First-Of-Its-Kind #MeToo Study in Jewish Community Finds Abuse Widespread
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First-Of-Its-Kind #MeToo Study in Jewish Community Finds Abuse Widespread

‘Living-room syndrome’ cited as partial cause for lingering discrimination, harassment.

Hannah Dreyfus is a staff writer at the New York Jewish Week. She covers abuses of power in non-profit and religious settings. She heads up the Investigative Journalism Fund, an initiative to fill a gap in investigative and enterprise reporting. Reach her at hannah@jewishweek.org

The Jewish community has had to reckon with its own approach to harassment in the wake of the #MeToo movement. Artwork by Lior Zaltzman via JTA
The Jewish community has had to reckon with its own approach to harassment in the wake of the #MeToo movement. Artwork by Lior Zaltzman via JTA

A coalition formed in February 2018 by Jewish organizations in the aftermath of the national #MeToo movement released a first-of-its-kind study this week detailing a seemingly widespread problem of gender discrimination, sexual harassment and lack of adequate reporting protocols across Jewish institutions.

The Safety Respect and Equity Coalition, known as SRE, an umbrella group of 100 Jewish organizations who have pledged to address gender inequity and harassment at their member institutions, conducted a study to collect and analyze the experiences of victims at Jewish workplaces. The research also provided a glimpse at what some organizations are doing to properly address the problem.

Dr. Guila Benchimol, a founding member of the coalition and the study’s lead researcher, said there are several factors that make Jewish institutions “more prone to abuses of power” than other spaces. “Living room syndrome” — the comfortable, familial atmosphere that is often boasted as a plus by Jewish institutions — can actually create a less professional environment, allowing for a lack of accountability for perpetrators and negative consequences for employees who file complaints,” said Benchimol, who is trained in sociological criminology.

The qualitative study reviewed primary data from 250 survivors of sexual harassment, assault, and discrimination. The research also reviewed the findings of several recent, related surveys, including Leading Edge’s 2018 Employee Experience Survey, which collected responses from 7,300 employees across 105 Jewish organizations (comprising roughly 10 perfect of the total U.S. workforce in the Jewish nonprofit sector); Jewish Women’s Archives 2018 initiative to document #MeToo stories across the Jewish world; and B’Kavod’s 2017 survey on sexual harassment in the Jewish communal world.

“I can’t tell you how many times institutions have asked me to come and speak, while assuring me ‘this doesn’t happen here,’” said Benchimol. The report aims to “speak up against that type of silencing — the persistent denial that abuse can happen at any institution.”

I can’t tell you how many times institutions have asked me to come and speak, while assuring me ‘this doesn’t happen here.’

“Part of the report is to remind community leaders: You don’t know what you don’t know,” said Benchimol.

Among the study’s key findings were that survivors say “Jewish values” were invoked as a way to keep them silent, such as the religious edict against slanderous speech, or lashon harah; the acceptance of “open secrets,” an organizational culture where it is known that some individuals have engaged in sexual victimization, and yet suffer no consequences; the gender and generational power gap between the “older men who run Jewish spaces” and the “young women” who overwhelmingly staff them; and a strong fear of reporting instances of discrimination or harassment for fear of negative professional consequences.

Fran Sepler — designer of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s new employee training program focused on harassment prevention — said that mission-driven organizations are actually more likely to overlook abuses of power than profit-driven ones.

“When it comes to mission-driven nonprofits, there is often a feeling among employees that the good work of the organization should justify the means,” said Sepler, who draws upon decades of investigating cases of workplace harassment in for-profit and nonprofit settings.

Nonprofit workers often take jobs that are lower paying and, in some cases, more demanding than in the private sector because they “believe in the mission,” she said.

Disrespectful, uncivil and bullying behavior is just one more thing they feel they need to deal with for the sake of the mission.

“Disrespectful, uncivil and bullying behavior is just one more thing they feel they need to deal with for the sake of the mission,” she said.

Further, nonprofit employees “perceived that a complaint would hurt the very organization that they sacrifice for,” she said.

“If the goal of an organization has strong emotional import, people are more likely to sacrifice other seemingly less important workplace standards along the way.”

Those workplace standards include jokes or “casual put-downs” at another employee’s expense; allowing behavioral ‘exceptions’ for certain key figures or high-producers; and dismissing problematic behaviors as personality quirks or inevitable aberrations. (The, “Oh, that’s just X being X” explanation, said Sepler.)

The study does dedicate a section to organization responses deemed “helpful,” as opposed to harmful, when it comes to encouraging a communal culture shift. According to the research, survivors found it “especially helpful” when asked about what they would like to do after disclosing a problematic incident. The “presence of a female leader or colleague” was “at times harmful in reporting or disclosing,” the research noted. While the presence of another woman was “helpful and supportive” to complaints at times, other reported female leadership being particularly prone to “upholding problematic practices.”

The research ultimately uncovered a desire among victims for organizational and communal leaders to highlight the “voices of survivors,” rather than focusing overwhelmingly on the actions of the perpetrators.

“Survivors say that organizations don’t seem to care about them, so why should they speak up?” said Benchimol. “Based on this research, those complaints are justified. This is a start — moving the needle here is going to be heavy.”

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