Credit: courtesy Jewish United Fund

A small group of Jewish teenage girls in Chicago believes in a promised land.

Their belief is not as literal as the one they learn about each year at Passover seders—ritual dinners that celebrate Jews’ freedom from slavery in Egypt and arrival in Canaan—but just as real. After all, that story is thousands of years old, and they’re now fighting a different kind of oppression: rape culture. For these girls, the promised land is a future in which gender equality is the norm, and sexual violence is history.

Their primary tool is “The Revenge of Dinah: A Feminist Seder on Rape Culture in the Jewish Community,” the Haggadah, or text that guides participants through the seder, that they completed last year. Their hope is that it will change the way people think about rape culture.

A lofty goal, it began simply enough. A diverse group of ten high school girls from the city and suburbs was selected for the ten-month paid Research Training Internship program run by the Jewish United Fund and DePaul University. As they came together twice a month to learn social research methodologies and discuss their experiences as young Jewish women, they realized, for the first time, that there was language to express thoughts and feelings they’d had for years.

“When it came to rape culture, a lot of my students had never heard that term,” says Stephanie Goldfarb, director of youth philanthropy and leadership at the JUF and the director of RTI. “But we would ask, ‘What’s keeping you up at night?,’ and they were describing what rape culture is without knowing there was vocabulary for it.”

They learned other terms too, like “toxic masculinity,” “victim blaming” and “benevolent sexism.” But they selected “rape culture” as the theme for the program’s culminating social justice project, the feminist Haggadah. They were prescient: they made the decision more than a year before the #MeToo campaign swept the nation.

The RTI interns with DePaul and JUF faculty at the first-ever anti-rape culture seder last May at DePaul University.Credit: Courtesy Stephanie Goldfarb

Two factors led them down this road. First, they learned about the oft-neglected tale from Genesis in which Dinah, the patriarch Jacob’s only daughter, is raped by the local prince. The girls were moved enough to give Dinah a seat at their seder table—the one usually reserved for Elijah, the prophet who, it is believed, will someday announce the arrival of the Messiah. Guests are invited to tear off pieces from the roll of duct tape that marks her seat, signifying the silence many victims of sexual violence are forced to endure.

The second inspiration was the 2016 presidential election, which unfolded during the course of their internship.

“The things I remember most was when the Billy Bush tapes came out,” Jordana Bornstein, now 18, says, referring to the Access Hollywood tape on which then-presidential candidate Donald Trump said his approach to hitting on women was to “grab ’em by the pussy.”

“It was a really good example of how these individual aspects of rape culture were happening right in front of our eyes,” she continues. “It was the first time I’d learned about something that I’d never heard before but observed so many times before. Having the more academic language was helpful for me to be able to digest it.”

Fellow intern Becca Gadiel, now 17, notes, “A lot of the language we saw people in power and media using was happening on such a global scale, but it was also really personal. I wish I could say I was surprised by [how much the idea of rape culture resonated with the group], but unfortunately I know from my own experiences and from my friends in my high school that it can be a really big issue.”

The prevalence and normalization of these experiences, like catcalling and street harassment, convinced Gadiel that the conversation had to continue. But she and the other interns wanted to make sure people did more than just talk, a desire that informed the way they altered traditional seder rituals.

“This was the first time they had ever thought about Jewish ritual as something that belonged to them, and how they can make it their own,” Goldfarb says.

Take the traditional four glasses of wine consumed during a seder, for example. Not anymore, the girls said. Instead, their Haggadah explains how alcohol plays a big role in rape culture and suggests skipping the wine. The ten plagues of Egypt, typically called out during the meal as a reminder of how God encouraged the Egyptians to release the Israelites? Nope. The new Haggadah offers a more modern take on plagues—specifically, the plagues of sexism and sexual violence—and includes “The RTI Ten Commandments of Being an Accomplice, Fighting Patriarchy, and Shutting Down Rape Culture.”

“The Revenge of Dinah” is available to download for free on the JUF’s website, and the girls hope people will use it in their seders this weekend.

“We’ve used [the Haggadah] during seders at our synagogues,” says Bornstein, “but when people start using in their homes, that’s when it will start to make a big impact.”   v