Teach them early

Teens as partners in combating intimate partner violence

In Short

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Shalom Task Force foresaw the risks of domestic and intimate partner violence posed by the lockdowns and worked with teenagers to help mitigate them

As stay-at-home orders and COVID descended upon the world, the field of domestic violence entered a state of crisis. 

Since 1993, the Shalom Task Force has worked to combat domestic violence (DV) and foster safe relationships in the Jewish community through our national hotline, legal services and educational programs. Reporting about the experience of intimate partner violence (IPV) during and post-COVID warrants articles and research of its own as we continue to serve increased survivors and demand.

IPV is a pattern of behaviors used by one partner to maintain power and control over another and instill fear in an intimate relationship. IPV/DV exists in all communities and the Jewish community is not immune — though often victims struggle with greater shame and lack of community support. COVID brought a new dynamic to abuse, where victims were literally isolated with their abusers, at a time of increased mental health struggles, financial hardships and stress — all risk factors for DV.

Shalom Task Force feared for the worst for the survivors and implemented innovative ways to provide services to victims. We were also challenged to continue our prevention and awareness work under these new conditions. Central to this challenge was to find ways to continue to engage youth as we looked to find meaningful and effective ways to provide IPV prevention during this strange time. 

According to the CDC, nearly 1.5 million teens report physical abuse annually and a third of adolescents will experience sexual, physical, verbal or emotional dating abuse. Not only are youth at significant risk for IPV, but they are less likely to seek help than adults. The trauma of IPV can have severe long-term consequences including poor mental health outcomes, substance abuse and homelessness. Our concerns for youth were magnified during this time as teens were isolated, lacking their normal routines and support systems and at greater risk for unsafe online relationships.

We saw this as a crucial opportunity to launch the Purple Fellowship because purple is the IPV awareness color. The Purple Fellowship is a yearlong educational experience that equips juniors at Jewish day school students, nationally, with the skills, knowledge and real-life experience to become leaders in their schools and communities through the lens of gender violence and Jewish values. This fellowship builds a sense of Jewish community, fosters talent through its leadership development model and empowers youth and their communities to create safety and communal support.

STF facilitates this learning by empowering teens across the country with leadership skills around empathy, public speaking and teamwork. Fellows complete a nine-week intensive online training addressing topics including Advocacy, IPV 101 and the Jewish Community, Red Flags, Online Safety, Being a Supportive Friend and Event Planning. The program culminates in the students planning and facilitating a “Go Purple Day” at their own school to spread awareness about relationship violence and provide supportive resources through group activities, breakout sessions and educational materials. The fellows actively shift the discourse within their school community with students discussing IPV and healthy relationships.

We were not sure if it would succeed — would schools and youth be open to this experience? Could we meaningfully engage youth- on Zoom? How do we create community from afar?

STF has long-standing relationships with many Jewish day schools and is a trusted service provider. We leveraged these relationships as we worked closely with schools to recruit for the pilot year. In 2020, 76 students from 23 schools applied, and we accepted 56 fellows. 

By its third year, 200 students applied, and 35 schools participated. Participants and school partners are from throughout North America and represent the broad range of the Jewish community including Yeshiva University High Schools (N.Y. and L.A.), Abraham Joshua Heschel, Maimonides, Katz Yeshiva South Florida, SAR and HALB Yeshiva High Schools, and the interest in the program continues to grow. Participating schools report that the program has helped their school communities surface critical issues including communal responsibility, healthy relationships, boundaries and being an upstander. Integrated into the program is participant evaluations, and these reflect greater knowledge around abuse, Jewish values and feeling empowered to impact change.

The Jewish Education Project recently released new data about supplemental education; our experience and approach reflect this research, which reports that community members are looking for “meaningful, relevant experiences that honor their unique identities and support them through pivotal life experiences.” The Purple Fellowship meets these goals by creating community, connection, competence and empowers our youth to contribute to positive change, respect each other’s strengths and learn to be upstanders in our communal efforts to foster healthy relationships and a safer community. The program was funded by a two-year startup grant from the Hadassah Foundation, and with seed funding from Arev and Neshamot (a UJA-Federation of New York fund), but long-term sustainability and growth depend on future support from Jewish funders committed to ending gender violence and fostering Jewish leadership.

We are often asked how we can stay optimistic and manage the vicarious trauma of working in the field of abuse- it is because our work is grounded in hope. We remain hopeful when we meet with thousands of Jewish youth and see their passion to change the future as they wear purple kippot, start Purple DV Activism Clubs and enjoy purple donuts to raise awareness. By partnering with teens, we can create a safer and more supportive Jewish community.

Shoshannah D. Frydman, PhD, is the CEO of Shalom Task Force, Inc. and a clinical social worker with over 20 years of experience working with victims of gender-based violence in the Jewish community. Founded in 1993, STF is committed to combatng domestic violence and fostering safe relationships through its hotline, legal services and educational programming and serves Jewish communities around the world.