She was a freshman at Yale when she heard the chant outside her dorm room window: “No means yes. Yes means [a sex act].”
Rabbanit Leah Sarna, today the director of religious engagement at a large Orthodox synagogue in Chicago, was just acclimating to life on the New Haven campus in October 2010 when she witnessed members of the exclusive, male-only fraternity, Delta Kappa Epsilon (DKE), chanting pro-rape epithets as part of the group’s pledge process.
“The campus exploded” in protest, said Sarna, 27, characterizing what was one of the many precursors to the national reckoning with sexual harassment against women eventually launched by the #MeToo movement.
The fraternity — once known for its roster of impressive members, including former Presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush — has become a flashpoint in the conversation about consent, sexual violence, and campus rape. And while the university temporarily suspended the frat house after the chanting incident, DKE was thrust back into the national spotlight as the college stomping grounds of Judge Brett Kavanaugh, the embattled Supreme Court nominee accused by women of sexual assault and misconduct.
The investigation into Kavanaugh’s past came to a head last week after testimony in which Christine Blasey Ford — a 51-year-old research psychologist at Stanford University School of Medicine — accused Kavanaugh of sexually assaulting her during a high school party in the 1980s; the riveting testimony, and Kavanaugh’s equally riveting denial, captivated the country and sparked waves of outrage and division. A final Senate vote to confirm the judge was delayed until the FBI completes an investigation into Ford’s allegations. As the FBI investigation was reportedly wrapping up, President Donald Trump mocked Ford’s allegations during a rally Tuesday evening in Mississippi, further inflaming the national conversation.
But as the nation waits on tenterhooks for the results of the FBI probe and the Kavanaugh vote in the full Senate, Ford’s testimony is playing out for Jewish millennials and activists as perhaps a turning point, and most surely as a call to action.
“Dr. Ford’s testimony — and the reception it has received — speaks to what it means to be a woman in this place and time,” said Sarna who, as she watched last week’s Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, recalled the blindfolded frat-boys marching in a line, hands on each other’s shoulders, valorizing violence toward women. A member of the clergy, she has sought to be a resource for congregants struggling to make sense of the national mood and moment.
“This is a moment of reckoning, and a moment of questioning. How do I exist in the world as a woman? Every day, I make decisions out of fear because of my sex. This moment, and the reality we face, does not stop with Dr. Ford.”
Inevitably, Clarence Thomas’ 1991 emotionally charged appearance in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee during his Supreme Court nomination was part of the conversation.
“It basically mirrors what went on with Anita Hill,” said Jody Rabhan, director of government relations and advocacy at the National Council of Jewish Women, referring to the lawyer who accused Thomas of sexual harassment in the workplace. “It’s something that has stayed with me as an advocate.”
For Rebecca Krevat, a co-founder of Hitoreri, a social justice group working within the Modern Orthodox community, the hearings raised questions about the progress of the #MeToo movement. “How many times are we going to ask survivors of violence to open up these very painful scars only for the stories just to be ignored? Is our country going to act differently and take these allegations seriously?” she wondered. “It’s long past the time for survivor stories to be taken seriously and not just to be believed but for consequences to happen for the men.”
The Coalition for Jewish Values (CJV), a conservative Jewish public policy organization, has been emphatic in its support for Kavanaugh since his nomination. Though the group applauded Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) for calling for an FBI investigation, CJV has not withdrawn its endorsement of Kavanaugh.
“Unless there is something tangible, we will stick by our original statement of support. Allegations without witnesses or some other type of validation, are just allegations. And one cannot destroy a family and reputation based on allegations,” Rabbi Pesach Lerner, president of CJV, wrote in an email to NJJN.
It was a theme echoed by Trump himself Tuesday, when he said, “It is a very scary time for young men in America, where you can be guilty of something you may not be guilty of.”
In a statement to JTA, the Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC) said it “applauds” the Senate Judiciary Committee vote to move Kavanaugh’s nomination to the full Senate.
“This has been a difficult and gut-wrenching process,” RJC executive director Matt Brooks said. “Our thoughts are with Dr. Ford, Judge Kavanaugh, and their families during this very difficult time. We hope this process can move forward now without partisan rancor.”
Bina Peltz, a third-year student at Yale Law School, watched the Judiciary Committee hearing from the law school student lounge. She and about 100 other law students sat “glued to the screen” as Ford presented her allegations and Kavanaugh gave his emphatic denial. An “overflow” room was screening the hearing nearby.
When, during his testimony, the judge emphasized his acceptance to Yale Law School as evidence of his good character, students murmured and shook their heads in dissent.
“The feeling was ‘No, you [Kavanaugh] don’t speak for me,’” said Peltz, 25, an active member of a student-led campus coalition protesting Kavanaugh’s nomination. The week of the Judiciary Committee hearing, she participated in a sit-in during which hundreds of Yale Law students, dressed in black, skipped class to sit in the hallways. The demonstration was intended to demand an FBI investigation into the allegations against Kavanaugh, who had been accused by another Yale graduate, Deborah Ramirez, of sexual misconduct. Thirty-one classes were canceled because of the protest.
(The dean of Yale Law School joined the American Bar Association last week in calling for an FBI investigation into sexual assault allegations against Kavanaugh.)
Peltz, who is interested in pursuing public defense work, said the importance of the moment was palpable. “The moment felt historic — this moment would define a clear BEFORE and AFTER.”
Describing herself as “very Jewishly involved” on campus, Peltz said that her “Jewish values and my values as a human being were one,” when it came to responding to Ford’s testimony. “The core human value at play is dignity for every human being,” she said, a concept “as central to Jewish thought” as to the hearing.
Shira Berkovits, founder and CEO of Sacred Spaces, an organization that works with Jewish organizations to prevent and respond to abuse, said Ford’s testimony has and will continue to deeply “impact victims and survivors of sexual assault.”
“My Facebook feed is flooded with posts from women and men the world over who are reliving their own trauma as Dr. Ford has relived hers,” Berkovits wrote to NJJN in an email. “People may think that when they share an opinion about the current situation, they are merely addressing a political issue, but this simply isn’t true. Victims and survivors are watching from the sidelines. Those who have never come forward with their own experiences, are receiving strong lessons about what would happen if they did. And those who did come forward are reliving the silencing, disbelief, shame, public invasion, and dismissal that most often accompanied these disclosures.”
The public hearing should be a call to action for the Jewish community, Berkovits said: “Recognize the havoc these hearings are wreaking on the lives of so many around us; commit to honoring and respecting the voice of victims; and create safe spaces for people to talk openly and honestly about a reality that still today remains all too hidden.”
Asher Lovy, an advocate for survivors of abuse and a survivor himself, said he recognized himself in Ford while watching her testimony. “When you’re a survivor and you’re telling your story, the weight of your trauma is there with you,” he said. Reflecting on how Ford’s testimony would affect his advocacy work, Lovy hoped the hearings would educate people about the way abuse affects survivors and their memories of the attack. “The fact that Dr. Ford was able to sit there and clearly explain what the process of memory retention is in such an event was fantastic because it’s something that people don’t understand,” he said.
Keren McGinity, a prominent voice in the Jewish #MeToo movement, recognizes the pain and uncertainty that accompanies any person’s decision to come forward about sexual abuse. McGinity, who came forward to NJJN in June with allegations against famed Jewish sociologist Steven M. Cohen, said Ford’s testimony “should be a loud wake-up call for all Americans that sexism is ingrained in our national fabric.” (Cohen did not deny the allegation and resigned from HUC-JIR in August.)
“Every woman who has experienced harassment or assault knows the pain of coming forward and, at the same time, how critical speaking out is to protecting others,” she said. “The only way to change the status quo is to vocally reject it.”
Avigayil Halpern, a senior at Yale majoring in Judaic Studies, said that while undergraduates are “very angry” about Kavanaugh’s nomination and how Ford’s testimony has been received, the stereotype embodied by the judge is “familiar.”
“We all know Yale men who are entitled and aggressive with their time and space,” said Halpern, 22. And, while there has been a vocal effort on campus to combat the “white, male privilege” that chronicles the university’s past, she said, the “part of Yale that Kavanaugh comes out of is still very present in our classrooms and dorm rooms.”
In response, Halpern, a former editorial intern at The New York Jewish Week, NJJN’s sister publication, organized a small discussion group for Jewish women in the wake of the public hearing. “We spoke about how power and sexual violence still manifest in our lives,” she said, “and what we can do about it.”
Hannah Dreyfus and Shira Hanau are staff writers for The Jewish Week.