Breaking the silence for Jewish women

It is true that nonprofits are known for having rag-tag HR and mismanagement, but the group which disproportionately pays the price for that is often women.

A placard with the hashtag '#MeToo' is seen on the desk of a European Parliament member during a debate in October 2017.  (photo credit: CHRISTIAN HARTMANN/REUTERS)
A placard with the hashtag '#MeToo' is seen on the desk of a European Parliament member during a debate in October 2017.
In the last few years there has been a tremendous cultural push, particularly in the West, to fight back against sexual harassment and sexism in the workplace. Unfortunately, the #MeToo movement and the awareness that came with it does not seem to have had the same impact on the non-profit sector.
Having spent a decade working and volunteering with a variety of Jewish non-profits, I know all too well just how badly we need to change the way we approach these issues. Whether as a result of inadequate human resources, mismanagement or an aversion to “airing dirty laundry” for fear of backlash against the cause, Jewish non-profits have a massive problem on their hands. There is a toxic culture of silence for women who work in Jewish non-profits, and if it is not addressed soon, it will continue to harm and affect not only important Jewish organizations today, but also the future leaders of Jewish non-profits (male or female).
With the rise of prominent women’s movements and an increasing number of whistleblowers on issues of sexual harassment across industries, Jewish organizations have been quick to portray themselves as “pro-women” in public. Yet reality paints a different picture. According to Leading Edge’s 2019 survey of Jewish non-profits, 64% of employees are female yet only 43% of Jewish non-profit executives are female.
What are these Jewish organizations doing to actually promote feminism or gender equality? Do they have equal pay for women? Do they hold trainings and educate their staff about what sexual harassment is and how to deal with it? Are they promoting women and uplifting them as professionals the same way as men? Do they value the opinions of their female employees the same way they do their male employees? Even more important, when faced with complaints from employees, are they taken seriously? When a woman in a Jewish non-profit experiences sexual harassment, is it dealt with appropriately or is it swept under the rug?
A complicating factor in the Jewish world is that much of the top-level leadership does not take the recommendations of younger generations to heart. The Jewish world is small, and attitudes about how things are done and innovative approaches are frequently shut down in favor of the old school way. Unfortunately, the old-school way usually brings with it old-school attitudes about what type of comments are appropriate toward women – be they comments about maternity, physical appearance, or condescending quips about professional performance. As a result, women of any age who raise concerns about sexist attitudes are often crudely dismissed or labeled as “difficult” by disproportionately male-dominated leadership.
The problem is even further exacerbated by the fact that the culture is so unhealthy in many non-profits that women are afraid to report or complain when they are mistreated for fear of repercussions. Leading Edge’s survey reported there is “strong fear of reporting among victims” and that “victims report that the majority of responses to their disclosures have been harmful – often causing secondary victimization or trauma.”
THIS CULTURE of silence exists in any industry, but even more so in Jewish non-profits precisely because it’s such a small community. If a woman comes forward and the organization does not support her, the ramifications can span far beyond her current workplace and she could be blacklisted in the entire industry. Sadly, you see the same trends in political campaigns such as what occurred with the Bernie Sanders campaign in 2016.
Putting the loyalty to a cause above the well-being of employees occurs at the executive level as well. There is a logical, but inexcusable, reluctance at the executive level to expose and deal with both sexual harassment and gender bias. Many executives at Jewish organizations (whether female or male) are more concerned with pleasing donors and fulfilling the organizational mission than they are with promoting the health and professional growth of their employees. Look no further than the story of Sheila Katz, who was sexually harassed repeatedly by mega-donor Michael Steinhardt. Instead of unequivocally coming out against his behavior, many Jewish leaders minimized Steinhardt’s actions (fortunately for her not her workplace).
When we allow this toxic cycle to continue, it means women are taught not to stand up for themselves, and that a cause is more important than their dignity. It teaches their co-workers that this is an acceptable way to be treated, and it also teaches women and men that those who do speak up will be ostracized. The culture in many Jewish non-profits perpetuates sexist norms: “Don’t be difficult, don’t argue too much, look pretty,” and so on.
It is true that non-profits are known for having rag-tag HR and mismanagement, but the group which disproportionately pays the price for that is often women. Instead of recognizing this as a community and prioritizing a healthy work environment where employees can speak openly and receive sexual harassment education, most Jewish non-profits would rather not be bothered. No one likes to admit they have a problem with gender bias today, but instead of exposing it and rooting it out, we are covering it up and putting lipstick on it with our hypocritical outrage at the antisemitism within movements like the Women’s March. As Jewish professionals, we should be above this.
Jewish leaders have not only the power but an obligation to our communities to take a progressive approach in dealing with gender inequality. It is the job of such leaders to foster a community where employees feel safe reporting and speaking about issues of sexism – and when they do, leaders should be ready to believe and stand up for all employees. Instead of engaging in “whataboutism” on issues of feminism, it’s time for accountability in Jewish non-profits. The glass ceiling doesn’t just prevent us from climbing the ladder of success; sometimes it prevents us from being heard at all. It’s time, even in Jewish non-profits, to break both.
The writer is the CEO of Social Lite Creative, a boutique digital marketing firm.