After sexual harassment allegations against its co-founder broke into public view last year, the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance commissioned an investigation into itself.
Now, 14 months later, the investigation is complete — and the third-party law firm hired to complete it has verified the actions that underlay the allegations but concluded that JOFA met its legal requirements in addressing them.
The independent investigation marks a turning point in a painful chapter for the Orthodox feminist organization. The group was upended last year when Bat Sheva Marcus, a prominent sex therapist and one of its founders, revealed in an essay that she had been investigated and forced to resign as board chair due to allegations of workplace harassment. Marcus claimed the allegations reflected “lighthearted remarks” that were blown out of proportion, but those making the allegations said her comments harmed them and hindered their ability to do their jobs.
Although JOFA had already responded to the allegations internally, it commissioned an external review of its past and practices amid questions about whether a group founded to disrupt oppressive gender dynamics ended up reinforcing them. The law firm, Cozen O’Connor, has a unit devoted to helping organizations prevent and better respond to sexual abuse.
Conclusions of the review
Released Wednesday, the review concludes that all of the allegations aired publicly last year were true. But after interviews with 31 people and unfettered access to documents and communications related to JOFA, the report’s authors said they found no other evidence of wrongdoing.
Still, the report says, the group did not live up to its values during the period ending in 2018 during which two executive directors said they were subjected to sexual harassment and inadequate responses to their concerns. Improvements have been made subsequently, the report says.
“Cozen O’Connor found that Jofa’s responses to their reports were aligned with legal requirements and effective practices in place at the time, but that there was more Jofa could have done in each instance to communicate care and concern for the impacted individuals,” states the report, written by two attorneys who are former sex and child abuse prosecutors.
The review attributes some of the problems to “immature policies, practices, and governance considerations” that are no longer in place now that JOFA has grown and changed some of its internal operations. The report recommends additional changes, including that the group conduct annual sexual harassment prevention training for both employees and board members, and that it consider more frequent changes to the board’s composition in order “to encourage the infusion of new voices, perspectives, and ideas.” Its board says it plans to follow the recommendations.
The crisis has unfolded at a moment when JOFA’s role is uncertain. Its first conference, in 1997, was a landmark moment for Orthodox feminists at a time when women had few opportunities for leadership in Orthodox congregations and communities. But in recent years, the group’s significance has waned as the space it initially carved out has both expanded and grown more crowded.
The investigators did not speak to the two former executive directors whose accusations triggered changes at JOFA and distancing by some of its allies last year. According to the report, the women had declined repeated invitations, “citing their concerns about the impartiality and neutrality given that Cozen O’Connor had been hired by Jofa, and that individuals whose actions they believed to be the subject of the review were still active Board members.”
The two executive directors made their identities and allegations public after Marcus’ essay. Elana Sztokman, who ran the group from 2012 to 2014, said she had been fired the same day she wrote a letter to JOFA’s board saying that Marcus “had been emotionally abusive for over a year.”
The review did not seek to answer whether one of Sztokman’s complaints, that Marcus had given her an unsolicited vibrator, constituted sexual harassment. It found that JOFA’s board did not have a legal responsibility to respond to the allegation when she made it publicly because she was no longer working there. But the report added that the board had missed an opportunity to improve its culture by not reaching out to her.
Sztokman’s successor, Sharon Weiss-Greenberg, led the group from 2014 to 2018. She said that she, too, had been subjected to what she said was workplace harassment and that her efforts to press the group’s board to respond had not yielded satisfactory responses.
“I was trying to help them do the right thing the whole time,” Weiss-Greenberg told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency last year.
“There’s a #MeToo journal that JOFA did,” she said in that interview, referring to the movement to counter sexual misconduct that began in 2017. “Part of me thought that if we were writing about behaviors that were happening in our own home, we would wake up to it. I was wrong.”
Both women said they had not gone public before Marcus’ essay because of non-disclosure agreements that JOFA required them to sign. The agreements have become controversial in recent years amid growing discussion of the prevalence and costs of workplace harassment and abuse. Amid the flurry of public scrutiny last year, JOFA released all past and present employees from NDAs.
Regrets over the situation
Several board members said they regretted not apologizing to Sztokman, the Cozen O’Connor report says, and on Wednesday, the group’s current leaders again apologized for JOFA’s handling of the women’s criticism in the past.
“We acknowledge that our attention to our former executive directors’ well-being did not comport with the culture that we seek for our staff and organization, and for that we are sorry,” the group’s current board president, Mindy Feldman Hecht, and executive director, Daphne Lazar Price, said in a letter sent to the JOFA community on Wednesday.
Hecht and Price wrote, “We are committed to remaining a positive and formidable force for feminism and to continuing to partner with you to create a more vibrant and equitable Orthodox community.”
Weiss-Greenberg told JTA on Wednesday that she hoped the report and episode would prove to be useful to the Jewish nonprofit sector.
“I’m hopeful that hard lessons have been learned across the nonprofit Jewish community that workplaces must be safe places,” she said after the report was issued. “All employees deserve a safe place to work.”
After the uproar last year, the group was suspended from the Safety Respect Equity Network, a Jewish advocacy group focused on workplace safety issues that counts about 150 organizations in its fold. The network said it would now readmit JOFA.
“SRE Network appreciates that Jofa has committed to implementing the recommendations set forth in the report,” it said in a statement. “We believe these steps will strengthen Jofa and community trust in the organization moving forward.”