As a 27-year-old female Hillel executive director, I spend my days focused on enriching the lives of Jewish students in my community. Working for an organization with a mission and vision so closely aligned with my values is a privilege. It’s not lost on me how fortunate I am to hold such responsibility.
One of my most important responsibilities is to raise the funds needed to carry out the work with students that I care about so passionately. Last week, I received an email from a prominent donor in our community asking to meet for breakfast. I have felt uneasy around him before, as he has suggested the type of clothing I should wear for professional events, but like many women in my position, I have become an expert at laughing off inappropriate comments. And meeting with donors to sustain our program is, after all, my job.
When I arrived at our breakfast, we met each other with a hug, which is a common greeting in our tight-knit Jewish community. But this time, the donor reached down and grabbed my butt before putting his arm around my shoulders and walking me to our table. I called him out immediately.
“Did you just grab my butt!?” I exclaimed.
“No, I didn’t,” he said with a wink.
I sought an explanation, not that anything he said would have made a blatant grope OK. But he denied having done it at all and carried on our conversation as if nothing had happened. His brazen denial of reality made me wonder if I’d just made the whole thing up in my head.
During the awkward meal that followed, I felt more and more uncomfortable. At one point I excused myself to take a few deep, calming breaths at the breakfast buffet. Back at the table, the donor told me that my bra strap was showing and asked if I wanted to cover up or show him more. As we left the restaurant, he pulled me in close to his face in what felt like an attempt to kiss me on the mouth, our noses nearly touching, then placed his hands near my breasts and made a squeezing gesture, saying he needed “to grab a thing or two.”
You can imagine that I left this meeting in great distress. I was shaking. I didn’t know what to do. I felt the need to speak up, even though it might affect my standing in the community in several ways. I don’t want my name tied to a scandal, and I also don’t want other organizations finding themselves with holes in their budgets because I decided to say something.
But while bringing attention to this issue could be costly, I can’t afford to stay silent. Since that awful breakfast, I’ve been grappling with an ever-growing number of questions. What if this happens to me again? Or to a colleague? Do I want to meet a male donor alone ever again? How can I be more careful in the future? Is this my fault? Should I pretend nothing happened, shrug it off again and carry on?
I may work in a field — Jewish communal service — grounded in values like tikkun olam (healing the world) and kavanah (positive intention), but I am not so naïve to think that my community is immune to the abuses that occur when men in positions of power try to take advantage of women.
I’m scared. I’m disgusted. But mostly I’m heartbroken. Nothing about this has been easy or certain, and the worst part is I have no control over what happened. He did this to me. Yet now my organization and I are the ones dealing with the consequences.
Seeking funding from our own community is often fraught with complex issues. But in the case of a donor sexually harassing a Hillel staff member, there should be no question as to how to proceed ethically, morally and Jewishly.
Thankfully, my local board, Hillel International and my local federation have proven to me what it means to do the right thing, the Jewish thing. My local board insisted that we cut all communication with this donor, despite the financial strain it may cause our organization. Hillel International offered extensive support, including a timely launch of materials for Hillel professionals to help in other situations of sexual harassment and assault. They also put their money where their mouths are, offering to help make up the lost funds. This week, my local federation is convening constituent agency leaders to launch communal discussions around sexual harassment.
All the professional leaders that I turned to believe that I should not only stand up for myself, but also speak out so other Jewish professionals can realize that they will not be alone. This fight is necessary for us to see change.
So, hineni, here I am. I choose to believe that righteousness will carry me. I am mustering my strength not only for me, but also for you, and for my students, some of whom look to me as one of their only Jewish role models. No one should endure such treatment. Our communities need to enable people to speak out, get educated and receive support.
As nerve-wracking as it may be, there’s real power in standing up, walking away and saying no thank you. JN
Rhonda Abrams is the director of Greater Portland Hillel.