Our Jewish community has focused heavily in the past several years on safety and security issues. With the rise in anti-Semitic incidents here and abroad, and mounting concerns about the reach and influence of purveyors of hate and discrimination, we need to be vigilant and proactive, and prepared to do everything necessary to insure the well-being of our community.  

But focus on those broader concerns should not obscure recognition of the need to protect individuals within our Jewish community from all threats, including those within the community. In a recent study by the Safety Respect and Equity Coalition, it wasn’t surprising to learn that women are more often the victims of sexual harassment rather than men. But it was surprising to learn that victimization happens across all levels of power within Jewish organizations, and is perpetrated by individuals who hold varying roles within those organizations.

According to Lisa Eisen, president of the Coalition, Jewish organizational response to reported sexual harassment within their ranks has been uneven.

Thus, she says, when women within Jewish organizations stepped forward with stories of harassment, leaders, including rabbis, “were often passive to complaints … or did nothing in response,” leaving some women feeling that their “complaints [were] ignored, minimized or laughed at.” 

According to the study, the structure of Jewish institutions can even foster harassment: “The informal, familial and sometimes unprofessional environment within Jewish spaces can make it difficult to differentiate between what is and is not appropriate and to address sexual harassment when it occurs.” And the study adds, “Harmful responses to disclosures were especially common when the perpetrator was a donor or lay leader.”

The Coalition survey found that while 70% of employees in the Jewish nonprofit sector are female, only 30% of Jewish nonprofits are led by women. With slow turnover at the top of Jewish organizations, it will take some time for significant female leadership of major Jewish organizations to take hold.  

In the meantime, Eisen notes that gender disparity in leadership of Jewish organizations creates another problem: Not only are men the cause of most harassment problems, they are also essential to any solution — and that doesn’t always work, since many male leaders struggle to figure out the correct reactions to reports of harassment. To make matters worse, many men feel unsafe being alone at work with women colleagues or socializing with them outside of work, for fear of being accused of sexual harassment. Eisen’s solution: increased education and sensitivity training, and “I think we just have to have the conversations.” 

The lesson from the Coalition study is clear: As we continue to work to assure the safety of our Jewish community writ large, we also need to focus upon the safety and dignity of the professionals and volunteers who sustain the work of our communal organizations. That is both the right and moral thing to do. JN

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