During summer break, a college student confides to the rabbi of her hometown congregation that she’s been sexually assaulted at a dorm party the previous semester.
The traumatic assault is exerting a damaging impact on her self-esteem and well-being. On
e the one hand, the student wants to talk about it, but she has no interest in alerting authorities and , under no circumstances does she want her parents to find out.
How could, or should, a religious leader respond?
Students and faculty at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College recently discussed this and other hypothetical, but all-too real, scenarios involving sexual assault.
Every year at RRC, the regular class schedule is interrupted for a school-wide Yom Inyun, or day of learning. The idea is to focus on a specific topic that is not covered in great detail in the curriculum. A committee of students proposes topics and the entire student body votes. This year’s day-long program was called “Sexual Assault in Our Communities,” as future rabbis wrestled with questions they will invariably face working in the field.
“Sexual assault is such a pervasive reality in our culture and in society,” said Rayna Grossman
, (RRC ’17), who served on the student planning committee.
Grossman, who holds a master’s degree in social work
, and has experience in counseling survivors, noted that whatever setting a rabbi is working in, he or she is likely to deal with the aftermath of sexual assault. She hopes the program will help classmates gain the skills and comfort level to create a space that feels safe enough for survivors to confide their feelings and begin the process of overcoming shame.
According to the World Health Organization, at least one third of women become victims of sexual assault. Statistics for male victims are harder to come by, but by all accounts are not uncommon.
The goals of this year’s Yom Iyyun were to give rabbinical students basic competencies for speaking with survivors about their experiences. students learned how rabbis in the field have worked with and supported survivors.
Participants explored questions such as: How can a religious leader best support a survivor of sexual assault and aid in his or her recovery? At what point is a rabbi obligated to report an incident to authorities? How might a rabbi respond to a confiding perpetrator?
Students learned from the experiences of two guest speakers, Rabbi Linda Potemken (RRC’ 97), the religious leader of Congregation Beth Israel in Media, Pa., and Rabbi Isabel De Koninck (RRC ’10), currently the Director of Hillel at Drexel University.
According to Rabbi Nathan Martin (RRC ’06), Director of Student Life at RRC, among the lessons learned were:
· Rabbis can be an important part of a survivor’s support network.
· Oftentimes, an incident of sexual assault will come up in the context of other pastoral conversations.
· Rabbis are not therapists and should refer to therapists when appropriate. However, there are particular and unique tools that rabbis can employ.
· For rabbis working on campus, it is important to know how federal legislation (such as the Cleary Act and Title IX) is being implemented and what the clergy’s role is as a confidential reporter.
Nora Woods (RRC ’19), who was also part of the planning committee for this year’s Yom Inyun, says that she is “incredibly proud to be at a school for this type of continuing education, especially to deal with issues that are so complex and difficult.”
For information about state laws pertaining to clergy and mandated reporting of sexual assault, click here.
For a more general overview for how clergy’s can approach the issue, click here.