For three years, I’ve been fed the words to say. I have written carefully crafted scripts that tiptoe around the eggshells and broken glass and sadness and anger. I have been modeled into the leader that they want, one that simply regurgitates information, smiles and nods, being forced to push my real feelings and thoughts into a little bottle in the back of my head where they won’t come out. I’ve been given lists of people to talk to, what to say, and how to say it. I have been given a label and a little box to fit into with a long list of responsibilities and roles to fill that surely no 16-year-old can fathom.
After I was assaulted at a summer program I had waited years to attend, I couldn’t say the words and feelings and thoughts out loud, so I wrote them down. In journals, in texts, in emails during the three days I lived in my bed, alone with all the words I couldn’t say. Then finally, when it became too much, I went to the adults and I told them what he did to me. I told them how for the past two years, I had been manipulated and sexualized by the people I was supposed to trust, in a place I was supposed to feel safe. But no matter how loud I yelled, nobody seemed to hear me.
I try out different words like Shabbat outfits, but they never come out right, and they’re always through tears. I don’t sleep anymore. The thousand miles in between him and me feel like centimeters when I still feel frozen in fear. And the words pour out like a water fountain that doesn’t taste like the familiar water at home. I struggled to keep the same appreciation and love for my Jewish community when the feeling of safety and comfort was pulled out from under my feet.
I am continuously censored even though I have put countless hours, dollars, and so much energy into the organization that can’t even commit to their responsibility for my safety. But is it really realistic to ask a teenager to stand up to an organization they’re a willing member of and leader in? I would say the answer is no, but I would also say that current teenagers have proven capable of changing the world in impactful ways. If I were to place my faith in anyone to tear down the patriarchal values shared by society and BBYO, it is most definitely the current generation of teen leaders who will call out the inequities this organization has perpetuated, and hold abusers accountable.
Even though I am continuously serving my position in BBYO, my trust in their staff, in the enforcement of their code of conduct, and their supposed commitment to equity and safety of members of all races, genders, sexualities, and abilities has been shattered over and over again since I first began to experience the aftermath of not only my assault, but multiple teens’ invalidated identities and experiences being a part of this organization. I challenge their organization to rethink their priorities and to validate the experiences of many teens who they traumatized and retraumatized, forcing them to conform to a gender binary in order to participate in programs, perpetuating religious trauma by separating members by gender during services, and censoring them to a point of being able to present a unified front to public audiences. I refuse to let this organization steal my individuality as a queer person, as a neurodivergent person, and as a survivor of sexual violence.
In two weeks and three days, I will be in the same hotel as my assailant, serving as a teen leader but existing as a survivor in the same environment that shattered my self worth and denied me my right to a physically and emotionally healthy environment. Often, I fumble for the right things to say in the times when they matter the most.
In All Too Well (10 Minute Version), artist Taylor Swift sings the popular line “Maybe we got lost in translation/Maybe I asked for too much.” And although I am still very much lost in translation, I find comfort in knowing that safety is never too much to ask for, and that I can always use my voice, even if it wavers, to advocate for myself and those around me.
In the speech I gave when I ran for regional board, I quoted a Jewish value that translates to “Justice, justice, you shall pursue.” As a teen leader, I take my responsibility to uphold this value very strongly, but I would hold the Jewish adults around me to an even higher expectation. I wonder where their commitment is to the Jewish values that are the supposed building blocks of this organization when it matters the most. Most of all though, I instill hope and strength and tzedek in the next generation of teen leaders to overturn the rape culture that still stenches in the air around us.
If you or someone you know is a survivor of sexual violence, please visit our Resources section for links to organizations that can help.
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