Dismantling the Jewish Organizational Boys’ Club, One Hot Tub at a Time

By Esther D. Kustanowitz
eJewish Philanthropy

Years ago a friend of mine came to visit Los Angeles. During the course of conversation he mentioned that one of my long-time client organizations, with which I was still deeply involved, was going to be changing its entire mode of operation.

“I hadn’t heard anything about that,” I said.

“Oh, don’t you work for them anymore?” he asked.

“Yes, unless you’ve heard something to the contrary,” I said.

“Oh, I’m sure they’ll tell you soon. It was just a small group of us they told while we were at [insert the name of your favorite Jewish conference] a month ago.”

“I was also at that conference,” I said. “When did that happen?”

“Oh, it was after hours, while a group of us were in the hotel hot tub,” he said, naming a group of about five men of varying ages and ranges of Jewish professional experience, half of whom had less direct connections with the project than I did.

To be clear, I have never wanted to sit in a hotel hot tub with five (or any number) of my male colleagues. But I was enraged: they had chosen an exclusive space to talk about things that would directly affect my future work. And I knew these people – they claim to be allies, to be deeply committed to promoting women, and they are proud that the organizations they represent are engaging in work to equalize the Jewish professional agenda.

But okay, this was one incident, right? About a year later, I was at another smaller conference with one of the Hot Tub Five, as I’d come to think of them, and during a break from the official program, he announced, “Now I’m having a cigar, gentlemen, if you’d care to join me, come this way.” The men went to join them, and the women began to clear away the remnants of dinner.

“Gentlemen?” Hell no. I was not going to be left behind again; even though the idea of being with five dudes smoking cigars was not on my wishlist, inhaling secondhand smoke was slightly preferable to stewing with them in a jacuzzi. I trotted after them.

“Esther, we didn’t know you were a cigar fan,” one said.

“I’m not; I’m just here for the conversation,” I replied.

No massive company secrets were discussed while I was there, but as the smokers relaxed into the company they did share some overall ideas for the future of the organization.

This was before #metoo was a trending topic, before people began stepping forward with revelations about Jewish professionals who had been inappropriate with their employees and team members, and before the founding of task forces and projects devoted to eradicating harassment and promoting gender equity in the Jewish nonprofit workplace. But the fact that this happened to me twice means it’s probably happening to others too.

There’s a Jewish concept of dan l’kav zechut, giving people the benefit of the doubt, so let’s do that again here. In these two cases – and perhaps in many similar cases – I really believe that this shutting out of women’s voices wasn’t intentional: I do think it was so ingrained in Jewish organizational culture that the behavior was unconscious. For many years, conferences have provided men with opportunities to gather for after-hours scotch or cigars in a hotel room, at the lobby bar or in hot tubs: inviting women into those spaces was complicated even before #metoo. And now, behavior is under a microscope: previously-casual meeting spaces present an even more complicated soup of options that swirls and boils – in the case of jacuzzis, literally so – with potential for inappropriate behavior. At the same time, reserving these kinds of spaces for men only perpetuates the status quo: a Jewish nonprofit landscape where the women do day-to-day implementation while top positions continue to be held by men, often the same men, in a tenure that last years or even decades, blocking women from opportunities to advance into those leadership positions.

We need to consider when and where we are having important conversations about the organizations and projects we lead. Are the appropriate stakeholders there, or is it just a brainstorm with whoever stripped down to a swimsuit and clambered into a hotel hot tub? And if these conversations happen organically and spontaneously when we’re with people in a casual environment, are we making sure to include absent, but important stakeholders and colleagues as soon as we’ve changed back into dry clothes? Because if those stakeholders were not there and are not looped into the conversation, the boys’ club is perpetuated, whether the intention to exclude was there or not.

For those of you more influenced by pop culture references than by real-life examples, I have two for you: the episode of Friends where Rachel decides to say she’s a smoker because she realizes how much corporate socialization she is missing during smoking breaks; and the repeated ad nauseam imperative from Hamilton about being in the room where it happens.

All of us need to be thoughtful about how our actions may be impeding the professional knowledge, trajectory or achievement of our female colleagues, our LGBTQIA colleagues, our Sephardic colleagues and colleagues of color. Because feminism isn’t just about women; feminism is about leveling the playing field in the areas of race, class and gender.

And especially at Jewish conferences – where a well-known adage identifies the conversations between sessions as being as or more important than the sessions themselves – we should make sure that those conversations are inclusive of and accessible to all genders, whether they were in the room, or tub, or smoking patio where it happened or not.

Esther D. Kustanowitz is a writer, editor and creative consultant based in Los Angeles. Twitter: @EstherK