Healthy relationships start early

Love Healthy Relationships image
Students tour Response’s Clothesline Project, a display of t-shirts with survivors’ messages and stories.

"In what ways do you see healthy relationships being promoted on TV or in the media?" That's one question Ellie Molise from Response-a program of JUF's Jewish Child and Family Services (JCFS)-uses to hook her teenage audience during healthy relationships presentations at high schools that have recently included Vernon Hills and Lake Forest. Then she puts up slides of images from popular TV shows.

Among the images were Nancy and Jonathan from Netflix's Stranger Things , and Ian Gallagher and his former flame, an escaped convict named Mickey, from Showtime's Shameless .

"Are they healthy? Are they abusive?" asks Molise, who is Response's outreach prevention specialist. Whether she's speaking to 30 or 800 students, these questions spark discussion. Students are challenged to not only examine relationships in pop culture but, also, their own relationships with family, friends, and even social media.

Finally, students get a guided tour of The Clothesline Project, a display of t-shirts made by survivors of violence. The colored shirts-green, yellow, white, red, blue, orange, and purple-reflect a range of stories about abuse and violence, including those targeted because of sexual orientation and political activism. 

After this year's tour, one student reached out for help, recalled Sara Manewith , director of Response. "She told us how helpful it was that she saw herself in a story that someone else wrote on one of the T-shirts. She said, 'I'm a victim, too,' and is now receiving counseling."

Hoping to prevent another young woman from being another violence statistic, Samantha Spolter has dedicated herself to community outreach for the past two years. "One in four women (in the U.S.) has been in some kind of abusive relationship," said Spolter, coordinator of the SHALVA's Under 40 Outreach and Education. "That number really shocks people."

She begins an outreach event by explaining that the JUF-funded SHALVA's mission is to support Jewish women experiencing and healing from domestic abuse, and that work is done through community education programs, counseling, housing, and legal services.

In the fall of 2016, Spolter partnered with other Jewish organizations for a yoga event, and then other programs followed. They included cake decorating with a kosher baker and a self-defense class taught by sixth-degree black belt Sunny Levy, owner of a martial arts studio
in Lincolnwood.

"Knowledge is power," declares Spolter. "We are providing tools to recognize the warning signs of abuse much earlier and get out of the relationship," she said. "Even if a woman [in the audience] is not affected, chances are she has a sister, a cousin, or a friend who is," she said.

Through leadership activities, counseling, education, and school outreach, Response empowers teens to make healthy choices. Each year, the program serves over 13,000 teens and their families. 

Snowball, one of Response's popular programs, has changed lives.

In any given year, anywhere from 80 to 100 teens from the Chicago area attend this weekend retreat, where there's zero tolerance for bullying and abusing substances. The entire weekend is designed to empower healthy choices. Interactive workshops help teens develop leadership skills and learn about current issues like diversity and social justice.

For Eli Wright, a Highland Park High School junior and Snowball teen leader, what's most memorable is the opportunity to build connections with teens from diverse backgrounds. "My sophomore year, everyone in my small group got very close," he recalled. "We still keep in touch to this day." This year, he hopes to create that same experience at the healthy relationships workshop he'll be leading.

It's never too late to improve our family relationships, said Elizabeth Ellis, a JCFS social worker. Just a few days ago, she spoke with one confused grandmother whose 16-year-old grandchild is coming out as transgender. "She called and said, 'I really need someone in the Jewish community to help me deal with and understand what's going on with my grandkid.'"

The grandmother has come to the right place for help. On Tuesday nights, Ellis facilitates "You're Not the Worst," a drop-in support group for busy parents and caregivers of teens.

"Teenagers are like creatures from another planet sometimes. What motivates them is mysterious to older generations," Ellis joked. "But fostering communication-that's a big part of what I do."

Jennifer Brody is a freelance writer living in Chicago.


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