“I was told it was part of the job.”

These words, repeated over and over again, haunted accounts of harassment, assault, and abuse in Jewish communal organizations, leaving the room of over 250 Jewish professionals horrified and speechless.

“Revealing #metoo as #wetoo in Jewish Communal Life,” organized by the Jewish Women’s Foundation of New York, convened on January 25th in the wake of movements across industries, generational divides, and social media platforms to call attention to the crisis* of gender abuse in professional and personal settings.

(*I use the word crisis here not to presume that this is a new phenomenon, but as a signifier of a breaking point. Gender abuse is as old as patriarchy; we are just fortunately living in a time where women have amassed enough power to speak out about it in mainstream platforms.)

It was made abundantly clear through these unnerving accounts that the Jewish professional world is not immune to the conversation around the #metoo movement.

This town hall featured the reading of anonymous testimonials of both women and men survivors at the hand of abuse from donors, coworkers, bosses, and even congregants. After it was made abundantly clear through these unnerving accounts that the Jewish professional world is not immune to the conversation around the #metoo movement, a panel of experts took the stage to respond to people’s comments and questions regarding the way forward. The night was meant to serve as a jumping off point for difficult conversations for both Jewish communal organizational staff as well as the community at large.

On January 25th, The Jewish Women’s Foundation of New York hosted a town hall meeting to address gender abuse and harassment in Jewish communal spaces. Courtesy of Aimee Rubensteen

At this powerful and groundbreaking event, communal leaders articulated essential points on next steps. It was clear that if people are to feel safe coming forward and seeking justice, there needs to be a third party organization of paid employees dedicated specifically to this effort. Furthermore, simply having internal organizational policies around gender misconduct will not prevent incidents of abuse, and such policies, often lying dormant in employee handbooks until an organization risks a PR nightmare, certainly will not sufficiently protect victims if they decide to come forward. Policies without trainings, difficult conversations, and constant checks and balances are nothing but words on a page.

We need a radical restructuring of how we conceive of and teach others about gender and power in our community.

I found myself deeply affected and overwhelmed by the conversation that night. The stories of women in positions of relative power, those that I thought would be immune to enduring this kind of behavior, resonated deeply and led me to reconsider many of my previously held beliefs on gender equity, especially in the Orthodox community.

We need a radical restructuring of how we conceive of and teach others about gender and power in our community. We need to address just how to allow women to serve as synagogue presidents or communal spiritual leaders, but how to make our institutions places where leadership and participation of all kinds can be safe and enriching.

At the town hall meeting, an opportunity to take individual and collective action. Courtesy of Aimee Rubensteen

When we tell women there is no path for justice, we tell them that enduring abuse is “just part of the job.”So much of the current moment is a recognition of crisis. Organizations, companies, and industries are beginning to acknowledge that diversifying and increasing access to leadership roles for women is not enough. You cannot just bring in people with fundamentally different social needs and systemic hurdles and expect that they will thrive or be treated with the same respect as their more “traditional” counterparts. These differences need to be accounted for through institutional policies and restructuring; these initiatives must be constructed by or at the very least alongside women in an open, transparent forum. JWFNY’s event served as an excellent model for the kind of constructive and difficult dialogue necessary for creating dynamic institutions that can fully serve their communities.

You cannot just bring in people with fundamentally different social needs and systemic hurdles and expect that they will thrive or be treated with the same respect.

One of the most heartbreaking comments of the night came from a woman who expressed indignation at suffering abuse for years and turning to the rabbi of her synagogue for support, only to have him shut her down and tell her there was nothing he could do about it. Frustrated, she switched her entire family out of that synagogue community, but the same scenario played out with her new rabbi as well. There should never be a situation in which there is “nothing” a Jewish communal leader can do about the suffering of a community member. This story was harrowing to listen to, particularly because I imagine it is an all too common experience for those working within institutions across faiths, industries and countries. When we tell women there is no path for justice, we tell them that enduring abuse is “just part of the job.”

In the last few decades, Orthodox women have made tremendous strides in gaining access to leadership, professional, and educational opportunities. Hearing about the harassment of women serving as rabbinical and communal leaders in other, “more egalitarian” movements revealed the ways in which diverse hiring practices must be accompanied by a radical reconsideration of what real leadership looks like. We cannot turn a blind eye once our schools and synagogues can boast about a woman scholar-in-residence or even clergy member. We need to put in the effort to provide space and support when we can effectively hear and respond to the call of #metoo.

Aliza Lifshitz is a sophomore at Barnard College studying women’s, gender, and sexuality studies and Jewish studies. She is currently interning at JWFNY and the co-president of the Jewish Activist Collective at Columbia/Barnard Hillel.

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