changing culture

Women of Reform Judaism says “stop” to sexual harassment and assault

In Short

Women of Reform Judaism launches a new initiative, “WRJ says STOP,” to address gender-based harassment and assault in Jewish institutions and create safe spaces in Jewish communities.

By Rabbi Marla Feldman, Executive Director of Women of Reform Judaism and Lillie Heyman, WRJ/RAC Eisendrath Legislative Assistant

As the Reform Movement reckons with the troubling ethics report that brought to light cases of sexual harassment, abuse and misconduct in Reform institutions, WRJ is stepping up to empower congregational lay leaders to work with their professional partners to create a safe, respectful and affirming culture with our new initiative, WRJ Says STOP: An Initiative Against Sexual Harassment and Assault.

Grounded in our history of social action and advancing the role of women in Jewish life for over a century, and with sisterhoods in congregations across North America, we have the unique power and perspective to challenge the status quo, support survivors of sexual misconduct, and create meaningful change within our communities to ensure that the egregious behaviors that have taken place never happen again.

Affecting change requires a multifaceted approach at all levels to create a cultural shift in our Jewish institutions and communities. These approaches include, but are not limited to, implementing comprehensive policies and procedures for reporting and investigating incidents, creating procedures for addressing past cases of abuse/ethics violations that were not properly addressed previously, and providing education to empower individuals to foster more inclusive and supportive communities. 

Our initiative primarily tackles the third approach: education and empowerment. This is not a program or a one-time training; rather, we are intentionally creating an environment for ongoing cultural/ethical awareness, conversation and change. With the help of experts and our organizational partners, including Ta’amod and Keshet, WRJ will host four webinars over the course of 18 months focused on building a safe and transparent synagogue community; power dynamics and harassment, both including and beyond gender-based and implicit bias-based harassment; ways to be an “upstander”; how to respond when hearing other people’s experiences; and implementing best practices that range from the use of micro-affirmations to establishing standing committees and formal ethics policies and reporting procedures with annual reviews. Through these sessions, we hope to provide members and lay leaders with the knowledge, tools and resources needed to start the conversation and take action to truly embed these principles in the life and culture of their communities. And let me be clear — this is not just for women; it is for everyone. 

Just as WRJ is led by a powerhouse group of committed leaders at the local, district and international levels, from sisterhood members to our North American Board and staff, WRJ Says Stop seeks to inspire all of us, at all levels of leadership, to take responsibility for creating this cultural change. Although it is presented in a synagogue context, these skills are meant to be transferable to all our communal spaces where we work and experience together. 

Rabbi Hara Person, chief executive of Central Conference of American Rabbis said, “CCAR is so grateful for the important work that WRJ is taking on in the area of sexual harassment and assault. This is crucial work that none of us can do alone, and I am thrilled to have the powerful women of WRJ as partners in raising up these issues and creating accountability in our Jewish spaces. ‘WRJ Says Stop’ is so necessary to our community and will no doubt make a significant difference.”

As leaders of our congregations, we are responsible for what takes place within our orbit. We must ensure that our children, youth, vulnerable members, volunteers, staff, clergy and anyone who steps foot into our congregations or participates in our programs are protected and treated properly. We must not abdicate our responsibility to provide a spiritual home where everyone is safe, valued, heard and treated with dignity and respect.

For more information about WRJ says STOP, visit our website at https://wrj.org/wrj-says-stop. Our next webinar, Educating and Empowering People about Sexual Harassment will be held on Tuesday, February 7, 2023.  

Women of Reform Judaism (WRJ) is a network of Jewish women working together to empower women and communities worldwide through the bonds of sisterhood, spirituality and social justice. WRJ, founded in 1913, is the women’s affiliate of the Union for Reform Judaism, the central body of Reform Judaism in North America. For more information about WRJ, please visit our website at www.wrj.org