The good we can do feels like it’s on a sliding scale—from saving a drowning person to handing loose change to a supplicant on the street. But sometimes there are people around us drowning in ways not so obvious, and their signals for assistance may be hardly more than a whispered suggestion for a visit from the other end of a phone line. I’ve been thinking a lot recently about how we extend ourselves to help, partly because of a powerful short documentary I’ve just seen on bikkur cholim—visiting the sick—produced by my friend Vicki Rosenstreich at the Jewish Board of Family and Children Services in New York, and partly because of two conversations I had in Houston about how to reach out to struggling teen girls.
The film is humbling, showing by example how little it would take from most of us to save someone—from loneliness, from despair, and from the pain of thinking that no one cares. Elie Wiesel, interviewed in the film, says that the opposite of ove is not hate, but indifference. Respecting—really listening to—the life stories of the person you’re visiting. Maybe this is obvious to you. Maybe you do these good deeds already. For me, the film was reminder of the small ways to do more.
Here’s one way. In Houston, where I was giving a talk and visiting a Lilith “salon,” lawyer Maida Asofsky, a Lilith reader, told me about the difficulties finding adult women to help pregnant teens in Texas. Forty-four states have laws on the books requiring parental notification or consent before a person under 18 can gel an abortion. Texas’s law requires not just that a pregnant teen notify her parents, but that they actually sign their consent. A teen who fears dangerous repercussions from notifying her parents can seek “judicial bypass”—persuading a judge to give permission for the abortion without involving her parents. But teens needing this judicial bypass in the first place may not have any way to make a confidential phone call to setup an appointment for a pregnancy test or with a volunteer lawyer, and no way to get to these appointments. Perhaps Jewish women’s organizations—the same ones working to reform laws on domestic violence and lobbying for the appointment of pro-choice judges—can organize their members to help pregnant teens get the services they are permitted by law but denied by circumstance. I realize that this is a fraught suggestion; the help may rouse the ire of the parents, and may involve colluding in deception, but surely we can figure out some safeguards. We spare a dollar for the mendicant on the street and feel generous,but what about sparing a few hours to assist a pregnant teenager through this maze?
The second conversation I had in Houston was with delegates to the Women of Reform Judaism assembly. Through them I saw up close how larger-scale change can come about—in this case, a change in consciousness. Two years ago, Lilith published a provocative report by our then-intern Ilana Kramer, about oral sex and young teens(“‘It’s Not Sex’ the Girls Say,” Winter 2003-2004). Ilana interviewed adolescents their parents, their chaperones, sex-ed professionals, educators and camp counselors. Everyone agreed: adolescent girls were performing oral sex on boys, their male peers, sometimes even at bat- and bar-mitzvah parties. We asked some urgent questions: who is in control, who is getting pleasure, who is servicing whom? None of the answers suggested that the girls were enjoying these acts; instead, they were part of an elaborate jockeying for status with the boys. This November, in Houston, Women of Reform Judaism passed a resolution that sisterhoods offer help and referrals for teens and younger girls involved in premature sex, and in other behaviors dangerous to their emotional and physical well being. Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, in a major address to congregational leaders, acknowledged the inequity in the sexual behavior of many teens, calling, in essence, for a new Jewish sexual ethic with females and males equally valued. We can only imagine that Lilith’s courageous reporting helped the largest movement in American Judaism reach this day.