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4 Critical Ways Jewish Institutions Can Learn From #MeToo

As #MeToo stories continue to emerge, we all seem to be uncertain about what to do next.

While very personal conversations about predators and prey will play out in the public sphere, I believe the public discourse must center not on the violent acts themselves, but on what allows the violence to happen: How men are socialized in ways which encourage perpetrating such acts and how women are socialized to expect, accept and be silent about them. In order to stop sexual violence in its tracks, we need to talk about power — and how power plays out in our beloved Jewish institutions.

Sexual violence thrives when power is unevenly distributed. Ultimately, #MeToo is a call to fix a deep wound that is a symptom of a much larger systemic disease: Men have privilege and the power that comes with it. The system can only change if men give some power up and women take some for ourselves.

What follows below is an exploration of how men and women, together, might accomplish that in our synagogues and communal institutions.

Step 1: Take A Look Around The Kitchen.

Kitchens are the heart of most Jewish institutions because food is one of the ways Jews do love.

When you serve food, who prepares it? Who serves it?

In my congregation, whoever is on the “oneg team,” those preparing the food we eat after services, miss the end of the service and often the sermon to set up the food. Kitchen work is often women’s work, and so taking on this responsibility means that the women are missing the opportunity to learn, be inspired or reflect on world events with their community.

Who Does The Cleaning Up?

So often, it is the women, trained as we are from early on by modelling our mothers, that we should excuse ourselves to the kitchen to let the menfolk talk. There is a sisterhood of dishwashers which is powerful. However, it takes our power and puts in the backroom and relegates it to the messy, the dirty, and the work of servitude to others. While this is of course incredibly holy work, it enforces a power structure that places women in the back of the spiritual and communal bus. Be careful here not to dismantle this sisterhood, but rather seek out ways to move it to the front of the house instead of hiding out in the back.

Cleaning is often called pink collar work. It is not always pretty and it says something about what you, as an institution, think about the groups your cleaning persons represent when you give them that job.

Step 2: Who Is Protecting Your Community?

Who wears the uniform outside the building at your events?

We live in a world where some people feel safer with a police or security presence stationed outside the door. This is often the first face that we see when entering our Jewish spaces. Whose face is it? Would you feel as safe with a female guard as a male guard? I am assuming that for many, the deep down, perhaps uncomfortable answer is “no.” So why not? The world tells us that women are not as strong as men. And while on average that may be true, anyone trained to wear the uniform, I hope, has the training and skills required to execute the duties demanded by the post. And if you are not so sure, perhaps it is time to find a different company to provide your security.

Who Steps In When The Unthinkable Happens?

A victim of harassment or assault is way more likely to speak up if they know that there is a system in place to care for them. A predator is less likely to predate if they know that your organization can and will respond in the face of inappropriate behavior.

If there is an incident of assault or harassment, do you have policies and procedures in place to protect all parties involved? Do you know what they are? Does your community know that they exist? A dusty dossier in a relic file cabinet is only powerful if everybody knows that it is out there.

Now that #MeToo is out there, consider shining a light in to that darkness to make sure there are no monsters lurking. In the conversations I am having with the men in my life that I trust, respect deeply and admire, I know that they are already thinking, reflecting, wondering if they have been a perpetrator of some form of violence against a woman. I get that this is possibly the scariest thing to consider. For many, the answer will honestly and thoughtfully be no. Thank you for looking. But please also consider how you benefit from your privilege because that privilege is the fertile soil within which danger flourishes. It is your bravery to look deeply as well as your trust that doing so may lead to deep healing that I am calling upon in you right now.

Step 3: Take A Look Around Your Synagogue

Who Has The Biggest Office?

I once worked in a large synagogue where the executive director, senior Rabbi, Director of Education, and First Assistant Rabbi were all (tall) men. All of the support staff were women. All of them. The best offices, the biggest offices, were all held by men. The small cubicles and smaller offices were occupied by women. It makes a statement. A bold one. Even though the clergy was comprised half of women and half of men, there was no parity in the spaces we held. Where are people sitting in your synagogue?

How Do You Address Women?

If you address men by their first names, also address women by their first names. And if you’re not sure, then ask the person to whom you are speaking — regardless of gender — what their preference is. You may learn something new.

Touch Requires Consent

Some people are accepting of hugs and kisses from others, and some are not. Just ask. It’s this simple: “May I give you a hug? May I put my hand on your shoulder?” Even if you have done so before, it is good to ask. Every time. In 2015, the British police released a video known as Tea Consent. The idea is this, you would not assume someone would want a cup of tea without asking them first. So why would we assume this about touching, hugging or any other act of physical intimacy? It may feel awkward and uncomfortable to put these words in our mouths and that’s ok. Better to feel socially awkward than risk violating someone’s boundaries, right?

Respect Every “No”

I once heard someone say, “I wish there was a code or a safe word to let people know that something is uncomfortable.” There is a code. It is just one word: No.

But for such a little word, it is super hard to say. The fear of backlash and retaliation often looms large. The fear of offending and rocking the boat is real. We are not told it is ok to say no. We are told to “go hug Uncle Leon” even when we are clearly indicating we don’t want to. It is all very complicated. So this is the place where we, the sexes, needed to come together. Women, we need to be brave and speak up and use our voices. Men, if you witness something that looks uncomfortable, say something. If you feel uncomfortable, say something. Wishing, hoping, ignoring and pretending will not make the discomfort go away. But naming it will. Which starts with a simple “no.”

Who gets airtime?

When in a teaching or interactive setting, women (and introverts) are often less likely to raise their hands, sit at the front of the room or barge into conversations. Men will often blurt out without being called on, interrupt when someone else is speaking, or speak for a longer period of time. Be mindful of this dynamic and note your role in it. Are you asking everyone to be mindful of their airtime and their manners along with you? Are you BOTH encouraging women to speak up AND encouraging men to step down? Please do both. If you only ask women to speak more without asking men to speak less, you are missing out on the power dynamics at play.

Step 4: Take A Look Inside The Sanctuary

Who Controls The Torah?

I was 41 years old the first time I did hagbah, the lifting of the Torah after it has been read publicly. Just as I went to raise the Torah up, I realized I was heart-shakingly nervous. Sweaty palms, short breath. I looked at the person leading the service, to whom I will eternally be grateful for this moment of opportunity, and with some shock said, I have never done this before. I am very athletic, very strong, very capable of lifting a Torah. I have been an active participant in Torah-reading communities pretty much all of my life. I believe I have never-until-now-been asked because I am a woman and Torah lifting is man’s work. Next time you are orchestrating a prayer service or the lighting of Shabbat candles or the recitation of blessings over wine, consider who you are asking and the messages that sends to those around you.

Who Are The Biblical Heroes?

When we teach Jewish texts, women are often missing. We are not talked about in the same way as men, if we are talked about at all. Name it. Point it out to people. There is no reason to be ashamed of this. It is a truth of a (hopefully) bygone era. Also, make sure it is actually true. While the 9th century may not have women writing very much, the modern age does. If you live in a world which uses texts, look specifically for texts written by and for women.

Who Do You Quote?

If you quote someone when you write an article, give a talk, or offer a sermon, whose voice are you borrowing? Do you favor one gender over another? Is there a way to add missing voices in to your own?

Who is on your bookshelf? When you look at your book collection or, perhaps more importantly, when others look at your book collection, who do they see? Do you keep women on your shelf? Do you read them?

Does Your Language Have A Bias?

Foreign languages like Hebrew are often gendered. But English has its own biases as well. MANkind, foreMAN and other words show something about how we conceive of the world. Also know that BOTH Miriam AND Webster are men. This means that the power for defining the words we use is in the hands of men. Can you feminize or neutralize some words?

And then here is the big one…How do you talk about God? Do you defer to the male pronoun he? Mix and match different genders? Talk about your process for how you come to your decisions about describing the “Master of the Universe” and “Our Father, Our King?”

Power Privilege and Play

Power is not just about who sits in the C-suite. Even if the board of directors is 50-50 male/female, it does not necessarily mean that power is evenly distributed. Traditional power structures are hierarchical. They are traditionally male run and male created. Power is based on authority, wealth and position. This is a “male” model for power. The “female” model is power as relationship. These power structures are built on the power of numbers, loyalty, connection, shared values or experiences. This is a way in which women have and create power. How an organization is structured is just as important as who runs it. Decision by committee or decisions by fiat? By creating power structures where relationship and diversity of opinion is valued, you inherently level the playing the field. And, truthfully, organizations which are more relational are generally more successful.

Power, and the privileges it brings, begins in childhood. As boy and girls, we are socialized to relate in these ways which is why I have named them as “male” and “female”. Often, boys play games of winners and losers (King of the mountain). Often girls play games of inclusion and relationship (house). These foundational experiences are a mix of expectation, modeling and affinity. It begins here. Socialization introduces biases towards what “male” and “female” do and do not mean. Knowing these truths about our society are powerful ways to dismantle them.

We also learn early on what masculinity and femininity look like. For women, we have three choices; “the good girl” who is liked but not respected, “the bitch” who is respected but not liked and “the whore” who is used-generally speaking she is also neither liked nor respected. These are incredibly awful choices.

Men seem to have one choice-strong and powerful. It might be physical, intellectual, financial, athletic or sexual prowess. But if you don’t have it, you are labelled a “girl.” How demeaning for everyone. And now, after a lifetime of being told to be this John Wayne thing, for better or for worse, suddenly that ideal is dissolving. Men are suddenly left adrift. In this moment of identity free-fall, what can the new masculinity look like? How will you redefine what being a man means in this world today?

We are all in this together. In America right now, we are focusing on the silencing, objectification, harassment, sexualization and abuse of women, usually, but not always, by men. Making a real change begins with looking at the spaces we know most intimately and asking ourselves how and where we can do better.

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