If your board vice chair sends you a vibrator, your workplace is probably toxic
Discussions about sexual abuse in the workplace often miss a crucial insight: It doesn't happen in a vacuum. And the toxicity of emotional and verbal abuse can be just as devastating as sexual abuse.
This is not how I was planning to spend my time right now. In addition to Passover prep, I am also working on the final edits to my forthcoming book, When Rabbis Abuse: On Power, Gender, and Status in the Dynamics of Sexual Abuse in Jewish Culture, which is due out on June 14 which means I’m in crunch time and still behind schedule. We are also right before Passover, and we all know what that means. I’m also keeping an eye on world events, stressing a bit over Israeli politics, and looking for ways to help Ukrainian refugees, especially with the upcoming holiday. There is a lot on my plate, and the last thing I wanted to do was to be revisiting painful events from nearly a decade ago.
Nevertheless, women plan and the goddess laughs. So here we are.
The story about my experiences as Executive Director of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA) sprung open last week as a result of efforts that I was not directly a part of. The fearless justice warrior Asher Lovy, director of Za’akah that advocates for victims of sexual abuse in the Jewish community, had been pressuring JOFA to admit that there had been accusations of sexual harassment against a board member and imminent threats of a lawsuit. But the JOFA board kept lying and insisting that this didn’t happen. Asher then approached the Safety, Respect, and Equity Network (SRE) that fights to ensure safe workplaces in Jewish life, and said that JOFA should not be a member of the coalition because of this damning history. Asher particularly pressed the point that JOFA had made its former Executive Directors — including me — sign non-disclosure agreements, which now violates SRE policy. It is also now illegal in New York (thought it wasn’t when I signed in Dec 2013), because it is common knowledge that NDAs are basically silencing tactics. Organizations usually make outgoing employees sign them when they have something to hide.
And so it was that last week, I was approached by SRE, to share my history with JOFA, to talk about the kind of abuse I experienced there, and what they were hiding when they made me sign the NDA. We talked for quite a while, she asked me serious and thoughtful questions, and I ended up sharing things that I haven’t talked about in many years. (In fact, it was the first time anyone from any organization asked me about these things. So if you ever hear someone say, “We investigated the allegations against JOFA and Batsheva Marcus,” don’t believe them. Nobody ever asked me anything until last week.)
It was very difficult for me, and I needed some time to process the experience, kind of the way one may need to rest for a while after raising bile and throwing up. It was that kind of recovery, from having brought up poison that I forgot I was carrying around in my gut.
Nevertheless, it was worth it. By the next day, JOFA was no longer part of SRE.
This news was a welcome sigh of relief. SRE has dedicated itself to the crucial work of ensuring safe workplaces in the Jewish community. But as long as JOFA was part of the network, it was hard to trust that. But now, SRE has restored my faith not only in their work and mission but also in the possibility that there are people in the Jewish community who care and who are genuinely willing to do the right thing.
As a result of all this, and the fact that I was suddenly revisiting old scars, I began to share bits and pieces of this chapter in my life in a private FB forum. The part that I began sharing was about reporting and retaliation: The day I wrote a letter to the JOFA board saying that Bat Sheva Marcus had been emotionally abusive for over a year — that was the day I was fired. The board president at the time, Judy Heicklin, walked into my office a few hours later and said, “You know I have to fire you.” I didn’t even resist. I knew it was coming. Because I broke the cardinal rule of employees who like their jobs: Don’t complain. Certainly don’t name names. That is the end of the line. I violated that by reporting, so I was summarily fired. Like that.
Interestingly, what made me think about this again was the release of the new Keilim toolkit for Jewish organizations, created by the inimitable Dr. Shira Melody Berkovits and her amazing team at Sacred Spaces led by Judith Belasco. I was one of the beta readers of the toolkit, and I read a lot about the many ways that organizations can silence people complaining of abuse. It was in the reading about organizational “retaliation” that I started to think to myself: That is exactly what happened to me at JOFA. I was immediately fired for speaking out. Within hours.
This realization, added to the fact that JOFA president Pamela Scheiniger released a statement that said, “We have never and would never seek to prevent a victim of sexual harassment from reporting”, made me realize that I needed to tell my story.
“Going public” is a bit radical. It’s risky. You place yourself at the center, open yourself up to scrutiny, possibly even a lawsuit. But I’m doing it anyway.
The main reason that I have decided to share this is that I think that there is an aspect to my story which is extremely important for our discussions about sexual harassment and sexual abuse. And that is: Sexual abuse rarely happens in a vacuum. It is usually couched in an environment of emotional and verbal abuse. It is often just one bit of larger cultures of toxicity. And the process of outing those awful cultures in our community is, in my opinion, at least as important as outing the issue of sexual abuse. It may not sound as interesting — it is, literally, not as “sexy” as talking about sexual abuse — but it is rampant, and just as damaging. And that is the story I want to tell.
After all, the sexual component of the toxicity I experienced at JOFA was just a very small piece of my experience. And it definitely was not the worst. And that is the insight that I would like to share here with you, Dear Readers, today.
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