See Something Say Something:
Open Secrets and Jewish Community Culture
By Charlene Seidle
When I was six years old, I overheard a classmate making fun of my hairstyle. I went home that day very upset and dramatically declared that I didn’t want to talk about it, taking to my bed. After giving me a wide berth for an hour or so, my dad knocked on my bedroom door, ventured into my room and proceeded to evoke an image that remains to this day. He told me that when you don’t talk about something painful or bad, it becomes like a banana that is thrown behind the refrigerator. That banana doesn’t go away just because we can’t see it, he said. Rather, it becomes more rotten, smelly and decrepit by the day, until we can’t escape it.
Somehow, when I read We Need to Talk, a report published recently by the Safety Respect Equity (SRE) Coalition, I thought back to that analogy. The report contains a number of important, disturbing findings and recommendations, and makes clear that there is much we have to do as a Jewish community to live up to what we want or need to be.
I want to address one specific component of the report, the rotten banana as it were: open secrets. The report contends that an overall Jewish community culture of open secrets exists, where it is known that some individuals engage in sexual victimization of others but suffer no consequences, leaving people vulnerable to becoming these perpetrators’ next victims.
Survivors of sexual victimization and harassment in our Jewish community organizations report that the majority of responses to disclosures are harmful – often causing secondary victimization or trauma. Harmful responses to disclosures were especially common when the perpetrator was a donor or lay leader. Survivors say that a response commonly used to silence allegations is invocation of Jewish values and concepts, such as lashon hara (the prohibition of evil speech), as well as personal appeals that play on the communal nature of Jewish life, such as citing the pain to the perpetrator’s family if such wrongdoing is disclosed.
Like the banana, this culture of open secrets has become as corrosive as that rotten fruit. Hidden to the eye, it manifests itself in the most disgusting, harmful of ways. Our open secrets culture means we lose talent, egregiously violate our core values, and cynically twist beautiful Jewish principles like lashon hara in order to silence and repress. It’s time to act, own the mess, and do something about it.
How can we become a Jewish community where the dignity of each person is respected and honored? Where no one is allowed to get away with harmful behavior just because he or she had more resources or power? A Jewish community with a zero tolerance policy for open secrets, a community which believes that sunlight is the best disinfectant.
We Need to Talk reports that the open secrets culture operates most often when funders are the perpetrators of victimization or inappropriate behavior. The reality of power dynamics means that funders can lead the way in turning this around. They need to become the protective brigade for those who experience victimization, since they hold the most power in a system that often lacks transparency and accountability.
Here are some ideas for how funders can lead to turn the tide.
~ Educate Yourself: mandate training that goes far beyond the legal requirements for your board and entire staff on sexual victimization, harassment and respectful workplace behavior. Be aware of blind spots. Cultural norms change and evolve. Actively seek feedback and be aware that, because of power differences, funders must work hard to obtain candid, productive feedback. Consider tools like regular grantee perception reports, 360-degree assessments and staff/grantee interviews conducted by an outside third-party with a clear mandate to provide truthful, forthright feedback. Understand and accept that cultural norms change and evolve, and we are each responsible and accountable to understand these cultural norms and adapt accordingly. Because of the power that funders hold, every word makes a difference. Be very careful of and avoid explaining away behavior with excuses such as “he’s from a different generation” or “she was just kidding.”
~ Transparently Communicate Reporting Policies: publish on your website your foundation’s reporting policies for anyone at any level or relationship to the organization who experiences harassing or unsafe behavior in interactions. Be sure these reporting policies include proper separation of authority and responsibilities to ensure maximum independence for those to whom reports are made.
~ Provide Capacity Funding for Grantees: include in gift agreements that funding to recipient organizations is conditional on best-practice sexual harassment and workplace safety policies and reporting processes. Discuss this requirement as part of the grant review process and even before. Include this line of questioning in due diligence and understand organizational structures to address harassment and discrimination as well as mechanisms to address these issues as a routine part of grantee due diligence. Then, don’t just leave organizations on their own. Provide additional grants to organizations you fund in order to ensure policies don’t just sit on a shelf, but there is ongoing implementation and regular training.
~ Support Bold Guidelines for Gift Acceptance: provide capacity funding to organizations to develop, implement and enforce clear gift acceptance policies. Encourage grantees to consider prospect research processes that include due diligence on possible red flags for a prospective donor. Engage in candid conversation with grantees about sufficient cash reserves so that they can make thoughtful decisions about gift acceptance and even, in hopefully more rare cases, gift return. Think internally with your board about contingencies and expedited ways you could step in to help a grantee faced with a cash shortfall because a gift had to be returned.
~ Actively Use the Funder Platform to Reject a Culture of Open Secrets: we need to actively and publicly support those who “out” known harassers and use CEO and other search and review processes to prevent perpetrators from being hired and retained at Jewish organizations. Speak out about how harmful open secrets are to our Jewish community culture. Take a leadership role in calling out peers when they harass and victimize.
What other ways can funders be more accountable for disrespectful, unsafe behavior? What ideas do you have for funders to give cover and support those who experience victimization? How can funders actively give over power in order to strengthen and lift those who courageously report? I would love to hear your thoughts. Please comment below or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
At the organization I work for, the Leichtag Foundation, we’ve spent the last nine months increasing our focus on safe and respectful work environments and organizational culture through amplified education, policy review and revision, training, grantee capacity building and other support to help make our work environment safe, respectful and equitable. I’m proud of our efforts, and I also know that we still have much work to do. I am trying to be more conscious of my own role as a leader. Are there ways I might be inadvertently perpetuating a culture of open secrets? How can I more actively use my voice to uplift those who are vulnerable? I am most definitely not perfect, but I am trying to be more aware, more intentional, more transparent and humbler in serving our team and our community.
One more quote that stands out from my childhood, this one I learned at school: kol yisrael arayvin zeh lazeh, all Jews are responsible each for the other. We Need to Talk identifies funders as particularly lacking accountability in an open secrets culture. Funders also hold the key to aggressively and actively reject such a culture. We are responsible for each other. Those with power must champion and uplift the voices and testimonies of survivors. Only through understanding this and leveraging the funder role and power for good can we become the Jewish community that we want to be and that we must be.
Charlene Seidle is the Executive Vice President of the Leichtag Foundation, a private independent foundation making grants and operating in North San Diego and Jerusalem.