On Campus, An Assault On The Status Quo


The last shuttle bus from Cambridge back to Brandeis had long gone. A cab to Waltham would have cost a fortune. The extra bed she’d been promised in a friend of a friend’s dorm room never materialized.

It was 3 a.m. on an unfamiliar college campus, and, after a low-key party, Amalia Bob-Waksberg, a 19-year-old freshman, was stuck.

Her only option, in the end, was the room of a guy who had pursued her — aggressively, despite multiple rejections — at the party. No worries, he said. He’d sleep on the floor. She didn’t want to make a fuss.

Before she knew it, though, the nice Jewish boy from Harvard had slipped into bed with her, and Bob-Waksberg froze. “I never said no when it was happening, but I gave a lot of signals,” she said. “When it was happening I was crying, but I didn’t say no.”

The next morning, she fell apart. “I was curled up in a ball on the floor of the shuttle crying. I couldn’t even see anything around me. I’ve never felt so dissociated from the world around me,” she said. She couldn’t even walk straight; a friend helped her back to her dorm. She couldn’t do anything for days.

Finding few resources for survivors of sexual assault at Brandeis, she worked to create them, founding Brandeis Students Against Sexual Violence and helping to start a blog where students could anonymously post their own stories. She and other student activists met with student leaders and administrators, gathered signatures, and successfully pressured the school into making significant changes.

Today, new student orientation incudes 2.5 hours of sexual assault prevention training; the ethics code and disciplinary procedures for sexual assault have been improved and students can file a sexual assault complaint online instead of going to campus police. The administration hired more staff dedicated to the issue, instituted a rape hotline, and just last month, five years after Bob-Waksberg’s assault, a rape crisis center opened on campus.

Bob-Waksberg is part of a growing movement on college campuses to end the culture that tolerates sexual assault by encouraging survivors to speak out and bystanders to step in. Jewish organizations — including the San Francisco-based Shalom Bayit, a nonprofit addressing violence against women, where Bob-Waksberg now works — are at the forefront of this movement. Jewish organizations are training Hillel staff to help survivors and training students to lead workshops on bystander intervention. They’re screening documentaries, holding discussion sessions and working through fraternities and sororities to change the culture from within.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1 in 5 women in college experience sexual assault or attempted sexual assault as undergraduates. There are fewer studies on men, but a 2007 exploratory study by the Department of Justice estimates that 1 in 16 men experience attempted or completed sexual assault while in college.

Although questions about the recent controversial Rolling Stone article about a women’s story of being gang raped at the University of Virginia has increased concerns about false reporting, a meta-analysis of studies on the topic by the National Center for the Prosecution of Violence Against Women puts the percentage of false sexual assault reports between 2 and 8 percent.

Through a Jewish Lens

Hillel is taking part in campus efforts to combat sexual violence with a collection of programs addressing the issue. Two of the most prominent are a workshop on sexual assault as part of its Ask Big Questions program, and a partnership with Shalom Bayit that focuses on healthy relationship education and sexual violence through the lens of Judaism. Since 2011, Shalom Bayit has trained staff at more than 50 Hillels across the country about how to recognize and support survivors.

“Rape doesn’t discriminate based on religion, and many of our students are impacted personally every single year,” said Sheila Katz, vice president for social entrepreneurship at Hillel International. “This is happening and we must respond.”

Zephira Derblich-Milea, Shalom Bayit’s youth program coordinator, oversees the workshops for Hillel staff. During one workshop, she posts six quotes from the Torah and discusses them in the context of both healthy relationships and sexual assault. Two of her favorites are: “To humiliate a person is as powerful as shedding blood,” and “You’re not expected to complete the task, but neither are you free to avoid it.”

Katz, who used to be an assistant director at North Carolina Hillel, said, “Students come to Hillel professionals to try to understand their assault through a Jewish lens. I’ve heard questions like: How can there be a God when this happened to me? Did this happen to anyone in the Torah, and what does it [the Torah] say about rape?”

But, she added, “While it’s clearly Hillel’s responsibility to support the work of Jewish students who are survivors of assault, it’s equally as important to have conversations about healthy relationships and rape culture, because we want to do our part in making sure that all the students and staff we work with are not part of the problem.”

Raising Awareness

One avenue Hillels and other Jewish organizations have found to begin those conversations is the screening of “Brave Miss World,” a documentary about former Miss Israel Linor Abargil, who was raped six weeks before being crowned Miss World. The film intersperses snippets of women across Israel and the U.S. telling their own rape stories, with Abargil’s own post-rape journey to Orthodox Judaism and law school.

Since the film was first released in 2013, more than two dozen Hillels, including the Columbia-Barnard Hillel, have shown it. Barnard student Dana Kukin organized the screening in 2013 after having seen the film herself the previous year.

“I was very, very moved by it. It really stayed with me, and I wanted to screen the film again,” she said.

Columbia University is where student Emma Sulkowicz brought widespread attention to the issue of campus sexual assault by lugging a mattress with her to symbolize, she says, the weight that is always with her as a result of an assault. (She says she will stop carrying the mattress when man she says attacked her leaves Columbia.) Hillel was one of 28 student groups that took part in the Carry That Weight National Day of Action in October, during which participants on campuses worldwide carried mattresses in solidarity with sexual assault survivors.

Julia Snyder, president of Columbia-Barnard Hillel, said her organization took part to show that they care about what’s happening on campus and to recognize that sexual violence is a problem even in Hillel’s “tight-knit community.”

“We have students who are vocal about being survivors,” she said. “Just because we’re Jewish doesn’t mean this doesn’t affect us.”

Not Our Issue

Indeed, the “this doesn’t happen to us” mentality is a continuing problem in Jewish communities, though less so as time goes on, said Derblich-Milea. “I sort of make a joke about it, especially when I first started doing this work: You walk into the Reform community and they say: ‘Oh well, I’m sure this is happening in the Orthodox community but not here.’ And then you walk into the Orthodox community and they say: ‘I’m sure this is happening in the Reform community but not here.”

“It’s hard to acknowledge when this stuff is happening within our own community — it’s scary,” Derblich-Milea added. “And I also believe that once we acknowledge it we have to do something about it.”

Bob-Waksberg also grew up with that kind of mentality. Once a teacher told her that what happened to Elizabeth Smart “could never happen to Jewish girls, because Jewish girls are too smart for that.”

“I don’t think I took that so literally to heart, but this idea that Jewish women are so strong and outspoken, that this could never happen to them. … And then also just this idea that these nice Jewish boys are harmless. … I think that’s an image that needs to be really questioned and unpacked,” she said.

Rivka Hia was the lone student to participate in Carry That Weight’s National Day of Action at Yeshiva University’s Stern College for women. She hopes Orthodox leaders will push for sexual assault prevention programs for unmarried students.

“Because it’s encouraged to not touch before marriage, and because that’s the assumption, nobody is talking about the facts on the ground,” she said, adding that this expectation also increases the likelihood of blaming the victim.

Often, she said, “I think that there’s a misconception that women who don’t adhere to rabbinic guidelines in general deserve any unfortunate things that happen to them.”

Among non-Orthodox communities, Jewish Women International has also been addressing the issue head on. They’ve been working with two Jewish organizations, the fraternity Zeta Beta Tau and the sorority Sigma Delta Tau, to offer “Safe Smart Dating.” The program uses discussions, scenarios, news stories and videos to learn how to identify dating abuse and sexual assault, and how to intervene safely and effectively.

“Young men need to understand how to not only confront situations they know are wrong, but also to prevent such situations from arising in the first place,” said Laurence Bolotin, executive director Zeta Beta Tau’s national organization, in a written statement.

Changing Campus Culture

Training bystanders to intervene is an increasingly significant part of sexual assault prevention programs.

“The idea is that each of us as individuals has a role to play in preventing this from happening,” said Ted Merwin, who directs the Hillel at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa., (and also covers theater for The Jewish Week). “A lot of times a guy meets a girl at a party and a lot of the times there’s alcohol involved. And he kind of takes her up to his room … so there are opportunities for other students to intervene, to say, ‘She’s drunk, don’t take her upstairs.’

“It’s about depending on other people to not let it happen,” he said.

Dickinson’s Hillel organized an interfaith service for survivors of sexual assault on Yom Kippur, modeled on the Yizkor service.

“So much of Yom Kippur is about not confessing individual sin but about confessing communal sin,” Merwin said. “We did that whole Al Chet focused on sexual immorality — but from a college student’s point of view, in the sense of the kinds of things that happen on college campuses.”

Merwin continued: “A lot of it has to do with changing the campus so that men don’t feel like they have the right to women’s bodies … [and] that this is a really serious thing that women can be terribly, even permanently damaged by. And I don’t think a lot of men get that. I don’t think a lot of men want to get that, or want to think about it.”

'Yes Means Yes'

Indeed, a major component of changing campus culture is changing the entire idea of what consent means: from “no means no,” to “yes means yes.” That is to say, that a woman doesn’t have to say no. It’s an assault if she hasn’t said yes, not just once, but at each stage of an encounter. (For example, saying yes to kissing doesn’t give the green light for intercourse.)

This higher bar for approval for sexual contact, also known as affirmative consent, is increasingly becoming the standard in college ethic codes across the country. Since September, all state-funded schools in New York and California have adopted the policy.

Affirmative consent is the centerpiece of “Consent is So Frat,” a nonprofit launched by recent Wesleyan University graduate Matthew Leibowitz, a former member of the Jewish fraternity Alpha Epsilon Pi. The organization’s goal, summed up on its website, is “making consent and healthy relationships part of what it means to be a fraternity brother or sorority sister.”

Had yes means yes been the standard back in 2010, when Bob-Waksberg found herself in bed with the not-nice-after-all Jewish Harvard boy, the assault might never have taken place. Or if it had, she might have spared herself a lot of self-blame.

As it was, Bob-Waksberg — who started Brandeis Students Against Sexual Violence, revived the school’s feminist club and majored in women’s studies — blamed herself for what happened for a very long time.

It was only after interning at Shalom Bayit the summer after her assault, and taking a course on domestic violence back at Brandeis the next fall, that she came to understand why she was unable to say no, and why the fact that she didn’t does not mean that what happened was her fault.

“I was reading a theory piece about responses to sexual assault and … [it] was talking about someone being assaulted and feeling like they were not in their body and they just kind of froze. And it’s kind of the way that a lot of people respond to that shock,” she said. “And for the first time I was like, ‘OK, that’s normal. … It doesn’t mean that I was weak, or I was asking for it. That just was a normal response to trauma.”

At a Tipping Point

In the five years since Bob-Waksberg’s assault, the issue has moved to the front burner on campuses across the country. This is thanks to student activists including a wave who complained to the U.S. Department of Education on grounds that their schools’ sexually hostile environment violates the Title IX anti-discrimination law. Currently, 94 colleges are being investigated for Title IX sexual violence complaints, including, locally, Barnard, Hunter, SUNY Stony Brook, SUNY New Paltz, St. Thomas Aquinas and Sarah Lawrence colleges as well as Pace University. And, yes, Brandeis University, too.

As schools scramble to revise policies to comply with Title IX law, they’re making changes at a pace no one would have imagined five years ago.

“When I was a freshman, there was not really a conversation [about sexual assault],” said Victoria Jonas, a Brandeis senior and one of three student coordinators at the school’s new Rape Crisis Center. “I’ve sensed a huge social shift on campus.”

Brandeis’ Rape Crisis Center’s Sheila McMahon sees campus culture at “a tipping point.”

“In 2007, when I was implementing a bystander-training program, people thought I was a little nutty,” she said. A year later, schools across Boston were implementing them. Then came a steady stream of governmental changes, she said — the 2011 “Dear Colleague” letter from the U.S. Department of Education telling colleges it was their responsibility to address sexual assault; the 2013 Campus Sexual Violence Elimination Act that mandated more transparent sexual assault reporting and mandated expanded survivor rights and prevention programs and one year ago, the creation of a White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault.

“I think we’re in a very special moment in the history of addressing sexual violence prevention in our country,” McMahon said. “It’s unprecedented.”



Top: Amalia Bob-Waksberg in a photo she posted on Speak Out Brandeis, a blog she helped start that allows survivors of sexual assault to share their stories annonymously. Courtesy of Amalia Bob-Waksberg

Middle: Zephira Derblich-Milea of Shalom Bayit uses quotes from Jewish texts in her workshops addressing sexual assault. Courtesy of Shalom Bayit

Bottom: Hillel was one of 28 student groups to participate in the Carry That Weight National Day of Action on Oct. 29. Photo by Julia Snyder