It’s not every day that you get to have important and complex conversations about urgent issues with 500 people at a time. This past Shabbat in our modern Orthodox synagogue, as a result of much deliberation and planning, we started a conversation around sexual harassment and assault. To the two of us, a typical sermon did not seem to be the right approach to engage in meaningful conversation about such an urgent and sensitive subject, one that is — for good reason — so central to media discourse right now.
While it is a complex discussion and we went back and forth on the particulars, we came to three conclusions: First, we must speak about it and bring the conversation to our community. This is not just an issue of “them,” but also of “us.” Sexual harassment and violence happens in our Jewish community; it includes both victims and perpetrators, and we too are implicated and impacted by the discussions that are happening.
Part of being a kehila kedosha (holy community) means that we provide support and strength for people who are struggling and in pain on an entire range of issues, including victims of sexual harassment and assault. Our spiritual communities should be places where we can bring our anxieties and full selves, regardless of how challenging the conversations are.
Second, for the two of us — a male-female clergy team — it was important to give a sermon together, to model what conversations on this topic can look like between men and women. The conversations between the two of us leading up to the sermon were very significant as they enabled us to better understand the way that many men and women were struggling with these issues. Therefore, our morning began with a shared sermon where amidst words of Torah about the weekly Torah portion, Maharat Fruchter shared a story of her own sexual trauma, and Rabbi Antine modeled listening and response.
Third, it should be followed by a community-driven space for discussion, reflection and action. We were fortunate to collaborate with the Jewish Coalition Against Domestic Abuse (JCADA) and mental health professionals within our community to facilitate three breakout groups after the sermon: one group for men only, one for women only and a mixed-gendered group facilitated by JCADA that was about asking difficult questions and getting more information and resources. Our deep hope was that anyone who wants to ask hard questions was able to feel like they can — that in our spiritual community, there would be room to hold nuance in a world increasingly unable to do so. Therefore, we provided the types of spaces that can model what asking hard questions in a patient, gentle and curious way can look like.
A synagogue should not wait for a crisis to happen in order to be proactive about difficult issues around sexual harassment and assault. We are in good company. Many synagogues and Jewish organizations are thinking about ways to address this, and we have taken advantage of the incredible resources we have, including our very own JCADA and Sacred Spaces, a cross-denominational initiative to address abuses of power in Jewish institutions. While we don’t have all the answers, we knew that it was critically important to create a space that would provide support for those affected by harassment and assault, encourage victims and bystanders to find their voice to protect themselves and others, and enable all of to grapple with these challenging questions together, as a community.
We are fully aware that even though the program is over, the conversation is only beginning. The disclosures and stories have started to rush in, and the discussions around how to best to reinforce safety in our community have started in earnest. We look forward to being in partnership with our holy community in thinking about these issues.
Rabbi Nissan Antine is senior rabbi and Maharat Dasi Fruchter is assistant spiritual leader at Beth Sholom Congregation in Potomac.