A few weeks ago, we heard the recordings of Donald Trump bragging about how he sexually assaults women. Then women came forward accusing him of assault. People around me, in person or through social media, began responding and some of it was downright disturbing. People I know and love claimed that these women could not be believed because they waited so long to come forward. Others gave the old “boys will be boys” line. Some people felt Billy Bush should not have been fired because he was so young (in his 30s) and it was so long ago. Then of course, we were reminded of Bill Clinton’s abuse of women and then Ari Shavit’s and my blood began to boil. Not because of the presidential race, but because of the misguided thinking about the world we women navigate. Because the misuse of power to abuse and harass women — and its tacit and open acceptance — is not just prevalent over somewhere else in the “Third World”, but among us in all sectors of the most developed nations, the most educated and “advanced” bubbles; and even in our own revered Jewish world and Jewish institutions. How could people get it so wrong?
In my experience, I have found it best to start by making change in the small circles that I might influence and try to create a ripple effect. I therefore reached out to my Wexner Graduate Fellowship colleagues, as well as some close friends, and shared my personal stories for the first time. While I will not go into detail here, what I shared reflected a wide and sickening range of sexual assault and harassment that I experienced during the thirty years of my career in the Jewish community. I wanted to raise awareness that this happens and I wanted to encourage us, as a community, to change the way we respond to these incidents. I wanted to help us become more understanding of what the world, even the more enlightened or privileged parts of it, feels like to women. I explained why women might not say anything at the time of an incident. For me, it was because I was a single mom, financially responsible for three children and I didn’t want to be a troublemaker. I was scared of what a powerful, adored leader in the community could do to my career.
One of my greatest hesitations in sharing was that I hated to be perceived as a victim and I did not want sympathy. What happened instead truly surprised me. I received so many responses I could barely keep up with them. Women shared their own harrowing stories with me. Men wrote to me in shock, having no idea that this happened and wondered how they could not have known and whether they were inadvertently contributing to this disturbing environment. The responses cut across denominations and careers within the Jewish community.
What should we do to change this?
Let’s go back to Billy Bush for a moment. He was not a child when Trump said those things to him. He was a grown man who made a bad choice when he could have made a heroic one. Had Billy said, “Whoa, that’s not cool,” instead of laughing and egging Trump on, Trump would have been at least put on notice. But what he did instead was legitimize his behavior. And guess what? While many good men would not laugh like Billy did, many of those same good men in our board rooms or staff meetings would not say or do anything when they see or hear about harassment, assault or abuse.
Throughout my career I have been advised by men and women that it’s better not to stir things up. That is NEVER right. If you are a witness or a bystander or have a chance to help someone understand the detrimental effects of what they are doing, you MUST speak up.
We need to respond to this new awareness with introspection and reflection. We must turn the magnifying glass on our Jewish organizations, cry out when we see this behavior, stand up for our female colleagues and never, ever, push it aside. We need to watch our language, watch how and who we are touching and make changes so that our organizations always feel safe for women. And then let this bring about, and let us push for, more awareness, better education and policy, and perhaps even lasting change(s) to the root cause(s) that make sexual harassment and abuse so prevalent.
Barb Gelb, WGF Alum (Class 4), is the Director of Lifelong Learning at Temple Ahavat Shalom in Northridge, CA. She previously spent a decade in Memphis, Tennessee, where she served as Director of Education for Temple Israel. Some of her favorite projects include developing a vibrant post b’nai mitzvah culture, creating a comprehensive adult learning program and integrating theater, music and visual arts into all aspects of education. Barb received her BA in Psychology from UCLA, her MSW from USC, and her MA in Jewish Communal Service from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. She recently married Kenny Weinstein and is a happy mother and stepmother of five. She can be reached at email@example.com.