B’Kavod: The Honor System for #MeToo Voices

By Rabbi Ruth Abusch-Magder, Leah Strigler
and Shira Pruce

“I don’t know why I did not act”
“I have no idea if this is even a big deal”
“I have never spoken about this with anyone” “I don’t want to get anyone in trouble.”

People who work, learn or worship in Jewish communal institutions deserve safe and respectful spaces. Over the last year, the American Jewish public has started to recognize that while we perceive our communities to be holy spaces, our institutions and communities are not always safe and equitable. Though this reality has always existed, it has remained largely unspoken. Even a move last year to create a list to “warn other women” was shrouded in secrecy and anonymity, for fear of retaliation and consequences. It is time for a safe and trusted resource for information, support and reporting sexual misconduct. To this end, B’Kavod, a project of the Good People Fund and the Jewish Women’s Foundation of New York, is launching three new initiatives: an Infoline, a resource for ‘going public,’ and an anonymous reporting mechanism.

Most people who work in the Jewish world do so because they believe in the Jewish people, values, tradition and culture; that the work we do in our communities is sacred, with a higher purpose. When harassment happens inside Jewish institutions and communities, it is a sign that the organization is not living the very values it promotes.

This hypocrisy can lead to a crisis of faith, alienation or even the decision to leave Jewish professional or communal life. Additionally, many are reluctant to report these violations because of their commitment to the Jewish community. They fear that in exposing lines that have been crossed, the sacred mission will be tarnished or even torpedoed. Targeted individuals do not want to ‘rock the boat’ or ‘make trouble.’ They worry that open criticism paints them as putting their needs above the greater good. The stigma associated with reporting preserves the problematic power dynamic and enables abusers in our communities.

B’Kavod works on several fronts to challenge these assumptions. Ongoing professional training encourages the convergence of the values we profess and a values-based work space. In working with organizations to create safe and respectful workspaces, we hope to uproot this tension between the sacred spirit of the individual and the holy mission of the institution. Now, with three newly developed initiatives, the Infoline, Going Public support, and an anonymous reporting mechanism, there are now specific steps to ending the silence and isolation, and merge Jewish values with Jewish organizational behavior.

The Infoline offers a one-on-one, confidential conversation with a Jewish communal professional with counseling experience and training in addressing workplace harassment. It is an opportunity to break through the wall of silence, isolation and shame that often surrounds victims of harassment and gender-discrimination. Callers can access useful information, including referrals and resources, and will find compassionate listening, guidance, and reflection.

Going Public is a guide and resource for individuals considering going public with their #metoo experience in a Jewish communal institution. This resource is not meant to encourage such disclosures. Rather, Going Public aims to emphasize that this is not a decision to be taken lightly or hastily as it will affect the life and career of the accuser, possibly severely and for many years to come. B’Kavod will provide support and guidance to those brave enough to share their experiences despite the resulting consequences. Those interested in learning more are invited to read the Going Public guide.

B’Kavod’s reporting mechanism is an anonymous and safe place for reporting environments of disrespect and harassment in the Jewish community. The reporting system is intended to identify organizations that need to revisit the effectiveness of their harassment prevention policies and programs. It is based in the belief that we have a responsibility to maintain acceptable standards of safety at our communal institutions. An individual can submit an anonymous, confidential account of harassment or misconduct related to a Jewish communal institution. A panel of experts will review anonymous reports (with no identifying characteristics, names or organizational names) to establish a pattern of misconduct. Depending on the panel’s assessment and metrics, B’Kavod may anonymously alert the organizations and follow up with recommendations and resources.

Fran Sepler, designer of the EEOC Safe Respectful Workplace program and B’Kavod training advisor, wrote, “I would like to see organizations held accountable. Harassment is repeated, intensive behavior. It happens because a) organizations know and don’t care, b) organizations are so untrustworthy that people don’t come to them with problems or c) organizations actively protect high-worth harassers. While pitchfork-armed mobs going after an individual may be emotionally satisfying, calling out organizations, building networks with those currently at those organizations and, where appropriate, boycotting their programs, services and goods seems more like a source for real change.”

We have heard the call, and are taking action.

B’Kavod is a project of the Good People Fund and the Jewish Women’s Foundation of New York. The authors are active in developing, launching, and leading B’Kavod initiatives.

Rabbi Ruth Abusch-Magder has a PhD in Jewish women’s history from Yale University. She is a Rabbi Without Borders fellow and the Director of Education at Be’chol Lashon. She is certified trained by Fran Sepler to bring Safe Workplace trainings to Jewish spaces.

Leah Strigler is an educator and lives in New York City.

Shira Pruce is an activist and communications professional living in New Jersey. She is former public relations director for Women of the Wall and has advanced the work of Jerusalem Open House for Pride and Tolerance and MASLAN- the Negev’s Sexual Assault Support Center.