November 16, 2018

Trump video should be a call to action

Something is unfolding that has the possibility of changing things forever. This is a tipping point. It’s the moment when we get real about growing up female in our country and the stories we have hidden. 

It’s not just the pure shock of the “Access Hollywood” recording from 2005, in which Donald Trump, now the Republican presidential nominee, spoke about grabbing women’s private parts or kissing women without consent, just because he could get away with it. 

It’s about what came after.

[My sexual assault, and yours: Every woman’s story]

As if we couldn’t hold it in any longer, an entire nation of women let out a collective gasp that continues to reverberate throughout our conversations, privately and publicly.

We felt his comments. Many of us had visceral reactions that recalled past personal traumas of our own sexual assaults, and being targets of degradation by words and actions.

And so after our “gasp,” we did what we usually do as women: We began to talk to one another and to seek comfort in sharing.

It was during one viewing of the “Access Hollywood” video that I turned to my husband of 36 years and began to recount experiences I’ve had in my life when I was sexually harassed, shamed and taken advantage of. These stories reached all the way back to elementary school.

My husband and I talk about everything. How is it that I had not shared this part of my life with him?

The only answer I can come up with is that these experiences are part and parcel of being female in this culture. It’s the water in which we swim. 

But something remarkable is happening.

Women across this country have been awakened. We are starting to tell the truth about what it’s like growing up female. It’s happening on social media, where comments run into the hundreds on posts in which women are sharing their personal nightmares — about the job they loved but left because of sexual harassment, or when they were raped on a date in college or even in their marriage.

In the Jewish community, the floodgates have opened.

Some of the stories would horrify you: Too many of my rabbinic colleagues experienced sexual harassment at their student pulpits or in one of their congregations, or from male students in seminary or a few by professors.

Friends, look around the room. Among us are women who have been violated in the most horrible ways, and nearly all of us have been belittled, body-shamed or demeaned simply because we were born female. 

This is shameful. 

It’s a woman’s issue. 

It’s a man’s issue.

It’s a religious issue.

It’s a Jewish issue.

This is an issue about human dignity.

In the first chapter of Torah, we are taught that all human beings are made in the Divine image (b’tzelem Elohim). This idea, that every human being deserves basic respect, has guided us to stand up for the fallen and for those who sleep in the dust.

What is the way forward? What other Jewish principles can guide our path?

First and foremost: Shema, listen. Our foundational statement (Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad) is about listening and recognizing our oneness and interconnectedness. (Listen Israel, Adonai is our God, Adonai is One.) 

Our stories must be heard. We are not yet nearly done with the truth-telling that will launch our healing.

Bear witness. Listen with your heart. Be a safe place where stories can be shared. And be prepared to keep listening as more is revealed.

Secondly, let’s begin a conversation in the Jewish community about dignity as it relates to women and girls. Let’s talk about how to make sure our synagogues and Jewish communal spaces are based on respect for all and where harassment and minimizing will not be tolerated. Let’s look at our camps, our boardrooms and our committees.

My teacher Rabbi Richard Levy taught about dignity in this way: The high priest wore a headpiece during ancient times. Engraved on his forehead were the words “Holy to Adonai/God” (Exodus 28:36).

Levy suggested that we imagine every single person we encounter has the words “Holy to God” etched on their foreheads. In this way, we see the sacredness of each human being right in front of us. After all, we are told, “You shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6).

Here’s another “truth” about Jewish women (and men, too). After we open up and talk, we see that we are not alone. 

Then, we act.

And that is why I deeply believe that 2016 is a watershed moment in our country and in our community. We are a people who believe that out of darkness comes light, and out of chaos comes order.

Let this be the year that out of silence and shame come openness and sharing. And action.

Nothing less than seeing one another as “holy to Adonai” will suffice.


Rabbi Jill Berkson Zimmerman is the founder of The Jewish Mindfulness Network (ravjill.com). She can be reached at RabbiJillZ@gmail.com.