A different kind of counting: The Omer, SAAM, and Oct. 7

Woman standing alone (Canva)

Content warning: This op-ed discusses sexual violence and other forms of violence.

I have been counting these days like never before. Since October 7, I’ve been counting the days since 252 hostages were abducted from Israel to Gaza. Since Passover, I’ve been counting the days of the Omer, the traditional period between Passover and Shavuot. And in April and May, I’ve been counting the days of the months dedicated to sexual assault awareness and prevention in the US and Canada, respectively.

The coinciding of these periods of counting has meant that, as I continued to pray for the hostages’ return, I was unable to move past the semi-mourning period of the first 33 days of the Omer to the more joyful one leading up to Shavuot. This year, the mourning began long before the Omer. It began on October 7. During April and May, in particular, feelings of abandonment from anti-sexual violence organizations and service providers have heightened that mourning. I had hoped they would reach out to Jewish survivors, especially during the months designated to focus on survivor support, awareness, and prevention. Unfortunately, my hopes were unrealized.

As a Jewish woman who has experienced sexual harm, spent her career working for and with victim-survivors of sexual victimization, and is deeply connected to North American Jewish and Israeli communities, the reactions to the horrific acts of sexual violence and more on October 7th have left me stunned. In fact, new terminology is needed to capture the crimes committed that day. Women and men were raped and mutilated. Children were butchered in front of their parents. Families were tortured and bound together before being burned alive. Hostages were sexually assaulted. 

This is why the impact of this war on survivors of sexual violence is profound, especially for Jewish and Israeli survivors. While I mourn for the lives lost in that brutal attack, I feel abandoned and betrayed by those celebrating, denying, or remaining silent about what victims and survivors were made to endure. I know that others feel similarly because I hear from Jewish women and survivors of sexual abuse whose painful memories have been triggered, and who now feel as alone as they did when they were first harmed. Some have shared that they cannot bring themselves to read related news, while others feel compelled to do so as a way of connecting to the victims and survivors of October 7.

I have also heard from a few non-Jewish allies in the gender-based violence field who acknowledge, and are also disappointed by, the silence and denial of others. I question why it has proven so hard for many to simply acknowledge the sexual violence on October 7, and why there is a void where there should be outrage and support.  

Working in my corner of the Jewish world to help build safer communities has included learning from, and teaching, the work of non-Jewish feminists, activists, scholars, and colleagues. But I am now fearful for the future of sexual violence survivor advocacy. I worry that the progress made in the wake of the #MeToo movement is at risk of eroding and that the bridges we built between and among communities, organizations, and practitioners are fraying. Our Jewish communities have work to do as well to support survivors as needed. Feeling deserted by the silence of champions outside of the community is heartbreaking for Jewish, Israeli, and other survivors who thought they had partners in this fight.

This year, in the months that should have been about raising awareness and fighting for justice for survivors, we saw Harvey Weinstein’s rape conviction overturned and what it takes for women to be believed and for the men, like Sean Combs, who harmed them to admit it. But we also saw a renewed dedication to amplifying silenced voices and a reminder that rape is never acceptable through the Sheryl Sandberg led documentary, “Screams Before Silence.” To ensure that the progress we’ve made around gender-based violence over the years is not lost, we must recommit ourselves to the cause, bear witness, and speak out when it happens – no matter who is the victim and no matter where they are victimized. 

Recently, I went to Israel to contribute where I could. I visited survivor advocates and learned how they are supporting survivors. I went to several sites of the massacres and heard from those who survived and about those who did not. As I stood in the kibbutzim, I could smell the smoke from the fires that burned homes and people months before. I listened to a first responder recount the nightmarish scenes he witnessed in Kibbutz Re’im. I felt horrible asking him to repeat his story about finding two women raped and burned so I could record it on video. But he immediately understood that it was so I would have proof against the deniers. It was a moment that broke me, and I wondered how we got here. How could so many be silent in the face of such unimaginable cruelty? How can so many deny that this happened? What has happened to our humanity?

When a friend questioned whose mind I was hoping to change with this video I realized the importance of recording these testimonies for the victims’ sakes, and for that of all who loved them. I do not have the power to change anyone’s mind or convince people about what they don’t want to believe. But I can honor the memories of the victims. I can stand where they died, I can cry over their suffering and loss, and I can recommit myself to justice for survivors. 

We must do better. At a minimum, we must acknowledge the atrocities of October 7 and support all survivors of sexual violence. It is okay to have conflicting feelings about the war and hold many emotions simultaneously. But we must never be silent when it comes to condemning sexual violence and supporting survivors. The silence and denial cause them, and the work, more harm.

To those who are struggling, you are not alone. To those held hostage who have been returned and others coming forward with accounts of sexual harm in order to combat deniers, I am grateful for your voice, and I am sorry you have to use it this way. 

I humbly offer this advice and collection of resources so that we can get through this together:

  1. You don’t need to watch all the news coverage or feel guilty for tuning out. Put your safety and mental health first. Explore these resources for survivors when sexual violence is in the news and take care of yourself when sexual assault makes headlines.
  2. Surround yourself with the care you deserve. Many organizations, Jewish and secular, can be a source of support. Here are just a few of the many available resources: 
    1. Directory of organizations that support survivors (NSVRC)
    2. Recovering from Sexual Violence (RAINN)
    3. Gender-Based and Sexual Violence Action Resources (NCJW)
    4. Gender-Based Violence Survivor Support (Jewish Women International)
    5. #Me Too Resources (Jewish Women’s Archive)
    6. Resources for survivors (Za’akah)
    7. Sexual trauma and Jewish spirituality and religious life (Sacred Spaces)
    8. Resources from Ta’amod

To those wondering what you can do to support survivors and/or speak out right now, here are some ideas:

We’ve completed counting these weeks and we head into Shavuot. Let us continue to count, not just the days, but the voices that need to be heard. Let us remember to care for those who have been harmed and who need our support. And let us continue fighting for justice for survivors of sexual violence.

About the Author
Dr. Guila Benchimol is a consultant, researcher, educator, and victim advocate whose work focuses on gender, abuse, and power. She holds a PhD in Sociological Criminology from the University of Guelph and is also a trained restorative and transformative justice facilitator. Guila was one of the key advisors who guided the launch of the SRE Network in 2018, where she continues to serve as the Senior Advisor on Research and Learning. She is also the Director of Faith-Based and Community Accountability at Ampersands Restorative Justice and sits on the board of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP). Her first 10+ year career as a Jewish educator in and outside of Orthodox communities informed her understanding of the need to address victimization of all kinds. Guila lives in Toronto and was raised in its Spanish Moroccan Jewish community, which was built by the families who fled Tangier.
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