When Erin Michele Levitas was 19, she was raped by someone she knew. As she processed and healed from what had happened, she made a decision: After college, she would attend law school and become an advocate for survivors of sexual assault.
Unfortunately, a cancer diagnosis upended Levitas’ plans and in January 2016, she died of an extremely rare high-grade endometrial stroma sarcoma. She was 22.
But as tragic as this was, Levitas’ friends and family were determined to fulfill her dream and, a year after her death, they established the Erin Levitas Foundation. Its aim: To educate youth and their caregivers and teachers about boundaries, bystander intervention, healthy relationships, and restorative approaches, with the ultimate goal ending sexual violence.
The Foundation’s first Executive Director, Marissa Neuman Jachman, spoke to Lilith about Levitas, the Foundation’s important work, and the challenges of addressing volatile social issues.
Eleanor J. Bader: You and Erin were cousins. Can you start by telling me about her?
Marissa Neuman Jachman: Our family is very close. Although I was a few years older than Erin, we saw things through a similar lens and were passionate about many of the same social issues. She was a strong personality but could be silly and make fun of herself.
Let me tell you a story that I think captures who Erin was. I worked for Hillel International and the University of Virginia and Vermont Hillels from 2016-2019, and one of the other staff people was a non-Jewish woman. I eventually learned that she had attended Wake Forest University, the school Erin had attended as an undergraduate, and the two had known each other. This young woman told me that Erin had invited her to a Hillel-sponsored Shabbat dinner. She had never been to one and said that Erin was so incredibly warm and welcoming that she had a great evening. That one gesture introduced her to Hillel, so when she saw a job opening several years later, she applied. She said that because of that interaction, she knew that Hillel would be an inclusive, inviting place. That was Erin.
EJB: Erin was also dyslexic and the Foundation might have chosen to work on learning issues or even cancer. Was there any debate about making the Foundation’s mission sexual assault prevention?
MNJ: Erin cared deeply about learning disabilities such as dyslexia, as well as cancer, but had she lived she was not planning to teach dyslexic children or work on ending cancer. She wanted to work on assault prevention, ending sexual violence, and supporting survivors.
Eighty percent of sexual assault survivors know the person who assaulted them. Erin knew her assailant. She believed—and the Foundation believes—that early education is key. We know that sexual harassment is highest among middle school students. By high school, harassment diminishes a bit but the incidence of rape and sexual assault increases.
We’re now working at City Springs Elementary School in Baltimore, a public charter, in one seventh grade class. This is a pilot, run in collaboration with the Center for Dispute Resolution at the University of Maryland’s Francis King Carey School of Law. With them, we’ve funded creation of a curriculum to introduce middle school students to important subjects: Safe use of social media and technology, healthy communication, and safe methods of bystander intervention. The law students involved in the program are trained to use restorative approaches —talking circles instead of punitive punishment like detention or suspension—to address disputes between students, promote communication, set and respect personal boundaries, and discuss gender identities and gender expectations. The curriculum is geared to promoting diversity, empathy, and inclusivity.
EJB: You previously worked at Hillel, the Jewish Social Service Agency, and the American Red Cross. Did these jobs prepare you for your job at the Foundation?
MNJ: When I worked for Hillel at the University of Maryland, I coordinated Tikkun Olam service projects. I was a program person and led weeklong service trips to Guatemala, the Dominican Republic, and India. A lot of people don’t like the idea of short-term programs like this, but a lot of beautiful learning happened while doing this work. We did not sidestep hard questions: Would it be better to just send money to a particular project or is there value in person-to-person interactions and exchanges? Why do the people of some countries struggle more than residents of other countries? Can volunteerism promote real social change?
In addition, during the academic semester, we connected students with local groups like Kids Enjoy Exercise Now [keenusa.org] to bring sports to kids with disabilities. I saw some students change their expected life trajectory because of these local and international opportunities.
In essence, what I learned in my previous roles —to never forget the human element—is at the core of what we do at the Foundation. People want to make change, they want to feel and see that, beyond writing a check and beyond attending a program or webinar, they’re having an impact.
EJB: Tell me about the ERIN TALK Handbook.
MNJ: We’ve developed seven modules for use with the kids at City Springs
Elementary and are now developing a Teacher Training Program so that educators around the country can engage with our work on their own. We’re expecting this part of our program to launch in March.
Teachers have an enormous amount piled on them, so we are working hard to make sure the program gives them the support and information they need to assess student behaviors and respond to conflicts. We want to do more than say, ‘you should do this,’ by telling them how to do a particular task, what they might say to a student in a particular situation, for example. We’re still developing this virtual program, but we envision two 60-minute online training sessions for teachers and administrators when this rolls out.
At the same time, we’re also concerned about caregivers and another piece of our current work is directed at them. Especially during a pandemic, when kids and families are home a lot more than usual, we know that even low-level intervention by an adult can make a difference in kids’ lives. That’s why we’re creating shorter, more bite-sized videos covering consent; physical, emotional, intimate, and technological boundaries; gender norms; and intervening when we see conflicts or harassment. We want these lessons to be easy to digest so they’ll be done in 15-minute increments. These videos will also roll out in the spring and will be free to anyone who clicks on them.
EJB: Why does the Foundation feel that it is so essential to involve both caregivers and educators?
MNJ: Learning does not happen in a vacuum, so both parties play an important role in this education. Research has shown that if a child has a close relationship with an adult or with their school, it serves as a protective factor, making them more likely to share if something negative is happening so that it can be stopped early.
EJB: The curriculum includes discussion of gender norms, gender identity, and respect for difference along with conflict resolution strategies. Why is this important, especially for middle school students?
MNJ: If we can teach kids that it is okay for people to be different–whether they choose to paint their nails or play with trucks, when they see someone who dresses or acts differently from society’s norms, we’re hoping they’ll have empathy and be accepting and inclusive. *We know that empathy is another big protective factor and not respecting or recognizing someone’s boundaries is at the crux of sexual assault. If kids learn to listen and respect someone’s boundaries, they will be less likely to cause harm to them. That’s why we’re so invested in middle school education instead of waiting until high school to bring up these topics. By starting with younger kids and addressing what’s wrong with sexual harassment, we expect to prevent sexual assault and rape. That’s what our pilot program is about.
Kids circle up when an incident happens or someone feels unsafe. The topics we address are relevant to their lives: What does it mean for a naked photo to be circulated online? What if you go to a friend’s house and the people hanging out are not who you expect to see? Is it safe to touch base with a stranger on Instagram? We stress physical autonomy and the right not to be touched. We also make sure to be race and LGBTQIA+ inclusive.
Erin believed that the world can be made safer. The Foundation intends to prove her right.