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From Scared to Empowered

It happened at a bar mitzvah.

I remember their faces as clear as day and their voices as dark as night. Encircled by seven boys, I couldn’t move and no one could see me. My cries for help went unanswered by the woman I pleadingly made eye contact with in the brief moment I was able to see outside the circle. And yet, she looked away. Does she think about me? Because I think about her.

They scared, intimidated, and embarrassed me. They made me feel broken, unlovable, and dirty; and the worst part is that nearly four years later, I still sometimes feel that way. Do those boys think about me? Because I think about them.

I carry a whistle everywhere I go. I paid extra attention that one day we learned self-defense in gym class. Hugs from behind scare me, I’m claustrophobic, and I can’t go into a public bathroom by myself. My shoulders and knees are almost always covered– not that what I was wearing was, or ever will be, the problem.

I was not the problem. I am not the problem. I am not broken, unlovable, or dirty. I was not and I am not a weak and misguided girl who wore a “slutty” outfit to a party and flirted too much. Not that that scenario would condone sexual violence either.

Being threatened by a group of people that you don’t know isn’t empowering, nor is it inspiring. What it is is terrifying, but fortunately for me, it was also eye-opening. Even when it seems that I’m thriving, I still have my bad days. Some days I curl up and cry and it’s all I can think about. Some days I don’t even think about what happened to me.

When my mum came to pick me up from the bar mitzvah, I told her what had happened. She responded by saying that what happened to me happens to so many girls, and is something that all girls have to learn how to deal with. I couldn’t comprehend what she was saying to me. How could what happened to me be perceived as normal? All I understood was that it shouldn’t be.

That conversation with my mum, along with countless other conversations with her about the reality of the world, and her encouragement to always defend and support myself, is what led me to learning about feminism. Feminism taught me that being sexually assaulted wasn’t my fault. Feminism made me feel supported in my fight to heal because it helped me realize that there are so many people who have had similar experiences. I was empowered to turn my bad experience into one I could use to help others. Feminism gave me the courage to heal, and Judaism gave me the tools.

Judaism, paired with what I experienced at that bar mitzvah, caused me to develop a strong sense of justice. I feel obligated to intervene in times of injustice–to be what I wished the woman sitting and eating her dinner had been for me. Judaism taught me to pray with my body, to make real change, and to prevent what happened to me from happening to others. Judaism taught me to find solace in prayer, and to rely on myself. Judaism gave me a platform on which I could apply feminist ideals.

In a culture that heavily stigmatizes sex, it’s surprising to know that the Jewish attitude towards sexuality is much more progressive than one might think. In the Book of Genesis, Dinah, the thirteenth child and only daughter of the patriarch Jacob, is raped by a prince named Shechem. While this passage itself may not be feminist, given that we never hear Dinah’s point of view and she is then bought into a marriage with Shechem, the common Jewish interpretation of this passage is rather feminist. Many rabbis say that even though we don’t hear about Dinah’s experience firsthand, her story brings sexual violence to light, and gives a voice to survivors who can’t or don’t want to speak about their own experiences.

If there’s anything I’ve learned in my healing process, it’s that there is a place for women in Judaism. Judaism values women. In Judaism, women are more than sexual objects, and more important than general society deems us to be.

The experience I had at that bar mitzvah was very scary and it will be something I remember forever, but the combination of Judaism and feminism has empowered me, helped me heal, and given me purpose in life. No person should ever have to experience sexual violence, and I will fight to make sure of that. Sharing my story is a powerful way to reach people, and is my way of telling others in similar positions that they are not alone.

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Rising Voices Fellow Emma Mair
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2017-2018 Rising Voices Fellow Emma Mair, in June 2014, before heading to a bar mitzvah.
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How to cite this page

Mair, Emma. "From Scared to Empowered ." 11 October 2017. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on December 17, 2017) <https://jwa.org/blog/risingvoices/from-scared-to-empowered>.

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