The Jewish community believes itself to be prepared to stand by victims of sexual assault and harassment — and yet lacks the communal and individual repentance that must pave the way for creating safe and responsive spaces. Yes, victims should be encouraged to share their narratives when they are ready. But in the meantime, the Jewish community needs to do more than wait to listen.
Recently, I was interviewed by a journalist who asked if I, a rabbi, have had a #metoo experience. I described one incident minimally, emphasizing that I would not share more details. The reporter then wanted to talk about my organization’s work in the #metoo space, especially a recent private webinar in which rabbis shared their #metoo narratives. I listed all of our various efforts, but this journalist, like others, wanted to record those stories shared by our rabbis. When I explained that this information is confidential, the interview turned into an outright debate. The reporter was well meaning, but frustrated, seeking hard evidence from first person accounts of sexual harassment in the Jewish community in order to bring justice to the victims. Noting that actresses in Hollywood are speaking out, the reporter lamented that women in the Jewish community are too scared to tell their stories. Those Hollywood women are certainly brave, but they also have power, money and followers. The silence of women is not unique to the Jewish community, rather it is ubiquitous throughout our entire society. Women continue to fear speaking out, because of judgment and retribution. Many have already reported these incidents only to have no justice.
The Jewish community must do better than saying we are finally ready to listen. Rather than demanding that victims tell their narratives, the community must admit the other side of the story. What if every major Jewish institution came forward describing times when victims spoke out and those in power dismissed or diminished their truths? What if those leaders admitted to thinking about liability rather than culpability? What if the bystanders who said nothing as they watched women being bullied, harassed or undermined, sought repentance for enabling a culture in which abuse could take place? What if after every gathering in the Jewish community, we announced, “if you have been made to feel uncomfortable or unsafe in this community, we want to know about it,” and actually provided a process for reporting such incidents?
We need to shift the responsibility from victims to the community and ultimately to transgressors. Somewhere in this rush for truth we seem to have lost the important understanding that the victims were hurt once before. Do not victimize them again by blaming them for the lack of progress. We do not speak out because the community is not equipped to respond. Prove that our institutions and individuals are willing to ask for teshuva, repentance, for not taking claims seriously in the past and even willfully ignoring them in order to protect organizations or perpetrators; recognize that the process of reporting harassment has been broken and needs to be rebuilt; ensure that there is going to appropriate pastoral, psychological, and legal support for victims; stymie retribution so that victims do not need to choose between voicing their truths or maintaining their personal and professional status in our community. Then we can honestly declare, “נַעֲשֶׂה וְנִשְׁמָע we will do and we will listen.” (Exodus 24:7)