A College Activist Sees a Momentous Change

Back in October, the Union for Reform Judaism sent out an email to their mailing list titled “An Important Update for Our URJ Community.” As I scanned the message, my eyes unexpectedly welled up with tears. In this letter, URJ President Rabbi Rick Jacobs and Jennifer Brodkey Kaufman, chair of the URJ’s North American board of trustees, stressed their commitment to addressing numerous reports of sexual misconduct and assault within the organization of Reform congregations and asked individuals who have experienced misconduct to come forward and share information with an investigator.

In April, the URJ had issued a similar statement, announcing their engagement of Debevoise & Plimpton, the law firm now tasked with investigating this issue and making a recommendation to the URJ after their work is concluded. The request for individuals to come forward, emphasized in bolded font, felt nearly unbelievable. Although the URJ’s April statement had also invited members of the community to come forward with information, this reiteration felt more important, more timely.

This was an open call for testimony from the largest Jewish movement in North America, and for me, the implica- tions were personal.

Last year I co-founded an organization called Jewish Teens for Empowered Consent, and our work revolves around changing the toxic culture of sexual harassment and assault prevalent in Jewish youth spaces. My experiences with the toxic hookup culture found in NFTY, the Reform youth group, and summer camp—which have been widely reported on—inspired me to try to make a change. At JTEC we write articles, create pro- grams for youth organizations, and meet with leaders in the community, but our most important activism occurs on social media. On our Instagram, we feature anonymous testimony from youth group and summer camp alumni who share stories about their experiences within the toxic hookup culture. To quote from our 2020 article in eJewish Philanthropy, Jewish youth spaces feature a “rampant heteronormative hookup culture” that leads to the hyper-sexualization and objectification of teens, as well as sexual harassment and assault. The stories people share with us demonstrate the dissonance between the toxic sexual culture and the otherwise empowering features of youth groups and camps. This teen’s submission puts it bluntly: “I love BBYO [and] I have been actively involved during my time spent in BBYO. Despite this, over these past five years I’ve been sexually harassed countless times.” JTEC was founded to hold these organizations to account; teens should never have to sacrifice their safety and wellbeing to participate in Jewish life.

JTEC’s founding and the URJ’s investigation are related; over the past several years, since the #MeToo movement has gained prominence, reckonings around sexual misconduct and harassment have taken place throughout the global Jewish community. Continuing the momentum of this movement is hard while so many other issues, including the ongoing pan- demic, occupy our space. But this work is far from over, and an open call for authentic testimony reminds the wider community that this culture has lasting, negative effects.

As I read and reread the URJ newsletter, I thought of all of my friends from URJ Camp Coleman in Cleveland, GA who became counselors and specialists with me this past summer, and I thought about our numerous conversations about toxic hookup culture and harassment. We had grown up together in the camp community, and now, as staff members, we felt passionate about calling out inequality where we saw it.

Part of the reason so many of us wanted to come back and work at camp was to offer our campers better role models than we might have had. However, pushing for change was not as easy or straightforward as we might have hoped. We had to reconcile our desire for justice with the status quo, and manage the powerful pulls of nostalgia and loyalty as we worked to modify camp traditions, like needlessly gendered programming, to promote equity and inclusion. This email from the URJ felt, in the excited moment when I first read it, like an affirmation of this difficult work, a way to preserve the positive aspects of the community while rooting out the negatives.

But this process of separating the “good” from the “bad” is not simple; the culture of sexuality in Jewish spaces, especially Jewish youth spaces, remains complex. The fact that this investigation is even happening may feel like a victory, but I am now left to wonder whether the URJ will work along with activists to enact sweeping cultural change, or whether they will choose a more cautious, incremental approach to rooting out institutionalized sexual misconduct.

But this process of separating the “good” from the “bad” is not simple; the culture of sexuality in Jewish spaces, especially Jewish youth spaces, remains complex.

I am anxious to see how this call for testimonies impacts the investigation, and I am looking forward to updates from the URJ as they continue this urgent and important work. However, I am not yet satisfied and, frankly, I find it difficult to imagine what satisfaction around this issue might look like.

It’s a struggle to even picture Jewish youth spaces without toxic hookup culture. What would my years at summer camp look like without objectification and harassment? What would so many of my Jewish female friendships be built around, if not uniting against a sense of shared contempt for girls and young women? What can we expect from the URJ, an organization that has an obligation to protect both its members and its respectability?

I hope that this investigation spurs tangible change in the community that helped raise me. I formed my closest friendships through URJ programs, and it’s out of love for this community that I continue to push for change. I hope that the next time I enter my synagogue or summer camp, I am entering with a clear conscience, knowing I am giving my energy and enthusiasm to spaces that both condemn and are working to eliminate the existing culture of sexual misconduct.

If you’re wondering what to do now, you’re not alone. We can create change in our synagogues, youth groups, and camps by pushing for consent education, imple- menting policies that uphold values of inclusion and equity, and even just having open discussions with other Jews about the toxic cultural elements present in so many of our spaces. By speaking honestly about our experiences, and raising the cultural consciousness around this issue, we can empower ourselves and our peers to advocate for a safer Jewish community.

As the announcement asks, please reach out to URJInvestigation@debevoise.com if you have any information to share.

LILA GOLDSTEIN, Lilith intern and co-founder of JTEC, for Lilith and New Voices Magazine