This post contains content about sexual assault and may be triggering for some.
Today as I scroll through social media I am filled with sadness, anger, confusion, and, somehow, relief. Relief that I am not the only one. I am not the only woman that has come from a Modern Orthodox community that has experienced sexual assault. Sexual harassment. Abuse.
Sadness and anger that so many of my friends have had these experiences that I may or may not have known about. I know that a campaign like #MeToo can be problematic. Not everyone who is a survivor is able to identify themselves publicly, online, as one. And that’s ok. But the sheer number of women, men and non-identifying folks that are joining in and saying “Me, too” indicates how much of a problem we have in our society.
I hesitated to post, to include myself in this campaign, but in the end I did. Because I am a survivor, in many ways. I, like so many others, have had multiple experiences that “qualify” me as such.
I am not the only woman that has come from a Modern Orthodox community that has experienced sexual assault.
I rarely speak about my assault that occurred while I was on my Birthright trip to Israel. I was 18, it was my first time in the Holy Land, and I wanted it to be an amazing, life-changing experience. And it was, but not in all of the positive ways I had hoped. I had those moments, too. I prayed at the Kotel, floated in the Dead Sea, climbed Masada.
But I also had a few other firsts. My first kiss. My first time telling a guy “no.” My first time pushing a guy away.
It was ironic to me that my trip to Israel was when I finally had my first kiss. I had a boyfriend in high school, but at the time I considered myself to be shomer negiah. I didn’t touch boys.
It would have been a fine first kiss story if it ended there. But it didn’t.
This trip came at a time when I was figuring myself out religiously. Did I want to be shomer negiah? Did I want to keep kosher and be shomer shabbat? I had just finished my first year of college and while I had made friends, I felt invisible when it came to boys. When one of the fellow participants on my trip, I’ll call him Jake, noticed me, I was flattered. Excited.
Many of the participants had already started to pair up, hook up, and form those typical “Birthright Couples” only a few days into our trip. A few of the other girls on the trip nudged me on our night out in Jerusalem that Jake was into me. But he was drunk and I was uncomfortable, so I rejected his advances, which worked for that night.
On our next night out in Tel Aviv, Jake made a point of not drinking so that I would talk to him. The bar our group was in was loud, dark, and smoky, so when he asked if I wanted to take a walk I accepted, just to get out of there. The other girls winked at me when they saw me leaving with him.
But he was drunk and I was uncomfortable, so I rejected his advances, which worked for that night.
We stayed on the boardwalk outside the bar, and while I knew he was interested in me I wasn’t sure how to react. I was jumpy, and ended up running back to the bar when one of the girls called me back in. Just when I reached the entrance he caught up with me and kissed me. I didn’t really have time to think, so I let him. It was just a quick peck before I was back inside with the rest of the participants.
It would have been a fine first kiss story if it ended there. But it didn’t. We spent the next few days on the trip hanging out and talking. I didn’t mind the talking, but I did mind at night when he just wanted us to “go somewhere private.” I was a bundle of nerves because that kiss was the entire extent of my experience being physical with anyone. I tried explaining this to him, but he insisted on “teaching” me. I was fine with kissing, but when he tried to take things further one night, I stopped him and went back to my room to go to sleep.
I thought that we would continue to spend time together, but for the next two days he completely ignored me. I was hurt, but didn’t want to spend what was left of my time in Israel fixating on him.
She assumed I was upset because I was locked out and it was late. I didn’t correct her.
On our last night in Israel, after the program’s closing ceremony, we finally talked, sitting on a bench, in the middle of the kibbutz we were staying at that night. He just said that he wasn’t looking for a relationship and hadn’t wanted to give me the “wrong idea.” That was his excuse for ignoring me. I figured that it was our last night and I wouldn’t have to see him once we were back in the states, so I didn’t argue.
We agreed to be just friends, and even shook hands on it. The conversation drifted to other topics, and by then the kibbutz had quieted around us. It would have been fine if the night ended there. Instead he leaned down, pushing me down onto the bench. He took my face in his hands, trying to get me to kiss him. I refused, and tried to get him off of me, but he was a lot bigger than me and wouldn’t budge. His hands reached up my shirt and down my skirt, despite my protests and our previously agreed upon status of “just friends.”
Finally I was able to maneuver myself out from under him and roll off of the bench, falling onto the ground. I didn’t feel the fall, and sprang up to run back to my room. I was barefoot, but I jogged away from him, declining his offer to walk me back.
I didn’t even know that it was assault.
When I got to my room, I was distressed to find it locked and my two roommates nowhere in sight. They had the key. It was 2:00 AM at this point and I had yet to pack for our flight the next day. I ran around the kibbutz, barefoot, seeing groups of my trip mates but not my roommates. I was shaky, crying, and the sprinklers turned on just as I was walking across the lawn. One of my trip leaders eventually found me in this state and let me into the room. She assumed I was upset because I was locked out and it was late. I didn’t correct her.
When my roommates returned, they peppered me with questions about what had happened with Jake and if he had apologized for ignoring me. I deflected their questions, showered, flew home the next day and told my friends all about my amazing trip to israel. I didn’t tell them about the assault. I didn’t even know that it was assault. I was upset but I had a summer job to focus on, and the upcoming year at college.
It took me years to be comfortable alone with a man again. The experience scared me, and scarred me. Like so many others today, I am reliving the experience. I am also realizing that I am more than the experience. To all those saying “Me, too” today, even if you can’t say it out loud, know that you are heard.
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