For women in Jewish fundraising, harassment is an occupational hazard

For women in Jewish fundraising, harassment is an occupational hazard

From left: Philanthropist Barbara Dobkin; Deborah Meyer, the founder and CEO of Moving Traditions; Rabbi Joanna Samuels, executive of the Manny Cantor Center; and Rabbi Mira Beth Wasserman, director of Center for Jewish Ethics at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College speaking at a town hall meeting in New York on sexual harassment in the Jewish community on January 25, 2018. (Aimee Rubensteen/JWFNY)
From left: Philanthropist Barbara Dobkin; Deborah Meyer, the founder and CEO of Moving Traditions; Rabbi Joanna Samuels, executive of the Manny Cantor Center; and Rabbi Mira Beth Wasserman, director of Center for Jewish Ethics at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College speaking at a town hall meeting in New York on sexual harassment in the Jewish community on January 25, 2018. (Aimee Rubensteen/JWFNY)

She was young, Jewish, and the founder of a nonprofit organization that aids deprived children in Southeast Asia. He was a potential funder more than twice her age, promising donations and introductions to influential people.

“He dangled a lot of carrots,” she said.

But the fundraiser, who spoke on condition that she not be named for fear of jeopardizing future professional prospects, received no donations from the man who had promised so much. Instead he stroked her thigh, propositioned her, belittled her, and at their first and only meeting gave her gifts, like a bracelet, more appropriate for a mistress. More than two years later, he continues to leave suitor-like messages from ever-changing phone numbers.

They initially connected through a Jewish group that matches donors and causes. When the founder reported the incident to a leader there, it was brushed off, she said. Today she has had many more experiences like that working in the Jewish nonprofit world and frequently declines private meetings with male potential funders — “leaving money on the table,” she said. She said it has significantly diminished the number of children her organization can help.

Similar experiences at a prominent Israel-related nonprofit left her disillusioned with the way sexual harassment is handled, and recently she decided to step back from working in the Jewish nonprofit world altogether.

From in-person town hall-style gatherings to online testimonials, female fundraisers working in the Jewish world are sharing similar stories of harassment. A closed Facebook group urging women to share their experiences is called #GamAni, the Hebrew translation of #MeToo. It now has 590 members.

To be sure, the issue is not limited to the Jewish or nonprofit spheres — the #MeToo moment started in October with Harvey Weinstein’s outing as an alleged serial sexual harasser and abuser in Hollywood, which quickly led to a cascade of allegations against men in the media, politics, and other for-profit and nonprofit organizations. In many cases those allegations resulted in the men either resigning or being fired. The issue affects women at every level in every industry, experts say, but especially those who are vulnerable because they are seeking career help, as in Hollywood; access, as in political lobbying, and donations, as in the nonprofit community.

Several people interviewed noted that unlike the Hollywood and media scandals, the accusers in the nonprofit world have neither the fame nor the professional security to put their names forward.

There are not yet any firm numbers about the prevalence of sexual harassment in nonprofit organizations, said Stacy Palmer, editor of the Chronicle of Philanthropy, which has commissioned a poll on the issue. Results are expected next month. So there is no way yet to know how the Jewish community compares to other faith-based or ethnic philanthropies.

But in the nonprofit field, “there are a lot of women in fundraising compared with men,” Palmer said. Studies “suggest as many of 75 percent of fundraisers are women, though at the top levels many men hold the top jobs. Among rank-and-file fundraisers it’s a very female job,” she said.

There is also a key difference between nonprofit and other fields: At the end of the day, in the nonproft world, donors hold nearly all the power. Most big-money donors are male. So are most CEOs. Women constitute less than 17 percent of chief executives in the Jewish nonprofit world, according to the Forward.

Those are reasons women cite as they say they will discuss their allegations privately but are not willing to go public with the name of the perpetrator — or even with their own names. The personal and professional risks are too great, they say, even if they now hold a senior position.

Earlier this month, the Jewish Week of New York reported on a list in circulation that names men involved in Jewish communal life who have been accused of sexual harassment or abuse over the years. Similar to the “Shitty Media Men” list that also gathered anonymous allegations, the Jewish list, which was seen by a dozen men and women who spoke with this reporter, was briefly public but quickly disappeared from view. No one who was interviewed say they know who created it.

Elana Sztokman, the author of three books about gender dynamics and a student at the Reform movement’s rabbinical school in Jerusalem, wrote on her blog about a male colleague who demanded that she protect a man on the secret list who had been accused by many women of being abusive. Sztokman wrote that the colleague, a rabbi who holds a “position of power in the Jewish world,” asked if she could use her connections to quash the list and protect the other highly visible man, someone who is frequently invited to keynote conferences and colloquia. Sztokman, who said she did not create the list but shared it at one point, declined.

“Does he understand how women who make accusations are cast as mentally unstable, as problematic, as not-team-players, as angry, as having a chip on their shoulder, as having an agenda, as unemployable?” she wrote of the man who pressured her. “He was so willing and eager to take all this time to help his friend keep his reputation. But when did he or anyone like him ever do that for women who experienced sexual abuse? Never.”

Rather than out accused sexual abusers, a growing number of female professional leaders and funders are taking a different tack — directing time and money to changing organizational culture. A preliminary group of 30 funders, organization heads, and abuse experts met in Washington, D.C., on January 29. Lisa Eisen, vice president of the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, organized the group. More people are now being invited into the effort, Eisen said, and working groups are being formed.

“There’s a great deal of interest in the funding community and Jewish community to make change,” she said. “We want to develop a communal pledge together with standards, a clearinghouse of resources, a focus on policies, procedures and training, awareness efforts, and reporting and investigation mechanisms.”

There also will be money for organizations to tap for work on sexual harassment and abuse.

“Short-, medium- and long-term change needs to happen,” Eisen said. “Our aim is to put a fund or funds together.”

Money already is being poured into other somewhat scattershot efforts: Webinars and in-person seminars are being run by groups ranging from the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance to the Reform movement’s Women’s Rabbinic Network. Training about handling and preventing sexual harassment is being held at some local Jewish federations and through Hillel International, among others.

Naomi Eisenberger, founding executive director of the Good People Fund, which funnels grant money to small grassroots nonprofits, organized a training for the heads of small- and medium-sized Jewish nonprofits in New York. Fran Sepler, an expert on workplace harassment who developed programs used by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, runs the training. She gave a workshop to leaders of a dozen Jewish groups in December. Registration has opened for a larger workshop starting in late April.

Though the $1,000 cost per organization is no small expense for small organizations, coordinators say there still is more demand than they can meet.

Eisenberger became aware of the prevalence of sexual harassment even before the Weinstein scandal broke, when a young woman whose organization gets money through the Good People Fund turned to her for advice about how she could respond to the sexual harassment she had faced. When Eisenberger approached larger, more-established Jewish organizations to see how they dealt with it, “I met a brick wall,” she said.

She circulated a survey in late 2016 to see how much of an issue harassment was. She hoped for 100 responses. When 180 arrived quickly, she realized it was a bigger issue than she had realized.

There is one group that is working to address the issue solely on the donor side of the equation — the Jewish Funders Network, which has some 1,800 grant-making members. JFN has been aware of the power disparity between funders and grantees for some time, as well as the abuses that too often arise from the donors’ sense of entitlement, president and CEO Andres Spokoiny said in an interview. But discussion within JFN’s board of directors ramped up when #MeToo began.

“Funders don’t have a code of ethics. It doesn’t exist,” Spokoiny said. “JFN understands situations of abuse, harassment and even assault within the context of power imbalances between funders and grantees.”

In addition to holding several member webinars, JFN recently added a chapter to its ethics guidelines on sexual harassment and abuse. And for the first time, JFN included language specific to the issue in a note to members before its annual conference, which will be held March 11 to 15 in Tel Aviv.

“We did it because we felt funders were not being sensitive” to the power imbalance between them and those who seek their donations, Spokoiny said.

While there is no way to know if these guidelines will bring about change, women are demonstrating a growing demand for space to air grievances and see that change happens.

At a January 25 town hall organized by the Jewish Women’s Foundation of New York, guest readers shared dozens of experiences submitted by women working in the Jewish community. Some 275 people filled the meeting room and more were on a waiting list, said Jamie Allen Black, the foundation’s executive director.

“My supervisor expressed empathy, helped intervene, and supported me through addressing issues with peers, but any instances with donors was shrugged off or defended,” read one testimony.

“As an intern, I told my boss what had occurred and she laughed and said, ‘Well, he gave $25,000 today, so you must have done something right,” read another.

According to a third: “One donor flat out told me donations were contingent on dating him.”

How Rhonda Abrams dealt with being sexually harassed has been the exception. Immediately after a donor made sexual advances, the 27-year-old director of the Hillel in Portland, Oregon, reported the incident to the chair of her board and to Hillel International.

Reaction came fast and strong. Her Hillel chapter board sent the donor, a man prominent in Portland’s small Jewish community, a strongly worded letter saying that his money was no longer wanted and warning him to stay away from Abrams. The CEO of Hillel International, Eric Fingerhut, called her immediately. Within days, the head of Hillel’s human resources department had flown in so they could both meet with leaders of Portland’s Jewish federation. The federation quickly gathered leaders of local Jewish groups to think about ways to address sexual harassment, and assigned three staffers to develop policies and protocols.

A week after she was harassed, Abrams published a powerful essay in JTA about her experience.

Abrams’ coming forward also accelerated work on sexual harassment policies at Hillel International, said Mimi Kravetz, its chief talent officer. Hillel has a network of 180 chapters serving 550 North American college campuses. The organization updated its employee handbook and distributed it to Hillel’s 1,200 staff members worldwide — many are recent college graduates. It also sent out information on how staffers should protect themselves and others from sexual harassment, and how to report it. The organization ran an online town hall in which staffers shared their experiences, and by next month will have run three training sessions.

Abrams said she received phone calls and emails from “every single senior woman” working at Hillel International “offering support and praise for the way I handled it.

“Locally and beyond, the community has been so supportive,” she said. “I want people to know how positive the reaction has been, and that you don’t have to keep silent. If I can publicly say what happened to me and not be afraid, my hope is that other women will do the same.”

Not everyone is confident that there will be a notable change in how sexual harassment and abuse are handled by Jewish nonprofits, no matter how many trainings and programs are run for fundraisers and donors.

“At the end of the day organizations want the money from donors, and staff people are obviously less important than the money,” said Rachel Canar, an American-born, Tel Aviv-based development consultant who has worked for a wide range of liberal Jewish groups.

In the ecology of the Jewish community, fundraisers “are more expendable” than donors, she said. No matter how much effort goes into addressing sexual harassment and abuse, “I can’t picture that changing.”

JTA Wire Service

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