. (Flash90/File)
Yehuda Meshi Zahav, head of Israel's Zaka rescue unit, at the scene of a suicide bombing. (Flash90/File)

Imagine entering a nearly deserted synagogue one morning and seeing a fellow taking a number of dollar bills from the charity box. Would you suspect that he was stealing charity funds? Well, it depends. If the person is attractive, well-dressed, and “your type,” you will probably assume that he had put a large-denomination bill in the box and was merely taking change. However, if it was an unsavory character, you would be quite certain that he was helping himself to some of the charity funds.

The logic that drove your thinking was coined “The Halo Effect” by Edward Thorndike, former president of the American Psychological Association, in an article published in 1920, where he described it as, “A generalization from the perception of one outstanding personality trait to an overly favorable evaluation of the whole personality.”

He based his findings on a study conducted on two commanding officers who were asked to evaluate their solders in terms of physical qualities (such as neatness and bearing), intellect, leadership skills, and personal qualities (including responsibility, selflessness, and cooperation). He discovered that once a soldier was given a high rating in his physical qualities, he was far more likely to be given better grades in all other categories.

This phenomenon extends itself to all facets of our lives including classroom grades, brand acquisition, and courtrooms, where studies have consistently shown that attractive people are given far shorter prison terms than their unsightly brothers and sisters.

It is extraordinarily important that we reflect on the raw power The Halo Effect has on our minds in light of the stunning news about the accusations of sex abuse against Yehuda Meshi-Zahav, co-founder of ZAKA and winner of the Israel Prize (which he has just returned). Of course, Meshi-Zahav, who has denied the charges, is innocent until proven guilty, and deserves his day in court to defend himself.

In the meantime, the take-away messages for parents and community leaders is that:

  • Anyone can be an abuser. Anyone.
  • When evaluating questionable behavior that may seem to be grooming or abusive, ignore who did it and focus only on what was done. Worded differently, think, “It; Not Who.”
  • Please educate yourself about child safety education and then educate your children, grandchildren and students.

Here is a free, 9-minute child safety video with Hebrew subtitles that will give you the tools and language to have effective, research-based child safety discussions with them.

About the Author
Rabbi Yakov Horowitz, Founding Dean of Yeshiva Darchei Noam of Monsey and Director of The Center for Jewish Family Life/Project YES, is a innovative educator, author, and child safety advocate. He published child safety books that are in 80,000 homes in three languages as well as beginner Gemara/Talmud & Chumash/Bible workbooks. Rabbi Horowitz conducts child abuse prevention and parenting workshops in Jewish communities around the world and received the prestigious 2008 Covenant Award in recognition of his contribution to Jewish education.
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