The #MeToo campaign has shone a bright, glaring, discomfort-producing light upon very dark places in our Jewish communities. Survivors of all genders and sexual orientations have stepped forward and declared their stories of assault and harassment, some never previously given word or voice. The impact has been raw, stinging and unnerving.
Sexual violence is an act of confiscating power. Clicking “post” on Facebook and Twitter has been a salient step toward a reclaiming of power — of making visible what has been hidden, of telling stories of coercion, control, manipulation and disregard. When I posted my own story from college, I did so with an intention of standing in solidarity. Me. Too.
The implicit concern of #MeToo is that it will render us in a state of helplessness and hopelessness and that we will drown in the pain of our collective narratives: “It is you, and it could be my own child.” Coupled with the authority of publicized statistics, we can overwhelm. According to a CDC 2017 report, 7.1 percent of American women (an estimated 8.6 million) were victims of rape, physical violence and/or stalking by an intimate partner in their lifetime and first experienced these or other forms of violence by that partner before age 18. Faced with a statistic such as this, one can become paralyzed and retreat.
When we stay stuck in fear, we mislabel these cascading stories as cautionary tales rather than launch pads for action. After all, Judaism holds rich, complicated, textured narratives at its core. What would it look like to view this hashtag as a beacon, an invitation to reignite and re-energize the ways Jewish educational institutions teach about relationships, power, status, partnership and consent? We don’t run from the stories, but run toward them; we amplify the pedagogy of narrative that has always been central to Jewish teaching and dig deep into the foundational values of respect and care for “the other.” In a recent training seminar for day school teachers at the Jewish Theological Seminary, we listened to Billy Joel and Cyndi Lauper belting out “but you can’t talk about it because you’re following a code of silence,” and read it against John Mayer’s buoyant “say what you need to say.” We explored the need to hold both in our classrooms: Our biblical characters who speak up, and those whose voices are silenced or who censure themselves out of shame and fear. Those whose power is elevated through voice, and those who we never hear. We read them and talk about them. In tandem, we as adults honor the stories of the present day and hold space for those that are yet to emerge.
Likewise, it is our responsibility to listen to our children’s and learners’ everyday stories of relationships, and ask questions of themselves with regards to anyone with whom they spend time — “How do I feel when I am with this person?” “How does this person treat me?” “Do they listen to me?” “Do they respect me?” And we ask the questions in inverse, starting at a young age — “Were you kind today?” “How did you treat others?” We stay still and present for these narratives and reflect back what we hear, teaching children and teens to self-reflect, and ultimately, to consider the ways that power is shared or not shared. We help them to understand that they can get up and leave a relationship or a room at any time, and if they are coerced, that they can speak to someone who will believe them and support them — and that they will indeed be believed and supported. Many Jewish schools, camps and youth groups are already embracing this role of fostering a resilient next generation. We look to them as models and we learn from them.
#MeToo is #UsToo. These stories are all of our stories.
Shira D. Epstein is assistant professor of Jewish education at the Davidson School of Jewish Theological Seminary, and has written curricula for Jewish Women’s International and MyFace focused on healthy relationship building and choosing kindness.