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… and Toxic Workplaces Are Jewish

PICTURE THIS: a 25-year-old nonbinary Jewish feminist, let’s call them Sam, gets their first job at a Jewish non-profit. The organization has a lofty mission and a stated commitment to diversity and inclusion. Sam is thrilled to work somewhere that affirms Jewish values, and is filled with passion and ideas.

It feels like a dream job, even if the hours seem long and duties less than well-defined.

A year later, Sam is gone, feeling a mix of frustration, anger and sadness, disillusioned by the workplace culture. Now, Sam is not only questioning whether to work in a Jewish space again, but feels reluctant to participate further in organized Jewish life.

Some may be tempted dismiss this case as an outlier, but Lilith has learned that it is far from uncommon, or even limited to workers at the start of their careers. Over several months, we gathered dozens of stories from and about Jews who identify as women, genderqueer or trans who say they have experienced a culture of exploitation, bullying, and threats in Jewish workplaces (in several cases from female bosses).

To be clear, those we interviewed—15 in all—came to us through word of mouth; from them we learned the stories of many others who declined to speak with us directly.

Those we interviewed ranged in age from mid-twenties to well over 50. Of the 15, three identified as non-binary or genderqueer and two as trans. Three were Jews of color.

All but two of our interviewees had spent large portions of their working life in or connected to the Jewish world (the two outliers were on the younger end of the age scale). Seven had worked in well-known Jewish social justice organizations; one had led a large organization; two were rabbis who worked with congregations and engaged in a variety of Jewish programming across several organizations; three worked in Jewish education.

Of the group, not a single person would speak to us about a prior or current work situation without the promise of anonymity. Over and over, we were told that because the Jewish nonprofit world is interconnected and funded by overlapping donors, anyone who speaks out publicly about workplace issues risks professional and social repercussions—like being fired or blacklisted from working in Jewish organizations, even becoming persona non grata in institutions like synagogues that are personally important. These interviews suggested that interlocking communities and affiliations makes real accountability and change in Jewish workplaces hard to achieve.

“Because people typically have ties to the larger Jewish community, including to their workplace, complaining [about a workplace] can feel like risking your entire world,” said one respondent. “So many of these institutions really take advantage of your goodness and your desire to find your own Jewish community.”

Broader surveys suggest that what we learned from our small sample is likely just the tip of the iceberg. For example, a 2023 State of the Jewish Workplace survey by the organization Leading Edge found that only 66% of employees of Jewish nonprofits agree that “employee well-being is a priority at my organization.” Leading Edge also found that “Jewish nonprofit workers we surveyed are less (emphasis ours) likely than the average American worker to say that they would recommend their organization as a great place to work.”

While in Lilith’s sample some people left Jewish jobs voluntarily, several were fired, in more than a few instances forced to choose between a severance package and/or health insurance benefits and the right to speak freely about their employment experience. This is what people wanted to tell Lilith about particularly; although common in the corporate world, this treatment was considered deeply at odds with the stated values and missions of these Jewish workplaces—tikkun olam (repairing the world), or Jewish communal growth.

All the stories we heard add up to a narrative of gender-based harm. In Jewish workplaces, two-thirds of employees are women, according to a 2022 survey by Leading Edge, and most of them are under 40. (Another 2–4% identify as genderqueer or nonbinary).

These numbers suggest that failing to address workplace culture could mean losing large numbers of future feminist leaders from the Jewish nonprofit world, and quite possibly from Jewish life altogether. And experts say that if workplaces tolerate bullying, encourage secrecy and extract extra work from young employees, this may signal that more overt forms of gender-based harassment could go unreported.

Organizations themselves are aware of this. The Jewish Social Justice Roundtable is a network of 75 Jewish social justice organizations, and one of the services it has been providing its members is help in dealing with workplace issues. In the wake of Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, Covid and more, the issue of workplace culture became a hot topic. ‘This is something that we identified post-pandemic as a number of new dynamics were happening both in our world and in our organizations—including a shift in our relationship to work,” said Abby Levine, Executive Director of the Roundtable. “As well as a trend of unionizing across the country and within the nonprofit world.”


WHAT WE LEARNED

Boundaries

Our interviews pointed to the failure of many Jewish organizations to establish and/or enforce work-life boundaries, leading to feelings ranging from exploitation to violation. We heard about employees being asked intrusive questions about their personal lives and fielding unwanted comments about their bodies. Several reported being subjected to judgements about their partners; one woman told us she was cautioned against marrying someone because her partner’s Jewish observance differed from hers, and that this could impact her employment.

One woman who worked at a Jewish social justice organization recalled how her boss “would literally call me in the middle of the night all the time. And if I wasn’t responding to those calls, I was what I would call berated. Often, when I would call her back in the morning, she would raise her voice and yell at me.”

Several people who worked in social justice organizations said they felt pressured to participate in work-related activities, like workshops or other kinds of training, that caused them discomfort in the guise of opening “vulnerability” and “challenging beliefs.” While this concern was more prevalent in organizations that focus on progressive social and environmental policy shifts—which often link their social change missions to personal sacrifice and transformation—it was not limited to them. “I’m coming out of these quote unquote, exercises, trying to ground myself, crying and sobbing,” one respondent told us. “That’s what feels so painful. When you want to change a professional relationship, it becomes about not believing in the mission.”

One woman, who says she was terminated from her job without cause, noted that “there seems to be an expectation that likely isn’t limited to the Jewish world, that people who are doing mission-driven work should be available to do that work all the time.” These demands, however, can be especially difficult to resist, she added, “when they are tied to work that feels central to your identity. It’s like a family, and bosses exploit that, as well as their connections to Judaism and the Jewish community.” A word she emphasized was “guilt.”

This “family”-feeling is often a one-way street, however. We heard from people who felt abandoned in times of personal difficulty, or who were terminated callously. One woman who had to take time off for a serious health issue recounted how initially she was assured, as she recalls it, that “we totally support you and your health. Your health is always more important than work, forever. ‘You’ll be taken care of [and] have your job when you come back,’ and all this stuff.”

However, as she got closer to her medical leave she was told she would not get her full salary as promised, and also would have to use all of her vacation time for her leave. “It was…the most demoralizing thing,” she said.

Four other people described being fired without cause—meaning they had done nothing wrong to merit their termination—and that this news was delivered to them with what they perceived to be a false sensitivity that belied its essential cruelty. Here’s one such account; “[The board president] fired me. In a very soft-spoken, fake voice. ‘You know, we know how much this community means to you’ and this and that and everything else.”

Numerous people recounted being told they would get severance pay and an extension of their health benefits only if they agreed to sign a non-disclosure agreement regarding the terms of their departure. While some refused to accept these terms, preferring to walk away with their “voices free,” others literally could not afford to make this choice.

BETRAYAL OF JEWISH VALUES

To be sure, this kind of treatment is not exclusive to Jewish workplaces. In recent years mainstream and independent media have covered worker-management struggles at nonprofits ranging from Planned Parenthood to the ACLU.

However, when it occurs in Jewish spaces it can be particularly devastating, not only because it can feel like a betrayal by “family,” but also if it happens in places that purport to operate according to “Jewish values,” or even in line with halacha (Jewish law), which prioritizes things like health and even outlines how severance should be calculated and administered.

Even when someone is fired, said one interviewee, “there are halachic prescriptions for how we do this.”

But those who want these prescriptions to be taken seriously can be in for a rude awakening. “I’ve been laughed at,” one woman said. “I’ve said in more than one place, I want to work in a place where toilet paper is bought with a sense of Jewish values. And I’ve been told that’s ridiculous.”

Indeed, many women told us they came to realize that despite the lip service, most organizations could not adhere to certain Jewish values even if they wanted to, given that they are competing for funding from a limited donor pool and are evaluated on metrics wholly separate from adherence to Jewish values.

WHEN THE BOSS IS A WOMAN

Much to their dismay, our interviewees reported that some of this bad treatment was perpetrated by female bosses. According to Leading Edge, women make up 49% of the CEOs of Jewish non-profits. However, among the smallest-budget organizations, that percentage grows to 58% (among the highest-budget organizations, women lead just 29%). This means, of course, that where women are helming Jewish organizations, they are most often doing so with smaller budgets than their male counterparts.

Shifra Bronznick isn’t exactly surprised by the complaints about female bosses. She’s a social-change strategist for organizations, networks and leaders, and has founded many initiatives aimed at advancing women’s leadership and building the field of social justice. “Yes, people are very disappointed in their bosses, especially their female bosses. This has gone on since time immemorial…the research shows that people don’t trust women as leaders.” Indeed, recent research found that nothing more than being middle-aged causes people to view women bosses, in one business journalist’s words, “as less warm and therefore less likable. And that’s true even if literally nothing changes about them except for the number of candles on the birthday cake.”

Many people we spoke with—even those who described odious behavior—acknowledged the above—that these women were working within a patriarchal, heteronormative Jewish world (not to mention society) and likely believed (or saw) that in order to maintain power they had to behave according to the norms of that world. For example, one woman recalled how her female boss brushed away her concerns about workplace bullying by emphasizing how she “was one of the first women” to achieve prominence in her field “and nobody gave me a hand up.”

When a female boss is a woman of color, things can become even more complicated. As one woman said, “Few people in the Jewish community have bosses who are [women of color],” and these women “are under an immense amount of pressure and from a lot of funders who are mostly white, [and] from the general public.” In other words, CEOs aren’t supposed to look out for workers in the systems that exist. One respondent whose boss was also a woman of color told Lilith that there “have been times when I was super disappointed and disenchanted by her leadership [and] how I’ve been treated as a worker.” However, she stressed that she was loath to speak about this publicly because she didn’t want her boss’s or the organization’s good work “to be overshadowed.” 

Our respondent reported feeling torn over whether to share her concerns with potential new hires because “I think that I have talked to other Jews of color who expect more from Jews of color in JOC spaces. And we’re disappointed when it’s not structurally different.” However, she also didn’t want to promote “double standards for her from white folks.” 

Molly Wernick, a feminist activist and Jewish educator, notes that, because they sought to assimilate and not draw attention to themselves, Jewish institutions in the United States were set up in ways that “mirror” the dominant society. According to Wernick, “those who thrive in these systems often still embody the attitudes and behaviors of the tendencies of their founders,” which tend not to accommodate the needs of women but instead create “harmful and oppressive consequences for them.” 

NOWHERE TO COMPLAIN 

While the people we spoke with had no problem identifying the causes of toxic workplace culture, many noted the lack of solutions. Among the most common critiques our interviewees raised was the absence in their organizations of formalized and effective processes and procedures to address concerns about workplace conduct. We learned that it is not uncommon for these nonprofit workplaces—particularly startups and smaller organizations, to have no employee handbook, no articulated discrimination and other complaint policies and processes, no actual human resources (H.R.) department. 

A woman who worked for a mid-sized, well-established communal institution described to Lilith how she was instructed to go to H.R. with a complaint, “but there was no real H.R. Just a part-time person who was there only one or two days a week.” Even when such infrastructure does exist, the relatively small size and the interconnectedness of the Jewish non-profit world makes employees think twice about utilizing it. 

If, as one woman noted, the employee is connected to her workplace in ways that go beyond work, complaining about it risks “damaging or losing that connection.” One woman told us that she kept the details of her termination a secret until long after she left her organization “because I didn’t want to poison anybody against the community.” 

Others said that they feared complaining openly about bad Jewish workplace behavior not only because of the potential personal or communal repercussions, but also because making these issues public could stoke antisemitism. 

SooJi Min-Maranda, executive director of ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal, has spent eight years leading secular social justice and direct service nonprofits and 12 years leading Jewish nonprofits. A Korean immigrant to the U.S., she told Lilith that “airing dirty laundry” was frowned upon in her upbringing. “Similarly, among Jews there’s a reluctance to air internal problems,” she said. “It stems from a fear of antisemitism. Coming out of the Shoah we want to focus on triumphal resistance and assimilation.” 

And “at the end of the day,” she pointed out, “those who are most negatively impacted are women, are Jews of color, those of us on the margins.” Like others we spoke to, Min-Maranda also noted that there’s a logistical aspect too. “In general, most nonprofits are ill-equipped to manage these issues. You’re lucky if there’s an H.R. department, usually it’s a small part of someone’s job. There’s a lack of training and a lack of accountability on all sides. It needs consistent and persistent resources and it needs to be prioritized. And we don’t have the budgets to do that. And then you end up with an investigation, you pay out, and you haven’t really done anything to address the root cause.” 

Rachel, a former employee at a major Jewish organization who asked us not to use her last name, attributed this lack of accountability in part to the very structure of the Jewish non-profit world itself. “Organizations are put in a tough position because of funding. It is hard to pinpoint what the source of any workplace issue is, because everyone is answering to someone else,” She said. “There’s not as much autonomy as we think. You can think independently but not act independently.” 

Even in instances where workers do lodge formal complaints, if the object of the complaint is charismatic and garners positive publicity and donations for the organization, many told us, the offender is unlikely to face sanctions. 

And that brings us to another issue: the fact that many people we spoke to believe that their organizations didn’t actually want or intend for them to advance beyond a certain point, where they could become threatening to the status quo. This irony is not lost on those who were told explicitly that they were hired for their perceived ability to innovate and attract new interest. As one woman who was terminated from her organization explained: “I was once like a rising star, someone they show-ponied. I knew that I was going to do real work, not fluffy nonsense stuff. Real bridge-building that required difficult conversations and confronting a lot of people who didn’t believe we should exist. But I knew what I was brushing up against.” 

Now, she says, she has “washed my hands, I don’t think I’ll work directly for a Jewish institution again or not for a long time.” 

APPROACHES TO CHANGE 

While we heard more than a few stories about other people who, like this woman, had decided to “wash their hands” of Jewish organizations, we also spoke with people who were committed to finding ways of making positive change. 

Indeed, Sooji Min-Maranda told us that she has noticed “a dramatic shift in the willingness of our young talent to tolerate mistreatment.” She believes that “we need to nurture and create space for their voices and their courage to shape and create a better future for all of us.” 

One such voice is that of Molly Wernick, the Jewish educator and community professional. Wernick believes that the “talent pipeline” for Jewish organizations is being “cut off midway due to bullying or blacklisting from those protecting the status quo.” To change this, Wernick advocates pushing back against “patriarchal leadership practices” everywhere they’re found in Jewish organizations. Of course, this is easier said than done, and people who have power in these organizations have to buy into such changes, and risk relinquishing some of their power. 

While the people we spoke with suggested practical ways to address these workplace issues, many also emphasized the need to build what Shifra Bronznick calls “bridges of understanding” between the generations of people working in these spaces. Ultimately, she says, it’s not a story about villains. “Few people are sitting in their offices thinking consciously, how can I diminish women as leaders?” she said. “I think this is a story about the complexity of structural issues. In other words, hierarchy.” But what can be done to actually begin building these bridges? 

SRE (Safety, Respect, Equity) Network, a partnership of Jewish funders and Jewish professionals was founded in the wake of the #MeToo movement in 2018. While many observers applaud the work that SRE is doing, they also point out that organizations cannot be compelled to participate, that organizations first must want to carry out the kinds of change SRE is promoting. Others point to unionization as a potentially potent option. Currently, relatively few Jewish organizations are unionized, including Jews United for Justice, J Street, Bend the Arc, the American Jewish World Service, Avodah and the Jewish Organizing Institute and Network (JOIN). Mazon United said it planned to join the Communications Workers of America union. 

And the Jewish Social Justice Roundtable has also been offering help to its member organizations. “We’ve been doing a lot of organizational culture work,” says Abby Levine, including individual coaching, consultations, and research. “The place we’re going next is working on how conflict shows up, through the lens of power and identity.” Levine acknowledges that management is a skill—and sometimes people rise up in nonprofits without being explicitly trained in that aspect of the job; these auxiliary structures like SRE and the Roundtable are trying to help smooth the road so that organizations have “stronger and healthier professional practices”—which ultimately serves the social justice causes they’re working for, not the least by retaining talent. 

Some are working on more grassroots approaches. Tehilah Eisenstadt, a Jewish educator, activist, consultant, and storyteller, has thought a lot about this issue, speaking informally with over 130 people, most of them women, who work in Jewish organizations. She says their stories echo the ones here. 

Her solution: the Ethical Workplace Research and Network- Weaving project, a nonprofit whose mission is to learn, through rigorous data collection, “how systems build and maintain ethical workplace culture.” Once armed with that data, Eistenstadt hopes to create a mentoring process for organizations that are “striving for ethical workplaces of collaboration, transparency, and respect.” 

Hella Winston is a sociologist and investigative journalist based in New York City. 

This report is part of a Lilith project made possible with funding from SRE Network (srenetwork.org).