For a crime as pervasive as sexual assault, the general response to Harvey Weinstein’s alleged misdeeds was appropriately uniform: Nobody was surprised. Or at least, in hindsight, they realized they shouldn’t have been. Men abusing their power is perhaps the world’s oldest professional hazard, and it goes without saying that no culture is immune — certainly not our own.
If the Jewish community hopes to adhere to our golden rule of tikkun olam, or repairing the world, we must articulate a strategy to address the sexual assault and gender inequity in our midst. Among Jewish female leaders, there appears to be a resounding consensus on the form this remedy should take: In the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal, the burden falls on Jewish men to rectify the injustices of sexual assault.
“I think what this whole Weinstein thing uncovered is the need for male colleagues to speak up about these things, as well,” said Rabbi Laura Geller, rabbi emerita of Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills and the first woman ordained on the West Coast. “What the Jewish community could be doing, which it’s not doing, is really encouraging male colleagues to call out behaviors that they know are wrong.”
Rabbi Sarah Bassin, associate rabbi at Temple Emanuel, attended a rabbinic fellowship conference the week after the Weinstein allegations became public. There, she spoke to colleagues about preventing sexual harassment and assault. She said she focused on the way our desire to be part of the in-group recalibrates our moral compasses, and she implored men in particular to push past the fear of upsetting a friend and rebuke those who make off-color jokes about women.
Bassin, who delivered a sermon about her own sexual harassment in 2014, said she was gratified when a male colleague asked for her advice on how to write a responsible sermon about sexual assault that doesn’t exacerbate the problem.
“The greatest challenge [to addressing sexual harassment and assault] I’ve witnessed over the last week is a proclivity for men to turn toward a defensive posture, to say, ‘Well, I haven’t done it,’ ” Bassin said.
“The greatest challenge [to addressing sexual assault] I’ve witnessed over the last week is a proclivity for men to turn toward a defensive posture, to say, ‘Well, I haven’t done it.’” – Rabbi Sarah Basin
Rabbi Jonathan Sarna, professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University, said the Jewish community has made immense progress in eliminating the gentlemen’s agreement-like silence surrounding sexual assault among our own. When he began his career as a rabbinical school professor in the early 1980s, he said, it was common to hear about certain rabbis who had a “zipper problem” and were simply moved to another congregation after a slap on the wrist.
In 2000, journalist Gary Rosenblatt wrote a cover story for The New York Jewish Week that revealed three decades of alleged teen sexual abuse by prominent New Jersey Rabbi Baruch Lanner, who later was sentenced to seven years in prison, and accused the Orthodox Union of turning a blind eye.
“At least for the Jewish press, that was a major turning point,” Sarna said. “Earlier, reporters wouldn’t touch a story like that.”
More recently, in October 2016, Danielle Berrin wrote a story in this paper detailing her sexual assault by a renowned Israeli journalist. Ari Shavit, who subsequently named himself as the perpetrator, was forced by media scrutiny to resign from his post at Israeli newspaper Haaretz.
“It’s nothing new that there are predatory men, but what’s changed is the response,” Sarna said. “Punishment has generally been swift and unforgiving.”
Geller agreed that there’s been a profound cultural shift in how we hold men accountable in the Jewish community, and attributes much of the change to institutionalized sexual harassment policies and formalized complaint processes. For example, in 1991, the Central Conference of American Rabbis established an ethics code addressing sexual harassment by its members.
Beyond sexual assault policies, however, is the imperative that employees and staff at Jewish institutions are thoroughly trained, both in the expectations of workplace conduct and their options for reporting violations.
Eli Veitzer, incoming president and CEO of Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles, said his organization has a zero-tolerance policy for harassment and holds annual mandatory trainings for supervisors and staff, where they review complaint procedures and whistleblower policies.
“The challenge is to make sure the issue [of sexual harassment] remains in the forefront,” Veitzer said. “In order to address that, we don’t just train a new hire once and then forget about it. The way to do that is frequency of training.”
Maya Paley, director of advocacy and community engagement at the National Council for Jewish Women L.A. (NCJW/LA), said sexual harassment education is important in the workplace but also needs to start at a much earlier age.
Paley directs NCJW/LA’s program “The Talk Project,” which enables teenagers to conduct workshops at local schools about sexual assault and rape culture. Through her work, Paley said she’s heard many stories about sexual assault among teenagers at Jewish high schools and summer camps.
Paley said she thinks the Jewish community too often is shocked when a sexual predator happens to be a Jew, as is the case with Weinstein and Leon Wieseltier, the former editor of The New Republic, who apologized Oct. 24 after several women accused him of sexual harassment.
“The worst thing that the Jewish community could do after a story like Harvey Weinstein’s is to say that this is an isolated case and it doesn’t reflect our community,” Paley said. “[Our community] needs to take a hard look in the mirror.”
Rabbi Mark Dratch, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Council of America and creator of the anti-domestic violence website JSafe, said one challenge the Jewish community faces in addressing sexual violence is its minority status, which engenders a fear of tarnishing its reputation in the public eye. Further, the tight-knit nature of the Jewish community creates a reluctance to ruin the names or risk losing the financial support of prominent families.
Moreover, it’s important to note that the vast majority of institutional stakeholders with the power to hold predators accountable ultimately are men.
“We’re still living in a male-dominated Jewish community,” said Jay Sanderson, president and CEO of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. “We can talk around it and make excuses for it, but that is what it is. The way that Judaism is constructed and the way institutions have been led are built around that.”
Sanderson said Federation prioritizes empowering women and creating a clear path for women, LGBTQ individuals and other marginalized groups to achieve leadership positions at Jewish organizations.
By and large, though, it is Jewish women who hold up the mantle of supporting fellow Jewish women who face sexual harassment.
“When it comes to sexual assault, there’s been so much burden on women forever,” Paley said. “Let’s take the burden off of women. We are tired. We are exhausted.”
An earlier version of this post incorrectly indicated Rabbi Sarah Bassin spoke about being a victim of sexual assault.