“We Need to Talk”:
A Seasoned Advocate’s Perspective

By Nancy K. Kaufman

Many of us who have moved up in the career ladder of the Jewish community knew all too well in 2016 when the “#Time’sUp movement exploded that “#MeToo” was “#WeToo,” and it was time we get our own house in order. For those of us who consider ourselves “advocates” for social change, there was great irony and some embarrassment that we have successfully advocated for improved public policy related to sexual harassment, violence against women, pay equity, and parental and family leave, but we had not been as successful in changing the misogynistic culture of our own Jewish organizations.

Since its founding in February 2018, over 100 organizations have joined the Safety, Respect, Equity Coalition and have signed on to implement a set of standards in their organizations. We believe the adoption of these standards is a starting point that will lead to long-term change and a permanent culture shift in the organizational commitment to and practices around safety, respect and equity – not only for women, but for all employees working in Jewish communal agencies.

A study recently released by the SRE Coalition entitled: ”We Need to Talk: A Review of Public Discourse and Survivor Experiences of Safety, Respect, and Equity in Jewish Workplaces and Communal Spaces,” provides a summary of where we are and where we need to go in order to change the status quo and create sustainable organizational change. It reflects on the lived experiences of victim-survivors and analyzes the public discourse on the broader environment surrounding these incidents of victimization. It also presents some of the successes and failures in responding to victim-survivors and how they can be used as learning tools for the broader community. While this was not a quantitative research study, it provides extensive qualitative research into the ways in which individuals and organizations have engaged with these issues both during and apart from specific accounts of harassment and humiliation.

As an advocate, the clearly articulated interrelationship between risk factors to victimization and discrimination and power imbalances in Jewish workplaces was particularly noteworthy to me. The “bystander” phenomenon – when individuals and institutions condone open secrets and stand idly by as harm occurs – provides a key opportunity to change culture in institutions even when the victim is silenced or afraid to speak-out. The lack of adequate organizational structures to address harassment and discrimination also stood out as a key variable that, if properly diagnosed, can be fixed. More challenging, of course, is the lack of equal pay and the power differentials that continue to exist and are perpetuated by who sits in the top professional and lay positions. The reality is that while women comprise 70% of the Jewish communal workforce, they only hold 30% of C-suite jobs (2018, Leading Edge).

As the report notes, public discourse on these issues is happening more often, but it needs to be more integral to and part of all conversations, from staff meetings to board meetings, in hallways and on the bima. The issues of safety, respect and equity cannot be divorced from the issues of Jewish continuity, Israel, leadership development, young adult engagement and Jewish education, just to name a few.

To develop a thoughtful and actionable strategy to advance the future success of our Jewish communal institutions, we must engage in a deep-dive into the structure and dysfunctional parts of that community. This includes assessing the familial structure we operate under, the Jewish values we espouse, and the commitment to equality that we all speak about, but do not always live by. The SRE Coalition has provided a platform for organizations to come together and chart a more positive course for future generations of leaders. The research report has provided a first step in better understanding the context and environment in which the hard work of change must take place.

It is now up to us, women and men, CEOs and line staff, volunteers and board members, funders and consumers, to come together and implement a zero-tolerance threshold for behavior that is not aligned with our values and our commitment to ensuring safety, respect and equity for the individuals who have dedicated themselves to working in our organizations. If not now, when?

Nancy K. Kaufman was NCJW CEO 2010-2019 and JCRC Boston Executive Director 1990-2010.