Twenty years ago, as a fourth-year rabbinic student, I gave my senior sermon on Parashat Vayishlach. The sermon focused on the rape of Dinah and the prevalence of violence against women in modern times. I urged my classmates to learn more about the causes of this violence and the actions they could take to help victims/survivors in their community. The rape of Dinah, the only (known) daughter of Jacob, is sometimes eliminated by Reform communities in our public readings and sermons. While we may wish that rape was not part of our sacred scriptures, its presence is significant. By highlighting violence against women, and the oppression of women in society, the Torah reminds us of the work needed toeliminate sexual violence .
As I had the opportunity to reflect on this parsha again, I started to consider what has changed since 2001 and what has stayed the same.
In 2002, the Boston Globe reported on widespread child abuse within the Catholic Church and the role that the church had in perpetuating that abuse. This reporting opened the eyes of the nation to the horrific acts that adults could commit while maintaining their own power, shielding abusers and risking children's safety, even within a faith community. This type of awareness of widespread child sexual abuse and abuse of power was repeated with charges and trials around Penn State's assistant football coach and the team doctor for the USA gymnastics olympic team.
In 2006, American activist Tyrana Burke founded the 'me too' movement, based on her own life experiences. The movement connects victims and survivors of sexual assault through empathy and support and helps them share their experiences and power. In 2017, the movement spread via the use of #MeToo on social media, starting a campaign that galvanized survivors and allies to interrupt systemic sexual violence. This movement worked to dispel common myths and misinformation about sexual assault. The focus of the work is on survivors and survivor justice; the goal is healing and action.
Twenty years after I delivered that sermon, we have made significant progress in bringing awareness to the prevalence of sexual harassment and violence alongside an increase in governmental reporting and accountability. Work is being done throughout workplaces to change power structures, increase reporting, and eliminate tolerance for sexual misconduct and gender-based violence in the workplace.
As a rabbi and educator, I focus on the young people we work with and support every day. The Department of Justice reports young people ages 12-34 were at the highest risk for rape and sexual assault. For children, 93% of the time the perpetrator is known to the victim. As of 2014, In the state of Pennsylvania, multiple background checks and safeguards have been put in place for volunteers and employees who work with children. These background checks are part of the essential safeguards needed to protect our children, but not every state requires them. Since becoming Executive Director of ARJE (Association of Reform Jewish Educators), I have spoken with educators who shared that their congregations do not have training, procedures, or policies around reporting structures for suspected abuse.
As a young rabbinic student, I thought that it was silence that perpetrated violence against women. I imagined if more people understood the prevalence of abuse, they would be more likely to act. In the past 20 years, as stories of abuse against women, trans and non-binary people, and children emerge in every arena, I wonder if the problem might be that these topics are so difficult, we avoid them all together. The story of the rape of Dinah in the middle of Genesis reminds us that sexual violence is part of every society and cannot be ignored . As I re-examined her story this year, I learned that Dinah was likely younger than 13 years old when she was raped.
It has been 20 years since I gave my first sermon on the rape of Dinah. In that time, the rates of reported sexual assault have declined and awareness of sexual violence has increased. There is so much more work to be done. Dinah's name means "justice." Together, this week and every week, let us continue to work towards justice to prevent the prevalence of sexual abuse in every arena. As a Reform Movement leader, I am proud of the steps the URJ (Union for Reform Judaism), CCAR (Central Conference of American Rabbis), and HUC-JIR have taken to reckon with the past and safeguard the future. As a female leader, I stand alongside WRJ (Women of Reform Judaism) in the STOP campaign. As executive director of ARJE, I am proud that we will be offering training around abuse prevention as part of our 2023 Annual Gathering. I know that, together, we all can do more to honor Dinah's story.
As an individual, consider where you can use your voice to speak up in support of victims and survivors against violence and abuse by asking for clear policies, procedures, and preventative measures in your institutions, and how you can better educate yourself around sexual abuse prevention .
- Ensure you have training to recognize abuse and improper conduct as an employee, parent, supervisor, or teacher through online training programs like Traliant for sexual harassment prevention or Kidsafe for parents and educators.
- Learn how to offer support and help to survivors through organizations like the Center for Hope that work with victims/survivors and faith-based communities to provide support and prevention.
- Encourage Jewish institutions you are a part of to join the Safety Respect and Equity Network. The SRE Network helps Jewish organizations with assessment, training, and policies to ensure gender-based safety in the workplace, clear reporting structures when violations occur, and shifts towards culture change.
- Encourage Jewish communities your kids spend time with to be part of the Aleinu Campaign. The Aleinu Campaign is a project of Sacred Spaces that provides a step-by-step guide for institutions to ensure communities work to prevent child abuse in Jewish contexts.
Reading the parashah this week we are reminded that sexual violence is part of our society, both in the past, and in our current day. How will you learn more, do more, listen more, to honor her legacy this week?