#metoo in the Jewish Community

By Dr. Elana Maryles Sztokman

It looks like the #MeToo movement is starting to make waves in the Jewish community. Until fairly recently, despite the disproportionate number of Jewish men accused of sexual abuse in Hollywood, the media, and the business communities, the Jewish organizational world itself had not started to clean house – until now. Certainly, there were some rumblings for a while, with the outings of accused sexual predators Len Robinson from Jewish camping, Steven M. Cohen from HUC, Larry Bach from a Durham NC synagogue (CCAR), and Ari Shavit from Haaretz. But the more recent accusations against mega-donor Michael Steinhardt and Netanyahu aide David Keyes have started accelerating the process of holding accountable the men who have made Jewish organizational life so difficult for women for so many years – even decades.

This is an important moment for us, as a community, to examine what has made the organized Jewish community so late to the game. In my current research on sexual abuse in the Jewish community that I am conducting with the support of feminist philanthropist and activist Barbara Dobkin, I have discovered several key characteristics of Jewish organizational life that make it particularly difficult for victims to come forward.

One issue is that “community,” so valued in Jewish life, can be a double-edged sword. “We want people to promote community-like relationships,” one informant told me. “Which means that the people you work with might be the people you go to shul with or the people whose kids go to the same school as your kids. This is true also for board members and donors. But that can make it very difficult for women to report problems they are experiencing.”

A byproduct of this dynamic is that abusers are almost always beloved by someone – often high-profile community members. Shira Berkowitz of Sacred Spaces, one of the leading experts on this issue, explained that “The abusers never look the way you think they are going to look. It is never the overtly ‘bad’ guy. It’s always someone’s neighbor or best friend or college roommate or father-in-law’s business partner. There is so much overlap, and that’s one of the reasons why abusers get so much support.” This is the dilemma of Jewish communal life. Everyone is interconnected – and these connections are encouraged. But they can be a nightmare for someone experiencing sexual abuse.

Another dynamic that distinguishes Jewish communal life is the role of donors. In Jewish communal life, donors are untouchable – as we learned in Hannah Dreyfus’ excellent investigative report on Michael Steinhardt in The Jewish Week. When Jewish feminist activist Shifra Bronznick called out Steinhardt for his very public comments about a female professional, she was shunned rather than he. This is a classic example of the idolizing of the donor in the Jewish world. And yet the entire Jewish organized community relies on donors. Several informants commented that the real reason why there has been so much silence about #metoo in the Jewish world is that if a person speaks out against a donor, their careers are pretty much over.

Another dynamic is the role of volunteers, including board members who have oversized roles in Jewish organizations. Cheryl Moore, a professional Jewish volunteer with over 20 years of experience in major Jewish organizations, wrote a scathing first-person account of some of the sexual harassment she experienced as a volunteer. But even in places that may have sexual harassment policies, the interactions with volunteers – as well as donors – are hard to define. They do not fit into any of the standard boxes that we are used to thinking about in terms of work relationships. But as Ms. Moore so eloquently illustrated, the damage incurred even in this less “official” relationships can be equally damaging.

We are also starting to discover just how vulnerable women professionals in the Jewish community are. Several informants have described how they were making a fraction of the money that their abusers were making, which left them with little room for maneuvering. In Debbie Findling’s account of abuse, we read that her abuser was making over $400,000 per year – more than double anyone else on staff. Even though women make up the overwhelming majority of professional staff in the Jewish world, their economic insecurity can be a significant factor in women’s ability to come forward. Staffers not only risk losing their jobs but they also often have little in the way of a financial safety net – as opposed to many high-profile abusers.

The Jewish world keeps women in our place using our bodies, as well. The Jewish collective discourse often revolves around issues like Holocaust, Israel, and demographics. That is, the Jewish people are tiny and regularly threatened with extinction, and therefore it is the job of Jewish women to dedicate their bodies to the nation. This discourse informs a lot of the research that Steven M. Cohen conducted, which his critics now argue came from his abusive, sexualized view of women. Similarly, this is the language that infuses the Birthright Israel program, which journalist Sarah Seltzer has revealed is rife with sexual abuse – and the major donors of which are also, in some cases, suspected of abuse. This language of the demographic threat is not only sexist in that it uses women’s bodies as vehicles in service of the collective. It is also often exploited by men who have their own personal, hidden agendas regarding women’s bodies, functions, and sexuality.

Like the language of Jewish demographics, the language of anti-Semitism is also used to silence victims. Just this week, my Facebook page was on fire about whether victims should keep their experiences private because they provide fodder for anti-Semites. I think that we are seeing another variation of this theme with the Keyes story – in which the perceived needs of protecting Israel or Zionism come before protecting women. We see this often, when right-wing abusers harass left-leaning women and dismiss it as being in service of Zionism and Israel, or when such harassment is dismissed as “just politics.” This is part of a common practice in which women’s well-being is thrown under the bus in the name of protecting Israel. (See my book, The War on Women in Israel for hundreds of other examples of this dynamic.)

Other Jewish values are also used as silencing tactics. For example, customs around “lashon hara,” injunctions against gossip, are a constant source of anguish for some victims. Disclosing abuse is often cast as “gossip,” especially among religious groups. But even in non-Orthodox circles, values such as “kavod harav” – respecting rabbis; “shalom bayit” – maintaining peace in the home”; and even “teshuva” – the ability to repent, are easily invoked in the process of silencing victims. These values, which sound lovely when they stand alone without context, can take on sinister implications when a rabbi or communal leader has been abusive and members of the community want to speak out.

Finally, a recurring theme among victims in the Jewish community is the bystander phenomenon. The silence surrounding abuse – as illustrated by the 200 people who witnessed Steinhardt’s public harassment, or the people sitting at Cheryl Moore’s table while she was being pressured to sleep with a donor – is hard to comprehend. Several informants discussed this bystander silence as a quality of Jewish organizational life. This is likely connected to the issue of donor-supremacy, and the fearfulness with which many professional women are trained to behave in Jewish organizations when donors are involved. But some of the women who wrote first-hand accounts specifically said that their intentions were to speak more to the bystanders than to the actual abusers.

In fact, several people mentioned that it’s the culture of enabling that has been more hurtful than the abuse itself. This is consistent with the larger issue of sexual abuse. As Shira Berkowitz explained to me, when victims of sexual abuse come forward, the response that they receive upon disclosure can create a secondary trauma that is at times worse than the trauma of abuse itself. When victims come forward, if they are believed and supported, that opens up a path to healing and functionality. However, if the people to whom they disclose respond with disbelief, blaming, accusations, or worse (e.g., getting fired), this can often lead to years of secondary trauma and PTSD that may interfere with basic functioning such as holding a job or maintaining marriage and relationships.

These are some of my initial insights from the dozens of interviews that I have conducted thus far. I am still interviewing, and would be happy to hear from people who have stories to share.

Dr. Elana Maryles Sztokman is an award-winning Jewish feminist author, researcher, and anthropologist. To participate in this research contact her at elana@jewfem.com