Just over a year ago, we convened hundreds of Jewish community members and presented harrowing, deeply disturbing stories of some of the nameless who have endured and suffered gender harassment across the spectrum of our Jewish communal spaces.
Painful, but we know that personal testimonies have the collective power to upset the order.
A culture in which gender harassment — and the power dynamics supporting it — exists needed to be stared down, diminished, and eliminated. And, as importantly, it needed to be replaced with a more evolved and respectful sense of how we interact with each other.
In the year since, our community has absorbed more than a few shocking headlines and applauded the bravery of women willing to go public with tales of harassment and exploitation based on their gender and steeped in antiquated notions of hierarchy.
In some instances, perpetrators and those silently complicit in this abuse have been exposed and separated from organizations that take seriously the Jewish values they represent. In other cases, they have not, shielded by individuals or organizations valuing philanthropic support and favor above respect.
Why is it such a challenge for Jewish communal leaders to acknowledge that gender harassment isn’t just some other organization’s issue?
As much as we live in an age characterized unfortunately by short attention spans and even briefer news cycles, we recognize that our focus as a community can’t be on the drama alone. It must also be on the hard and tedious work building communal infrastructure, channels and conversations to affect lasting cultural change. B’Kavod (“with respect”), a joint initiative of our two organizations, The Good People Fund and the Jewish Women’s Foundation of New York, is now a director-led office existing exclusively to help Jewish communal institutions and all who work, learn, or worship at them develop sustainable environments of safety, respect, and fairness.
One of the challenges of addressing gender harassment and abuse in the Jewish communal workplace is the dearth of resources for those who need them. As organizations move toward legal and ethical compliance, there has been a scramble to find the right trainer, coach, lawyer, trauma expert, and others who can work specifically with JEWISH organizations — professionals who understand the complexities and nuances of our community.
Through B’Kavod, we have adopted the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s (EEOC) Safe Respectful Workplace training program, reframed it for the Jewish community, and created a growing corps of certified trainers working with Jewish organizations throughout the country to create and advance just what the name says — workplaces and shared spaces that are safe and respectful, where harassment based on gender or sexual orientation meets a zero-tolerance standard.
In the past year, nearly 30 trainers have joined our corps, each educated, certified and supported by Fran Sepler, designer of the EEOC program. Already, in a short amount of time, B’Kavod has delivered Jewish-communal specific, and legally compliant trainings to over 50 organizations throughout the United States. These include Jewish federations, synagogues, educational institutions, social justice organizations, and other Jewish agencies.
In addition, B’Kavod has created channels of communication so that those who have been subjected to gender harassment in Jewish workplaces have a trusted address to report it and receive support. And it has built a collection of relevant and timely resources, including webinars, to help individuals and organizations in the realm of gender harassment in all of its forms.
Throughout this past year, we have often found ourselves to be the agitators within the established Jewish community, spotlighting a troubling reality and creating a movement that challenges a status quo that tolerates and even protects organizational structures that have no systemic barriers to gender harassment.
With the rise of the #MeToo movement and its natural trickle-down effect into our community, we are compelled, as leaders of organizations that put the empowerment and uplifting of women and girls and other voiceless populations at the heart of their missions, to take on this role in both a vocal and strategic manner.
We know that change comes slowly, and that even small incremental advances, like the ones we’ve had, are invaluable.
But as we have spent the last year building, forming alliances —including with members of the Safety/Respect/Equity Coalition, a generous funder of B’Kavod — and spreading the word, we are also cognizant of inertia, even within organizations and among allies that are sympathetic.
Why is it such a challenge for Jewish communal leaders to acknowledge that gender harassment isn’t just some other organization’s issue? Why is there resistance to fostering internal dialogues and having uncomfortable conversations? Why aren’t the boards of our Jewish institutions stepping up and recognizing their role in changing this dynamic? Why aren’t more agencies embracing trainings even as a fail-safe mechanism? Why aren’t more of our community’s generous funders demanding that grantees adopt formal policies addressing this issue?
Moving past this inertia and leading organizations to what is certainly the right place is one of the greater challenges, for sure. So until our leadership embraces this effort with a full heart and determination, we will keep telling our stories, raising the issue in appropriate forums, and reminding everyone — as we so firmly believe — that gender harassment is NOT a Jewish value and that we can do so much better.
Jamie Allen Black is CEO of the Jewish Women’s Foundation of New York. Naomi K. Eisenberger is co-founder and executive director of The Good People Fund.