The Hazards of Working in the Jewish Community

Sarah Seltzer asks Hannah Dreyfus how she exposed inappropriate behaviors by powerful men.

Sarah Seltzer: When we began to see the #MeToo onslaught, did you have any idea what was coming in the Jewish community?

Hannah Dreyfus: After the Weinstein story, it flitted across my mind: “Hah, I bet the Jewish community has its share.” I had friends employed at Jewish nonprofits, and I’m aware of their structure: often men as the top executives and women filling the ranks. Donors and boards interconnected with one another. All the factors that lead to potential abuses; people who are at the bottom of this power system are dispensable. The Jewish community is tightly knit and loyal and deeply connected—all wonderful things—but it makes unearthing and facing problems difficult. I had done a large investigative story into cases of alleged child sexual abuse in Baltimore and that gave me the credentials I needed to report on #MeToo. I didn’t seek the stories. They found me.

S.S.: In the last two years, every feminist journalist I know has been overwhelmed by more tips in her inbox than she could possibly follow through on. What can you tell readers about the rigorous process to verify what actually makes it into print?

H.D.: Any story that you see, whether it be the New York Times or the Jewish Week, is the tip of a huge iceberg that we will never see. There are so many sources who don’t want to speak, or who do speak and then decide they don’t want their stories told. The people who are most harmed are the least likely to come forward.

S.S.: Have you gotten pushback with the idea that a Jewish figure’s abuse is an internal community problem and not something that needs to be exposed like dirty laundry?

H.D.: I think that’s the reason that a lot of Jewish communities have a problem with journalism in general; because of its perceived potential to exacerbate the external forces of antisemitism. There is always the potential for antisemitism, but that does not relieve our responsibility.

S.S.: The mission of fostering “Jewish continuity” is loaded and problematic, because it uses a “greater good” to swallow up individual pain. So what can journalism do that workplace investigations or lawsuits cannot?

H.D.: Anybody who is speaking to a journalist has been failed by many people. Journalism is that final check on power. I think: I’m glad to be available to do this story, but I wish I didn’t have to. I wish that somebody had taken these complaints seriously before they escalated. I wish that small boundary-crossing patterns had been paid attention to so that stories didn’t have anything to do with rape. I wish that somebody who was on the chain of command had decided not to say “Oh, I know that guy, it’s just the way he acts, and he’s got his heart in the right place.” Those are the small incremental failures that lead someone eventually to a very drastic and almost self-sacrificial step of speaking out in public.

S.S.: People often don’t understand what victims go through before, during and after speaking out.

H.D: Women who are further along in their careers and who are established and prominent, who—you might think— would have less at stake by speaking out, are less likely to speak to me. I’m finding an increased willingness to speak in women in their 20s and 30s. In older generations there is an entrenched feeling that this is a shameful incident that is somehow their fault. In younger women there’s a slightly shifting attitude. “This is not my fault, I don’t deserve to be treated this way, and I will speak out, because this is not something that I need to accept.”

S.S.: Have you felt supported as a journalist at a small paper, somewhat on your own, doing this work?

H.D.: I am very proud of my publication for trusting me and for taking on incredible risk as a community newspaper. And I think it will have placed the Jewish Week firmly on the right side of history. The decision to publish these stories was a brave decision. And the people who are most at risk are, once again, young women in our community who are not highly compensated, who get entry-level positions at organizations doing fundraising, and a career path forward that relies on being seen as a cooperative, loyal, agreeable, likable employee. I have faced intimidation personally and had moments when I came home and said “What was I thinking when I decided to do this?” And the only thing that keeps me going in those moments is a feeling of responsibility to the survivors.

S.S.: We talked recently at Lilith about collateral damage. When planning is dominated by prominent male influencers who are later exposed as outright misogynists, it’s not just the victims who suffer personally and directly from this behavior. The community suffers too.

H.D.: I’ve spoken to so many women who have started off going into Jewish nonprofit work who want to do good for the community, and then when they get into the first fundraising meeting and someone makes a pass at them they’re confused. And then when they go to the first conference where they’re supposed to be exchanging ideas and somebody makes a comment about their dress—and I’m giving you examples of the things that aren’t even egregious—they feel betrayed. People leave the Jewish community because they didn’t bargain for that; they didn’t know that they had to sacrifice their dignity in the process. That’s the tremendous loss for the community. Conferences [to discuss workplace equity and safety] are good, summits are good. Still, if you have skeletons in the closet that you haven’t looked at, all the talk in the world is not enough. I challenge people to think about something you are not facing, or you are downplaying, or that you might know about, even if it doesn’t directly affect you. And see if there’s anything you can do. I’m supposed to be a backstop. In a functioning system, in a system that’s really being reliable to its constituents, I wouldn’t have a job.