A decade ago, Tarana Burke’s hashtag #MeToo became a useful signal for the widespread sexual misconduct that typically targets women and LGBT people.
The flow of accusations that broke open the #MeToo floodgates continues, and the long list of the accused grows longer. You’ve read reporting in this paper about sexually inappropriate behavior in Jewish settings by donors, academics, public intellectuals, men who wield power and influence over our institutions. We’re often warned against lashon hara, speaking ill of someone, sullying a reputation. Since the Weinstein story broke in 2017, we’re also seeing Jewish institutions concerned for the safety of potential victims.
Until recently, whisper networks were the radar used by the powerless to track the treachery. In the case of Harvey Weinstein, it was, the muttered warning: “Don’t go to his hotel room.” For girls at Jewish summer camp, told that a popular rabbi was coming for Shabbat, it was “He’s inspiring, but make sure you’re never alone with him.”
Girls and women who speak up show enormous courage.
Those first accounts are often the tip of a very large iceberg. Truth-telling is infectious.
The truth alone, though, doesn’t set you free, and 2019 especially is the year the community broke through from narrative to action. With assiduous work, women and their allies have shifted some power structures. The Association for Jewish Studies announced in November a Committee on Sexual Misconduct, with an ombudsperson system and direct, detailed procedures on how to report — and discuss — violations.
The Safety Respect Equity Coalition was created this year with the express purpose of improving Jewish workplaces and communal spaces, “addressing sexual harassment, sexism, and gender discrimination.” The Reform movement’s Women’s Rabbinic Network Task Force on the Experience of Women in the Rabbinate is in the final year of a three-year process to address the special workplace concerns of female clergy. At the Union for Reform Judaism biennial conference earlier this month, “Clergy Monologues” presented first-person accounts of what women rabbis and cantors can face. Among the comments (that can be reproduced in this newspaper): “I’d rather kiss you, Rabbi, than kiss the Torah.”
This year capped a decade of discontent when the Jewish community moved from expressions of shock and horror to corrective action. Might be time for a Shehechiyanu.
Susan Weidman Schneider is editor in chief of Lilith magazine —independent, Jewish and frankly feminist. Since the 1990s Lilith has published groundbreaking reporting on sexual misconduct in the Jewish community. SusanWS@Lilith.org, Lilith.org.
More essays from The Decade In Review: 2010 – 2019 as well as snapshots from our editorial team on the last ten years in Jewish Journalism, including the key issues they covered locally and nationally.