Sexual Harassment in Jewish Organizations

The Clarence Thomas Supreme Court nomination hearings forced millions of Americans to confront their own behavior— and their own victimization—in the workplace.

Women professionals in Jewish organizations who faced blatant sexual coercion by male superiors called the Atlanta Jewish Times, LILITH and doubtless other publications, too, with their stories, but then quickly pleaded that their stories not be used, or that extreme steps be taken to conceal their identities.

“It’s too scary to talk about,” said a female official with a major Jewish group, who did not want to be identified. “I have been discussing this with women in my agency, and we all have stories to tell. But we won’t; it’s too dangerous. Maybe we’re contributing to the problem by not talking about it. But we have careers to worry about.”

Jewish organizations, said Gary Rubin, director of national affairs for the American Jewish Committee, provide particularly fertile soil for the wide range of behaviors that add up to sexual harassment.

“We not only have worker supervisor relationships, but we have lay-professional relationships,” he said. “There are many different subordinate-supervisor relationships, which offer the possibility of power being used for sexual harassment.”

He continued, “That isn’t about sex, it’s about power. The structure of this community tends to increase the possibility for that kind of behavior, because so many men are in dominant positions.”

Diana Aviv, associate executive vice chair of the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council (NJCRAC), noted that part of the problem is that the leadership network, both lay and professional, is intertwined. “The leaders of one organization will sit on the board of others. Opportunities for professional growth can be shut off by vindictive leaders. So there is a strong disincentive to speak up, because it will hurt careers.”

Sexual harassment exists in all levels of Jewish institutions and organizations. Even rabbinical seminaries are not immune from sexual harassment—an increasingly common topic of conversation when women rabbis meet with each other in private.

“It happens,” said a Jewish woman familiar with life in the seminaries. “It involves a very small proportion of the teachers. But the fact that it happens at all is deeply disturbing to the women who are its victims. When it happens in the religious environment, it is perhaps even more damaging because these people are supposed to know better.”

In order to bring the Jewish community’s values more in line with behavior in the workplace, formal mechanisms have to be developed within the community to make it easier and more comfortable for women to pursue charges of harassment, according to several leaders.

More fundamentally, the underlying male dominance of the Jewish community needs to be altered. They suggested that until the Jewish community makes a concerted effort to seek out qualified, talented women for leadership positions, sexual harassment will continue to be a problem.