Talking Harm and Repair with Guila Benchimol

If you’ve worked at all on issues of power, gender and abuse in the Jewish world you likely know the work of Guila Benchimol, Ph.D. Benchimol—a consultant, researcher, educator and victim advocate whose work focuses on these issues and more—has advised several Jewish groups and individuals. Many of us have come to rely on her counsel and teaching about issues of harm and repair.

In an exchange with Lilith, she talks about workplace toxicity and why, even if this seems trivial to some, it matters for the health and safety of our communities.

LILITH: Why do you think toxic conditions spring up in Jewish work environments?

GB: Jewish workplaces are not immune from the same conditions and problems that exist in other work environments. This includes harassment, discrimination, uncivil and rude behaviors, and more. However, Jewish spaces where people working together often know and see each other in other communal environments, like synagogues, community centers, and more, can lend themselves to a familial feeling. While, for some, the idea of working for and with family sounds nice, it can erode the professionalism that should exist in workplaces as well as invite breaches of behavior or allow them to persist rather than be addressed.

What is the connection between toxic workplaces and the harassment exposed over and over again during the #MeToo revelations?

Mining the experiences of harassment that were disclosed through #MeToo reveals a common pattern: there were several points of accumulation of misbehaviors and misconduct that eventually led to harassment, and even assault and abuse. This does not mean that all conduct that falls under the area of ‘toxicity’ will eventually become abuse. But it does mean that there are points of intervention that can come much earlier. One does not need to wait for a colleague or employee to act out in the most egregious of ways to call them out or to intervene. And if we intervene when things are toxic—and, better yet, before—we signal to everyone what kinds f behaviors we will and will not tolerate in our workplaces. Additionally, the lack of surprise around several/many of the #MeToo revelations means that people were aware that things were wrong much before the behavior escalated.

What can be done immediately to make our work environments safer for everyone?

Workplaces can:

Adopt the SRE Network standards for creating safe, respectful, and equitable Jewish workplaces and communal spaces.

Add a budget line to include the work of safety, respect, and equity which you can use to invest in policy creation, hiring experts to guide you, train your team including leaders and board, and more

Create a reporting and response process in your workplace, including investigative procedures, and make sure people know where to turn and how to reach those taking reports

Communicate and model the behaviors you want to promote

Understand the relationship between safety, respect, and equity

Learn what your employees are experiencing at work

What are the conditions most needed—in an ideal world—for repair both of institutions and individuals who have been harmed?

Institutions need to be humble, honest, and ready to understand and take accountability for the harm they have caused by either looking away when harm occurred, by enabling harm-doers, or by adding to the harm as they attempt to respond. They also have to be able to tolerate not controlling the outcome of what might happen in a repair process. They should not be expecting forgiveness or drawing limitations on those they harmed.

As Dr. Alissa Ackerman and I teach when we engage individuals and institutions in restorative justice:

Those who have caused harm need accountability, encouragement to experience personal transformation, and support from the community to change. It means they have to be willing to: participate, be accountable and responsible, understand the root causes of their behaviors, accept accountability measures, and make amends to those they have harmed.

Those who have been harmed need to be believed, acknowledged, and empowered. They seek truth telling, accountability, information about what happened to them and the aftermath, as well as vindication and restitution. They, too, need to be willing to: participate, understand the difference between their needs, wants and goals, listen without judgment, and keep an open mind.