#MeToo In the Jewish Community: Where Are We Now?
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#MeToo In the Jewish Community: Where Are We Now?

New initiatives aim to tackle the problem, but many say efforts are still lagging — or lacking.

Hannah Dreyfus is a staff writer at the New York Jewish Week. She covers trends among youth and millennials, progress and pushback in the Orthodox world, women's issues, the Jewish LGBTQ community and Reform and Conservative Jewish life. She also heads the Investigative Journalism Fund, a special project of the Jewish Week to fill a gap in investigative and enterprise reporting, and 36 Under 36, an annual special issue profiling 36 exceptional young leaders. Reach her at hannah@jewishweek.org

Take Back The Workplace March on Nov. 12, 2017 in Hollywood, Calif. Via Getty Images.
Take Back The Workplace March on Nov. 12, 2017 in Hollywood, Calif. Via Getty Images.

On June 5, Dov Ben-Shimon, executive vice president/CEO of Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest N.J., penned a personal email to dozens of federation leaders across the country.

He outlined what is believed to be a first-of-its-kind measure to address the issue of sexual harassment in Jewish workplaces: the hiring of a new, full-time “Community Sexual Harassment Protection Counselor.” The job search is intended to begin this summer.

The new hire would, according to Ben-Shimon, advise the 90-plus synagogues and dozens of agencies, schools and organizations under the MetroWest umbrella on how to best respond to incidents of sexual harassment, particularly aimed at women. Similar to a chief security officer, this anti-harassment counselor — who would command a salary of $250,000 a year, according to the proposal — would work with “leadership and lay leadership,” in addition to victims, to start shifting a culture of “apathy, neglect and complicity,” Ben-Shimon told The Jewish Week in a telephone interview.

“We have become increasingly aware of the lack of protections for women and others who face harassment within our institutions.”

“We have become increasingly aware of the lack of protections for women and others who face harassment within our institutions,” he said. “It is the unique role of a federation to provide collective services to address serious issues that deserve and require resources.”

The proposal — one of the most tangible and detailed responses to sexual harassment in Jewish communal spaces — is on the leading edge of various attempts in the Jewish community to grapple effectively with this issue. Indeed, the Jewish community, with its intricately interwoven landscape of nonprofits, synagogues, schools and agencies, has faced its own reckoning with sexual harassment and gender bias over the past six months.

CEO Dov Ben-Shimon

A December 2017 story in The Jewish Week — published just weeks after the Harvey Weinstein scandal broke and the #MeToo movement gained momentum — detailed pervasive incidents of sexual harassment directed at female clergy among the more “liberal” denominations; rabbis described facing crude comments, inappropriate advances and gender discrimination at the hands of hiring teams, rabbinic supervisors and congregants. And MetroWest’s effort comes in the wake of the forced resignation of Len Robinson, the former executive director of NJY Camps, for claims of sexual harassment spanning five decades. NJY Camps is a member affiliate of the MetroWest federation.

Now, six months after several coordinated efforts to address this problem were announced and launched, the question “where are we now?” elicited a mixed response from communal leaders.

The Schusterman Family Foundation has been at the forefront of creating a unified Jewish response to the problem of workplace harassment.

Ziegler School’s Rabbi Cheryl Peretz: Found dearth of resources in Jewish community around harassment issue.

The “SafetyRespectEquity” Partnership, created in March to address sexual harassment, gender discrimination and related abuses of power in Jewish workplaces and communal spaces, is working with more than 50 individuals and organizations to pilot a unified approach, said a Schusterman spokesperson. Though still in the “early stages of development,” the Partnership has thus far established commitment among partnering organizations; crafted a “comprehensive set of standards” to help organizations put policies and reporting mechanisms in place; and set up “working groups” to address safety, respect and gender equity, said the spokesperson.

Rabbi Cheryl Peretz, associate dean of the Conservative Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, was among the first Jewish professionals to formulate a response. Directly after the Weinstein scandal, she chartered a course for female rabbinical students on how to deal with sexual harassment in the workplace. An informal survey she conducted last fall found that there was a “resounding need” among female rabbinical students for such a course.

“I started reaching out to female colleagues, and was surprised to find that, while everyone acknowledged the problem, there were no resources or trainings to deal with it.”

Still, she was surprised and dismayed to discover a dearth of resources in the Jewish community around the issue.

“I started reaching out to female colleagues, and was surprised to find that, while everyone acknowledged the problem, there were no resources or trainings to deal with it,” Rabbi Peretz told The Jewish Week.

She resorted to finding resources outside the Jewish community. Under the guidance of Laurie Levenson, a professor of law and former assistant U.S attorney in Los Angeles, and two female business coaches trained to address issues of harassment in corporate settings, she constructed a three-part training course to educate rabbinical students about how to understand, detect and report harassment and gender bias. The course, initially offered exclusively to female students, will be made available to all students in the fall, said Peretz. She additionally remains “open to sharing about what we did and how we did it” with other rabbinical schools.

Her concerns about a broader communal push to address these issues persists, she said.

“What worries me is that while we’re seeing a lot done on the professional side, we need more awareness building and training on the community side,” she said. Efforts by leading Conservative synagogues and most federations to address the issue with community members leave her “underwhelmed.”

(Of the seven prominent Conservative and Reform synagogues contacted for this article, one reported having employee trainings in response to the #MeToo movement and one reported conducting regular trainings. The remaining five did not yet respond to requests for comment.)

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Attempts by organizations to address the issue come as New York City and New York State expand protections against sexual harassment in the workplace. As of May, “nonemployees,” including contractors, vendors and consultants are extended protection under the New York State Human Rights Law, and effective July 11, non-disclosure clauses relating to claims of sexual harassment will be prohibited by the State of New York. Effective Oct. 9, companies must distribute written anti-harassment policies in the workplace and conduct annual anti-harassment training for all employees; in May, New York City announced a new act requiring private employers with 15 or more employees to conduct anti-sexual harassment training for all employees working 80 or more hours per year. The city also extended the statute of limitation for filing harassment complaints from one to three years.

Attempts by organizations to address the issue come as New York City and New York State expand protections against sexual harassment in the workplace.

Seth Marnin, a consultant for nonprofit organizations on harassment cases and former vice president for civil rights at the Anti-Defamation League, said he expects the tightening of legislation to produce a “surge” of interest from workplaces that previously slid under the radar. He noted that the act requiring employees working 80 hours or more per year for a private employer will compel many board members of Jewish institutions to think about the need for additional training.

“Employers’ recognition that they have liability and a renewed responsibility to train employees about proper protocol will have a major impact on the workplace,” said Marnin, who has worked with several Jewish institutions in the past. (Attorney-client privilege precludes him from citing examples.)

Though Marnin said the Jewish community has taken “steps” in the right direction, there are still “areas of the community that display a reluctance” to addressing these issues head-on. Synagogues, he said, are noticeably wary of confronting the issue.

While regulating specifics of religious behavior is the norm in most synagogues, a “free-for-all” atmosphere reigns when it comes to interpersonal behavior.

“We are a community that is totally comfortable saying ‘you can’t bring a ham sandwich into the shul,’ or ‘you have to put on a tallis before going up to the bima,’ but somehow our congregations are still unwilling and skittish around saying: ‘This is how you act properly; this is how you treat one another.’”

While regulating specifics of religious behavior is the norm in most synagogues, a “free-for-all” atmosphere reigns when it comes to interpersonal behavior, he said. He has witnessed a similar “unrestrained” culture pervading boards and donor-grantee relationships in the Jewish community, a state of affairs he finds “distressing.”

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Other attempts to address the problem remain more grassroots. #GamAni, a social media group pioneered by Jamie Allen Black, executive director of the Jewish Women’s Foundation of New York (JWFNY), activist Martin Kaminer and Naomi Eisenberger, executive director of the small-scale non-profit organization The Good People Fund, has transitioned from a Facebook phenomenon into an anti-harassment training boot-camp.

Over the past several months, Black, Eisenberger and Kaminer hired nationally recognized expert Fran Sepler — designer of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s new employee training focused on harassment prevention — to coach, train and license a dozen communal professionals to conduct trainings in Jewish communal spaces. Next week, JWFNY will sponsor three of the seven New York-based trainers to conduct trainings for 12 Jewish nonprofits in midtown Manhattan.

Twenty-four organizations — including the Union for Reform Judaism, the American Jewish World Service, Slingshot, Footsteps and a handful of prominent New York synagogues (Central Synagogue, B’nai Jeshurun, Park Avenue Synagogue) — have participated in a three-month training program to effectively implement best-practices, including a three-part training for supervisors, employees and board members.

Sarah Chandler, one of trainers recently licensed by Sepler, is a self-employed Brooklyn-based Jewish educator. She decided to sign up for the training after following the #GamAni movement on Facebook.

Brooklyn-based Jewish educator Sarah Chandler.

“He [Kaminer] put out a call on the #GamAni Facebook page to join the training, and I thought: ‘This is an opportunity,’” said Chandler.

The undertaking required three days of 9-to-5 workshops and several weeks of practicums and observing trainings in action. She paid $180 to join the course. Since then she has been booked by three synagogues, one day school and one Jewish nonprofit to conduct separate trainings for supervisors, employees and governance.

“We tell synagogues and nonprofits that if your goal is not to get sued, go hire a lawyer,” said Chandler. “If you’re interested in more than protecting your institution against liability — i.e. treating each other with dignity and creating a safe and respectful workplace — we can help.”

“If you’re interested in more than protecting your institution against liability — i.e. treating each other with dignity and creating a safe and respectful workplace — we can help.”

The interactive role-plays she facilitates during a training pull from “normal situations you might see in your local synagogue or day school,” she said. For example: “A parent in a synagogue complains openly about an administrative assistant who is helping coordinate a bar mitzvah for his or her son. The assistant begins to feel uncomfortable and targeted in his or her workplace. The parent is a big donor of the synagogue. What to do?”

Sepler, who draws upon decades of investigating cases of workplace harassment, said the “instinct” of many organizations is to “talk about sexual harassment as though it is separate from other workplace problems.”

“It’s tempting to pluck out one problem or one bad actor and say: ‘We’ll fix this,’” she said. “If everyone else stays the same, the problem has not been fixed.”

Fran Sepler

Harassment, she stressed, is “part of a continuum of behaviors,” with “rude and uncivil behavior” at one end and “harassment and abuse” on the other. An absence of pay equity among employees; lax boundaries between employees, justified by promoting a “friendly” and “close” work environment; fear of retribution when it comes to raising concerns — these, said Sepler, are the less-dramatic but far more ubiquitous problems that lay the groundwork for harassment in the workplace.

“Work cultures that skip over smaller problems to get to the bigger problems are not getting to the root cause,” Sepler said.

Rabbi Mary Zamore, director of the Women’s Rabbinic Network, a nonprofit support group for female members of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, reflected on the flurry of activity in the months since the #MeToo movement brought sexual harassment to the fore.

“People are acting like the house is on fire right now,” said Rabbi Zamore, ordained as a Reform rabbi over two decades ago. “The truth is, the house has been smoldering for years.”

“People are acting like the house is on fire right now. The truth is, the house has been smoldering for years.”

Though she is encouraged by recent efforts, she also said a find-the-bad-actor mentality will not fix a much more pervasive, insidious problem.

“Women in the Jewish community live with a dangerous static every day,” she said, recalling what a colleague shared with her two-weeks ago: The colleague, a female Reform rabbi, described how a congregant had come up behind her, jovially patted her on the back before saying that he liked her, but could never consider her a rabbi.

“It’s about the cases of egregious harassment, yes. But it’s also about all the ways we are disempowered, diminished in the authority of our positions as professionals or lay leaders,” she said. “It’s a static that anesthetizes us, and leads us to accept less than we deserve.”

Editorial intern Avigayil Halpern contributed to this report.

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