Allowing Michael Steinhardt’s bad behavior is not our biggest mistake. Obsessing over Jewish continuity and megadonors is.


The high-profile allegations of sexual harassment against Michael Steinhardt are an opportunity for us to deconstruct how money, power and sexism have warped the nonprofit world in the shape of its largest donors.

Take, for example, the case of Sheila Katz, a vice president at Hillel International who spent four years trying to hold Steinhardt accountable for sexually harassing her. Though Hillel investigated her allegations, she says some individuals wrote off her experience as just “part of the job.” Steinhardt and his defenders waved away allegations of sexual harassment as mere jokes and banter.

Of course, we must hold those who harass women accountable for their actions. But to truly address the root causes of their behavior, we must confront the complicity of Jewish institutions and leaders in enabling and protecting them.

To put it bluntly, addressing sexual harassment within our institutions will mean confronting sexist attitudes at every level of Jewish life, including in our ideas about a Jewish “continuity crisis.”
We will also have to ask how we allowed ourselves to become dependent on a dysfunctional philanthropic dynamic that makes leaders uninterested, unwilling or incapable of defending female colleagues and employees against wealthy predators.

Two gigantic shifts have taken place in the Jewish nonprofit world over the past three decades. The 1990 National Jewish Population Survey announced a 52 percent rate of intermarriage. This statistic was interpreted by many Jewish leaders, and donors, as a call to action both to fight intermarriage and reverse
demographic decline.

Until he was brought down by revelations of decades of sexual harassment, sociologist Steven M. Cohen made a career linking intermarriage with a coming demographic doomsday for non-Orthodox Jews and propounding the danger both posed to “continuity.” According to Cohen, intermarried Jews were less likely to have children who identified as Jewish, and non-Orthodox Jews overall were not reproducing at above replacement rates. This spelled nothing less than the disappearance of non-Orthodox Jewry.

Making Jewish spaces more welcoming to the intermarried, Cohen argued, was ineffective at producing
Jewishly identified children. Thus, in-marriage had to be encouraged as strongly as possible to avert
demographic doom.

Jewish life comprises so many elements: linguistic, cultural, religious and more. Instead of taking the full expression of Jewish life into account, Cohen’s analysis focused simply on biological continuity and avoided the substantive questions inherent in any discussion of the how of the Jewish future.
This very narrow framing of biological continuity concerned itself with “encouraging” marriage and babies — and paid almost no attention to the structural and economic factors affecting the choices made by potential parents. The data and analysis behind the “continuity crisis” was often made possible by
Steinhardt Foundation financing, creating a self-reinforcing thought system that reflected the concerns of the men driving it, not the people whose lives were under scrutiny.

Thus defined, the continuity challenge was taken up by an array of organizations and funders, most notably with the creation of Birthright Israel in 1999, co-founded by Steinhardt with an $8 million gift. The Birthright mission was to “ensure the future of the Jewish people by strengthening Jewish identity,
Jewish communities and connection with Israel …”

That might have been what was written on promotional materials, but the unofficial mission of Birthright was clearly articulated by Steinhardt: To get young Jews next to each other and make Jewish babies.

It’s important to note the tension between the official program literature and the unofficial messaging coming from its co-founder. Bringing young people closer to Israel was fine for websites and brochures but, wink wink, we all know why we’re really here.

The move toward a biologically focused continuity agenda coincided with a second shift in Jewish institutional life, with philanthropy moving away from federation-mediated giving and toward direct giving by unaccountable (mostly male) megadonors.

As Professor Lila Corwin-Berman describes it, in the 1980s and 1990s, smaller donors were being rapidly
replaced by the rise of these megadonors. At the same time, Jewish philanthropy switched from a social welfare agenda to an “identity” agenda in response to an anxiety about the decline of Jewish engagement and the rise of interfaith marriage. The result was a retrograde communal agenda animated by an
obsession with biological continuity, in which entitlement to female bodies, and their reproductive capacity, manifested as both institutional policy and interpersonal hostility.

Some women who came to Steinhardt in the course of their jobs were subjected to invasive questions about their sex life. They became the unwilling targets of Steinhardt’s wink wink continuity mission.

One of Steinhardt’s accusers, Rabbi Rachel Sabath Beit-Halachmi, was allegedly told by him that she should “put her vagina and womb to work” and that she could be a “pilegesh,” a biblical Hebrew term for concubine. According to Sheila Katz, Steinhardt allegedly asked Katz if she would have sex with the
King of Israel, a title he used to refer to himself.

Any culture in which power operates without accountability is a culture ripe for abuse. In the case of Steinhardt, patterns of verbal harassment and humiliation meshed seamlessly with the “neutral” jargon of demographic policy and crisis. As these latest revelations prove, it’s no longer possible to pretend the two can be separated.

Rokhl Kafrissen is a playwright and cultural critic. This piece was syndicated by JTA which, along with its parent company, 70 Faces Media, does not necessarily share the writer’s views.

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