What’s the Best Way to Say #MeToo?

In the small, insular Jewish professional world, people are often reluctant to come forward with sexual harassment allegations—especially against ‘big machers.’ That’s beginning to change.
By | Sep 13, 2018
2018 September-October

When she was 23, Debbie Findling was hired by a Jewish Community Center (JCC) in Woodland Hills, California, to oversee its summer day camp under the supervision of acting executive director Leonard “Len” Robinson, an experienced Jewish communal professional in his 40s. It was the summer of 1988, and she was excited when Robinson invited her and her then-boyfriend out to dinner with him and his wife. She told him that her boyfriend couldn’t make it and arrived to find only Robinson, who made an excuse for why his wife wasn’t there either. After dinner, he tried holding her hand as she walked back to her car. When she refused, he told her it was normal behavior for colleagues who liked each other. When he tried to kiss her, she pushed him off. He called her naive, said she was a prude and told her to grow up. When he then asked her to have sex with him and his wife, she became flustered, jumped in her car and drove away.

Findling was so upset she scraped up the money to fly to Denver, Colorado, to discuss what had happened with a previous boss and mentor, who was also a friend of Robinson’s. He advised her to report what happened to the Los Angeles regional office of the JCC Association of North America. She did, and soon after she began to receive voicemails from Robinson, threatening her and saying she was ruining his life by reporting him. She was then transferred to a JCC in Santa Monica and assured she’d have no further contact with Robinson; she was also told that he was remorseful and seeking therapy. Robinson would go on to become the youth director for the JCC in Portland, Oregon, and then the executive director of the JCCs of Seattle, Greater Phoenix and Greater Los Angeles before being appointed executive director of NJY Camps, the largest Jewish camp system in the world.

Findling’s father, an attorney, wanted her to file a lawsuit, alleging the JCC leadership knowingly assigned Robinson to supervise young women despite his history of sexual harassment, but Findling refused. “I was convinced—and still think—that if I had filed a lawsuit, that would have ended my career with the Jewish community,” she says. “I would have been labeled, you know, one of those women. An agitator.” She paid a price for this decision. “For 30 years I wondered, ‘did I do something wrong?’ and ‘why was I in that position?’” she says. “Anyone who has experienced sexual harassment knows that it has a deep and lasting impact on the psyche.”

But this year, amid the emerging #MeToo movement and 30 years after the incident, Findling—now 54 and an established philanthropic adviser—decided it was time to come forward with her story. Inspired by a private Facebook group called #GamAni (#MeToo in Hebrew) where women share their experiences of sexual harassment within Jewish communal life, she wrote an op-ed in The New York Jewish Week, titled “Is the Jewish Community Perpetuating Sexual Harassment?” In the piece, published on March 20, she discussed her experience but didn’t name Robinson because, she says, she wanted the piece to shine a light on systemic issues of harassment within Jewish agencies and not just her personal experience. For her, it was about “in what ways do guys like this, who have been accused of sexual harassment to HR and have admitted it, just get promoted and moved to other Jewish organizations?” On top of that, she didn’t know if Robinson had changed in the 30 years since she had worked with him. “I had no idea if he sexually harassed other women,” she says, and she “didn’t want to engage in lashon hara [gossip].” She preferred to give him the benefit of the doubt, to believe he had done teshuva (repentance) for his actions.

Debbie Findling

Debbie Findling’s 2018 op-ed led to the resignation of Len Robinson, executive director of NJY Camps.

After her op-ed appeared, about half a dozen women contacted Findling, telling her they’d read her piece and knew that she was referring to Robinson. She says they told her that he’d harassed them, too. “They said ‘me too,’ and not 30 years ago; ‘me too’ five years ago, two years ago, last year and very recently,” Findling says. Once she learned of the new allegations, she told herself “all bets are off” and decided to go on the record with Robinson’s name. She contacted The New York Jewish Week, but on April 12, before the weekly could publish the story, the president of NJY Camps announced that Robinson had resigned “after being confronted with allegations of sexual harassment and impropriety in a role prior to his employment with NJY Camps.” That same day, The New York Jewish Week confirmed that Findling’s op-ed had indeed referred to Robinson.

Findling’s actions led others to come forward publicly. Five days later, with encouragement and guidance from Findling, Hildy Somerville, a former NJY camper, went on the record with The New York Jewish Week detailing allegations of sexual harassment by Robinson when she applied for a position at NJY Camps in 2007. The same article included three other people confirming the “open secret” of Robinson’s workplace behavior.

Two months after Findling’s op-ed was published, she received a call from Keren McGinity, director of Interfaith Families Jewish Engagement at the graduate program of Hebrew College in Boston. McGinity, now 51, had her own sexual harassment story to tell, and she wanted advice from Findling on coming forward.

McGinity proceeded cautiously: Before writing about what had occurred, she felt she needed to confirm that her experience was not an isolated incident and reached out to others who had worked with the man in question. After learning that they had had similar experiences, she published an op-ed on June 21 in The New York Jewish Week titled “American Jewry’s #MeToo Problem: A First-Person Encounter.” Like Findling, McGinity did not name the man. She wrote that, at an event later confirmed to be the 2011 conference of the Association for Jewish Studies in Washington, DC, an older, married man took her out for a candlelit dinner to discuss her professional future. There, he took her hand and back at the hotel insisted on riding in the elevator up to her floor. When she tried to part with him, he wrapped his arms around her and forcefully kissed her neck. She extricated herself and ran back to her room.

Just a few hours after her op-ed appeared, someone in the #GamAni Facebook group used an anonymous post feature to draw a parallel between the unidentified man McGinity described in her piece and Steven M. Cohen, an extremely influential and well-connected Jewish sociologist. Cohen was director of the Berman Jewish Policy Archive at Stanford University and a tenured professor at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) in New York City. About a week later, a reporter from The New York Jewish Week contacted McGinity asking her to confirm or deny that Cohen was her harasser. By that point, she’d been meticulously keeping notes on other women she had been in touch with, including whether they were willing to go on the record. On July 19, The New York Jewish Week reported that eight women had come forward to the paper with allegations of harassment or misconduct against Cohen; three, including McGinity, went on the record. Soon after, HUC-JIR opened a Title IX investigation into Cohen, and he resigned from his position there on August 22. He also stepped down as head of the Berman Jewish Policy Archive.

There was so much pent-up pain and rage in so many women’s lives, as well as men’s, that there was no way for this story to come  out but in a deluge.

The events leading to the public exposure of allegations about Robinson and Cohen were similar to those of an earlier story. In October 2016, Danielle Berrin, a reporter for the Los Angeles Jewish Journal, wrote a first-person account that was published on the paper’s front page alleging that an “accomplished journalist from Israel” had groped and sexually harassed her. She chose not to name the journalist because, she wrote, a Jewish woman jeopardizes “jobs, social standing or even the opportunity to convert” in naming a sexual aggressor. Within days, the famed Israeli journalist Ari Shavit, author of the wildly successful My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel and a rock star on the American Jewish lecture circuit, admitted, amid an Israeli media frenzy, that he was the man. Soon after, more women came forward with allegations against him, and Shavit resigned from his position as a senior columnist at Haaretz and commentator for Israel’s Channel 10 News.

Berrin, who is now 35, never really wanted to go public, but after the release of the Access Hollywood tape of then-presidential candidate Donald Trump making light of sexual assault, her editor, who knew about the incident, asked her to, and she agreed. This was a year before the #MeToo movement propelled sexual harassment and assault into the spotlight. Berrin wrote the story but was not prepared for the onslaught of national and international attention. “I felt totally alone at the time,” she says of the experience.

Berrin says the response was terrifying. Some people criticized her for coming forward, while others refused to take her claims seriously. In a Facebook post, Hillel Schocken—a member of the Haaretz board of directors—took aim at Berrin for her accusation against Shavit, claiming she was just seeking publicity. She took comfort in the hundreds of emails from men and women, Jews and non-Jews alike, who reached out to her to express support and share their own stories. “It was like this floodgate had burst open,” she recalls. “I think that’s why the #MeToo movement really exploded. There was so much pent-up pain and rage in so many women’s lives, as well as men’s, that there was no way for this story to come out but in a deluge.”

The Jewish professional world is small, its higher echelons even smaller, and the revelations about these powerful men—each one of them a mover, shaker and macher—rocked it. How these allegations, and the men’s identities, became public, was similar in every case: A victim provided just enough details to the press to catch the attention of others who recognized the person the story was referring to and then felt empowered to also come forward.

There is an actual term for this blueprint—“escrow”—which is adopted from legal language for a deed, bond or deposit held by a third party, to be transferred after the fulfillment of a condition. “In a way, the folks who go to the press, what they’re doing is making it a public escrow system,” says Chai Feldblum, a commissioner at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the federal agency that enforces civil rights law against workplace discrimination. The press then provides critical exposure, says Feldblum.

“I think that the need for women to feel strength in numbers is simply a reflection of the basic realities of our system,” since workplace retaliation is a legitimate fear among women who are considering reporting sexual harassment or assault, she says. Feldblum points to survey data from a 2016 EEOC report she co-authored showing that more than half of the women who report sexual harassment in the workplace experience social or professional retribution. But it’s harder to retaliate against two or more women. “Plus, [the escrow process] helps women feel that they will be believed,” says Feldblum.

Going public with allegations is “precisely what we need in order to fix this issue,” she says. Lawsuits are also an option, especially when the harassment is ongoing or recent. But while lawsuits usually lead to settlements that can include non-disclosure agreements, going to the press encourages public discussion, says Washington, DC attorney Debra S. Katz, an expert on sexual harassment, employment and whistleblower law. “If the primary objective is to blow the whistle on misconduct, going to the press can be a very powerful way to meet that objective without going through years of litigation,” she says. “What’s exciting about this moment is many people have chosen to come forward without looking for any compensation, simply to tell the story, and it’s resulted in other people finding that they are not alone and feeling empowered to tell their stories.”

Keren McGinity, Avital Chizhik-Goldschmidt, Danielle Berrin

Keren McGinity, Avital Chizhik-Goldschmidt, Danielle Berrin

Once victims go on the record, they become valuable resources for others. “Debbie [Findling] made me realize that even if I was the only one that Cohen had assaulted and no one else came forward, which was unlikely, what he did was still wrong,” says McGinity. “A bank robber doesn’t have to rob multiple banks to be a criminal. The socially ingrained idea that many women’s voices ‘equal’ one man’s is ludicrous.”

Like Findling, McGinity is now someone to whom other women—and men—reach out. This has made her realize, she says, “how deep the problems are, and that a tremendous amount of re-education is required to fully understand how we got to where we are and what needs to change.” At times, she adds, she feels “like a human vault,” but it’s “something I feel called to do.”

There’s little difference between coming forward with a sexual harassment story within the Jewish world and outside of it. The fears of retaliation and not being believed, says Feldblum, “are universal.” But the Jewish community is also unique, or at least unique in the way other small, insular communities are, she says: “The feeling that we’re all engaged in some effort together—social justice or religious work—makes one feel uncomfortable in calling out someone who is not acting appropriately.”

Keren McGinity struggled with this for years. She didn’t want to tell her story because she didn’t want to bring shame to her close-knit community of Jewish academics. “The idea that the Jewish people are a family, that we are all responsible for each other, weighed on my mind for a long time,” she says. “It is harder to acknowledge when one of our members does something egregious.”

If there is a reluctance to speak out against the Jewish community at large, that reluctance is magnified within even more tight-knit ultra-Orthodox communities. After Berrin told her story in 2016, writer Avital Chizhik-Goldschmidt tweeted a statement of solidarity with her, saying that she, too, had been harassed, not by Shavit, but by a different Israeli media personality years ago. She didn’t name who it was—she still won’t—because, she says, she’s not interested in bringing him down. Her objective was to demonstrate solidarity with other female journalists who were sexually harassed by powerful men in the community.

Chizhik-Goldschmidt, now 26, whose husband is an Orthodox rabbi in New York City, was taken aback by the harsh reaction from her religious community. “Instead of getting support, I received a lot of hate,” she says. Many questioned her motives, and an ultra-Orthodox news site even called for her husband to divorce her. As he had with Berrin, Haaretz board member Hillel Schocken also accused Chizhik-Goldschmidt of seeking publicity.

I wish I could speak out so that he no longer has a license to behave with others in the disturbing way that he did with me. But He has too many influential friends.

Chizhik-Goldschmidt, now an editor at The Forward, says it’s particularly difficult for the ultra-Orthodox to come forward with their stories because of fear, isolation and shame—as well as the community’s stringent views on sex. “There’s no premarital sex, so when a woman is touched, harassed or assaulted before marriage, let’s say, that only hurts her.” In other words, publicly sharing her story can damage her marriage prospects.

For victims, another obstacle stems from how the Jewish professional world is structured. The nonprofit world’s reliance on donors makes claims of harassment particularly difficult to navigate, says Steven Bayar, the rabbi of Congregation B’nai Israel in Milburn, New Jersey and a harassment prevention trainer certified by B’Kavod, a partnership between the Good People Fund and the Jewish Women’s Foundation of New York. In July, Cheryl Moore, a Pittsburgh woman who volunteered for Jewish organizations, published an essay called “I’m Never Coming Back” in eJewish Philanthropy about her decision to leave the Jewish nonprofit world after being harassed by several wealthy male donors. She didn’t name them. Their “public, outrageous and/or crude comments and behavior” was “observed by others, but questioned by no one,” she wrote. An executive at one organization says she feels unable to tell her story because of potential backlash, since the person in question is one of the most prominent and best-known philanthropists in the Jewish community. “I wish I could speak out so that he no longer feels he has a license to behave with others in the disturbing way that he did with me,” she says. But speaking out, she believes, could hurt her organization. “He has too many influential friends, making him almost untouchable.”

The wave of #MeToo sexual harassment and assault allegations is not limited to the professional Jewish world; it affects congregations, schools and small organizations of all kinds. “In truth, I was not really aware that the problem existed to the extent that we have uncovered,” says Naomi Eisenberger, one of the pioneers of the #GamAni Facebook page and movement. “There’s a lot more out there.”

Since 2016, Eisenberger, the founder and executive director of the New Jersey-based Good People Fund, has helped bring together women who want to tell their stories. Says Findling, “I reached out to her, and she encouraged me to speak up and connected me to others who gave me support.” Eisenberger also made the shidduch (match) between McGinity and Findling. Even before #MeToo took off, she was trying to determine the scope of sexual harassment in Jewish nonprofits. In an effort to help small organizations, she helped establish B’Kavod—Hebrew for “in respect,” which provides an anonymous reporting service for sexual harassment and abuse within Jewish workplaces. Complaints are not reviewed by the authorities but by Jewish professionals and lay leaders who decide whether a situation requires their intervention. The nonprofit also has a guide for those considering coming forward and a confidential phone line.

EEOC commissioner Feldblum says that the Jewish community’s response has been unique, although she is not sure if this is because of the hard work of a few leaders such as Eisenberger or a core commitment to tikkun olam and social justice. “Whatever the reason,” says Feldblum, “I really feel like the Jewish community is trying to set up structures to deal with this in a way that I haven’t seen in other communities.”

For Findling, the most important source of support has been the emerging grassroots network of people who email and call one another. “We make referrals to those of us who have come forward so that we can offer our encouragement,” she says. “There is also a robust conversation on Facebook, with women, and men as allies, offering support. Perhaps this is how all movements start—with a small group of people who suddenly find themselves spirited into becoming activists simply by our own circumstances.”

Findling is not afraid of retribution and dares anyone to question her story or her motives. But looking back, she wishes that there had been such a network for her to reach out to when she was a young woman terrified that the harassment would continue and that her response could ruin her career. Still, there’s much work to be done, she says. “Unfortunately, 30 years later, communal support is still woefully inadequate. We can—and must—do more to support women for their bravery in exposing sexual harassment. Even better,” she adds, “would be if our community had the courage to stop sexual harassment from occurring in the first place.”

If you would like to confidentially contact a Moment editor about a sexual harassment experience, email editor@momentmag.com to tell your story or to set up an appointment to speak on a private line. For completely anonymous reporting, go to momentmag.com/confidential. 

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