Placing People Above Policy: Sexual Misconduct in Jewish Spaces
If you look around this chapel, or any room with people that you find yourself in, you can assume that you are among survivors of sexual assault and harassment. In this room, I can guarantee it, because I am one of them.
According to the CDCs Division of Violence Prevention, as of 2015, approximately 1 in 5 women, and 1 in 14 men in the United States reported a completed or attempted rape at some point in their lifetime.
Growing up, I remember hearing stories about sexual assault and harassment in other faith communities, and even in some Jewish denominations, but I never fathomed that it would be a part of our story too. I believed that as modern, progressive Jews we were somehow immune to this sort of transgression. Of course this optimism was naive. In my early twenties, while interning for a child advocacy center, working to combat child sexual assault, I learned how many children face sexual abuse. I began to understand that with such devastating statistics, no community could be entirely safe from predators.
In parsha, Lech Lecha, Abram and Sari are following God’s directions to an unknown land. Early in their journey there was a famine in the Negev, so they made their way to Egypt in order to survive. Assuming that the Egyptians would kill him for his wife, Abram begged Sarai to masquerade as his sister. Sari was taken to the Pharaoh by his attendants, and in exchange for their safe passage, the Pharaoh had his way with her.
This scene in Lech Lecha is often dismissed by saying ‘Abram had no choice,’ and ‘he did what he had to in order to survive.’ Maybe it's true that they would have been killed if they told the truth, but it was still a choice that he made.
We don’t know if Sari had a choice because her voice is missing from this story. We know that her husband begged her. We know that she was taken to the Pharaoh by his attendants. We know that Abram was rewarded and they were set free. We know that God retaliated against the Pharaoh. Yet we have no idea how Sari reacted. Was she scared? Did she fight back or was she compliant? How was she when she returned to Abram? Did they ever speak of it again? We won't ever know how she suffered that day, or in her many years that followed. Or how their marriage, which guided our people’s story, was affected by this trauma.
Sari’s silence is synonymous with the silence of many sexual assault victims today. Their voices and their stories go unheard for so many reasons. For some it is too painful to revisit those moments. Others are encouraged or intimidated into keeping quiet. Some worry about retribution in the forms of job loss, shame, and fear of further abuse. Some do not survive to tell their story.
In March of this year, reports about sexual misconduct - of and by clergy working in Reform Jewish institutions were exposed in the press. We learned about female clergy who were harassed by their male clergy counterparts, and by board members. We heard about male clergy harassing and assaulting members of their congregations. It was even uncovered that a former teacher of our college engaged in an ongoing, non-consensual, sexual relationship with a female student of his synagogue. With these actions gone unchecked, he was later appointed President of HUC-JIR.
In response to this story, the Women's Rabbinic Network declared: “For almost fifty years, the Reform Movement has been ordaining and failing its female-identified rabbis and others from marginalized groups. Now is the moment for our movement to prove that our future will be different than our past. Now is the moment for deep reflection leading to meaningful and lasting change to ensure that people of all genders, sexual orientations, races, and abilities will be safe and respected within Reform Jewish spaces. We believe that our movement and its institutions have the obligation and the ability to bring meaningful healing and profound change to Reform Judaism and to the Jewish world.”
Soon after, the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) released a statement announcing that they, along with HUC-JIR and the CCAR had secured separate, independent law firms to investigate claims of sexual harassment and assault over the past many years. For several months these investigations went on. Survivors were asked to come forward and speak with these lawyers to share their stories. While the promise of confidentiality through the law firm was helpful, it could not shield survivors from the pain that comes every time we share our stories and relive our trauma.
As a community, we owe a significant debt of gratitude to the survivors who have come forward both publicly and privately. I am grateful that our movement's major institutions responded by acknowledging the problem and beginning to address it, but these investigations have only scratched the surface of what our community needs from its leadership.
From my own experience, and from conversations with colleagues, I am confident in stating that these abuses are not only a problem of our past, but also a problem of our present, and likely one of our future. The only way we can survive the painful parts of our personal and communal stories is by facing them directly and actively working to repair what is broken.
While collecting stories and data that will help shape future policy of these institutions is a necessary and important step of this process, it is just that, one step. Our process of repairing what is broken should go far beyond changing policies.
Mishnah teaches, “One who injures another person is liable on five counts: for the damage caused, for the pain inflicted, for support of the healing process, compensation for lost time, and amends for humiliation caused.” From this we can learn that when a member of our community is harmed by another, we should ensure that they have support, access to the necessary resources, the ability to comfortably and safely attend community functions, and in the best case scenario a path to justice.
Our Sages teach that God can not atone for sins between humans. Rather, one can only gain forgiveness once they have offered sincere and direct apologies to the individuals harmed. Institutions and individuals who have caused harm along the way, knowingly or unknowingly, should take full and public responsibility for their actions, and seek direct forgiveness from those who were harmed.
Sometimes we don’t pay attention to what happens in our own community when we think it doesn’t affect us, but this affects all of us. Our community is not a set of binaries: victims vs perpetrators. We each have a role to play in the healing fabric that creates a safer world for survivors. We cannot continue to delay addressing the healing process while we wait for policies to change.
I urge our leaders at every level to place the wellbeing of our people, individually and collectively, at the forefront of this issue. The longevity of our movement will not be determined by institutional policy, but by how we care for each other and the most vulnerable among us.
I would like to see community leaders take action by creating spaces for healing within our schools, our synagogues, and our professional institutions. I envision this space of healing to serve those abused within our community, those abused outside of our community, and those who have lost trust in our community after observing the abuses of others.
We could develop support groups in synagogues and Jewish Community Centers. We could start an anonymous hotline staffed with trauma-informed experts.We could create matching programs to connect survivors for peer support.
We could. We should. And together we will.
Delivered on Shabbat, October 16, 2021.