Episode 80: Toxic Hookup Culture in Jewish Youth Groups and Summer Camps
[Theme music plays]
Nahanni: Hi, it’s Nahanni Rous. Welcome back to Can We Talk?, the podcast of the Jewish Women’s Archive, where gender, history, and Jewish culture meet.
Summer is beginning, and tens of thousands of Jewish teenagers are packing duffel bags and heading to summer camp. Thousands more teens participate in youth groups during the school year. Jewish camps and youth groups are a time-honored tradition and a central part of life for many Jewish teens. They help teens connect to their identity, make friends, and learn new skills, and ideally, they’re just plain fun.
Places packed with teenagers also provide opportunities for sexual exploration. That can be healthy, but it doesn’t always work that way.
In this episode of Can We Talk?: "toxic hookup culture" in Jewish youth groups and summer camps. Please note, there are some sexual references in this episode, beginning with this anonymous testimony, collected by a group called Jewish Teens for Empowered Consent.
[Clip of testimony plays]
For many years, I spent almost every weekend at Jewish youth group events and summers at a Jewish summer camp.
Once we entered high school, our youth group had a point system. The more hookups you had, the more points you got. The teens in leadership positions were worth more. I was never in youth group leadership, but I often found myself in the bed, backseat, or sleeping bag of a boy that was. According to our point system, I wasn’t worth much on my own, but every kiss, every blowjob, every sexual encounter with someone who was worth more than me increased my own value.
Nahanni: This point system is well-documented and widespread. It exists across multiple youth groups and has been around for decades.
[Clip of testimony plays]
As we grew older, the point system faded into the background, but the hookup hierarchy remained. As counselors in training, the goal was to get with a counselor. As counselors, it was landing an Israeli staff member, song leader, or unit head. The bigger the age difference, the greater the achievement.
Nahanni: This is a blatant example of the unhealthy sexual culture that Jewish Teens for Empowered Consent has documented. There are many others.
[Clip of testimony plays]
It was everywhere: tallied score lists kept by our peers, the sexual gestures that boys made with props onstage during Shabbat skits that everyone laughed at, counselors who looked the other way when campers returned from a hookup after curfew. Even the design on our retreat sweatshirts featured hookup jokes.
Nahanni: Over the past two years, Jewish Teens for Empowered Consent has collected over 90 testimonies like this from current and former participants of Jewish youth groups and summer camps.
[Clip of testimony plays]
It’s been over a decade since my summer camp years, and I’ve only recently begun reflecting on how the culture has stuck with me. I still find myself wanting to rely on the attention of a man. We placed so much importance on hooking up, that I never stopped to think about whether or not I even wanted to do it. And I look back now and wish I had spent less time worrying about what those guys wanted and more time thinking about what I wanted.
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Nahanni: Jewish Teens for Empowered Consent—or JTEC for short—got started when a group of teens came together as part of the Rising Voices Fellowship, a program of the Jewish Women’s Archive.
It was the spring of 2020, and the eighteen fellows were gathered for a virtual seminar. In a session about LGBTQ+ inclusion, the topic of youth groups came up. Suddenly, the conversation exploded. Many fellows shared stories about their experiences in the sexually-charged and heteronormative atmosphere of Jewish summer camps and youth movements.
Conversations like these are happening more and more in the Jewish community as institutions reckon with decades of sexual misconduct by their leaders and participants.
In 2021, New Voices Magazine ran a story titled “How Jewish Youth Groups are Breeding a Toxic Sexual Culture for teens.” In response to reports of sexual misconduct and assault at summer camps, in the summer of 2021, Rabbi Daniel Brenner wrote an op-ed for The Forward about the need to teach teens about consent.
And New Voices Magazine recently published an investigation of how heteronormativity at many Jewish overnight camps is harming LGBTQ+ youth.
But JTEC was among the first to call attention to the unhealthy sexual atmosphere in Jewish youth groups and camps. Dahlia Soussan is one of JTEC’s founders. She just finished her freshman year at Barnard, but grew up in the Bay Area. She spent her early teenage years in a local youth group, but stopped attending because she was turned off by the attitudes and behaviors she observed. Some of her friends stayed on.
Dahlia: And I would hear from my friends, they'd come back having had, like, the first kiss or the first hookup, but they didn't feel good about it, and they would express that. It's, “I hooked up with a guy in the back who was trying to get with 100 girls that weekend,” or, “I just hooked up cuz my friends told me to hook up and I wanted to just get it done and everyone else was doing it.”
And I felt this deep sense of...it makes me sad, because you're such an empowered person in so many ways. And so, why is this the space that takes that away from you? This is supposed to be youth leadership. This is not—it's not what you signed up for.
Nahanni: Dahlia wants to change the culture so other Jewish teens do get what they signed up for. So does Ellanora Lerner. She’s from Connecticut and recently finished her sophomore year at Clark University. In 2020, Dahlia, Ellanora, and a group of other Rising Voices Fellows co-wrote an article for eJewish Philanthropy.
Ellanora: I don't think that any of us really had a vision of what would happen after we published this article. I think it felt much more like a finite project. But we were really blown away by the response that it got, and I think we really realized not onlhy how much of a change needed to be made but how much of a vacuum, in some ways, there was for people to be talking about this issue.
Nahanni: Madeline Canfield also saw the need to fill this vacuum. She’s from Houston and just finished her sophomore year at Brown.
Madeline: We saw ourselves coming into existence through putting words out and putting language to what is…So for us, that was central to what it meant to create this group.
Nahanni: JTEC has put words to people’s experiences in a variety of ways: Instagram campaigns, presentations and trainings for Jewish communal professionals, and a curriculum they developed themselves. Jen Richler spoke with Ellanora, Dahlia, and Madeline, three of JTEC’s six founders. They talked about their experiences with toxic hookup culture and why they started the initiative.
Jen: What do you mean by “toxic hookup culture”?
Ellanora: This is Ellanora. So when we say “toxic hookup culture,” it's really important to note that this is not the same as the presence of hookups or the presence of sexual exploration. It's a culture in which there is not an ability for people to engage with those things in a way that's healthy for them, because there's so much pressure, both from people around you and also just from the overall culture, and traditions and structures within that culture, to hook up as a rite of passage or as a part of belonging in this culture.
And so that's why, along with the language of “toxic hookup culture,” we use the language of “empowered consent.” Something can be, on the surface, consensual, but not come from a place of empowerment, if it's coming from someone feeling pressured, in a more kind of social sense, to engage in hookups, but not coming from a place of, you know, personal interest or personal development.
And so that's what we're talking about is this much bigger culture, a culture in which people are put in situations where they feel unsafe. And that culture ultimately leads to sexual assault and to people who have skewed ideas of consent, of how they look at other people, especially people of the opposite gender, within a heteronormative world, and how they look at—kind of themselves and their own self-worth and their own value.
Jen: Could you maybe relate a few specific examples that would help illustrate what the problem is that you—that you've seen, and that you've experienced?
Dahlia: This is Dahlia. Pretty early on, we had, like, a night where we learned the chapter traditions and the chant that we ended on was just blatantly homophobic. And I remember just feeling this pit in my stomach, knowing, like, how could I sit silently? And this was the super secret chapter cheer and I—and I'd been let in, but I was so appalled by what I was seeing. And just these really hyper-sexual cheers at the end of the night while we were doing Havdalah. That wasn't—that wasn't the Havdalah that I grew up with at camp, and suddenly, to see it kind of perverted in that way, it was really upsetting.
The other side of the coin is the toxic masculinity piece. I mean, what does it mean to be a man socialized in this kind of environment?
Ellanora: I think one that really sticks out that has been documented before and really is widespread across different youth groups is the point system, which we would call a hookup game, which assigns point values to hookups based on board positions, sometimes based on if one of your parents is a rabbi, things like that, based on when or where the hookup takes place. And it's kind of an attempt… people gather points, and it's, you know, it's a game, it's a competition, which is, you know, I think very evidently really objectifying and really pushes people to hook up for horrible reasons.
Jen: Obviously this problem isn’t uniquely Jewish. But are there aspects of this issue that you think are particular to Jewish communities?
Dahlia: I think Jewish continuity culture has always really been quite central to our self-conception and that's not an inherently bad thing. I mean, to survive, you need to have a plan for educating the next generation, making it so the next generation wants to remain engaged and have children who remain engaged. All of that is of the utmost importance.
And yet somehow we've turned that goal into this hyper-sexualization of teens while they're in these spaces and this has been happening for a long time, because there's some weird logical jump where the semi-consensual, uncomfortable hookup at the back of the convention is leading to a Jewish marriage ten, twenty years down the road.
And if that marriage happens between two people who meet in the youth group, well the idea is all the more vindicated.
Madeline: This is Madeline. Often when we started having this conversation we had a lot of communities—we had a lot of people who reached out to us via Instagram because they saw us there, or they'd see us at a presentation, or they would read our article and they'd say, “But isn't this just one more example of the problem of #metoo?”
It's not just because of #metoo. It's because we've cultivated a culture in our own Jewish communities in which those broader strains how we treat women mix with how the Jewish community sees itself.
Jen: Would you say that this culture is almost part of the vision and the plan for these kinds of spaces?
Ellanora: I think, like, yes, asterisk. I think it’s part of the vision explicitly for—to encourage marriage within Judaism and to encourage Jewish marriage.
I don't think that anyone wants there to be harm being created in these spaces, but I do think that a lot of people...I think in many ways, this is a purposeful construction even though people have good intentions in doing that.
Jen: Why do you think some teens keep coming back to these groups even when they have negative experiences?
Madeline: It takes longer to step back and realize the vastness of the problem and the inappropriateness of this culture and that an alternative can exist. Often these groups are put forward, especially ones that are gendered, as, you know, a space for empowerment for men and a space for empowerment for women. But when women are meeting and—not to mention how heteronormative this is—to have every conversation about boys and, you know, which boys will you be meeting in the youth group and when, where, and why? And to have your older ones who you look up to telling this and training the younger ones, that means people don't necessarily think that—either that they can say anything, that they should challenge anything, that an alternative exists, or that anything is wrong, because then it becomes internalized.
The other reason is the sense of these models, these youth groups, in addition to things like summer camps, these are put forward as the model of Jewish engagement for teens. These are the paradigm. And so to extract oneself from that is to extract myself from community— especially for teens who aren't going to school with lots of other Jewish students, you're missing out on that.
Jen: Do you see this as a problem that has arisen, you know, in the last decade or so in relation to #metoo that perhaps that we're becoming more aware of, or do you see this as something, you know, that has been going on for a long time, whether or not people were talking about it?
Dahlia: One of the main pieces of feedback that we got from parents in particular when we initially published our article is that “this was my experience 30, 40 years ago in the ‘70s and the ‘80s.”
It was just a very different time. And no one spoke about ever feeling uncomfortable or feeling that something had happened that violated them in some way. There was such a—it was so hush-hush. And so to know that suddenly—the space hasn't changed and yet I'm sending my kid to it, that's such a disconcerting feeling.
Jen: You've also, in your comments, touched on summer camps as an example of a Jewish youth space. And, you know, parents are—myself included—going to be sending their kids to overnight camp soon. And I'm curious if there's anything that makes overnight camp unique or special as an example of a Jewish youth space and the kind of culture that can grow.
Dahlia: I had just the most incredibly positive experience in Jewish overnight camp growing up. And I think I almost look to it—one of the reasons that I think youth group didn't work for me is because I had this paradigmatic model of what a good youth Jewish space looked like, with leaders who really pushed for introspection, a space where there are people you can look up to, who show you something different, and show you what it means to really be at peace with oneself. And this is what vibrant Jewish living really can be.
I think that overnight camps also do have problems with toxic hookup culture and the same...the same kind of dynamics that play out, maybe on a smaller scale, maybe on a certain scale in youth groups, it's—it can be all the more intense when you're living with that 24/7 for five, six weeks.
Jen: Dahlia, you just brought up role models. And that leads to my next question, which probably applies especially to youth groups: Where are the adults in all of this, the leadership?
Dahlia: There's usually a regional director who has some sense of the specific dynamics within each region. And then there are wellness professionals, sexual health professionals at the top of these spaces on the international level. But when you think about movements that are engaging thousands and thousands of teens, having that kind of top-level authority is just out of reach to the majority of participants and creating programs and a vision for consent and health and emotional wellbeing that is so distanced from, like, the de facto realities of it all, that's not a great model.
Ellanora: I think that these youth groups are very youth-led spaces in a variety of ways. Absolutely, I think that's an amazing thing. I, you know, was in leadership for multiple years within my youth group. And I think that was an incredible development opportunity for me.
But I think because of that, that needs to be really central to how we think about this issue, because youth need to be engaged in changing it.
Madeline: It needs to be an intergenerational effort. In many ways it needs to come from staff, because they hold power and because they need to recognize their responsibility, but also in many ways it needs to come from teens, both because they are the immediate ones experiencing this problem and they have a unique position to actually perpetuate a change and to actuate this change because...you know, we don't want this to look as if it's just staff quote, unquote “policing.”
Sometimes staff can lack nuance in trying to enforce rules that come out as se- negative, as opposed to dismantling a structure that is problematic and harmful and oppressive, where we want to be sex-positive, but empowered.
We definitely want staff to be involved. We want all of these youth groups to create national— and national is ideal, but if they had regional ones as well, that would be spectacular—a “National Consent Director” position. These positions would be people who are dedicated specifically and solely to addressing issues of gender, sex, relationships, and consent in youth groups.
And we want a professional educator in these subjects who is working with teens, assessing things on a national level, creating trainings, implementing trainings. We want a comprehensive curriculum. And we've developed some curriculum of our own—we want more of it. Stuff that identifies what toxic hookup culture is, what it means to really implement empowered consent, things that break down…Why is this objectifying? What is toxic masculinity?
And then we also just need to blanket eradicate sexualized cheers and point systems. That needs to end.
Ellanora: This conversation needs to happen not in the shadows and it needs to happen really explicitly. I think a lot of leaders on every level understand, at least to some degree, that this is a problem. But I think that there's sometimes a lack of willingness of really being explicit about it because, you know, it's kind of—it's embarrassing. It doesn't look good and it's not the kind of message we want to be putting out, but I think we're not really going to be able to make progress if we're not willing to name that this is a problem, that this is something that we're committed to addressing.
Jen: How do you connect the dots between what you see in Jewish youth groups and camps and recent revelations of sexual misconduct and abuse in adult Jewish spaces?
Ellanora: Yeah. I mean, I think it's a super, super direct connection, which is that when you have young people socialized in spaces that teach them sexual norms and norms around consent that are unhealthy, they take those norms with them into adulthood.
And, you know, youth groups could be a space to learn what healthy norms look like and they really don't right now, in most cases.
Jen: Right. Tell me a bit about the goals JTEC has, some of the things you’re working on right now.
Dahlia: Education has been hugely central to our mission. We have written a curriculum as kind of a first step. It has different scenarios to act out and some models.
And I think our Instagram campaign was a really crucial piece of our work. We started collecting testimonies from former members of youth groups and some current members. And I think it's just that, that layout of hundreds and hundreds of squares of people sharing different stories, but echoing the same themes of rape culture and feeling objectified, that you are not—there's no person in the encasing of the body that you're in. You are truly just someone...you are someone else's sexual experience. That has all been echoed time and time again, and those sentiments are really important.
Jen: When you think back to yourselves a few years ago, what do you wish you had known? What advice do you wish you had heard, maybe from an adult or an older teen role model, something that you now know that you wish you had known back then?
Ellanora: You know, being a teenager is really hard. It's really complicated emotionally, and it's not always obvious, like, being able to identify emotions, being able to identify discomfort for what it is and for what often are very valid and important causes.
And so I think having that language, having that awareness coming into spaces like this, so that teens are able to identify when they're uncomfortable, and what's making them feel that way, and able to feel like they have the space to talk about those things and to share those things back.
I think also, you know, parents...parents do have a lot of power. I think youth groups really feel accountable to the parents. They're often the ones, you know, paying for these programs. They're often very involved in volunteering and things like that, and so I think parents have a role in this and a role in making sure that their youth groups are spaces that they're really happy to be sending their kids.
Jen: What gives you hope that the culture in Jewish youth spaces is changing, or that it will change in the future?
Dahlia: A lot of the teens that reached out to us had such an earnest understanding of the hookup culture that they had seen peers experience, that perhaps they'd experienced themselves. And that—their ability to express that nuance, I think, was so hopeful. That's something that I always think about when I feel perhaps the work is greater than what I'm capable of.
Madeline: I think it's important to teach young people and to teach teens the power of a history of activism, knowing that older generations in our lives, especially women in this case—there has been a tradition, a history, of working to create change, of activism, and looking to our teachers on that has been empowering and affirming in a process that is often tedious and that doesn't look like it's fruitful in the exact moment, because these things are long. And when you put yourself within the long tradition of change-making, that activist history shows that bend of the arc of justice.
Jen: Well at the risk of sounding corny, I think the three of you are a cause for hope. You’re bringing attention to something that really was hush-hush, and if I go back to my own years of summer camp, these things were happening and not talked about, and so just to know that you are really bringing these issues to the forefront and trying to hold people accountable is a real cause for hope. So thank you.
Nahanni: Over the past two years, Jewish Teens for Empowered Consent has been invited to meet with some of the leaders of major youth movements and overnight camps. JTEC says that the leadership recognizes there’s a problem and wants to address it, but so far they haven’t seen any of the concrete changes they are pushing for.
Thank you for joining us for Can We Talk?, the podcast of the Jewish Women’s Archive. Our team includes Jen Richler and Judith Rosenbaum. Special thanks to Catherine Horowitz for helpful research. Our theme music is by Girls in Trouble.
Thanks to Dahlia Soussan, Ellanora Lerner, and Madeline Canfield, and to everyone who shared their testimonies with JTEC, including the one you heard in this episode.
To learn more about JTEC, visit jewishteensforempoweredconsent.org. You can also find JTEC and more of the testimonies they have collected on Instagram at jews4empoweredconsent—that’s with the number 4.
You can find Can We Talk? online at jwa.org/canwetalk or wherever you get your podcasts.
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I’m your host, Nahanni Rous. Join us next time for the final episode of the season, where Jen and Judith and I will look back at some of our favorite moments from this year’s episodes.
How to cite this page
Jewish Women's Archive. "Episode 80: Toxic Hookup Culture in Jewish Youth Groups and Summer Camps." (Viewed on March 26, 2023) <https://jwa.org/episode-80-toxic-hookup-culture-jewish-youth-groups-and-summer-camps>.