Danielle Sara Pitkoff is passionate about her work, her studies, her Judaism and in “making a difference” in the world. Pitkoff who is 24 years old, is the program coordinator at Sacred Spaces, a non-profit that builds healthy Jewish communities by partnering with Jewish institutions to prevent and respond to sexual abuse and other abuses of power. A core member of the organization’s consulting team, she is coordinating “Aleinu: Safeguarding Our Children,” an initiative funded by UJA Federation of New York, which will give youth-serving organizations the tools to implement child protection policies and best practices. She also works on policy development and program assessment.
Pitkoff, who lives in Manhattan, grew up in Pound Ridge, New York, attended the Bi-Cultural Hebrew Academy in Stamford, Connecticut, and SAR High School in Riverdale. Before matriculating at Johns Hopkins University, she attended Midreshet Ein Hanatziv in Israel.
After arriving at Johns Hopkins University in 2014, Pitkoff started to volunteer at the university’s crisis intervention hotline for victims of sexual assault. She was soon working shifts on the hotline on her own and by her senior year, she was the co-director of Johns Hopkin’s Sexual Assault Resource Unit (SARU), where she was on call for all of her peers. In her role as co-director , she trained staff and student organizations, led campaigns for policy reform, developed workshops for survivor healing and support and partnered with government agencies to improve access to and quality of resources for victims.
Pitkoff explained, “Sexual assault, harassment and abuse affect so, so many individuals and, upon realizing the high prevalence of these issues on college campuses in particular, I felt deeply compelled to help address them.”
The Hopkins’ hotline is a peer-to-peer crisis intervention resource which requires careful training. Pitkoff explained the importance of training volunteers in empathetic listening, crisis response, and resource referral. By her senior year, Pitkoff was accompanying survivors to the hospital and remaining with them throughout the university investigations.
Pitkoff shared her thoughts,“I try to honor the voices and experiences of survivors in all of my work, because I firmly believe that doing so is the only way to create lasting culture change and effectively prevent continued abuse.”
Pitkoff noted, “Both of my parents have given so much of their time, both professionally and voluntarily, to their Jewish communities, modeling for my siblings and me real leadership and dedication. I am grateful to them for framing my upbringing in Jewish values that emphasize treating others with kindness and sensitivity. I was fortunate to have teachers, counselors and mentors who inspired in me a strong foundation in Judaism and community. Just as they impacted me, I feel a responsibility to give back to my community, to create spaces for others to safely question and challenge norms and to offer and receive support.”
Pitkoff was a women, gender and sexuality research fellow while at Hopkins, and her work with survivors became her calling. She explained, “My work with Sacred Spaces is an opportunity to take the training and experience that I gained in college and apply it to the communities that I am most intimately familiar with. Our work is guided by the unique needs of Jewish institutions, and we view the building of safe and sacred community spaces as a moral Jewish imperative. It is at the core of what it means to really live our Jewish values.”
Pitkoff cites Dr. Shira Berkovits, founder and CEO of Sacred Spaces, as a significant mentor. Pitkoff elaborated on the importance of Sacred Spaces working within organizations in developing a proper organizational policy on prevention and responsible protocols. “Often, organizations and their leadership want to do the right thing but do not have the tools, knowledge, or resources necessary to properly protect their constituents from abuse or respond appropriately when abuse occurs. It can be hard for organizational leaders and constituents to recognize that their community faces the same unique risks as all faith-based institutions. It is also difficult to reconcile that someone they know and love, and who may have otherwise made great contributions to their community, could also be able to perpetrate harm.”
Sacred Spaces offers “Case Consults” where individual organizations are guided in responding, in a holistic manner, to the cases that they are dealing with. Consults include explaining the relevant legal and mandated reporting requirements, demonstrating how to support survivors and their families, how to communicate about the processes with the wider community, how to establish policies for preventing future incidents, and how to create opportunities for institutional healing.
“Aleinu: Safeguarding Our Children,” is a groundbreaking educational campaign that provides Jewish youth-serving organizations with the much-needed tools and resources to guide them in implementing 10 best practices in child protection. Explained Pitkoff, “Aleinu means ‘it’s on us’ or, ‘it is our duty.’ We believe that it is our collective responsibility, as a Jewish community, to protect the children in our care from abuse or harm.”
The campaign is meant to standardize child protection in our Jewish organizations by asking each participating institution to commit to implementing at least two best practices each year for five years. Upon committing to incorporate a best practice step, institutions will receive tools in the form of how-to guides, worksheets, video tutorials and sample policy language to assist them in their implementation.
Through all the efforts to reform policy and advocate for survivors, Pitkoff emphasized that it is critical to show compassion to ourselves and each other. We have to have ways of showing publicly, “I am here with you, I see you. You are not alone.”
For information or support, please call the National Sexual Assault hotline operated by RAINN at 800.656.HOPE.
By Yvette Finkelstein