#MeToo for the Jews

One year after the hashtag swept the nation, eJP looks at how American Jewish organizations are tackling issues of sexual violence

By Maayan Hoffman
eJewish Philanthropy

The #MeToo movement against sexual harassment and sexual assault spread virally in October 2017, as a hashtag used on social media to demonstrate the widespread prevalence of sexual assault and harassment.

One year later, and Lori Weinstein, CEO of Jewish Women’s International (JWI) said it has been “a game changer” for her work with women and girls.

“We have been working for two decades on issues that are coming home, that are forcing cataclysmic analysis and change,” she told eJewish Philanthropy.

In her 20 years in the field, she has seen how preventative work on issues such as domestic violence led to intervention, and “I think that is what is going to happen here, too.”

Shira Berkovits agrees. Together with a group of Jewish professionals, she founded Sacred Spaces in 2016, because she noticed that every time there was an issue of sexual misconduct against children or adults “the community would scramble.”

She said there would be an event and then the whole community would split and respond – some on the side of the victim and some on the side of the accused. She believed there could be a different way to handle these incidents, beginning with prevention through response, “like a fire safety code that would be standard in every Jewish institution.”

“You would not open a building unless it was compliant with this code,” Berkovits said. “And just as we run fire drills for children and adults, you would run trainings.”

And there would be protocols in case a “fire” breaks out.

It was only months after Sacred Spaces launched that #MeToo made waves, as well. Since then, Berkovits said the organization has been “inundated with requests for help.”

“Right now, people are panicked and moving quickly,” Berkovits said, noting that most organizations are focused on how to limit liability in the event of an accusation. She said this is important, but that organizations also need to take time to reflect on any past wrongs and make amends to move forward.

“It is going to take the collective Jewish community rolling up its sleeves and putting in time to do the really hard work,” she said. “The goal is to protect people and seek justice.”

As such, Berkovits partnered with Boz Tchivdjian, director of GRACE – a Christian organization working to prevent child abuse – and published a Child Safeguarding Policy Guide, which it utilizes in Jewish institutions that work with youth. She said the goal is to partner with teams on the inside so that leaders are trained, and the culture is altered, even after she and her team formally step away.

Now the organization is working on adopting the guide for other age groups and making it available online through a groundbreaking open-source web platform that would allow organizations to tap into needed resources. The hope is to provide a 10 best practices module for organizations, asking them to commit to adopting two best practices per year for five years. If an organization commits, Sacred Spaces – through a grant from UJA-Federation of New York – will provide the needed support.

Berkovits said such a program could cost an individual organization as much as $30,000. Tapping into the portal would cost only a few hundred dollars per year.

Time to Define

Some Jewish organizations are starting from scratch, while others have more background and have begun the work, Berkovits said. Part of any training is defining terms, which especially in the #MeToo era have been used interchangeably in coverage of events.

What’s the difference between sexual abuse, sexual assault, sexual harassment and rape?

Sexual abuse is mainly used to describe behavior against children; all 50 states have laws that recognize that children are not capable of giving informed consent to any sex act.

The FBI defined rape in 2012 as “penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object, or oral penetration by a sex organ of another person, without the consent of the victim.”

Sexual assault includes a range of criminal acts that are sexual in nature, from unwanted touching and kissing, to rubbing, groping or forcing the victim to touch the perpetrator in sexual ways. Sexual harassment includes sexual coercion, unwanted sexual attention and gender harassment.

All forms of sexual violence are gender neutral.

In Every Sector

Just ask Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zweibel, executive vice president of Agudath Israel of America. He told eJP that the Agudah has been discussing issues of sexual misconduct against girls and boys for more than 25 years. During that time, many policies have been put in place, including taking steps to avoid situations where a child and adult could be left alone in a room together. The organization even went so far as to suggest that every classroom have a window so as “never to have the feeling of total privacy.”

Zweibel said Agudath Israel in the last decade adopted policies to address children at its summer camps or who participate in Agudath Israel youth groups. The guidelines include training staff members and reviewing procedures about what should and must be reported.

“The ultra-Orthodox community is often accused of not doing enough,” said Zweibel. “I think our community has done a lot. We recognize that sweeping it under the carpet is not an option anymore.”

His approach is three pronged – educating the institutions, the parents and the children.

“We recognize that we cannot eradicate the problem entirely, but we want to minimize opportunities for predators to commit these horrifying acts and to increase awareness by parents and children themselves so that they will not be victimized by such predators,” Zweibel said, noting that there continues to be a misunderstanding of what is not only OK but mandated by Jewish law to report.

Nonetheless, when it comes to reporting, Zweibel said his organization continues to be opposed to tapping into secular resources. He said he would like to see a rabbinical court trained to handle issues of sexual misconduct, as Jewish law would require.

“I would love to see it become the norm, that the beis din could adjudicate these claims,” he said, admitting that today existing rabbinical courts are not properly trained in such matters.

He said he is also opposed to a broad opening of the statute of limitations on cases of sexual abuse in New York, where his organization is headquartered.

“We have always explained that our concern was for the viability of yeshivas and shuls and summer camps,” Zweibel said. “We have said that to open up old claims in situations where it could even be that the administration has turned over five times since the incident has occurred – we’re opposed to that. It is a nightmare in terms of what it could do.”

In the ultra-Orthodox community, when an incident does occur, organizations such as Amudim are available to offer support. Amudim helps ensure that individuals facing a crisis are provided with the assistance and guidance needed in a professional, knowledgeable and caring manner.

There have also been a series of books by Rabbi Yakov Horowitz and Bracha Goetz, which are ultra-Orthodox community appropriate and help families to talk about these issues.

“There are sick people in our community and they need help,” Zweibel said. “Also, the victims need help. The most important thing we can do as a community is to educate, emphasize best practices and put them into place.”


Joshua Avedon, co-founder and CEO of Jumpstart Labs, expressed similar sentiments. He was behind the initial stages of what is now a nationally available “Child Safety Pledge” to protect children learning or attending activities in a faith-based community environment.

Avedon said that philanthropist and advocate Rochel Leah Bernstein founded the Child Safety Pledge as a catalyst for protecting children from sexual abuse.

“She felt like she really wanted to do something systemic, and it was an uphill battle to get the community to pay attention,” Avedon explained.

It was three years ago when Bernstein approached Jumpstart Labs. Today, the Child Safety Pledge has spun off on its own and is making impact.

The Child Safety Pledge is modeled after Erin’s law, which has been adopted by 35 states. The law requires that all public schools that receive money from the state must establish an abuse-prevention instructional program for students, consistent with guidelines provided by their state.

Religious and other private institutions are often exempt from these same standards. As such, Bernstein worked with philanthropists to have them sign a pledge like the law – that they will not provide funding to organizations that have not committed to the highest standards for protecting kids from sexual abuse.

In 2017, four major foundations became the first to sign the Child Safety Pledge.

“Jumpstart Labs did the initial research, strategy, and funder consultation process,” said Avedon. “What the organization found was that many of the best practices that are widely available are not being implemented across the board in the Jewish community and that there is an over-estimation of the level of security from sexual abuse in these institutions, either because they don’t know best practices or because they have gaps in procedures.”

Another example of philanthropists coming together to effect change – but this time in the realm of sexual violence against adults – is the new Jewish communal partnership SafetyRespectEquity Coalition. That team of philanthropists is also hoping to shift the culture at Jewish communal institutions through a pledge that addresses ethical workplace and communal space behavior.

This program involves awareness building and education; implementing policies and procedures to prevent and respond effectively to sexual harassment, gender bias, sexual orientation discrimination and their related abuses of power; and training and support to help organizations create cultures of fairness and civility.

So far, Lori Weinstein told eJP, the coalition has raised close to $4 million toward its mission.

“I think the Child Safety Pledge and the Coalition are examples of ‘philanthro-activisim,” showing how philanthropists can be leaders in trying to address problems,” Avedon said. “Rochel Leah and Lisa Eisen (the catalyst behind the coalition) took the first steps to proactively define a new area for funding and made it relevant to the wider world.

“Philanthropists see themselves as partners, and the fact that they are proactively trying to shape the agenda of those organizations is a significant and a positive development for Jewish philanthropy,” Avedon continued. “To create systemic change, there is no better way to go at it than with the people who have the broadest influence, and the people with money have the broadest influence.”

What’s next?

“More robust, in-person, ongoing conversation – that is how Jewish institutions change,” said Weinstein. “#MeToo is a huge challenge, but it is also a huge opportunity.”