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#GamAni'It's not happening in just one region, or just one group'

Teens push for end to ‘toxic’ culture of sexuality in US Jewish youth groups

Six young women who met at a Jewish Women’s Archive writing retreat co-author article criticizing objectifying chants, hookup ‘point system’ rampant at meetups

Clockwise from top: Article co-authors Dahlia Soussan, Madeline Canfield, and Lilah Peck. (All photos courtesy)
Clockwise from top: Article co-authors Dahlia Soussan, Madeline Canfield, and Lilah Peck. (All photos courtesy)

NEW YORK — Several young women are calling for an end to a Jewish youth group culture that they claim is rife with hypersexualization, toxic masculinity, misogyny, and sexual pressure.

“It’s an open secret that many of the social interactions and practices normalized, even lauded, within the enclave of youth groups fly despite the broader #MeToo era,” the young women wrote in a piece published in eJewish Philanthropy.

The six young women said they decided to go public after meeting and commiserating during the 2019-2020 Rising Voices writing fellowship at the Jewish Women’s Archive. They said they were tired of such behavior getting dismissed as “teens being teens.” But more so, they hoped to initiate change.

“We want more honesty from youth group leadership. The hypersexual culture at retreats is not new. Everyone knows it’s like that and the leadership needs to take accountability,” said Lila Goldstein, a first-year student at Brandeis University who has attended retreats hosted by the Reform movement’s NFTY youth group.

Five of the six co-authors spoke about their experiences in Reform, Progressive, Conservative and Pluralistic groups in a Zoom interview with The Times of Israel. They also shared what sweeping changes they would like youth group leadership to take.

To start, they would like a comprehensive and anonymous survey of former youth group members to see why they might have dropped out, candid conversations with teens and adult educators before events, and conventions offering meaningful training around the issue of consent and why hookup games can undermine it.

Additionally, the young women would like to see the creation of a national position solely dedicated to discussing gender, sex, relationships, and consent in youth groups, as well as ongoing workshops that address those issues.

Much to their satisfaction, their call was heard.

Gary Levin, BBYO Senior Vice President of Community Impact. (Courtesy)

Gary Levin, the non-denominational BBYO’s senior vice president of community impact, said he was proud of the young women for taking a stance.

“I had a range of reactions when I read the letter. I was proud that these young women spoke up. It’s their own personal experience and that’s valid,” said Levin. “We are creating a safe environment for all our teens. We’re trying to create… and encourage healthy relationships.”

Levin met remotely with the six young women soon after the article was published. Arielle Handel, BBYO’s director of inclusion, joined him on the call.

While Levin never witnessed anything the article described directly, he “definitely heard of instances and they [such instances] wouldn’t be out of the ordinary,” he said.

Some of the behavior described in the article included “grinding on the dance floor,” “seedy songs that slut-shame girls,” a disturbing “points” system that “allots values to specific hookups based on members’ leadership positions,” and a “TikTok montage displaying pictures of clearly identifiable teens kissing — without the subjects’ prior knowledge or consent.”

We are the best, there ain’t no other. Look at our breasts, better than your mother’s!

Madeline Canfield, an 18-year-old first-year student at Brown University, said she remembers how hearing the boys’ chants at BBYO events made her recoil.

“They had just the most pressuring, hyper-masculine, toxically masculine chants. They’re awful. The girls had chants that defined themselves in terms of sex and satisfying boys, and the boys celebrated their own escapades,” Canfield said.

For example, the words to one girls’ chant include “We’re on a boat, we never sink, we’ll always float. We are the best, there ain’t no other. Look at our breasts, better than your mother’s! We’re BBGs [Beautiful Baby Girls] and proud. Get on your knees and get loud!”

Article co-author Madeline Canfield is a student at Brown University. (Courtesy)

Canfield who was 15 at the time, never told anyone about how she felt.

It wasn’t until she attended the Rising Voices retreat a few years later that she realized she wasn’t alone in feeling disappointed and disillusioned.

“When you’re in it, it’s hard to avoid this sexualized culture that is being pushed on you. There’s an expectation of conformity; the chants and cheers, who is wearing what to an event,” Canfield said. “It wasn’t until I was relatively removed from it that I realized it was wrong. You don’t necessarily realize in the moment that it’s not right. Instead you think there’s something wrong with me for not wanting to join in.”

There’s an expectation of conformity

After NFTY’s 2020-2021 North American president, Fletcher Block, read the piece he reached out to the young women.

Fletcher Block, 2020-2021 president of the North American Board of NFTY. (Courtesy)

“My first impression on reading the article was that this is not okay. It’s not okay if even one person feels like that at a retreat. Consent is crucial and the article awoke us to the idea that we can always do better,” said 19-year-old Block.

While Fletcher said he never experienced the same level of discomfort, toxicity, and sexual peer pressure as the co-authors, he identified with some aspects of what they described.

After reading the piece, Block reached out to some of the article’s co-authors to discuss how to improve the culture in addition to steps it took a few years ago. For example, NFTY’s B’rit K’hilah, or code of conduct, has been a longstanding commitment among NFTY participants and a section referring to consent was added in 2018.

Other concrete steps being taken by NFTY teen leaders in dialogue with adult youth professionals is a full exploration, by the NFTY Inclusion Task Force, to review how the community acts and treats each other, leading toward making a meaningful cultural shift.

The eJewish Philanthropy article has generated negative feedback, as well.

One commenter called the atmosphere described in the article “a big accusation that is both undocumented by fact, and off-putting to so many boys who are presumed guilty and predatory before they enter a room.”

Article co-author Lilah Peck is a senior at Charlotte Country Day School. (Courtesy)

As co-author Lilah Peck sees it, change is long overdue.

“What happens at these retreats is not isolated. It’s not happening in just one region, in just one youth group,” said Peck, now a senior at Charlotte Country Day School in Charlotte, North Carolina.

In many ways what transpires during these youth group retreats is reflective of a wider national problem, according to a 2017 Harvard University Graduate School of Education report, “The Talk: How Adults Can Promote Young People’s Healthy Relationships and Prevent Misogyny and Sexual Harassment.”

It takes a lot of courage to come forward

The majority of young people don’t recognize certain types of gender-based degradation and subordination as societal problems, according to the study.

At least 87 percent of young women reported having experienced at least one of the following during their lifetime: 55% have been catcalled; 41% have been touched without permission by a stranger; 47% have been insulted by a man with sexualized words such as slut, bitch or ho; and 42% have been insulted with sexualized words by a woman.

“It takes a lot of courage to come forward and call out and name the problem they are witnessing in their community. We must work so people can feel safe enough and comfortable enough and supported enough to share their experiences,” said Ariella Neckritz, senior manager of prevention programs for Jewish Women International (JWI).

JWI already works with several Jewish organizations including the Zeta Beta Tau fraternity and Hillel on campus. The programs train students to challenge harmful gender norms, ask for consent, be an active bystander, support survivors, shut down victim-blaming, identify abusive relationships, be a positive role model, and build a culture of respect.

“We’re not looking for an ‘okay, maybe’ or an ‘okay, tomorrow,'” Neckritz said of obtaining consent. “We want an enthusiastic yes. Everything else below that is not consent. We want young people to think about boundaries, to feel they are in a comfortable and safe place to assert themselves.”

Article co-author Dahlia Soussan is a senior in Palo Alto, California. (Courtesy)

BBYO, with support from JWI, is introducing two new workshops, “Yes and Know” and “Choose Respect,” to its 531 North American chapters. The youth group plans to promote the programs — which were in development before the eJewish Philanthropy article was published — from all angles, to make sure teens, advisors, and staff know about them and encourage chapters to participate.

“We want all of our teens to be healthy and safe, mentally and emotionally. These retreats are about cultivating healthy connections,” said Levin.

Dahlia Soussan, one of the article’s co-authors and a senior in Palo Alto, California, said she hopes the article will encourage deeper conversations around the idea of consent and peer pressure.

“We wanted to not only shine a light on the problems, but change the culture. We wanted to challenge these gender norms and the idea of ‘teens being teens,’” Soussan said. “What we’re really trying to do is teach positive behaviors about consent and respect and make it part of the Jewish experience.”

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