Sexual Harassment is Not a Jewish Value

By Naomi Eisenberger and Jamie Allen Black

One professional describes what happened to her after a senior staff gathering in a hotel suite. A development officer shares a quid pro quo suggested to her by a major donor. And another expresses confusion about what to do, where to turn, when it happens to her.

Yes, they are addressing sexual harassment in the workplace generally, and in Jewish communal organizations specifically.

A variety of forces have created a perfect storm, of sorts, for women – and even others such as members of the LGBT community – to start talking without bounds about gender power dynamics and publically share personal stories of sexual harassment in industry, educational venues and other spaces. Jewish institutions – no matter what we may choose to see or believe – are not immune to it.

The incidents cited here are just a small sampling of some posted over the last several weeks on #GamAni, a Facebook group established so that those in the organized Jewish community can safely shed their isolation, and through an organic and growing collective, cast off their silence and victimhood and plant the seeds of communal awareness and change.

The very existence of this group, and its growing popularity, reflects a hard-to-ignore void in the Jewish community. That is, a lack of consistent, significant communal structures and channels through which those exposed to sexual harassment can seek redress and which institutionalize and solidify standards of behavior and respect across the spectrum of workplaces and environments.

The Good People Fund and the Jewish Women’s Foundation of New York established a partnership over a year ago, alarmed at anecdotal reports of sexual harassment shared with us by grantees and colleagues throughout the organized Jewish community, and moved to fill that organizational void with purposeful strategy for lasting change and effect.

Together, we realized that the Jewish communal world is full of the same kinds of people as in the secular world and that it was time to get over the pretense that “it doesn’t happen here” and the ingrained embarrassment of “airing our dirty laundry.”

Beyond the #GamAni user group giving a continuous platform for personal stories and information sharing, we’ve convened Jewish communal professionals for one in-person seminar and one webinar to discuss best practices and equip organizations with the knowledge, language and tools to begin conversations, change the DNA of their spaces, and design and promulgate sexual harassment policies that are widely disseminated and discussed – not as a one-off, but as a continuing and evolving conversation about our environments and interactions.

Those in attendance – ranging in the dozens – included a cross section of Jewish communal organizations and positions within them, from executive directors and human resources officials, to development team members and communications specialists. For sure, this rate and quality of participation underscores to us recognition of communal responsibility to not just talk about the issue, but to do something about it within the purposeful and change-making channels that we are seeking to create and leverage.

And building on the success of those pilot programs, more than 50 organizations are expected to attend a workshop next month on establishing and enforcing a comprehensive harassment prevention program, and creating safe and respectful workplaces. Follow-up trainings for board and professional staff members will occur in 2018.

It’s been 25 years since there has been any community-wide effort to gauge and measure systemic sexual harassment in our community. That survey came in the wake of the Clarence Thomas – Anita Hill hearings and found 70 percent of female Rabbis reporting harassment – a dramatic figure by any measure but not far from the findings of contemporary surveys of women in academia and other professional disciplines.

The Jewish communal workforce, overwhelmingly female, has grown greatly in 25 years, but conditions at work may remain much the same. What has improved, however, are techniques for measuring the incidence of all types of gender disparagement, unwanted sexual overtures, and sexual coercion in organizations, which we intend to do, recognizing that a concerted, strategic response cannot be ad hoc in nature, but fully informed.

We in the professional Jewish community cite our deeply held values as driving our work. But we must embrace the notion that these values, such as social justice, begin at home.

Ignorance, denial, or maintenance of a certain status quo stains our historic and rich commitment to the Jewish values that we seek to model and amplify around the world.

Naomi Eisenberger is Executive Director, The Good People Fund.
Jamie Allen Black is Executive Director, Jewish Women’s Foundation of New York.