‘You are beautiful’

‘You are beautiful’ photo
The Hunting Ground

There's a scene in the summer film comedy Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising in which two sorority pledges attend their first fraternity party, and are disgusted by the frat brothers' focus on getting young co-eds into bed. Inside the house, the freshman girls spot inebriated women and signs on the wall like "No means yes" and arrows pointing suggestively upstairs to the fraternity bedrooms.

Unfortunately, the movie represents a case of art imitating life with sexual assaults on college campuses currently at epidemic levels. And the numbers are shocking. According to a 2016 survey published by the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, one in five women and one in 16 men are sexually assaulted while in college. There is debate over whether these numbers are even higher because the vast majority of sexual assaults go unreported.

This past spring, I attended a screening and panel discussion of the documentary film The Hunting Ground at the Wilmette Theatre alongside a room of high school students and their parents. The screening, hosted by the non-profits Jewish Women International (JWI) and No More, examines the prevalence of sexual assault on college campuses, the vast majority of which go unreported or ignored by campus administration. I looked around the theater at the 20 or so high school women watching the film and thought that, according to the statistics, four of those women could be victims of sexual violence when they get to college.

The documentary focuses on two courageous women, Annie E. Clark and Andrea Pino, who were among five students at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who filed a federal Title IX complaint against their school to the U.S. Department of Education because they said the university didn't do enough to punish their rapists. After their ordeal, Clark and Pino went on to dedicate their college careers and beyond to researching sexual assault on campus, studying the federal and state legal systems, and forming a network to empower survivors and activists on campuses nationwide.

Recently, we witnessed a national uproar when a California judge gave former Stanford University swimmer Brock Turner a mere six-month jail sentence for sexually assaulting an unconscious woman.

As horrifying as the Stanford story is-exacerbated by the judge's leniency-there are heroes in this case: two male Swedish Stanford students who, after discovering the attacker on top of the unconscious victim behind a dumpster, tackled and restrained him.

The other hero is the anonymous victim in the Stanford case, who courageously and gracefully regained her voice when she read a powerful letter to her attacker during the trial. In her statement, she writes that-above all-she wishes her attacker would exhibit some remorse, take some responsibility for what he did to her, and not just blame it on the alcohol consumed by both of them. "This is not a story of another drunk college hookup with poor decision making," she writes. "Assault is not an accident."

In our own community, as Jews, we want to think we're immune to bad things like sexual assault, but just like with other taboo subjects like intimate partner abuse and drug and alcohol abuse, the Jewish community faces these disturbing assaults in equal measure to the greater society. For that reason, our community devotes many resources to curbing the epidemic.

JWI partners with the historically Jewish sorority Sigma Delta Tau and the historically Jewish fraternity Zeta Beta Tau conducting programs on college campuses to engage young men and women together on safe dating and issues of sexual assault.

Within our system, a network of JUF-funded agencies like Response, SHALVA, the Jewish Women's Foundation (JWF), and Hillel offer counseling services, grant-making, advocacy, and education through a Jewish lens around this disturbing topic. JCARES is another resource within the Federation system that provides education for professionals and community leaders to raise their capacity to prevent, intervene, and respond to sexual assault and abuse.

Through grant-making and advocacy, JWF promotes justice, equality, and empowerment for women and girls in our community and across the globe. Like the Swedish grad students in the Stanford case, JWF believes that we all have the ability to be agents of social change and become "upstanders"-people who stand up, speak out, and take action to help others who are in harm's way, rather than act as passive bystanders.

But long before students ever reach their college years, our community strives to teach young Jews what it means to be a real man or woman. Response, a JCFS program, helps teens navigate life's challenges, and educates them about healthy relationships. Response's Girls Speak Up, for instance, empowers Jewish girls (and now boys, too) to find their voices, to teach personal boundaries and appreciation for others, and stress management. And JWI has launched a program on sexual assault prevention, titled "Red Cups & Red Flags," aimed at high school students.

All of these resources help young men and women foster greater respect for one another and, of course, belief in their own self-worth.

The Stanford victim closed her letter in the courtroom with a message specifically to girls. "…You are beautiful," she wrote. "You are to be valued, respected, undeniably, every minute of every day, you are powerful and nobody can take that away from you."

If you're interested in hosting a viewing of the film "The Hunting Ground," and/or having JWI's "Red Cups & Red Flags" programming at your high school, contact Deborah Rosenbloom at drosenbloom@jwi.org.

"Long before students ever reach their college years, our community strives to teach young Jews what it means to be a real man or woman."

Cindy Sher photo 375
Cindy Sher is the Executive Editor of  JUF News.  She is proud to have longevity with her career -- especially considering her Gen X status -- coming to work for the Jewish people and JUF just one month after her college graduation in 2000.... Read More

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