For Jewish Organizations, the Unique Challenge of #MeToo

By | Jun 08, 2018
Jewish World, Latest
Panelists on Thursday, May 31st discuss sexual harassment and abuse in the Jewish communal workplace.

“I’m on the bima, and the rabbi whispers in my ear: ‘I like your pants that tight.’”

Systemic sexual harassment and assault have been at the forefront of public attention ever since the #MeToo movement went viral in October, when dozens of women came forward with allegations against disgraced film producer Harvey Weinstein. Since then, almost every industry and community has grappled with its own revelations of harassment and assault among their most powerful men: Wall Street, media, technology, entertainment, government and sports—just to name a few. And if members of the Jewish community previously assumed their own familiar organizations, camps and religious institutions and nonprofits were immune to this crisis—well, that’s part of the problem. 

In November, Jewish communal activists and leaders created the #GamAni (“me too” in Hebrew) closed Facebook page as a platform for members to share their experiences with gender and harassment in the Jewish workplace. The group now has more than 700 members. Then in January, the Jewish Women’s Foundation of New York City hosted the first “Revealing #MeToo as #WeToo in Jewish Communal Life” event to address the issue and begin forming a course of action. By February, the New York Jewish Week reported a list of names of men involved in Jewish communal life accused of sexual harassment or abuse was circulating within the community. According to the report, the list was created by Jewish women even before the emergence of the #MeToo movement in October, but it was quickly made private due to the legal complications and the question of defamation.

“Revealing #MeToo as #WeToo” came to Washington, DC this month at the Sixth & I Synagogue as part of a growing partnership of prominent Jewish organizations and leaders that have joined together to address the problem. The event—which drew an overwhelmingly female crowd of over 200—featured scripted readings of anonymous testimonies of victims and survivors and a panel moderated by Lori Weinstein, CEO of Jewish Women International. These are just a few clips from the recorded testimonies:

“There’s often a weird blurring of social and professional situations that occurs in Jewish communal organizations, and it makes sexual harassment more difficult to address.”

“A prospective donor for my non-profit explicitly propositioned me for sex over an afternoon meeting to discuss strategy.”

“Boundaries are confusing when working for Jewish organizations. Are we family? Professional colleagues?”

Nonprofit work fills an important role in Jewish communal life, with thousands of organizations hiring both Jews and non-Jews. But even though Sarah Wildman, panelist and deputy print editor of Foreign Policy, reports 75 percent of these organizations’ employees are women, their leadership and donor bases are dominated by men, according to Gil Preuss, CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington.

The Chronicle of Philanthropy reports that one in four female fundraisers have experienced sexual harassment at work, and 96 percent of those who harass them are men. But Weinstein suspects sexual harassment and assault is widely underreported in the workplace, potentially explained by a recent study by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) that found 75 percent of women experience retaliation after they report harassment at work.

“Only 30 percent of women actually even do anything [report] inside their organization,” said Chai Feldblum, commissioner of the EEOC and a panelist. “And why not? Because of fear.” Feldblum explained women worry they’ll either lose their jobs, or, if they keep them, they’ll face some other form of professional harm. “The only way to change that is to create a positive feedback loop where women and men feel safe reporting, because right now there’s a negative feedback loop,” Feldblum said.

In the Jewish communal world, addressing systemic harassment and abuse comes with its own complications, though. For starters, some organizations don’t even have sexual misconduct policies because, as Jewish institutions, they assume they don’t need them. 

“You’ll hear them say: ‘We don’t need that. We’re a kehila kedosha, right? We’re a holy community. We can handle it,’” said panelist Rabbi B. Elka Abrahamson, president of The Wexner Foundation. “And I think those days are gone.” Abrahamson added that change is contingent on Jewish communities recognizing harassment policies as they would any other law. “It’s not contrary to the spirit of a holy community to have policies,” she said. “Folks, we are a people of law. We do rules really, really well. This should not be an exception.”

“We want to believe that because we’re Jewish, our institutions don’t encounter such behaviors, but they do. We have work to do.”

“It is difficult to express your concerns when there’s no HR or anyone you could speak to confidentially.”

Beyond adopting effective harassment policies, change also begins with putting more women in positions of power, according Wildman, who shared her experiences as an editor within what she calls journalism’s “old boys network.” “Your 75 percent of women in Jewish organizations are not all in leadership. We need to see more women in leadership, across the board,” Wildman said, to immediate applause.

As part of the #WeToo movement, the Tikkun Olam Women’s Foundation awarded the first grant of its kind to Sacred Spaces—an organization dedicated to preventing abuse in Jewish organizations—to form a cohort with Tikkun Olam and provide area synagogues with model policies and harassment prevention training, as well as guide synagogues in their efforts to respond to abuse that occurs.

Preuss, as CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, said he will meet with other leaders of local organizations and rabbinic leadership to come up with ways to combat sexual harassment in their communities. To him, the current state of sexual abuse and harassment in the Jewish community is both expected and eye-opening. “On the one hand, what you hear is not surprising,” he said. “On the other hand, every time you hear it, it’s just shocking to believe that this is still the state of the world.”

One thought on “For Jewish Organizations, the Unique Challenge of #MeToo

  1. Thank you Lara for referencing the ground-breaking event held by the Jewish Women’s Foundation of New York. Not only did we hold the first-ever Town Hall on this topic, but the script and stories used by the Tikkun Olam Women’s Foundation were created by our lay leaders and staff from survey responses collected by The Good People Fund. We are grateful that there is gaining momentum for identifying and eradicating gender abuse and harassment in Jewish Communal life. Continuing to work together in the Jewish community and beyond is a moral imperative for us all.

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