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Tuesday, August 4, 2020

Virtual Conference Calls for Safety, Respect, Equity in Jewish Spaces

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Esther D. Kustanowitz
Esther D. Kustanowitz is a Contributing Writer at the Jewish Journal. She previously was the Founding Editor at GrokNation.com. She is an experienced freelance writer and consultant specializing in social media, pop culture, grief and Jewish community conversation. She is frequently sought-after as a source on social media engagement and culture, and is known as a Jewish community social influencer.

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When Elana Wien came aboard as Safety Respect Equity (SRE) Network’s first executive director in November 2019, she undertook a multi-month listening tour with stakeholders in Jewish workplaces about their attitudes and efforts toward gender equity. To change systemic inequity and eradicate sexual harassment and gender-based discrimination, she concluded, required honest, in-person conversations. At the time, SRE — designed as a national Jewish network mobilized to create safe, respectful and equitable workplaces and communal spaces — was planning to convene for the third time. But then the pandemic hit.

So, SRE held a virtual conference titled Shelter from the Storm on June 8, which was attended by more than 230 people from more than 54 cities in five countries, representing 133 organizations. According to the organizers, the vast majority self-identified as white women, about 30 as men and four as gender nonconforming. 

While a few sessions were prerecorded, the event consisted mostly of live keynotes, facilitated sessions and breakout spaces to talk about gender justice and creating safer, more respectful and more equitable Jewish spaces. Attendees interacted on a platform called Whova, and a code of conduct was circulated in advance to set the norms for the gathering, including refraining from demeaning, discriminatory or harassing behavior and speech. And because of the current elevated awareness of systemic racism and racial equality activism, several of the sessions reflected content relating to that topic.

“As tired as people are with all the Zoom virtual convening and as overwhelming as this moment is, the fact that we had more than 230 people over two days is a testament to the hunger people have for more connection with each other, and to create some sort of compass together to make a better future,” Wien said.

“Our Jewish communal organizations, just like those outside our community, still struggle with these issues as we strive to do better,” said Margalit Rosenthal, the director of the West Coast Region for Foundation for Jewish Camp, an SRE grantee. She said the Jewish community needs to lead in SRE efforts “regardless of race, religious background, gender identity or other markers.” She added that, with a disproportionately large percentage of the Jewish workforce identifying as women, downsizing and furloughs will likely affect women disproportionately. “Workplace culture reflects our institutions’ values, and our values should dictate our governance, philanthropic policies and how we operate both in the Jewish community and outside of it,” she said.

In a session titled “Wrestling with Repair: Teshuva, Restorative Justice and Holding Ourselves Accountable at the Intersections,” Jewish Social Justice Roundtable Racial Justice Director April Baskin said, “There’s a profound need for healing and repair in society in general.” She added her work helps people “build metaphorical musculature, a practice of regularly engaging and taking courageous action, acknowledging shevirah (brokenness), teshuvah (apology) and tikkun (healing).”

She continued, “We’re talking about systemic oppression, whether it’s around sexism and male dominance or racism. Oppression hurts everyone involved. It hurts the targeted community the most but also is incredibly dehumanizing and creates long-term damage in a way that hurts the non-targeted group as well.” 

Recent protests and violence are “tied back to a fundamental profound harm that has never been reconciled,” she added.

“All of us are capable of causing harm and all of us have experienced harm. We are all survivors of something,” said Alissa Ackerman, professor of criminal justice, sex crimes expert and restorative justice facilitator at Cal State Fullerton, during the session. “We need to take all of our relationships seriously, envision ourselves as connected and recognize that our words and actions impact other people and, when we impact them in a harmful way, you have to be responsible for that.” 

Baskin also emphasized connection, urging attendees to understand that “we’re all interconnected, members of a multiracial Jewish community.”

In the same session, author Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg shared her rendering of repentance according to Maimonides, outlining “five steps with some nuance” ranging from public confession and acknowledgment of harm through a victim-centered process of making amends, apologizing before witnesses and making different choices next time.

After the event, Ackerman told the Journal the idea of casting out someone who has inflicted harm is “totally understandable,” but, she added, “simply casting people out doesn’t actually reduce the harm and doesn’t teach anyone the behavior is wrong.” Instead, she said, “it puts everybody on the defensive.” 

“[It’s] a conversation that hasn’t happened on that level in the Jewish community,” Wien said afterward. “How do we take the next step toward developing some kind of a framework that helps heal those who have been directly impacted with the people involved taking responsibility and building a stronger community?”

“A way of being in solidarity with this network is to be there, in conversation and listening to a variety of people, because we’re all in this together,” said Aaron Henne, artistic director of Theater Dybbuk, who attended the first day and led a session on storytelling. 

Wien added that part of the challenge is that in both spaces, defining allyship is complicated. “We’re trying to move toward a future that none of us have actually experienced yet,” she said. “It’s one thing to say as a white ally that you’re committed to eliminating black oppression, but what privileges would you give up for that? It’s a powerful question that points to the unknown. And I think it’s the same thing for gender equity. It will also look like a different world that we haven’t yet experienced.” 

The event was “not about perfection or having the answers or top 10 tips [for allyship] but having the space for dialogue,” Wien said. “And there’s so much more work to be done.” 

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