Sanctuary for the Abused

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Jews Who Abuse: Dating Violence on Campus
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Sometimes nice Jewish boys aren’t so nice. Just ask Shira D. Epstein.

As a college freshman, Epstein joined Hillel to connect with her Jewish peers on campus. One of those peers turned into a boyfriend who spent an entire semester abusing her both emotionally and sexually.

“You wouldn’t think that a guy who was pre-med, well-dressed and going to Hillel on Friday nights was bad in any way,” says Epstein who is now an assistant professor at Jewish Theological Seminary. Epstein designed the self-esteem building curriculum “Strong Girls, Healthy Relationships” for Jewish Women International (JWI).

The curriculum is one of several educational programs offered through JWI in response to a staggering statistic: 1 in 5 college students admits being abused by a current partner. (source, Jewish Women International)

“Dating violence is more prevalent on college campuses than many people think,” says Rella Kaplowitz, a program specialist at JWI. “And it doesn’t just refer to physical abuse. There is a significant amount of verbal, emotional and sexual abuse occuring in college relationships as well.”

JWI defines dating abuse as a pattern of controlling, threatening, aggressive or violent behavior that takes place in an intimate relationship. Dating abuse also applies to both heterosexual and homosexual relationships. In fact, the occurrence in same-sex relationships is just as common. (source, American Bar Association)

Creating awareness about the frequency and various forms of dating abuse is a major initiative of JWI. While a significant amount of attention has been devoted to the issue of sexual assault on college campuses, Epstein explains that, “Emotional abuse is just as damaging.”

Epstein describes her own short-lived freshman romance as tumultuous and says her attempts to end it only exacerbated the situation.

“He would refuse to leave [my dorm room] and yell at me that my standards were too high,” recalls Epstein.

When the relationship finally ended, the damaging effects began to sink in. Epstein’s self-esteem and grades were both failing and she spent the next several years avoiding serious relationships. Her story is not uncommon.

April, a young woman who appears in JWI’s most recent educational video, speaks candidly on camera about her experience with relationship abuse.

“I loved to sing. He didn’t like me singing in the car. So I stopped,” says April. The reason? “I didn’t want to give up the dream of marrying a Jewish doctor.”

As she recounts their initial meeting, April cannot help but smile describing her ex as “really intelligent.” He was, after all, the Jewish mother’s dream. But not long after they started dating, April says her self-esteem dropped dramatically.
“I couldn’t understand it because I had never had low self-esteem before,” she says. “The turning point for me was when he told me [he would never marry me because] he didn’t want a fat wife.
Three other young women and one young man also appear in the educational video. Each one shares experiences more unsettling than the next, including an abuser’s threats of suicide when the relationship headed downhill. Perhaps more troubling than the actual abuse is the so-called resistance by the Jewish community to name relationship abuse as a Jewish issue. Adam, whose mother was killed just days before his ninth birthday, explains how “red flags” about his parents’ relationship were widely ignored.
“Nothing he did was actually illegal,” Adam says referring to his father’s repeated emotional abuse of his mother. “And everyone thought ‘Jewish people don’t [abuse their spouses]. People with PhDs don’t do this. People from Ivy League schools don’t do this.’”
But, as many young Jewish men and women can attest, relationship violence occurs across all religions and during all stages of dating. For that reason, JWI created programming tailored for Jewish teens and young adults in 2005. “When Push Comes to Shove…It’s No Longer Love!” is already being used by local Hillels and local chapters of Sigma Delta Tau (SDT) sorority and Alpha Epsilon Phi (AEPhi) sorority on college campuses across the country.

Last month, the University of Illinois at Chicago Hillel sponsored JWI’s “When Push Comes to Shove…” program on its campus. Becky Adelberg, Chicago community outreach coordinator for JWI says there are plans to run the program at Northeastern Illinois University Hillel and Northwestern University Hillel in the spring.

The prevention program is particularly unique because it addresses dating violence from a Jewish perspective.

“We use Tanakh (biblical) text, highlighting the stories of Queen Vashti [from the Scroll of Esther] and Tamar [from the Book of Samuel], to teach correct and incorrect approaches to dating violence,” says Kaplowitz.

Some incorrect approaches, JWI teaches, include responding to a friend’s claim of date rape with, “Were you drunk?” and “What were you wearing?”

At the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Hillel activist Allison Rose and three friends created Project Dinah in 2004. Named for the daughter of Jacob and Leah, Project Dinah provides educational material about date rape to incoming freshmen and offers free self-defense courses. Project Dinah also established a blog for students in abusive relationships to submit testimony and share advice.

This semester, at Miami University in Ohio, Hillel and AEPhi helped to fund a speaking engagement with filmmaker and activist Nancy Schwartzman which included a partial viewing of her latest project, “The Line.” In the film, Schwartman explores the issue of sexual consent and violence. Schwartzman has also written about being date raped in Israel – a place she had always considered sacred and holy. Nearly 40 people, including many Miami University students, participated in the discussion.
“Abuse is a hard word,” says Epstein. “As Jews, we want to believe that we are ‘better…’ especially when it comes to our Jewish men. To admit that abuse occurs is to admit that something is lacking.”
Epstein is currently writing a book that will teach Jewish educators how to recognize and respond to the early signs of relationship abuse such as derogatory sexual language being overheard in the classroom. She says early intervention, as young as 11 years old, is the best way to prevent dating violence. “The ‘Strong Girls’ curriculum is something that I would’ve wanted,” she explains. “I think about myself at 20 and I am an entirely different person now. I can’t imagine what I would’ve chosen for myself.”

Danielle Freni is the editor of Hillel Campus Report.

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