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It’s Not Just Steinhardt. Jewish Organizations Keep Sacrificing Women

In the wake of a New York Times article outlining a pattern of sexual harassment by Jewish philanthropist and billionaire Michael Steinhardt, two of the women named in the article have written about their experiences. Rachel Sabath and Sheila Katz both wrote about feeling belittled and disrespected by Steinhardt’s sexual comments and propositions to them in what was supposed to be a professional context. They described their feelings of being turned into tools for his own gratification as well as for his understanding of Jewish continuity as the production of Jewish babies.

Katz and Sabath are right: The human dignity of women has been ignored, not just by Steinhardt but by many Jewish organizations as well.

Because the reality is that many Jewish organizations rely on gender inequity, whether wittingly or not, to carry out their otherwise altruistic missions. And in so doing, they have turned Jewish women into a means to an end, reducing them to the instruments of Jewish organizational life, instead of its goal.

It’s not just anecdotal evidence either which demonstrates this point, though there is certainly enough of that to go around.

Sociologist Tobin Belzer has conducted longitudinal qualitative research on the cultures of Jewish organizations. Her forthcoming report from the Center for Religion and Civic Culture at University of Southern California details that many of the Gen X workers she interviewed feel alienated in their jobs and from the Jewish community as a whole. They described Jewish organizational culture as “a self-sustaining monster.”

Interviewees pointed out the gender discrimination within the organizations, in which men were paid more, had greater access to promotions, and did not have to endure comments and questions about their marital or parental status the way women employees did.

The organizations’ leaders recognized that they had fostered a negative work environment, but, one interviewee remarked, relied on the “expectation that people will tolerate stuff because it’s for the community.”

In other words, the organization’s unspoken policy was that the community should benefit at the expense of the few women who worked under inequitable conditions.

The same principle is evident in the accounts of the women Steinhardt harassed. According to the New York Times, Steinhardt denigrated women specifically, and the women interviewed for the story felt that their employers expected them to go along with it in order to avoid jeopardizing access to Steinhardt’s wealth.

As former chief executive of Birthright Shimson Shoshani put it in the New York Times, ”Even if there were some comments, about sex, about women, I wouldn’t take it seriously,” because “he made important decisions in other areas concerning Birthright.”

Belzer’s interviewees also noted that their employers expected them to “keep [funders] happy,” even though “[f]unders are very manipulative in the Jewish world.”

And it wasn’t only along gender lines. Belzer’s interviewees said that they “muzzle” themselves about their opinions about Israel to avoid “pissing off the funders.” In this respect, employees generally were expected to demonstrate submissiveness to funders.

To be fair, relationships between Jewish organizations, workers, and funders are not always so fraught. My own professional work benefits from a funder: I hold a professorship endowed by a donor whom I genuinely like and respect, who treats me with kindness, and with whom I generally see eye-to-eye.

Some of Belzer’s respondents likewise had more positive relationships with their funders. In such cases, all involved can feel like they are part of the same team, and no one’s interests have to be sacrificed to serve the greater good.

And yet, the approach that prioritizes the community’s good over care for individuals is all too rampant, evident not only in many Jewish organizations’ expectations of their employees, but also in the discourse and research surrounding Jewish continuity itself.

Promoting conversion in order to lower the rate of intermarriage, for example, focuses on the desired outcome — more Jews — without particular regard for the individuals affected. It uses each prospective convert as a tool for increasing the number of Jews.

Likewise, enormous energy is invested in determining the most efficient way to ensure Jewish continuity without particular concern for the content of the Jewishness that is thereby continued.

It is a painful irony that so many Jewish organizations devalue the very women who are working for the greater good of the community. Jewish ethics holds that anonymous giving is the highest form of tzedakah. This idea may not have been developed to advance gender equality, but contemporary adherence to it could solve at least one problem of gender inequity in Jewish organizations.

Dr. Jennifer A. Thompson is the Maurice Amado Professor of Applied Jewish Ethics and Civic Engagement in the Jewish Studies Interdisciplinary Program at California State University, Northridge

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