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Noa Wollstein

Correcting Gender Inequity in Jewish Spaces

A report just out from a newly formed Safety Respect Equity (SRE) Coalition is challenging the Jewish community to recognize #MeToo conditions in its ranks. Ranging from a roundup of notable cases to insight on how Jewish culture may protect perpetrators, this study, written by Guila Bechimol and Marie Huber, exposes sexual misconduct and misogyny within Jewish institutions, with an eye to ending it.

Inspired by national initiatives such as TIME’S UP and #MeToo, SRE is dedicated to addressing “safety, respect, and equity in Jewish workplaces and communal spaces as well as the experiences of survivors of sexual harassment and assault within the Jewish communal world,” according to the organization’s website. Though the findings largely mimic national trends, a few exceptions speak particularly to the Jewish experience.

Besides common phenomena like low rates of reporting and limited established procedures for investigating complaints, the study cites survivors who have spoken out about their experiences then having Jewish values such as proscriptions against lashon hara—sinful gossiping—used to silence them. There’s additional concern when rabbis and spiritual leaders uses their positions of power to harass or assault congregants, leading to a “loss of faith and religious connection.”

And then there’s the strong emphasis on community loyalty, so that when a woman alleges that a highly regarded Jewish leader has harassed her she may feel guilty (or be made to feel guilty) about having named a beloved, public figure. A woman who accused Holocaust survivor, author, and lifelong peace advocate Elie Wiesel of groping her explained that she had stayed quiet for nearly three decades because revealing what had happened to her “might hurt many people who would lose their idol” and because she feared that this would reverberate negatively across the Jewish community.

And the study finds “bystander culture” to be a component of Jewish organizational life that directly contributes to misconduct. In an atmosphere of “open secrets,” known abusers remain untouched, with their victims left to suffer the consequences isolated among apathetic colleagues. Some have reported that their uninvestigated complaints of abuse have forced them to take steps to physically avoid the offender even at the expense of career advancement. 

SRE Coalition partners with over one hundred Jewish institutions to educate staff, and implement clear sexual misconduct and gender discrimination policies that will create a safer, more inclusive future. “The Jewish community has a strong legacy of taking action in the face of injustice,” states the report. “We have a responsibility to acknowledge and address any sexual harassment, sexism and gender discrimination that exists in the places where we learn, gather and worship.”