One doesn’t need the latest scandal out of Hollywood to know how allegations of sexual harassment and assault can leave a community reeling.
“For any self-identifying cultural community, there are difficulties admitting that there are issues in that community,” said Dr. Cortney Fisher, assistant director of the Jewish Coalition Against Domestic Abuse (JCADA). “This myth is a barrier to people wanting to reach out.”
JCADA is a social service organization that helps men, women, and teens ages 14 and over in the Greater Washington area who experience or witness domestic or dating violence. While JCADA also offers services to non-Jews, 70 percent of JCADA clients either identify as Jewish or have a partner who identifies as Jewish. They deal with not just physical and sexual violence, but emotional abuse that can come from bosses, leaders, friends, teachers, clergy members, or anyone who has any sort of position of power over the other person and can use that to take advantage.
One of the most complicated issues is reporting to the proper people when something does occur. Bystanders play a tremendous role in the prevention, as well as continued perpetration, of sexual assault. Many people find it difficult to intervene because they do not know to whom or what to report or they feel torn because they don’t want to speak negatively or draw negative attention to the community. “If people feel like their identity is marginalized in any way, they’ll be hesitant to report or seek services because of what others will say about the community,” said Dr. Fisher. “When something does occur that involves a community leader, teacher, or friend — whom you trust, respect, or look to for guidance — it can be a hard thing to deal with mentally and emotionally.”
“One in four women will unfortunately sadly face this issue in their lives and one in six men will face this issue in their lives,” said Phil Jacobs, a journalist and teacher from Baltimore. A former editor in chief of the Washington Jewish Week and executive editor of the Baltimore Jewish Times, he is currently a member of Kol HaBirah’s editorial advisory board. Jacobs himself was molested as a child, and his reporting on the issue of sexual abuse in the Jewish community for the Baltimore Jewish Times was made into the 2012 documentary film “Standing Silent.”
“I’m still troubled by people who want to change the subject and who don’t validate the words of people they love and people they know that this actually happens in people’s lives,” he said. “At the same time, I am filled with hope when I see that we are willing to have this conversation in our Jewish lives more now than ever before. Things have gotten better in terms of communication and information and validation, so that a young man doesn’t have to feel weird or awkward that he’s the only person that this has happened to or that he caused it.”
“With programs like the Shofar Coalition,” which offers prevention and healing services for childhood trauma and sexual abuse, “we are able to talk about it,” said Jacobs. “There seem to be more trained professionals in the Jewish community than ever before and they are doing really good things.”
One of the first steps to preventing sexual assault and harassment is education about the risks, warning signs, and legal ramifications of these behaviors.
When it comes to kids, “People feel that they are protecting their children by not talking about appropriate and inappropriate touch. They believe that it will put ideas in their innocent minds,” said Rivka Sidorsky, a licensed clinical social worker and certified sex therapist who works with victims of sexual assault. “Your silence does not protect your children.”
Kidslivesafe.com outlines warning signs of molestation, a term usually used to describe sexual assault of children under age 18, such as sleep disturbances, changes in toilet training, negative changes in behavior, or experiencing sudden academic or social struggles in school.
The right resources, whether they came from inside or outside the Jewish community, are also critical. JCADA is invaluable because of its sensitivity towards Jewish culture, and it offers trainings for rabbis, clergy members, school officials, or any other adults who work with children to educate them about the necessary steps for how to respond to a disclosure of sexual assault, harassment, or molestation. While JCADA has not been able to bring their trainings to all Greater Washington-area communities — due to pushback — they have met with community rebbetzins and lay leaders to talk about these issues.
“The community leaders need to accept that it happens, that they don’t have the power to control and fix this, and that they know where to turn,” said Dr. Fisher. Being educated and knowing what to do can take some pressure off of those who are expected to know everything. “You don’t have to be the judge and jury; you don’t have to be the savior. All you have to do is get someone to resources,” she said.
Kira Doar, program manager of AWARE®, JCADA’s teen dating violence prevention initiative, said that parents, teachers, rabbis, and other leaders need to show support for and bring in programming that teaches tweens and teens about healthy interpersonal behavior. JCADA has implemented two such programs, the middle school initiative called #healthyfriendships® and the high school initiative called It’s Not Love®. While It’s Not Love® directly addresses issues in consent, teen dating violence, and sexual assault, #healthyfriendships® uses the context of friendship to talk about healthy interpersonal behaviors.
Rachel Kohn, Kol HaBirah’s editor in chief, spoke from personal experience about the importance of education.
“I went to a modern Orthodox Jewish day school where sex ed in our junior or senior year was pretty strictly reproductive biology. That and Cosmo magazines at the airport were the extent of my sexual education,” said Kohn, 33. “I knew I was inexperienced, but had zero sense I lacked any knowledge critical to my safety.” Kohn’s parents did not grow up Orthodox, but they assumed that whatever she needed to know would be taught in school; moreover, as a teen observing the practice of waiting until marriage for physical intimacy and perceived as a “smart girl,” there was no sense of a practical need for further conversation.
When Kohn found herself in a compromising situation during her gap year before college, she knew nothing about the nuances of consent or sexual assault. What if you aren’t faced with a stranger with a knife in a dark alley or a creepy pervert, but a good-looking, older Jewish boy you trust?
“I was, in retrospect, incredibly naïve about what constitutes intimacy and the concept of consent, especially when alcohol is involved,” said Kohn. “Still, the idea that anyone’s intelligence, looks, how knowledgeable they may be about sex or how religiously observant they are will make them an unlikely victim or an unlikely perpetrator [of sexual abuse or assault] — these assumptions prevent us from empowering people with potentially life-changing information.” Kohn still wonders if the “boy” (who was in his early 20s) would have made different choices if he too had learned more about consent when he was younger.
Sidorsky emphasized the need to teach bystander intervention, healthy interpersonal behaviors, and healthy bodily autonomy early on to girls and boys. “When something makes them feel uncomfortable, they don’t have enough information, the words, to speak about it. Because of this, they may think it is a shameful topic,” she says.
Doar and Dr. Fisher pointed out that people are ready and willing to talk about behaviors bullying and online stalking, but not in the context of an intimate relationship. When parents and educators make the effort to talk about these behaviors in all contexts, children and teens will feel validated and, as a result, feel more comfortable addressing issues of sexual harassment or assault if they are happening to themselves or someone they know.
It can be difficult for parents to know what to say, especially if they themselves were not talked to about these subjects. Sidorsky, Doar, and Dr. Fisher encouraged parents to use books or other materials designed for kids to teach about and normalize the language of personal safety. For younger children, “Let’s Stay Safe” is a book that discusses personal safety in the context of all other safety situations, such as not touching a hot pot or looking both ways before crossing the street. Sidorsky also suggested “The Care and Keeping of You,” a book from the American Girl Company, to teach young girls about puberty and development. When they have the language to know what is happening to their bodies, they can report if something uncomfortable happens. Books for boys and books for teens are also available.
Remembering your own role and power in intervening in the situations is imperative for change. “Anyone can be a leader. As an adult, when a kid tells you something, you’re a leader,” Sidorsky said.
Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School in Baltimore, where Phil Jacobs is also a teacher, is an example of a school addressing the subject of sexual assault proactively rather than waiting for a tragic catalyst for awareness.
“To me, the most important issue is our responsibility — moral imperative, religious obligation, and legal mandate — to protect children and keep them safe,” said Dr. Zipora Schorr, director of education. “It is important for schools to take this mandate seriously, to educate parents, teachers, and students about abuse. Schools must be safe spaces and in addition, all members of the school community need to feel that they will be heard if they express concern or report abusive behavior by anyone.” Beth Tfiloh has been working with the Baltimore Child Abuse Center (BCAC) to develop and fine-tune policies, procedures, and written material to reflect this commitment to awareness, transparency, communication, reporting, and education, she said.
As a Jewish community and as individuals, we need to make the necessary choices to protect and empower ourselves and those we love. We must do more.
If you are personally struggling with any of the behaviors identified as abusive in this article, know that there are free, confidential services and programs to help you gain control and keep your family and community safe. For more information, visit http://www.stopitnow.org/ or call 1-877-88-JCADA or the national domestic violence hotline at (800) 799-7233.
By Emma Murray
Emma Murray is originally from Monmouth County, New Jersey, and moved to Kemp Mill, Maryland, in August 2016. She graduated from University of Maryland College Park with her Master of Science in Couple and Family Therapy in May 2017.