Beyond Talk: Reckoning With What the Safety Respect Equity Report Demands of Us

By Seth Cohen

Over the years, when speaking with leaders of community organizations, I am often asked to recommend reading resources that help make sense of our contemporary Jewish communal challenges. When I start rattling off a (probably too) lengthy list of books, blogs, and Twitter accounts, I usually get a more basic inquiry: “if I should only read one thing, what would you recommend?” Not an easy question, and to be honest, I have never had a good answer.

Until now.

The new research report released by the Safety Respect Equity Coalition, “We Need to Talk: A Review of Public Discourse and Survivor Experiences of Safety, Respect, and Equity in Jewish Workplaces and Communal Spaces (authored by Dr. Guila Benchimol and Marie Huber), is perhaps the single most important Jewish communal study I have read in the past ten years, and even more so, it is perhaps one of the most important contemporary source texts for the future of our community.

And yet, for it to fulfill that purpose, it must be read. By everyone.

For its size, the Jewish community may be one of the most self-evaluated and self-analyzed communities in the world. We assess our size, our affiliation, our history, and even our affliction. We measure who goes where and who supports what, the trends of “pro-Israel” attitudes, and the occurrences of anti-Semitic activity. Yet all of the community studies and benchmark reports that we create are too often only read by a small minority of grantmakers, community planners and professional stakeholders, with only short summaries making it in to the Jewish press (which itself is only read by a small percentage of the community). Many times insightful studies that are magnificently researched and written with clear calls to action end up in the echo chambers of the Jewish communal organizations, not reaching the broadest possible (and necessary) audience.

We can’t let this happen with this report.

Page after page, this report not only details the severe lack of sufficient safety and respect for women in the Jewish professional workplace; it also details the nature of harassment and assault of women in Jewish communal spaces, and the power dynamics that contribute to environments that allow such behavior to occur. It details the stories of survivors and how community discourse has far too often been complicit in silencing and shaming them, while too easily dismissing accusations against perpetrators. It is written with a spirit of fostering more open dialogue, and yet the research can’t help but also leave its readers left open-mouthed with the realization that we have allowed too much pain to exist in our community unaddressed for too long.

Fortunately, the SRE Coalition has already created a set of tools and resources to help advance the work necessary to address these systemic issues, including the SRE Commitment that can (and should) be pledged by every organization in our community. Additionally, just last week dozens of women engaged in the 5779: Year of the Jewish Woman Facebook Group also shared an exceptionally compelling argument (and expectation) that men stand up and engage as allies in the work of rebalancing our community institutions and spaces to be more inclusive, more equitable, and more just to the women in our community.

Yet as a Jewish people, we know that there is no substitute for reading survivors’ stories, and for seeing the cold (and hard) data of the current state of corrosion of our community values. Coupled with the realization that a majority of professionals in Jewish communal organizations are women (yet women are vastly underrepresented in executive roles of these organizations), the report paints the painfully clear picture that we need not only an enormous shift in sensitivity around how we address issues of safety, respect, and equity, but we need to implement massive structural changes in the proportional gender of our communal leadership as well.

It is a national conversation. But it is a local conversation as well.

This report, and at the very least, the executive summary, needs to be read by the executive team and the board of every organization in every local Jewish community. It needs to be accompanied by a conversation with individuals across all genders, all ages, and all socioeconomic levels. It needs to prompt every organization to meaningfully take the SRE Commitment, as well as to prompt all of our leaders to understand the issues and pledge their own personal commitment to create environments where everyone can feel safe and respected. 

Yes, far too many research reports end up on a shelf, but we can’t let that happen with this one. It is too urgent and important and for us to treat this as anything less than a reckoning of where we are, and where we need to go.

The SRE Coalition and countless women leaders have both served and sacrificed to create a report that holds a mirror up to our community. It is a painful reflection that we see, but it is one that we can change for the future. We must do more than talk about it; we must take action on it.  Because when all is said and done, what matters more is what is done than what is said. Some of us can and should do more. Yet all of us can do one thing right now: 

Read the report.

Seth Cohen is the founder of Optimistic Labs, a community and experience design lab that helps companies, nonprofits, grantmakers and communities design optimistic solutions to complex organizational, communal and individual challenges. Seth can be reached at seth@appliedoptimism.com