Town Hall Meeting Puts Spotlight On Harassment
By Shira Hanau
They were survivors of a different kind.
One by one, eight Jewish men and women stepped to the microphone last Thursday night at UJA-Federation of New York’s headquarters in Midtown and read anonymous stories of gender harassment and abuse at the hands of prominent community leaders.
According to the dramatic readings — which lasted for more than half an hour — sexual misconduct has affected male and female employees from rabbinical school classrooms to synagogues to nonprofit boardrooms. Stories included incidents of sexual comments, inappropriate touching and threats of reprisal at the hands of rabbis, supervisors and donors.
It was a #MeToo moment happening in the heart of the Jewish community. And it came about a month after this newspaper documented stories of women rabbis who spoke of “pervasive” harassment in the workplace, part of a national reckoning about sexual harassment in Hollywood, the media and the assembly line in the automotive industry.
“This issue has not been taken seriously in our community — these stories serve to change that.”
Last week’s forum, which drew a crowd of about 250, was organized by the Jewish Women’s Foundation of New York. The predominantly female audience, which included a number of prominent nonprofit leaders as well as rank-and-file employees, responded to the stories with angry murmurs.
“We were told it was part of the job,” according to a dramatic refrain that punctuated speakers’ monologues.
“I wish survivors of abuse and women who have experienced harassment wouldn’t have to share their stories anymore,” said Rebecca Krevat, one of the readers at the event and a leader of Hitoreri, an Orthodox social advocacy group. “This issue has not been taken seriously in our community — these stories serve to change that.”
The event included a panel discussion moderated by feminist philanthropist Barbara Dobkin and included Rabbi Joanna Samuels, executive director of the Manny Cantor Center, a community center on the Lower East Side. Audience members raised questions about signing non-disclosure agreements when dealing with workplace harassment and starting a legal defense fund to represent women in Jewish organizations.
“We have to dismantle the patriarchy, not just the patriarchs.”
The stories and panel highlighted characteristics of the Jewish organizational world that make it prone to inappropriate conduct. Jewish organizations are often characterized by an informal, familial culture as a result of the tight-knit nature of the Jewish community as a whole; some of the stories recounted took place in private homes or other intimate spaces transformed into ad-hoc work spaces for organizations low on cash.
A number of the stories told in the dramatic reading were about harassment at the hands of major donors, a particularly uncomfortable topic for nonprofits. (In the wake of The New York Times expose of Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein’s alleged behavior, Democratic politicians and organizations were pressured to return money donated by Weinstein, according to media reports.) A similar push, if allegations against major Jewish philanthropists come to light, could be devastating for Jewish organizational budgets.
The Jewish Women’s Archive is currently collecting stories of harassment and abuse within and outside of the Jewish community. The Jewish Board and JOFA are organizing a panel discussion of sexual harassment in Jewish communal organizations.
“We have to dismantle the patriarchy, not just the patriarchs,” said Shifra Bronznick, feminist activist and founding president of Advancing Women Professionals, an organization that helps Jewish women advance professionally.