January 24, 2018 by Rebecca Krevat
I always knew the time would come for the Jewish communal world to face the sexual assault and harassment that pervades it. That time is now. I wish it wouldn’t have taken this seismic #MeToo movement/moment for us to get on board in fixing a problem that has persisted in our peoplehood since biblical times, but those who abuse power do not let go of it easily, especially without institutions that stand unwaveringly behind victims and survivors. This is a large part of why it’s so exciting that the Jewish Women’s Foundation of New York (JWFNY) is hosting a town hall meeting this week titled, “Revealing metoo as wetoo in Jewish Communal Life,” to specifically address “gender abuse and harassment in the Jewish community.”
The language used to describe the event already cued me to the fact that the organizers care deeply about those who are most affected. I spoke to JWFNY executive director Jamie Allen Black who told me that she specifically chose the phrase “gender abuse and harassment” as opposed to “sexual harassment” because as she described, “it’s not about sex but about power and demeaning—for me that’s a big message and now seemed like the right time because people are actually listening.”
In fact, JWFNY has been working to address this problem well before the Weinstein allegations came to light. Starting in the summer of 2016, JWFNY began holding trainings to combat harassment and gender abuse for professionals in Jewish organizations, improving their model overtime.
In early December of 2017, Black was approached with the idea that JWFNY hold a town hall meeting on the topic for the Jewish communal world, like those hosted by the Royal Court Theater in London and the Public Theater in New York. The idea would be for individuals to share survivor stories before communally establishing a code of conduct.
The idea came from Martin Kaminer, a trustee of the Kaminer Foundation who had been working with JWFNY on their trainings. Additionally, at prompting of Naomi Eisenberg of the Good People Fund about a year ago, Kaminer and Eisenberg began conducting informal surveys of Jewish communal professionals and their experiences with workplace harassment. The responses they received spanned across institutions, with perpetrators at all levels of leadership including rabbis, major donors, and other men in powerful positions.
Wanting to capitalize on the energy of the #MeToo moment and all of the people “coming out of the woodwork” for trainings, Black agreed with Kaminer’s suggestion to host a town hall. She spoke with Rachel Weinstein, vice president of JWFNY’s executive committee, who was so excited about the town hall concept that her family’s Cornell/Weinstein foundation agreed to help underwrite the event. “I have a 15-year-old daughter, and I watch her navigate her place in this world and how people see her,” says Weinstein. “I think our mothers thought that we wouldn’t be having this conversation, but we are. How do we make space for this conversation so that the next generation doesn’t have to?”
The event is comprised of three parts: first, Jewish community leaders, including myself, will be sharing the stories that JWFNY has gathered over the past year and a half. “They could make your hairs stand on end,” said Black. The stories will echo through the hall like a theater performance, meant to emotionally encapsulate the audience. “I’m really hoping that some people who come to this event [who] don’t have any idea about the scope… get a visceral experience of it,” said Black.
I sometimes feel frustrated that our stories of abuse have had to be shared over and over again in order to be taken seriously. Survivors need to lay their scars bare in order to get policies changed or obtain media coverage for their activist work, when in reality we should be trusted without the need for public voyeurism.
But the Jewish community has yet to reckon with this issue in a major way. One of the largest Orthodox synagogues in Teaneck still employs Rabbi Pruzansky, a man who wrote on his blog: “If indeed there was a ‘rape culture’ on American campuses, no intelligent woman would want to attend college.” The 92 Street Y planned to host admitted workplace harasser Ari Shavit as their keynote speaker for an event (which they later cancelled, after a rightful outcry on social media.) I could go on with examples of how the Jewish community fails survivors of gender-based violence, and those who have experienced workplace harassment.
So, our community obviously needs to hear these stories in order to finally grasp the gravity of the situation. It is critical that these testimonies wash over those who still don’t get it like a splash of ice water to the face.
After the stories are read, donor-activist Barbara Dobkin will moderate a panel of experts: Deborah Meyer, CEO of Moving Traditions, Rabbi Joanna Samuels, Founding Executive Director of the Manny Cantor Center, and Rabbi Mira Beth Wasserman, PhD, Director of the Center for Jewish Ethics and Assistant Professor of Rabbinic Literature at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. This impressive list of experienced community leaders will share their expertise to frame an open forum where audience members will be able to express their opinions and have their questions answered.
At the end of the event, everyone will be encouraged to write down “three things that they think are mandatory for a code of conduct,” with organizations later collaborating to agree on a final document to incorporate seriously into their own policies and procedures. “I want them to feel heard—especially those who have been perpetrated against,” said Black. “I want everyone to know they have been heard by us.” Weinstein emphasized that, “My hope is to have a room full of 250 people [who] go back to their orgs and have their own conversations… Do we have reporting mechanisms? What do we do about this? How do we communicate our policy to our employees?”
It’s time for Jewish organizations to join the secular world in holding perpetrators accountable for their actions—even if that perpetrator is a wealthy donor who holds a lot of power over an organization. JWFNY is planning to be bold. Black told me, “I’m interested in long term and short term. Let’s get these perpetrators now [and] let’s change the system so that it’s not fertile ground for abuse.” In our discussion, Weinstein mentioned the idea of creating a fund specifically for organizations who have major donors accused of harassment, so that the organization doesn’t suffer in turning away funds from a harasser. This idea is reminiscent of Hollywood’s Time’s Up campaign, one that feels inspiring to me because celebrities are finally putting their money where their tweets are.
I can only hope that the Jewish community does the same by truly following through on these commitments, because the last thing people who have experienced harassment and abuse need are more empty gestures. We deserve to be listened to.