Rabbi Elka Abrahamson had a firm message for a Washington audience last week about sexual harassment.
“I don’t want to be talking about this in 30 years,” she said.
Abrahamson, the president of the Wexner Foundation, said on a panel about the #MeToo movement, that the only way to eliminate sexual harassment is for workplaces to define it and to lay out penalties for when the policy is broken. In the Jewish community, that means including sexual harassment provisions in the bylaws of synagogues and other community institutions.
“[Jewish leaders] still say we don’t need that, we’re a holy community and we can handle that,” she said. “Folks, we are a people of law. We do rules really, really well.”
The discussion, held at Sixth & I Historic Synagogue on May 31 and sponsored by the Tikkun Olam Women’s Foundation of Greater Washington, was advertised as a forum on sexual harassment in the Jewish community. Other than Abramson, panelists focused instead on workplace sexual harassment and the progress of the #MeToo movement.
They offered few solutions, but agreed that more women need to hold positions of power, to ensure a culture shift in the workplace.
Panelist Sarah Wildman, an editor at Foreign Policy, said sexual harassment prevention training is also necessary for that culture shift in her field.
“We need to see more women in leadership across the board,” she said. ”We need more diversity in leadership and more diversity in journalism.”
Last year, Wildman wrote last year that she had been sexually harassed by The New Republic’s longtime literary editor, Leon Wieseltier, when she was an assistant editor at the magazine. Wildman said she used to worry that speaking up at work would make her seem rude, but no longer feels that way.
“I think we need to call [sexual harassment] what it is,” she said. “See it, name it and reject it. I also think it’s about talking amongst yourselves. If something feels wrong, it’s probably wrong.”
The panelists agreed that for the #MeToo movement to succeed, men must understand what sexual harassment is and refrain from it. That was a sentiment attendee Michael Laufer, of Rockville, said he agreed with.
“I’m a man. The #MeToo movement is focused on women, but it will never be successful until men take responsibility for their behavior,” he said. “Most men, like most people, do not [harass]. But enough people look the other way.”
Other suggestions came from Chai Feldblum, the commissioner of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Feldblum suggested companies write guidelines on how to report sexual harassment, institute “climate surveys” that ask questions about whether anything inappropriate has occurred and mandate bystander intervention training.
Until recently, Feldblum said, the biggest barrier to combating sexual harassment has been a lack of reporting. According to a 2016 EEOC report, 70 percent of women who had experienced sexual harassment from their male superiors remained silent out of fear of retaliation.
“We’re in a moment right now,” she said. “The question is whether we will leverage this moment into tangible and sustainable change.”
Abrahamson and Wildman both described their respective professions as “old boys networks.” Wildman recalled how men in newsrooms often made sexual comments about female employees. But women had to tolerate it if they were to make a name for themselves, she said.
“If you can’t roll with it, how do you get the assignment?” she said. “If you’re seen as [unpleasant] or too soft, it’s easy to be passed over. If you report and there is a negative consequence to it or nothing happens, then you begin to blame yourself. When women question themselves and their own reality, it undermines them.”
In Abrahamson’s case, the first time she applied to be a rabbi, more than 30 years ago, ended in rejection because she was a woman. Male rabbis, she said, did not view women as equals at the time.
“I think we female clergy absorbed it all, because we didn’t want to make anyone angry,” she said. “
Rabbi Susan Shankman of Washington Hebrew Congregation said Abrahamson’s point must be taken to heart.
“I think a lot of people believe that [harassment] doesn’t happen in Jewish organizations,” she said. “I think a lot of people don’t want this issue to be commonplace in the Jewish community. It’s important to create that awareness, so that people are open-minded and are able to work together to create solutions.”
No one should be given a position, or a job; it should be earned.