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Why Orthodoxy Needs Better Sexual Assault Education

This past semester, I participated in the , part of the international movement encouraging allies to wear denim in solidarity with sexual assault survivors. Wearing a jean skirt and a sticker informing onlookers to “ask me why denim,” I fielded a lot of genuine inquiries about the origins, purpose, and goals of the Denim Day initiative. I also had to deal with a lot of questions and comments that were not as well intentioned. Although I had been expecting negative or dismissive reactions to my involvement, I had not expected most of those responses to be from Orthodox friends.

My experiences on Denim Day, compounded with the other things I have seen and heard throughout my twelve years of Orthodox education, showed me that there is a crucial need for better education about sexual assault in the Orthodox community.

I realized this because my friends told me that they were taught that reporting rape is lashon hara, that if they kept shomer negiah they would never be sexually assaulted, and that to use the word “rape” is not tzniusdik.

Because I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve had to convince people that it doesn’t matter what the victim is wearing, and that rape is about power, not sex.

Because I’m tired of having to explain why rape jokes aren’t funny while the rest of the room laughs.

Because I was called an extremist for saying that it’s never the victim’s fault, even if s/he was intoxicated.

Because when I said “it could happen to one of your sisters,” my friend scoffed.

Because when I said “one in five women on college campuses are sexually assaulted,” my friend sarcastically wondered aloud which of the five women in the room was the survivor, not knowing that (at least) one of them was.

Because the amount of pushback I received from my Orthodox friends when I told them I was writing this article was truly astounding in its frequency and severity, but my non-Jewish friends were completely supportive and excited to read my final product.

Because the above friends are graduates of Bais Yaakov as well as Ramaz and SAR.

I am done with just complaining about the terribly misinformed things I hear from my fellow Orthodox Jews about sexual assault, and ready to hold the Orthodox community accountable for the gaps in the education that it is giving its members. No community is immune to this issue; even if we accept the very questionable claim that it is less common within the Orthodox community, it still happens here, and we need to talk about it.

This conversation has to happen to end the stigma for survivors, to counter the widespread misinformation that surrounds sexual assault, and to create safer and more inclusive Orthodox communities. The secular world has a lot of room for improvement when it comes to education about consent and power dynamics, and we cannot let ourselves lag behind such a low standard. On Denim Day, I spent a lot more time with graduates of non-Jewish or Jewish pluralistic schools than I did with graduates of Orthodox schools, and yet I received disproportionately more negative comments about my jean skirt from the latter. This is not acceptable.

It is especially important for Modern Orthodox institutions to realize that its members are not particularly enlightened or educated on this matter, and that they should not dismiss this as an issue that only the right-wing community needs to work on. Sexual assault happens everywhere; it doesn’t matter whether you’re shomer negiah or not, whether you go to a coed or single-sex school, whether you’re male or female, or whether you’re Modern or Haredi or somewhere in between. In my experience, graduates of Modern Orthodox schools are just as ignorant as graduates of schools that are farther towards the right, and Modern Orthodox educators and authority figures should not delude themselves into thinking otherwise.

At the Bais Yaakov high school I attended, we had a speaker during senior year about intimate partner violence, but nothing that touched upon sexual assault in particular. This is not surprising when taking into account the general atmosphere about talking about sex, best described by the fact that the pages about sexual response were ripped out of the AP Psych textbooks. However, the education at Modern Orthodox schools does not seem to be much different than the one I received. In a highly unscientific survey that I conducted among current students and recent alumni of 19 Modern Orthodox high schools in the US, many mentioned that their schools hosted programs and speakers about intimate partner violence and get refusal, but only two told me that they had formal, in-school discussions specifically about sexual assault.

That number is 17 too few.

Existing Jewish organizations that focus on domestic abuse prevention, such as JCADA, and Takanot, should be provided with the resources to further develop their existing curricula to educate young people about sexual assault in a way sensitive to the Orthodox community’s needs. Schools should engage with these worthwhile programs in addition to creating their own, tailored specifically to their students. Authority figures like parents, teachers, rabbis, and administrators must normalize conversations about consent and boundaries by talking about it themselves, and by taking the time to educate themselves on the issues. It is not only young people and lay folk who have fundamental misunderstandings of the dynamics of sexual assault, so it is up to people in positions of power to learn.

We cannot end sexual assault unless we acknowledge that it exists, and it’s about time that the Orthodox community takes responsibility for educating its members on this issue.

Talia Weisberg is a student at Harvard University and was named as one of the Jewish Week’s 36 Under 36 in 2013.

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