The Rabbi of my modern-orthodox shul, Kehilat Pardes in Rockville, invited me to give a d’var Torah (insights on the weekly Torah portion, similar to a sermon) on the first Shabbat of Domestic Violence Awareness Month, also the first Shabbat of the Jewish year. I was given the opportunity to open up to my congregation about some personal issues, and share how my work at JCADA, as well as my community have helped me overcome my own spiritual challenges. Below you will find the written version of the d'var Torah I gave to my congregation.
Over the summer, Rav Uri so kindly invited me to speak to you all during Domestic Violence Awareness Month. When I first thought about what I would say, I figured I’d give an educational, academic drasha (sermon, d’var Torah) on power-based violence, give everyone some statistics, and hopefully leave you all a bit more knowledgeable about the cycle of abuse. But I realized after some thought, that’s not what I want to do. I decided I’d rather share a story with you all, and I figured there’s no better place to share this than in this sacred space, let alone on the 1st Shabbat of the year.
So, to begin, when I started reading this week’s parsha (Torah portion of the week), I felt kind of angry and upset. As I read through Bereshit (creation), the story of the creation of the 1st man and 1st woman, all I could think of was Chava (Eve) was created only because man needed a partner. Then, she commits this horrible “sin” of eating from the Tree of Knowledge, and she takes all the blame, even though Adam ate the fruit as well. It seemed to me that G-d was angry that Adam listened to his wife and ate the fruit because she told him to, still blaming his actions on his wife. I thought yet again, women take all the blame.
For a long time now, I’ve interpreted this parsha as yet another example of gender inequality in the Torah. But I’ve realized that I’ve been clinging onto my own negative interpretations of our faith for a while now, because of my own personal experiences. I’ve let these experiences take over my love for Judaism for quite some time now.
When I was a student in college, I was more connected, more observant, and more passionate about my Judaism than I had ever been before. For much of my childhood, I was disconnected from Torah Judaism because of some experiences I had when I was very young. But in college, I was finally able to overcome that disconnect and my love and devotion to observance became stronger than it ever was before.
I had a whole plan, after I graduated I was going to go to Israel for one year, at least one year. I was going to study at a women’s yeshiva (seminary) in Jerusalem and truly immerse myself in a life of Torah and learning. I was even pondering the idea of someday down the line becoming a Maharat (ordained orthodox female clergy).
Then towards the middle of my second semester of my senior year, everything changed. I was assaulted by someone I knew, someone in the Jewish community, someone I often spent Friday night meals with, went to services with, and shared a love for Judaism with. I later went to my Rebbetzin (Rabbi’s wife), looking for support and advice, looking for some kind of spiritual healing. But what I got was a long conversation about modesty, tzniut, and shomer negiah (Jewish law restricting physical contact with the opposite sex, except for close family). I was told that this so called epidemic of sexual assault on college campuses could be stopped if women conducted themselves different, and if young Jewish women would be more observant, this wouldn’t be an issue. After this, I felt like my life spiraled out of control. I didn’t want to go to services in my spiritual sanctuary. My safe space felt contaminated. I channeled all of my anger towards Judaism, the teachings, and the leaders. I didn’t go to Israel. Without giving an explanation, I came back home after graduation. When people asked me why I didn’t go to Israel, I didn’t know how to respond. The question was too painful, I would simply say “my plans just changed."
I hated that I didn’t go to Israel, and I hated being angry at Judaism, but I couldn’t help it. Then, what now feels like hasgacha pratis (divine providence), I landed an internship at JCADA in which the focus of my work was outreach, specifically clergy outreach. That internship turned into a full time job.
I saw a new perspective. Instead of giving up all hope on religious communities that weren’t creating safe spaces, just as I was, JCADA said let’s educate them. Let’s work together with clergy to create better environments for survivors. Throughout my time at both JCADA and this shul, in this Jewish community, I have learned the true definition of what a safe space really is.
Rav Uri and Dahlia, you’ve restored my faith in orthodox synagogues as safe spaces. At the time of my assault, the light in my life was Judaism, my observancy, and my faith. But then it all became clouded with darkness.
As I read through this parsha, the discussion of separating the darkness from the light reminded me of this internal struggle I have been battling. This community, and JCADA have truly helped me separate that darkness from the light. And I’m working at it, I know it’s going to be a process, but there’s finally starting to be more light than darkness in my life.
For a while now, I have thought that Judaism was a weapon, and it was Judaism’s fault for creating that darkness. But now I know I was wrong, Judaism is what’s creating that light for me.
At JCADA, we often talk about creating safe spaces. How do we do this? What do we tell communities to do in order to create safe havens? But these questions have been hard for me to answer. Rav Uri & Dahlia have shown me what this means. By inviting congregants up to speak on Shabbat, by listening to our stories, thoughts, and interpretations of Torah, that has created a safe space. By listening to one another without interruption, without jumping to conclusions, but just hearing each other’s voices is what’s going to create safe spaces.
I’m no longer going to cling to my own negative interpretations of a text, I’m going to open my heart up to other viewpoints of Torah. Many of my clients at JCADA are spiritual and religious people who have experienced horrific trauma, yet so many of them have been able to overcome this trauma without losing faith. My work has helped me realize that sharing stories is what creates safe spaces. I hope that this community as a whole can inspire other religious communities to do what we have done here. And I hope that I can bring wisdom from this community to my work at JCADA.
I’ve struggled with so many big questions in the last year. Questions about G-d, Torah, and society. For so long I’ve focused on the barriers and obstacles that religion creates for survivors. But now, I want to focus on how our religious principles and values inform this work in a constructive and positive way. What type of role can a religious community play when power-based violence is often a private matter? And where is G-d in all of this? I’m realizing now that the questions are often more powerful than the answers. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks once said, “I don’t need you to agree with me, I just need you to care about me”. I think this is a key practice in creating a safe space. There’s no one answer as to how to create a safe space, but I can tell you it takes an entire community to do so.