Conference in S.F. tackles #MeToo in Jewish workplaces

Workplace harassment expert Fran Sepler speaking at “We Commit” at JCCSF, May 13, 2019 Phot credit: Maya Mirsky

By Myra Mirsky

Thirty years ago, Bay Area philanthropic adviser Debbie Findling was asked for sex by her then-supervisor at a Southern California JCC. Now, as she sat on a May 13 panel to begin four days of seminars on how to tackle the problem of sexual harassment in the Bay Area Jewish community, she was frank about the need for a call to action.

“I hope it could never happen here,” she said. “But there are other things that do happen here.”

Findling, along with journalist Hannah Dreyfus, who reported on Findling’s story for The New York Jewish Week, and veteran workplace harassment investigator and researcher Fran Sepler were honest and open with more than 100 community leaders from local Jewish organizations who got together this week to talk about a problem that never seems to go away.

“I call this the cockroach of human existence,” Sepler said.

The four-day event, officially titled “We Commit: Coming Together to Ensure Safety and Respect in Jewish Communal Organizations,” was organized by the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation and a steering committee of prominent local women that included Marci Glazer, Abby Porth, Stephanie Rapp, Joy Sisisky, Amy Tobin, Naomi Tucker and Dana Sheanin, who moderated the opening panel.

With 10 events over four days, We Commit ran sessions for leaders, clergy, development professionals and volunteers, as well as private consultations with Sepler (for organizations) and counseling with Shalom Bayit (for individuals). Events were held at the JCC and Menorah Park, both in San Francisco.

While the #MeToo movement has brought the issue into the limelight, Sepler has been in the thick of this world for 30 years, and she was ready with direct advice for the leaders and managers at the opening session. According to Sepler, there are three crucial elements in creating a workplace where harassment doesn’t happen.

“That’s our gold standard: safety, fairness and respect,” she told the audience.

If employees feel listened to and treated equitably, and trust their managers to be transparent and fair, not only will the organization be more productive, it’ll see fewer sexual harassment or bullying complaints. And if one happens, it’s reported more quickly, which makes it easier to resolve, Sepler said.

But what she usually sees is organizations reacting with fear and a desire to contain the damage, or quash rumors that they are unsure about. It’s not malicious, she explained.

That’s our gold standard: safety, fairness and respect.

“They feel afraid themselves. They feel confused,” she said. “They don’t want to do the wrong thing.”

It’s especially true when the harasser is a well-loved community figure, a situation that is all too common. But Sepler said making excuses for bad behavior is unacceptable.

“Never a loophole for status or authority,” she said. “Never the superstar. Never the eminent.”

Defending community leaders, Dreyfus said, is the flip side of the strong interpersonal bonds in the Jewish professional world. There’s a natural desire to defend people in positions of power, who are often both charismatic and driven. But that makes it even harder for victims to come forward.

“The voice in support of perpetrators is going to be very strong,” Dreyfus said.

It’s one of the specific problems that are part of what stops people in mission-driven, tightly knit worlds from reporting harassment, which in turn lets perpetrators continue their behavior. Another, said Sepler, is the feeling in victims that reporting harassment will harm the mission – a mission that the victim supports.

“I believe that’s a trap in many of our organizations now,” she said.

And the tight network in the Jewish world also stops victims from talking by creating a fear that they won’t find another job in that community if they create a fuss.

That was on Findling’s mind back when she was harassed. And, in fact, when Findling told her employer about the harassment, she was moved to a different JCC. And then she got a phone call from her harasser.

“That night he called me and yelled at me and told me I was ruining his life,” she said.

Sepler said the calculation that people often make – is it worth it for me to come forward? – often leads to them staying silent. And Findling agreed that it was the fact that she now is in a place of safety and power that allowed her to come forward three decades later.

“My worry is that our community doesn’t create those levels of protection for others to speak out,” she said.

Maya Mirsky is a J. Staff Writer based in Oakland.

Originally published in J. The Jewish News of Northern California; reprinted with permission.