A Communal Response to Gender Harassment Begins

By H. Glenn Rosenkrantz

The testimonies were harrowing and sometimes graphic. For over 30 minutes they went on, and on – tales of gender harassment across the spectrum of Jewish communal life, from synagogues to large national organizations and everything in between, and perpetrated by colleagues, donors and board members alike.

“It made me feel very uncomfortable to listen to this, and also very ashamed that this has been going on in the Jewish communal space,” said Steven Rakitt, President of The Genesis Prize Foundation. “But we all need to feel uncomfortable and ashamed if it’s going to change.”

He was one of nearly 300 communal professionals, lay leaders and members of the public who convened last week to hear these stories, selected from hundreds collected from within the Jewish community over just the last year.

The event, Revealing #metoo as #wetoo in Jewish Communal Life, was organized by The Jewish Women’s Foundation of New York with 30 co-sponsors and co-funded by JWFNY and the Cornell/Weinstein Family Foundation.

Together, they all represent a coalition of organizations that are now, collectively, lending their voice, power and reach to create communal dialogue to advance gender respect and end harassment within Jewish spaces.

This was, in fact, the first large-scale gathering of Jewish professionals and others committed to altering the culture of Jewish workplaces and environments since testimonials of gender-based harassment began ricocheting last year through #metoo, #gamani and other social media channels.

“This is a beginning, a first step whereby Jewish communal professionals and donors, volunteers, lay leaders, and philanthropists, can sit together, contemplate this topic, have questions answered, and think about what the next steps should be,” said Jamie Allen Black, Executive Director of The Jewish Women’s Foundation of New York.

“Widespread change cannot come from one organization alone. Change has to come from a passionate community. What we are doing here is leveraging this moment, and catalyzing that movement.”

This gathering was more than just storytelling. Participants vied for time at the microphone to not only ask questions of a panel of experts, but also to share what their own organizations are doing or need to do.

“This very convening began incubating a community of practice dedicated to continuing and amplifying meaningful and long lasting change on gender issues within the Jewish community,” said Naomi Eisenberger, Executive Director of The Good People Fund, a co-sponsor of the event. “This doesn’t begin and end here.”

In fact, there is movement by organizers to create a uniform toolbox of actionable steps for Jewish organizations to take, such as regular sensitivity trainings, and also formulation and widespread adoption of a professional code of ethics with a possible review board moderating compliance.

And it wasn’t just gender-based harassment, but also inequitable hiring policies and power structures that were cited by participants as part of the problem and demanding attention.

All of these elements and others, they said, build an environment and together inform and affect institutional and communal culture, leading to exploitation of females, members of the LGBTQ community and others often marginalized and isolated.

“We have a real problem with icons in our community,” said Elizabeth Mandel, Founder and Executive Director of jGirls Magazine, a co-sponsor of the event. “This is immensely detrimental to all the vulnerable voices among us. They feel they don’t have the right to speak up, so the more we let them know they can, and that they will be believed, and that there is a community of caring, the better we will be.

“We need to change the narrative on a bigger scale and shift the entire dynamic. Let’s not forget that protecting and caring for our most vulnerable is a Jewish value.”

Indeed, a major theme emerging from the New York event was the notion that it isn’t just the adults in the room who need to change the culture. It is the younger generation of Jewish children and teens – bombarded hourly with conflicting images of what might be construed as acceptable behavior on social media and news broadcasts – who can cement positive change going forward.

So it is, for example, that Moving Traditions, also a co-sponsor, has expanded its work fostering healthy and mindful self- and social-awareness among teenage boys and girls to the transgender community as well. And the organization is training other communal professionals – such as clergy and camp leaders – in its Jewish-values infused approach to nurture present and future cultures of inclusion and respect.

“We feel the sense of urgency,” said Deborah Meyer, CEO of Moving Traditions and a panelist at the event. “We can’t wait any longer. Stories we hear from within our community reveal the full brunt of a travesty and we must take communal responsibility for the way it has developed and take action to prevent it from continuing.

“If we want to intervene and not have the next generation repeating the same devastating harassment stories we heard about tonight, then we have to interrupt the pattern and this is the time to make that commitment.”

Added Rakitt, “Just like the Neilah service on Yom Kippur, this is an important moment of urgency and self-reflection. This convening has moved us to that place.”