By Rabbi Jill Levy
This week’s Torah portion is Vayishlach: Genesis 32:4 – 36:43.
A young woman ventures out to experience the world and meet others. While she is away, she is sexually abused. Subsequently, she is told that she should not have interacted with a stranger, insinuating that she is at fault for the encounter. Then it is over. No reflection. No recognition that this is part of a larger pattern of abuse.
You may wonder, when did this happen?
This is the story of the rape of Dinah in this week’s parshah, Vayishlach. It also reminds me of a story that came out in July 2021 in New Voices Magazine titled “How Jewish Youth Groups are Breeding a Toxic Sex Culture in Teens.” While this article does not mention rape, we are too often reminded that Dinah’s story in not a one-off event but an archetypal sexual assault and of the difficulties of looking inward to create change.
In Vayishlach, “Dinah, daughter of Leah, goes out to look among the daughters of the land.”
She is then violated by Shechem, and Jacob, her father, reacts with silence. Jacob then breaks his silence by telling his sons what happened. They, in turn, set out on a murderous rampage in the city.
Dinah is not heard from again. The narrative blames Dinah, Dinah’s mother and the city of Shechem. There is no inward look into the fact that Dinah, herself, is raised in an environment of violence. Jacob is emotionally abusive to Leah, steals from his brother and raises sons whose impulsivity led to murder. Acknowledging Jacob’s history reminds us to examine the negative cycles we may be perpetuating.
Articles about longstanding abuse are now hitting the Jewish news on what feels like a weekly basis. We are reading about “hook up culture,” sexual abuse of minors by adult staff and predatory behavior in the workplace. We must take a critical look at the culture and structures contributing to these behaviors. As a camp director and rabbi, I know that relationships, especially with children, are our most sacred responsibility. We must transform the archetype of blame and silence into a new reality of listening, taking action and accountability.
There are preventable measures that organizations can take that we proudly do at camp.
For example, all Jewish institutions should require abuse and harassment prevention training, background and reference check all employees and have clear written policies. In addition, no child should ever be left out of view with another staff person, especially not behind a closed door. Finally, organizations cannot be afraid to let staff members go if they cannot abide by their safety standards. There are a number of Jewish agencies such as JSSA, Sacred Spaces, and Ta’amod that can help our institutions formulate necessary safety practices.
Let’s work together, as a community, to make sure our spaces are sacred, safe and enjoyed by all participants.
Rabbi Jill Levy is director of Ramah Day Camp Greater Washington, DC.