Recently, at a Shalom Task Force educational workshop that I gave at a college, a student asked: “How does someone know how to have a healthy relationship?”
This seemingly simple question caused me to take a step back. Do we assume that students will automatically know how to have healthy relationships?
At day schools and yeshivas, we provide years of sophisticated curricula in scholastic subjects like math, history, Tanach and Gemara. We know students cannot intuitively learn this information, so we teach them.
How can we assume our children will naturally know how to sustain healthy and safe relationships—and avoid abusive ones?
Who is affected?
According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey (NISVS), about one in four women and nearly one in 10 men have experienced sexual violence, physical violence and/or stalking by an intimate partner during their lifetime.
When you picture one of these women or men, whom do you have in mind? How do we understand these numbers? We all want to rationalize why someone is a victim, because it makes us feel protected. The reality is, anyone can become a victim of abuse.
Through Shalom Task Force’s direct contact with domestic violence survivors who have been assisted by the hotline, education and/or legal department, we recognize the valuable opportunity for prevention. When reflecting on the progression of their abusive relationships, most survivors shared that there were red flags present during the dating or engagement stages, but they did not know how to identify them as abuse at the time. Or, if they did, they did not know where to turn.
They were not aware of what to look for, such as patterns of power and control, red flags and fear. They didn’t have the language to describe their feelings and concerns about what they were experiencing.
How do we promote safety?
Through our educational programs, we provide this critical framework. We teach students what to look for when building healthy relationships and what to look out for when encountering abusive ones.
We teach all of this because when it comes to the lives and futures of our children, making assumptions is just too dangerous.
In addition to the entire segment of the population who, without awareness, may be at risk of falling into abusive relationships, there is another group for whom this education is essential.
For the student who comes from an abusive or dysfunctional home, what expectations do we have for their learning about healthy relationships? Is it from the modeling they witness at home? Where one parent constantly yells and curses at the other? Where everyone tiptoes around the mood of a parent? How do they learn how to have a healthy relationship and acquire the skills that are needed?
Who receives our educational workshops?
Shalom Task Force introduced these skills to 3,402 students in the 2018-2019 school year. Shalom Task Force educational workshops were attended by 1,952 high school students, 1,287 gap-year students, and 163 college students to gain critical skills around domestic violence and sexual assault awareness, safe dating and healthy relationships.
When schools take pause from regularly scheduled programming to allot 90 minutes for the highly interactive, multimedia Shalom Task Force workshop, they send a critical message to students: “Building safe and healthy relationships is important and valued and here’s a forum to address your safety and well-being in relationships.” This year, 34 schools did just that. We encourage all schools in every community to join us in our mission.
For all students, this message is appreciated. For students who are living in a home where there is abuse, this message may be the most impactful, comforting and inspiring one they will ever receive during their years of schooling. It is one that acknowledges their experience, lets them know they are not alone and offers them support.
Students express these sentiments in written evaluation surveys or when shared with the presenter after the workshop: “This is exactly what goes on in my home. My parents’ relationship is abusive. Nobody knows. Everyone thinks my family is perfect. I was abused.” Participants are given the Shalom Task Force Confidential Hotline number and are directed to school-based staff to receive vital support.
Do people remember this workshop?
This is the class that hundreds of callers to our Shalom Task Force Confidential Hotline refer to when encountering red flags in a dating situation or marriage. They call our hotline sometimes three, four, even five years after taking a workshop and state: “I remember learning something about experiencing constant fear in the relationship and I’m going through that now. Something happened on a date that reminded me of the red flags that we learned. I remember being told to trust my gut. Can you help me figure out if this sounds healthy?”
Students remember our class at a time when they need it most. Our referrals help our callers gain access to vital resources including legal assistance, counseling and safe shelters.
How do we build a safer community?
While the first Shalom Task Force workshops given are in high school, the educational classes, trainings, workshops and conferences offered by our educational department extend well beyond those years. Trainings for communal leaders, school-based staff and mental-health professionals are provided to hundreds of adults each year, maximizing the impact of wraparound community support. Parents, lay leaders and the general public receive a myriad of learning opportunities to increase their knowledge of domestic violence, access resources and learn how to support victims. In 2018-2019, 1,120 adults were reached through these high-impact educational programs.
What is our message?
At a training that I recently gave to Jewish communal leaders, an individual approached me and shared that he had grown up witnessing abuse at home and spent his childhood attempting to protect his mother from his father’s violence.
One area where his father wielded total control was in all aspects of his wife’s religious life. He barraged her with insults and constant put-downs about her religious practices. He sabotaged her ability to keep Halacha, distorted Torah passages and compromised Shabbos and Yom Tov experiences through heightened aggression and violence. This individual expressed that he intentionally chose this profession in honor of his mother’s legacy. He wished to elevate the soul of his mother who on her deathbed had shared regrets with him, one of which was never having been able to live the religious life that she dreamed of due to her experience as a domestic violence victim.
He expressed his gratitude to Shalom Task Force for providing workshops to students. “As a child I would have felt deep comfort and clarity knowing that I was not the only one going through this,” he said.
What’s more, he encouraged me to spread his message and story. “Keep teaching people about what abuse is and how to get help. For the memory of my mother who was a victim but was also the strongest person I have ever met.”
By Avital Levin
Avital Levin is an LMSW and director of education at Shalom Task Force.