By Cheryl Moore
I have no experience as an employee of the Jewish communal or academic worlds. I have extensive experience, however, as a volunteer in the Jewish communal world. I have held leadership positions in local, regional, national, and international organizations, and at every level, I have experienced #metoo moments, hours, months. The cumulative effect of these, primarily intense shame, led to my exit from 90% of my Jewish communal leadership roles.
What happened that made me feel ashamed? There were the fleeting moments when adrenaline was flowing and lips were loose, like when I was about to reel in a big donor to a national organization, and one of its top staffers told me, in front of a group of other staffers and volunteers, that if I closed the potential donor, he could get me alone in a room and “on the lap of” an Israeli leader that I admired. Or when a staffer of the same organization asked me, in a packed bar filled with conference-attendees, why we were not “f*cking each other’s brains out.” Or when a powerful lay leader of a national organization told me that he had saved a chair for me next to an important United States Senator, because he knew that Senator “would just love some special attention from me.”
I am almost never at a loss for words, but when these things happened, I just smiled and awkwardly laughed. What could I say? “I’m not remotely interested in having sex with you.” “Why are you pimping me out?” Those are not in my repertoire of responses when I am in public and actively trying to achieve something for a cause in which I believe. I also had the strong impression that if I had protested in a serious way, I would have been met with a condescending comment about how I was overreacting. Each of those interactions left me feeling ashamed and wondering what it was about me that projected that I would go along.
There was the lawyer who worked with an organization of which I was president. When I didn’t reciprocate the intensity of his professed desire, he called me to tell me that he had been meeting with the CEO of an organization, discussing succession planning, when she threw out my name as a candidate. I was quick to tell him that I was very flattered, but did not see myself as a qualified successor. He chuckled and, before hanging up on me, said, “Don’t worry. I told her a lot of bad things about you.” Unsure of what to do to address this injustice, I cried tears of shock and horror, absorbed the sting, and moved on.
Then, I was elected to the board of a national organization and was immediately asked to serve on its executive committee. At the second meeting, as we toured a museum, I noticed a man staring at me. I had never seen him before, but noticing that other people seemed to be making quite an effort to talk with him, I assumed that he must be a macher. On the shuttle bus to dinner, he sat next to me, joking and offering an awkward combination of flattery and torah lesson. He invited me to come out to a club with him and another board member after the dinner. I asked him who he was and when he told me his name, I immediately recognized it. I decided that since he was old enough to be my father, very prominent in philanthropy, and known for his work with his family, and since another board member would be with us, it would be ok. The evening turned out to be a drunken free-for-all at one of that city’s most famous clubs, with this guy all over me. The other board member, looked horrified and concerned, but just managed to say, “This is pretty crazy.” After six months of confusion and shame, I walked away from a project on which I had been very excited to work.
Finally, there was the mega-donor who, as we sat in the crowded lobby of the David Citadel hotel, in Jerusalem, reached over and squeezed my breast. When I gasped, he said “I thought you’d be flattered.”
What do all of the above interactions have in common? Very public, outrageous and/or crude comments and behavior, observed by others, but questioned by no one. I think that each of these men enjoyed being able to “get away with” the behavior. It was machismo at its core. Knowing that they would not be called out was part of the thrill. After all, they could have made their comments and gestures in private. Instead they chose public places, often packed with people. They knew that no one would criticize or stop them, that they would not be asked to step down, or divorced. It was as if they were directly challenging those around them to step in. I wasn’t the first person that they had treated this way and I wouldn’t be the last. What occurred had nothing to do with something that I projected. It happened when I was single and when I was married, when I was very young and more mature, when I was new to the volunteer world and known as an effective leader.
It has often been said that for bad things to happen, good people have to stay silent. Until staffers and volunteer leaders of organizations step up and call people out for disrespectful and inappropriate behavior, it will continue. Until the dignity of one young woman is equal to the million dollar donation (and even all of the people that will benefit from that donation), it will continue. Until people accept that the generous but handsy guy needs to be more closely watched, it will continue. It is too late for me though. I’m never coming back.
Cheryl Moore, B.A., M.B.A., B.S.N. is a Women’s Health nurse, living in Pittsburgh, PA. She is passionate about caring for the vulnerable. She used to be a dedicated volunteer leader in the worldwide Jewish community, but today prefers to engage more privately.