Racy Instagrams and the Lessons of Purim

iStock_000016984559Smallby Rabbi Donna Kirshbaum

Purim’s almost here, the one day of the year we’re supposed to be moderate in our moderation, even encouraged to abandon ourselves to excess. But this year the holiday falls within a season of such excess in the country’s shared civic life that some of us wonder if moderation – or more precisely, modesty – will soon be only a relic, an artifact, from a more innocent time. We’ve seen that references to private body parts and functions are no longer taboo in presidential debates. We’ve read about a reality star with her own brand of emoji symbols sending out a racy Instagram worldwide, and it’s the ensuing public debate that mirrors, in a way, the stories of Purim. Some celebs took to social media to rail against what they saw as a flagrant display of self-serving and attention seeking behavior while others defended the star’s confidence and demanded to know who has the right to judge a woman for what she chooses to wear or how much of her body she decides to expose. We can wonder what kinds of messages Vashti and Esther would have tweeted.

Purim seems to us – members of Jewish Women International’s Clergy Task Force on Domestic Abuse in the Jewish Community – a perfect time to talk about modesty. Let us explain. Several years ago our Task Force decided to encourage conversations about healthy 21st century relationships. Since Jewish holidays are natural times for special meals and special talk we created a series of Holiday Guides, choosing holiday-related sources and commentary that highlight distinctive qualities common to healthy intimate relationships. For example, in the Purim Guide the issue of modesty comes up in the section devoted to an aspect of health that we call “striving for parity.”

By ‘parity’ we aren’t referring to the commodities market, chas ve’chalilah – heaven forbid. We use the word parity to mean a negotiable state of balance in which men and women have equal power or status, resulting in needs being met without struggle or competition.

In the Purim Guide we encourage use of the multi-faceted stories of both Vashti and Esther to ground conversations about what “healthy” can mean in our time and conclude that parity may only be possible where men take responsibility for seeing women as people, not as objects intended to satisfy male sexual needs. Rabbi Dov Linzer, in a New York Times op-ed, notes: “At heart, we’re talking about a blame-the-victim mentality. It shifts the man’s sexual urges from himself to every woman he may or may not encounter. It is a cousin to the claim, ‘she was asking for it.’  …The Talmud acknowledges that men can be sexually aroused by women…  But it does not tell women that men’s sexual urges are their responsibility. It is forbidden for a man to gaze sexually at a woman.  …The Talmud tells the religious man, in effect: If you have a problem, you deal with it. It is the male gaze – the way men look at women – that needs to be desexualized, not women in public.”

Rabbi Linzer concludes, “Jewish tradition teaches men and women alike that they should be modest in their dress. But modesty is not defined by, or even primarily about, how much of one’s body is covered. It is about comportment and behavior. It is about recognizing that one need not be the center of attention. It is about embodying the prophet Micah’s call for modesty: learning ‘to walk humbly with your God.’ “

We like that. Modesty is about comportment and behavior. It is about recognizing that one need not be the center of attention. And it makes us wonder about Vashti and Esther: in what ways did they both show tzniut [modesty] ? How did they each demand that King Achashverosh see her as a person? Rabbi Linzer’s comments also help us question our current situation: until there’s a cultural shift with more men taking  responsibility for seeing women as people instead of objects, how can we teach young women to expect parity in relationships?

Rabbi Kirshbaum lives in Omer, Israel and is a member of JWI’s Clergy Taskforce on Domestic Abuse in the Jewish Community. To receive a copy of Rethinking Purim: Women, Relationships & Jewish Texts, go to jwi.org.


At Rutgers, Campus Ambassador promotes awareness and conversation to #ChangeTheCulture

By Amanda Foster, Sigma Delta Tau sister

My name is Amanda Foster and I am a junior at Rutgers University and a member of Sigma Delta Tau (SDT). Last spring, I had the opportunity to volunteer as a facilitator for JWI’s Safe Smart Dating program, a workshop that brought my chapter and fraternity Zeta Beta Tau (ZBT) together to discuss dating abuse, sexual assault and being an active bystander.

As I prepared to lead my small group discussions, I became deeply interested in the way that JWI was working to bring awareness to the dating violence and sexual assault that is happening on our college campuses. It was real, straightforward and engaging. I have friends who have been in abusive relationships as well as some who have experienced sexual assault. The idea that I had the chance to possibly help prevent that from happening in the future – well, I jumped on it!


Safe Smart Dating at Rutgers

Rutgers, like most (if not all) colleges, has a problem with sexual assault. I think there’s a problematic attitude where people think that sexual assault “just happens” or is “bad luck” or that the victim “put themselves in that situation.” Sexual assault is NOT inevitable like people tend to justify it by saying! How crazy is that? How crazy is it that people think that because the statistic (1 in 5 women) is so high, that it is inevitable, that sexual assault is bound to happen!? It is not!

Why are we educating women on not wearing revealing clothes, or to not drink too much or walk home alone? While all of these are important and smart ways to keep yourself safe as a young woman, why are we not teaching men about what consent means? I hope ZBT pairing with JWI on Safe Smart Dating is only the start. I hope that men want to see an end to this just as much as women do.


A great crowd at Rutgers for Safe Smart Dating!

After the Safe Smart Dating program, I applied to be a Campus Ambassador and work with JWI on addressing these issues on my campus year-round. This fall, I worked closely with JWI and the philanthropy chair of my chapter, Ashleigh David, to create a “spa night” fundraiser/program, starting meaningful conversations as well as selling the Girls Achieve Grapeness! nail polish that helps raise money for JWI. The idea behind this program was to get girls in a room in a fun way to raise awareness about sexual assault and start the conversation.

For our first year doing it, it was such a success! It was a spa with a twist – for each part of the spa, we had something to encourage conversations about consent. For instance, instead of magazines in the waiting area, we had ads glorifying sexual assault and encouraged people to tweet about consent. We had YouTube videos about consent at the table where girls were drying their nails. We had girls from all the chapters on campus as well as other Rutgers women join us to get their nails done, watch a makeup tutorial, eat and take pictures in a photobooth. We had salons in the area donate spa baskets and gift cards that allowed us to also do a raffle to raise more money for JWI.

Consent education matters. As JWI’s Dana Fleitman always says, “we don’t want a yeah, we want a HELL YEAH!” when it comes to consent!

Drinking at college is going to happen. Flirting and hookups at college are going to happen. Sexual assault doesn’t have to be something that “happens.”

Being able to be a Campus Ambassador has been a great opportunity for me because I have gotten the chance to help promote something that I believe in. I believe that knowledge is power and by educating college women on issues that are right in front of us all the time, we are better prepared to handle situations ahead. I hope that for the rest of the academic year I can continue to raise awareness and educate the women at Rutgers.

Amanda Foster is a sister of Sigma Delta Tau at Rutgers University and a campus ambassador for JWI.

What happens when we #ChangeTheCulture? Lessons from a nation leading on gender equality

By Rebecca Benoff, JWI

Sexual assault. We hear about it all the time in the news. As a college student, it’s always being discussed on my campus. I know all the statistics because I’ve heard them so frequently and, like most girls around my age, I am a bit overprotective of my drink at parties, fearful of large groups of unfamiliar men and sometimes worried about walking home alone late at night. But beyond all of these things, I never personally felt a visible problem.

It wasn’t until I went to one of the top five gender equal countries in the world that I finally realized the problem. I spent four months studying abroad in Copenhagen, Denmark and yes, I did many of the typical study abroad things: traveled on the weekends, ate customary foods, drank the local beers, went to bars and tried making friends with locals, spent time discussing in classes and with friends the many cultural difference we felt. Once we got past the amount of bikes on the road and dull colors of clothing, the discussion always returned to the safeness we felt as young women.

Unlike at home, when a group of girls would walk into a bar or party, no one received any “unwanted touching.” Walking down the street: no one was catcalled. Other Danish students we’d meet at a bar wanted to actually talk, not just immediately try to take one of us home for the night. Beyond that, I learned that in Denmark, women tend to be the aggressors in a relationship. That means that girls often will buy the guy a drink. On dating apps and in real life, girls are expected to talk first, which means we would not have to wait for a ridiculous pickup line.

When we delved into some of these examples in one of my classes, I began to realize the underlying cultural differences. When I went to college, I was taught to be afraid: to protect my drink, not walk alone at night, always have my keys ready, never go home with someone you don’t know, etc. My older brothers never received any such advice.

In Denmark, when they have sex-ed in school, boys and girls are taught about healthy relationships, contraception, and most of all, to have fun. Yes, even our Danish resident advisor told us all (boys and girls) to “be safe and to kiss lots of Danish people.” That’s just the culture.

These are all just the concrete differences that being a college student in both the United States and Denmark revealed to me along with the many other female students in my program. The not-so-concrete difference is that Denmark is highly gender equal, both mothers and fathers receive and take paid maternity and paternity leave, women are paid nearly equal to men and women hold 40% of seats in parliament, rather than the meek 18% of women legislators in the United States Congress.

The fact of it is that we in the United States don’t live in an equal country, and this inequality is a massive contributing factor to the culture of sexual assault. Sexual assault is not just a problem on college campuses – it is a problem ingrained in our culture of inequality.

Our culture can change, and it begins simply with empowering young women, rather than scaring them, educating both women and men about healthy relationships as well as equality and treating people with respect, no matter their gender.

People warned me of reverse culture shock when I returned home, but more than anything I am empowered and more confident from my time in Denmark and disgusted at the culture of inequality that we allow to persist. Sexual assault is a byproduct of an unequal culture, but we have the power to change the culture, from policies such as paid leave, to the way we talk to friends and family about relationships.

Where will this cultural change begin? It can start with the policies but it can also trickle up from our generation. With increased attention on college campuses and sexual assault, our generation can not only change the culture surrounding sexual assault, but also the culture of inequality. What will you do to change the community you’re in? How are you working towards a more gender equal society? It’s time we stop accepting inequality as the norm in the country, in our communities and on our campuses.

Becca headshotRebecca Benoff is a senior at The George Washington University and recently finished a semester abroad at the Danish Institute of Study Abroad in Copenhagen. She is studying Psychology and Judiac Studies. She is a summer 2015 Marketing and Communications intern with JWI.


By Haley Lerner, JWI

Sitting in my Psychology 101 lecture hall on my first day of classes at Emory University, I looked around at the 200 students furiously taking notes as the professor droned on about experiments conducted by random researchers that I had never heard of. Coming from a high school where my graduating class consisted of 100 people, I was quite taken aback by the fact that the professor did not know my whole life story, that we couldn’t call the professors by their first names and that we were actually supposed to raise our hands if we had something to say.

As I quietly sat on my computer in the back of the class, mostly paying attention but occasionally online shopping, I observed an interesting phenomenon that I had been taught in class but had never actually noticed in action: there is quite an obvious difference in the ways men and women participate and ask questions in a large classroom setting. Men would confidently raise their hands during the middle of the professor’s lecture to ask a question, or would even call out when they weren’t given the attention they thought they deserved. However, women would often sheepishly raise their hands and begin the question with “Sorry but…” or “Wait – sorry…” or “Sorry, I missed that…” or  “Sorry, can you repeat that?” or “Sorry, I just have a question…”

So, as women we’re “sorry” for being self-advocates, “sorry” for having questions and “sorry” for not being perfect?

Sorry, but I’m pretty sure that we’re not actually sorry for any of this.


via Flickr

Recently, Kim Osborne, a Digital Manager at Golin, spoke at a JWI Summer Series event for college interns about ways in which young women can make the most out of their summer internships. She discussed the concept of “sorry, not sorry,” and how women are often afraid to speak up for themselves in a professional setting.

Even when we as women get the courage to go up to their boss and ask for another assignment or to take them out to coffee, we generally preface the proposal with “sorry…” “Sorry, I was just wondering if you had anything else for me to work on.” “Wait, sorry, but do you have time to go grab a quick cup of coffee this afternoon?”

Just because it may be in our nature to be polite and respectful to our superiors, that does not mean that we must apologize when we didn’t do anything wrong, or feel embarrassed to ask a question.  As Osborne emphasized, being a young female professional means making your voice heard in an environment where it is sometimes uncomfortable to do so. However, asking these questions and taking this kind of initiative is the only way to advance in the professional world and become better versions of ourselves.

So next time you talk to your boss or raise your hand in class, think about the motivation behind your question and understand that you have a right to ask it. Realize that you’re not sorry for being curious, excited or passionate. Take initiative to make sure that your goals are accomplished and understood by others.

And lastly, make sure that other people know that you’re not sorry for any of it.

Haley Lerner is a summer 2015 intern at JWI.

BONUS LINKS: Recently we in the JWI office have been discussing this piece by Ann Friedman: “Can We Just, Like, Get Over the Way Women Talk?”

Like, have you ever noticed that women apologize too much? Sorry, but just humor me for a second here. What if, um, how we’re speaking is actually part of what’s undermining us in the workplace, in politics, and anywhere in the public sphere where we want to be taken seriously? I think it could be time for us all to assess how we’re talking. Does that make sense to you, too?

It reminded us of this great sketch by Amy Schumer, which will hit home for many women.

JWI’s Summer Series for Interns is off to a great start!

By Rachel Schor, JWI

Deborah Rosenbloom, Vice President of Programs & New Initiatives at JWI, and Kimberly Osborne, Manager at Golin in the Digital Connector community, spoke to a room of 50 young professional women on June 24, discussing their suggestions on how to make the most of an internship. The event was the first of JWI’s 10th annual three- part Summer Series workshops for female interns in Washington, D.C. Each woman spoke about her unique experience; Deborah from the perspective of a 15-year experienced intern supervisor and Kimberly from the perspective of a master intern. Summer Series attendees

Deborah spoke first, encouraging the interns to share why they are in D.C. and why they wanted to be interns. What did Deborah recommend interns do to make their experience the best it can be? To take a moment and think about why organizations choose to hire interns in the first place. To always (truly, always) bring a pen and paper everywhere. To make sure to always be up front and direct with the intern supervisor. To come in with expectations and to make sure they are heard by the people who have the power to change the trajectory of the internship. She additionally emphasized the importance of making sure that an intern always asks her supervisor for a reference before leaving the position.  She even said that an intern could go so far as to writing the recommendation herself and leaving it with her supervisor, ready to have it pulled at a later date.

Kimberly spoke after Deborah, coming with 10 different internships under her belt. She was not much older than many of the women in the room which made her very relatable. She started by saying that the best way to prepare for an internship is to set S.M.A.R.T. goals: specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and timely. Beyond that, Kimberly suggested to invite a supervisor or executive out for coffee to “pick their brain.” Having business cards and a LinkedIn account was universally agreed upon as being important.

Kimberly Osborne speaks to Summer Series attendees.Kimberly said that she had the best interning experiences when she came into the organization with a list of at least three goals that she expected to have done by the time her internship had concluded. She then put these new skills/projects into her “Master Resume,” which she would edit to make the perfect resume whenever she would go to a job interview.  She suggested to contact old supervisors three times a year and to never burn the bridges forged, even if the internship is dissolved before initially intended end date.

After both women had spoken, the floor opened for questions. The young professionals had a number of good questions regarding their personal situations at their workplaces and how Deborah and Kimberly would have dealt with the situations if they were in the position.

Over all, the first workshop in the Summer Series was a huge success!  JWI staff and interns are incredibly excited for the next two events and hope to see new and returning faces.

Are you interested in attending one or both of our upcoming events? Please register at www.jwi.org/summer.

We hope to see you there!

Rachel Schor is a summer 2015 intern at JWI.

The hypocrisy of advocacy and sports

By Hannah Stein, JWI

Our society has a hypocrisy issue when it comes to violence against women. Yesterday concluded Sexual Assault Awareness Month— four weeks of explicit dedication to addressing sexual violence. Through heightened social media activism, White House engagement and cross-campus programming, awareness on the topic has spread nationwide. The month of April raised optimism surrounding the understanding of sexual violence, an issue that has gained noticeable attention in the past year.

This advocacy, however, conflicts with another societal message: athletes are above the law. Last night, former FSU quarterback Jameis Winston was selected as the number one overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft. In 2012, former FSU student Erica Kinsman accused Winston of sexual assault, filing charges against the athlete. After conducting a seemingly flawed investigation, the Tallahassee Police Department cleared Winston of the accusations. Kinsman shares her story in The Hunting Ground, a documentary exposing the epidemic of rape on college campuses.

Tomorrow night, boxer Floyd Mayweather Jr. fights Manny Pacquiao in what ESPN calls “The Fight of the Century.” Mayweather has a long history of domestic violence, including seven assaults against five women that led to arrests. The boxer’s violence does not wane outside of the ring; in 2010, he attacked the mother of his three children until his son called 911. Mayweather only served two months in jail.

What message does this send?

We just spent an entire month talking about sexual assault. Politicians, activists and survivors across the nation spoke out against the violence, debunking rape myths and challenging victim stereotypes. We emphasized saying #NoMore to sexual assault, highlighting the importance of bystander intervention.

But now we’re praising athletes like Winston and Mayweather?

We can’t have it both ways. We can’t advocate against sexual violence and then endorse athletes who perpetrate it. This mixed message is extremely confusing, especially for those who look at athletes as role models. If we want to truly address sexual assault, then we must fully commit to condemning it, even— no, especially when it comes to athletes.

Title IX complaint at American U. reinforces need for campus activism against sexual assault

Title IX graphic

Image via Feministing.

By Katie Gifford, JWI

American University, my home for the past four years, is frequently cited as one of the most politically active campuses on the country. Students lobby and protest for causes ranging from fossil fuel divestment to tuition freezes to sexual assault prevention, and there’s a club for almost every issue you could think of. I personally am a member of the organization Students Against Sexual Violence, which was started last year in response to leaked emails from a banned, underground fraternity known for drugging drinks at their parties.

Since that time, we have advocated for survivor support programs and mandatory sexual assault prevention education, among other things. Some calls have been met, such as the hiring of a victim advocacy services coordinator, and the administration is finally attempting to work with us on other demands.

But that banned frat? They’re still on campus, wearing their “letters” and recruiting new members. When approached about these issues, the administration has been difficult to work with or just plain unresponsive.

That’s why I was not surprised when I found out that AU is under investigation following a Title IX complaint. Disappointed, of course, but not surprised. When it comes to Title IX and sexual assault, schools are tasked with investigating any sexual assault charges and making sure that survivors and all students can receive their education in an environment safe from fear of sexual violence. If the school doesn’t live up to its responsibilities, students may file complaints, and an investigation is opened.

On March 11th, while we were on spring break, an investigation into the complaint at AU began. It took the administration a week to notify students, and they only did so after the student newspaper reported it first. This late notification made me nervous. Why didn’t they tell us right away? Did they think they could keep us from finding out? Beyond that, the email they sent included that they would use the complaint to “learn if there is more we can do… to create an environment that is safe, responsive, and compliant with the law.”

As a student activist, this upset me even more. We have been lobbying the school for a year. Why are they just now paying attention, why didn’t they listen to us in the first place? Why did it take this, a national media event, for them to start paying attention? Deep down, I know why. But it’s horrible to realize that the school cares more about headlines than students.

American University is my chosen home away from home. It hurts to know that the administration does not care about students, does not care about me, to such a point that a complaint needed to be filed. It hurts to know that it took a complaint for them to be interested in learning what they could do to make the university safer, as if we have not been telling them for months what actions can be taken.

April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month (#SAAM), and various groups on campus are holding events to support survivors and promote sexual assault prevention. We will take back the night, promote our right to party without fear, and help carry that weight.

I can only hope that the administration finally listens to us and starts taking necessary action to prevent sexual assault on campus, because even one is too many.

Katie Gifford, a senior at American University majoring in International Service and Women, Gender and Sexuality Issues, is a program intern with JWI.