The #MeToo movement has served as a powerful vehicle for women around the world to share their stories of sexual harassment, assault and abuse. But #MeToo’s reach into everyday life, politics and pop culture has left some men wondering, “What, if anything, can I do?”
From safe-space discussions for teenage boys to coed-led education sessions for college fraternities, the social prominence of #MeToo has become a relevant part of conversations about dating and sexuality across the Jewish community.
Rabbi Daniel Brenner, chief of education and programming for Moving Traditions, an organization committed to the health and wellbeing of Jewish teenagers, considered the very question of what men can do through a Jewish lens in a March JT column.
“Men have a responsibility to work with people of all genders to bring about cultural change,” he wrote. “In the Jewish community, that means that men who lead, work within or serve on the boards of Jewish institutions should be advocating for clear policies regarding sexual harassment across all levels of the organization. They should learn to watch out for common signs of harassment and abuse, and encourage efforts that make for safer workplaces and volunteer organizations.”
Shevet, a national program by Moving Traditions, provides Jewish teenage boys with space to explore their post-bar mitzvah Jewish identities. Healthy masculinity and issues regarding relationships and substance abuse are often discussed.
Since #MeToo, Brenner has seen teenagers become more willing to discuss sexual consent.
“Seven years ago, when we launched the Shevet program, we had content in the curriculum that focused on sexual objectification and sexual consent,” said Brenner. “It was typical that the mentors would say a lot of the guys weren’t ready for it. But I think now, especially this year, that even eighth graders are engaging in these topics.”
Baltimore Hebrew Congregation is one of Moving Traditions’ 200 partners nationally that facilitate the Shevet curriculum. Brad Cohen, director of education at the congregation, agrees that since #MeToo, sexual harassment has been in the forefront of teens’ minds.
“We have had a lot of conversations that have been informed by the #MeToo movement,” he said. “We want our teen guys to understand what is consent, what is not consent, how it’s okay for a man to be a feminist and how to support friends who go through these things.”
Outside of his work with the synagogue, Cohen is part of a small, informal men’s support group that meets every other week. He said half of the members are Jewish and that similar to Shevet, they continuously seek ways to better themselves. Cohen, a father of two sons, has also hosted a support group for dads. He believes there is a trick to making the conversations in these groups as candid as possible.
“What I’ve learned about those groups is that you don’t want more than 12. You want everybody to be able to share and to be able to talk,” Cohen said. “Once you get larger than a dozen it becomes harder to let everyone share.”
Cohen believes fathers can have conversations with their sons about consent at almost any age. Cohen has spoken to his oldest son, who is only 7, about barriers and respect.
“For 7 year-olds, it’s not about anything sexual, but knowing that when someone says ‘no’ or ‘I don’t like that,’ that means ‘stop,’” said Cohen. “That will translate when he is in middle school and high school to what’s developmentally appropriate at that time.”
There are also programs to prevent sexual assault for college-age men. Jewish Women International, an organization that works to empower women and girls through civic participation and community engagement, has a set of programs called Change the Culture that address sexual abuse, bystander invention, women’s empowerment against sexual violence and prenuptial agreements in Orthodox marriages. The organization also works with historically Jewish fraternity Zeta Beta Tau on Change the Culture’s coed-led Safe Smart Dating seminars at college campuses across the country.
“We want people to understand that enthusiastic consent is what you’re looking for,” said Deborah Rosenbloom, the vice president of programs and new initiatives. “Our understanding around Greek life and fraternities is that there are fantastic values: leadership, mentorship, friendship. What we do with the fraternity is try to elevate those values to have positive outcomes.”
Rosenbloom hopes that in and out of fraternity life, Jewish men will be aware of the power they hold at work, home, synagogue and other Jewish spaces. This includes believing survivors and holding other men accountable, even if they are one’s superior.
“There’s always pushback, but we’ve learned how to respond to it. Some guys will just be doubtful that these are real issues or that they have responsibility around it, but I feel like that’s changing,” she said. “My feeling about it is that guys are more understanding of the larger issue, and that they know what we’re talking about is real.”
JWI is currently implementing a federal grant to expand Change the Culture programming to reach students at Towson University and University of Maryland, which will host Safe Smart Dating programs on Oct. 21 and 28, respectively.
CHANA, an agency of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore, has provided the Jewish community with crisis intervention, education and consultation to those experiencing different kinds of abuse, including sexual abuse, for more than 20 years. Its sexual abuse program for teens sends the organization’s prevention educator to schools and camps across the state to lead sessions.
“We definitely see that the education and the prevention work we’ve done results in people disclosing more. Historically, we’ve always had that,” said Lauren Shaivitz, CHANA’s interim executive director. “The #MeToo movement definitely has opened up the door for people to feel more comfortable calling and disclosing things sooner than they would before.”
No matter the age level, conversations with boys, teenagers and men about respect, consent, personal barriers and bystander intervention have proven to be entry points for male involvement in the #MeToo movement. For Brad Cohen, creating the environments to have such conversations is an important place to start.
“To have these kinds of conversations, you need to be in a safe space with people you trust. Not every guy comes from the same place in understanding the #MeToo movement,” he said, “but at the same time they come from a place of openness, and want to be able to have a voice within in it.”