Jewfem Blog

Seriously, 92Y - You Might Be Ready For Ari Shavit’s Come Back, But We Aren’t (or, why Jewish orgs are still hiring admitted sexual predators)

 As the world continues to shake with revelations of sexual abuse in the most high-profile corridors of power and the #MeToo realization that it is nearly impossible to find a woman who has not been affected by sexual harassment, some members of Jewish communal leadership seem to be living in a cave. I knew this was true. Still, it’s shocking to meet this reality head on. When I learned this week that the 92nd Street Y is advertising admitted sexual predator Ari Shavit as their keynote speaker to mark Israel’s 70th anniversary, it became unambiguously clear that the insulated, powerful, and tone-deaf Jewish boys’ club is still running the show, to the detriment of women and all victims of sexual assault.On the most basic level, this decision ignores women as consumers. The idea that women and sexual assault victims would be horrified by this choice apparently did not occur to the organizers. That we would never come to an event like this doesn’t seem to matter. Whoever the victims of sexual abuse are – women and men alike – we are irrelevant. We are not even considered as potential attendees. It is a stunning dismissal of victims from the community. It reminds me of how every time I click on a link on a browser that pops open a window for call girls, I face the reality not only of the commodification of women’s bodies but also of the default assumption that all consumers are at least perceived to be men. In fact, the dominant assumption in so many areas of business and communal life is not only that a typical consumer is male, but that he is a heterosexual male who has no problem with the sexual objectification of women. It seems that these same dark forces controlling my internet browser are also making decisions at the 92Y. All they see is men, particularly ones who have no problem with sexual abuse. Read more: https://forward.com/opinion/390179/seriously-92y-you-might-be-ready-for-ari-shavits-come-back-but-we-arent/

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The pretty face of the Jewish boys' club

  I was ambushed yesterday. And it left me shuddering. And it gave me a deeply distressing glimpse into the workings of the Jewish boys’ club. The ambush had a very pretty mask. And it is terrifying. A guy asked me for a meeting for networking. He had all the trappings of being a Nice Guy – he had an easy smile, gentle voice, clean cut appearance, beard and knitted kippah, and a generous use of flattery. I should have recognized this. He did all the classic, effective getting-to-know-you stuff: He said he knows my work, he has read my research, he is a Reform rabbi and studied at HUC and is interested in my current experiences there, he knows my husband, his wife knows my husband, and wouldn’t it be great to connect. It all sounded so normal. I said I don’t have a lot of time these days, so he suggested coming to my school and meeting me during my tight one-hour lunch break. I said okay. After ten minutes of smiling and chatting, he uttered a sentence that began, “The real reason I wanted to meet you with such urgency.....” That should have been a red flag. If I have an agenda for a meeting, I put that agenda up front. If someone asks to meet for one reason but actually has a totally different reason, that could be a sign of manipulation. It isn’t always. After all, if someone wants to ask me for  something easy and innocuous like a recommendation or an introduction, then it is fine to bring that up at the meeting and not in advance. But if you want something big from another person and want to take their much-needed one free hour for that request, you had better be honest about that. So what was the urgency? “I got a call from a colleague I know,” he began, “a man who is concerned because his name appears on a list of men in the Jewish community who are accused of sexual abuse.” The backstory is this: In one of the groups online dealing with sexual abuse since the #MeToo movement, some people decided to create an anonymous sheet for collecting women’s experiences with sexual abuse in the Jewish community. This initiative came out of the realization that the only reason why the Harvey Weinstein story came out at all was because of a sheet like this in which women were able to post anonymously about their experiences of sexual abuse. Within a matter of days, certain names came up frequently, and then some reporters decided to dig further into those names, which eventually led to the New York Times story. The reason why this was so crucial in that movement is victims are very reluctant to come forward. Their lives were ruined once by their abusers, and coming forward means that they may have their lives ruined once again. Think Anita Hill.  This is not speculation or an exceptional incident. This is...

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When the abuser is a woman

I’ve been hearing and talking a lot about sexual abuse, like so many other people. And not only from the news, and not only from sharing stories of our lives, but also from reading Genesis. (Yes, I sound like a rabbinical student, don’t I?). What can I say, the Torah portion readings from the past two months have been swamped with stories of sexual impropriety – the pimping of Sara, the incest of Lot’s daughters, the rape of Dina, the using of Tamar by her father-in-law – just as in parallel, hundreds of stories of sexual abuse are being revealed in #MeToo stories. It’s coming at us from all sides. What happened thousands of years ago doesn’t seem that different from what is happening today. But today, I’m reading a different kind of story. Preparing for the Torah portion that I’m reading tomorrow, I am learning about Joseph and Potiphar’s wife. (Or, as Andrew Lloyd Weber wrote in his musical, Joseph , “It’s all there in chapter 39 of Genesis.”) The millionaire’s wife, according to both the Bible and Weber, relentlessly hit on the head servant, Joseph. When he resisted and ran out into the street undressed, she quickly changed the story, framing him for assaulting her. Everyone believed her. Nobody believed him. Her story was understandable, as she is a woman. His was not, because he was a lowly servant.  He went to prison. She went on. It is the first recorded case of woman-instigated sexual harassment in the workplace, from over 3000 years ago, and the narrator is sympathetic to the male victim. How progressive. The issue of women-instigated sexual abuse remains one of the last taboos in this ugly topic of sexual abuse. I understand why. I am also guilty of putting this topic on the back burner. I’ve done this because so much of sexual abuse has to do with the sexual objectification of women by men. It is part of a larger system in which men have disproportionate power to do this – men hold more positions of power, they often have better jobs and lots more money on the whole than women, as well as intricate formal and informal networks with which to sustain each other, as Harvey Weinstein was so well-kept by men in power all around the world. Injecting the reality that women do this, too, can be too distracting from that narrative. I don’t want to talk about it so much – even though I, too, have also been sexually harassed by a woman; even though so many women I know have been verbally-sexually harassed by women but may not even know it; even though I know all this to be true. Despite all this, I have refrained from writing about women who abuse because I wanted to give the topic of men abusing women its crucial moment. It’s having its moment. And so now I think it is time to talk about the women who abuse. As painful as that subject...

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Rabbi Tamar Elad Applebaum used her Friday night sermon to talk about #MeToo. Wow. #GamAni

“If we can’t talk about sexuality and sexual abuse in the synagogue community, then where can we talk about it?” That is how Rabbi Tamar Elad Applebaum explained her choice on Friday night to dedicate her sermon at her Kehilat Zion minyan in Jerusalem to the topic of #MeToo and sexual abuse. I was so captivated by her talk – as I think everyone in the packed sanctuary was – that I almost forgot where I was altogether. “With all due respect to the Toldot,” she opened, almost apologizing for the fact that she was about to discuss the topic she wanted to discuss rather than the topics traditionally mandated by the Torah portion of the week, in this case Toldot, “the entire Torah is ours, and we need to be able to live by all of it and talk about what we need to talk about.” She is courageous, I thought, perhaps a premonition for what was about to come.    “I want to talk about Eve,” she began, “and why she spoke to the snake, and why she touched the Tree of Knowledge.” Many commentators have remarked that while God told Adam and Eve not to eat from the Tree, Eve actually touched it, and things went downhill from there. A popular midrash says that Eve had added an extra restriction for herself, imagining that God said, "Don't touch the tree" rather than "don't eat." The snake then tricked her pushing her into the tree – and then when nothing happened, he said, “You see? You can touch, you can eat.” But Rabbi Applebaum brought us another midrash that tells a different story. This particular midrash, which is found in Breishit Rabbi and attributed to Abba Bar Koria, says that Adam and Eve had just had sex for the first time, and Adam fell asleep. That’s when Eve went looking for someone to talk to, and found the snake. “Why was she looking for someone to talk to?” Rabbi Elad Applebaum asked us. “Because Adam wasn’t there. He was sleeping. He wasn’t there for her when she needed him.” She then went on to read more deeply into this scenario. “Imagine this. Her first sexual encounter. She was confused, she didn’t understand. Maybe something didn’t happen the way it was supposed to. maybe she was hurting. It wasn't good. We don’t know. Adam went to sleep. She is having a difficult time. What just happened?” The midrash, and Rabbi Applebaum, were connecting the story of eating from the forbidden fruit with the first sexual experience of humanity. That is hardly a stretch. The innuendo is all over the text. Still, the details of this explication were new for me.   “What I’m about to tell you, you won’t find in any midrash”, she said. “It comes straight out of the texts of my life.” I was already entranced. Because I know that those absent texts, the ones of women’s actual lived lives, are usually the ones that speak to me...

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Dear Mayim: You are a victim too, #MeToo #YouToo

Dear Mayim, Let me start by saying that I’m a fan. I think you’re a fine actress and a powerful activist for issues that I care strongly about – women’s lives, parenting, and Judaism, among others. I’ve been following your social media work (more than Big Bang Theory, to be honest), and I know that you have some important ideas to share with the world, and I deeply admire your courage, your intelligence and your willingness to use your platform to make a difference in the world. So please take my comments in that context. As someone who has written hundreds of articles and three books on hot-button topics, I know what it feels like to be on the receiving end of a lot of hate. But I also know that every once in a while, there are lessons in there. Not all pushback is vicious. Some of it helps us examine our own ideas and find where we can do better. Like many other people, I read your New York Times editorial on Harvey Weinstein with great interest, which quickly turned to dismay. I wanted to learn more about your experiences with body commentary in Hollywood. But the way you conflated issues did not work. It sounded like you were saying that since you were always so cruelly typecast as the “ugly” and therefore asexual one, that this somehow protected you from sexual assault. It sounded like you concluded that since you embraced that “ugly asexual geek” label, that you are outside this whole dynamic of sexual abuse. I have a feeling, though, as someone who sometimes says things that come out wrong, that maybe you didn’t mean to say it that way. From your online response, I think I understood that you weren’t trying to say that women who dress a certain way deserve to be sexually assaulted. I think maybe you were trying to offer another angle on how sexual abuse works in Hollywood. Maybe you were trying to paint a different picture of the way women’s lives, careers and self-concept are so often molded by powerful men or dumb commentators with a following. You did not say it in these words, but I would like to suggest that you are a victim of Hollywood’s sexual abuse problem, too. You were a girl with an acting career who was told she was ugly. You were, I might add, a smart, talented, and very cute girl (I loved you in Blossom, by the way) whose face was nitpicked by every jo-shmo in the industry. And that left you with many scars. You still carry them with you. You still think that the only part you can safely play is ugly geek, even though you are still smart, talented and, by the way, beautiful. That is also a story of sexual abuse, and it is one that we need to hear. Many women and girls have every minutia of their appearance commented on, mocked, or gossiped about ad nauseum. I...

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PODCAST: Rabbis who Abuse

Below is the link to a podcast of my talk "Rabbis who abuse" from the 2015 Limmud UK Conference http://limmud.org/publications/podcasts/limmud-conference-2015/rabbis-who-abuse/   Listen Download the podcast. You may need to right-click and choose "Save as..." Event: Limmud Conference 2015 Speaker: Elana Sztokman Description An exploration of the seeming explosion in the number of rabbis caught out as sexual abusers. Why does this happen, why is it happening now, and what does it mean for the rest of us? Tracks Jewish Peoplehood, Social issues and Community

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Limmud UK Recap


What an amazing week I had at Limmud UK last week. I was privileged to be there as part of the UJIA Israel delegation, courtesy of Dr Helena Miller, Director of Research & Evaluation at UJIA and Dr Michael Wegier UJIA Executive Director.  It was an exceptional privilege to be a presenter at Limmud, where I delivered five talks, facilitated two panels, including a film, met dozens of phenomenal people from around the world -- some of whom I knew only from Facebook! -- participated in several really interesting informal discussions in the bar and over meals, including a "dine and discuss" group over dinner facilitated by Dr. Miller, and overall felt really lucky to be in the company of so many amazing Jewish educators, activists, thinkers, and community members. I was live-FB-ing the conference (as you might have noticed, I don't really do much tweeint; FB is really where to find me). Below are some of my recaps from the four day event:  DAY #1of Limmud: Saw some people, briefly IRL like Sara Averick Eve Sacks Keith Kahn-Harris Devora Steinmetz, Bevery Gribetz, Allison Kaplan Sommer, Manny Waks Alan Meerkin Helena Miller (and others i'm surely forgetting)...... Gave two sessions -- the first on "Rabbis who abuse", teasing out the ways in which Jewish communal life enables abusers and disables victims, and why high profile abusers often receive high profile support.  (sad that this session coincided with Dan Brown's session on Jewish philanthropy that i wanted to go to.) The second session on religion and state in Israel, on issues like marriage, divorce, conversion, mikveh, and control of public spaces reflect a growing religious radicalism in israel backed by law.... Neither of these for the faint of heart....Tomorrow's session, "A revolution of dolphins", about Orthodox feminism, will be much more uplifting, hopefully.. Anyway, I had some really great exchanges and discussions over dinner and in the bar-lounge and in corridors, and I'm looking forward to more tomorrow. Part of me wants to stay up and do fun late-night things. But after so much traveling following by intense teaching, my eyelids and my muscles rebel. More tomorrow..... Still looking for some people: Amanda Borschel-Dan where are you? Gabrielle Birkner looking for you too....... LIMMUD DAY #2: Loved meeting people IRL, some of whom I had only met on Facebook (!), like a lovely breakfast with Danya Ruttenberg and Robyn Tessler Shames discussing feminism, creative processes and parenting.... meeting Nadia Jacobson Eve Sacks Manny Waks Dyonna Ginsburg..... Also enjoyed seeing (briefly) Levi Lauer Sally Berkovic and Jacqueline Nicholls. Went to some great sessions: watched Manny Waks' really intense film "Code of Silence" about what he and his family went through because of his experience of sexual abuse in Yeshiva College...... Levi Lauer on the really difficult and heart-wrenching topic of prostitution and sex trafficking. Dyonna Ginsburg on Israel's history of international development work..... AND, gave a talk called "A revolution of dolphins", about the public and private revolutions of Orthodox feminists. Despite some technical...

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When High-Profile Sexual Predators Find High-Profile Support

  Image: YouTube Many members of the Jewish community are scratching their heads these days about the seemingly bizarre decision by the board of the Riverdale Jewish Center to keep on Jonathan Rosenblatt as their communal rabbi despite significant evidence that he has been acting inappropriately in his leadership role. To be fair there are people like Dr Steven Bayme who, according to the New York Times , decided that they cannot morally justify staying in such a synagogue, despite four decades of commitment, and for that they should be commended. And yet, despite what seems like an obvious history of violations of some basic moral and Jewish tenets, the board is retaining Rosenblatt, making victims of sexual abuse and their allies question the ethical backbone of the entire Orthodox community. In fact, though, we should not be so surprised by the support that Rosenblatt has gotten from some of his balabusim and some of his peers. There is a long list of sexual predators and other Torah offenders who have received enviable support even as their sins come to light. Motti Elon, for example, who was convicted of sexual assault against his male students, has a strong following in Israel and abroad, and is frequently invited as a lecturer around the country. Marc Gafni , another long-time sexual offender, is considered a celebrity in many places, while his offenses barely find mention in his bio or on his Wikipedia page (“Best-selling author” it is). Michael Broyde , whose bizarre crimes of fraud were not sexual but nevertheless far out of the bounds of Torah, seems to be leading a new minyan of followers. And while Barry Freundel is largely condemned for his outrageously hurtful crimes of mikveh voyeurism, he had many vocal supporters before the undeniable evidence against him came to light, and many voices of support during sentencing – including Orthodox machers and pundits declaring, “It’s not rape” and therefore he should have gotten a much shorter sentence. It is not only in the Jewish world where high-profile sexual predators find high-profile support. It has taken dozens of testimonies of women and several decades before anyone began taking seriously the allegations against Bill Cosby – and he still has some major celebrity supporters. Accusations against Dominique Kahn-Strauss were dismissed by some of his peers with a jovial, “Everyone knows he likes women.” And in fact all we have to do is look to the Supreme Court where Clarence Thomas has been sitting silently for over two decades despite powerful testimony about sexual harassment against him. It seems as if it is often easier for men in positions of power to wiggle out of accusations of sexual abuse than it is for victims to be believed. This dynamic has a lot to do with bystander phenomenon. As Judith Herman wrote in her trail-blazing book “Trauma and Recovery,” all that abusers need from the world is passivity in order to continue abusing. Intervention, which benefits the victims, is much harder to receive than passivity. The default position of the observing world, of...

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What I Posted on Facebook About the Freundel Case

From Lilith: October 15 at 8:21amIf this is true — IF, of course — the implications here are enormous. Women in Orthodoxy have been complaining about rabbis who carry all kinds of patriarchal and misogynistic ideas with them into the community and into their work. If this story is true, it confirms women’s deepest pains in dealing with certain orthodox rabbis. Layers and layers of practices that hurt women…. - See more at: http://lilith.org/blog/2014/10/what-i-posted-on-facebook-about-the-freundel-case/#sthash.j5do9iFI.dpuf   Read the rest here: http://lilith.org/blog/2014/10/what-i-posted-on-facebook-about-the-freundel-case/

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Voyeurism and the Yeshiva Girl

Madonna has got me thinking about Barry Freundel. To be honest, Madonna often gets me thinking about body, sexuality, and women’s power. I consider Madonna one of the most body-empowered women out there. She has full command of her body, and uses it as her artistic canvas. She can do anything she wants with it, put on any item of clothing and pose in any position, and the effect is one of power and ownership. I frequently find myself wondering whether she represents an ideal of body empowerment, whether on some level I should be teaching my daughters to admire and emulate her for her complete ownership of her life and seeming ability to do anything she wants. (Of course, then the Orthodox voice in my brain usually kicks in and reminds me of how far Madonna is from anything familiar to me in my own relationships with my body.) Anyway, knowing this about Madonna, I was surprised to discover a few months ago that she took to twitter to express her anger that a photo of her was leaked without her permission. The photo was an unpolished image of her in bra and underwear, apparently in a dressing room. “This is a fitting photo I did not release,” she wrote. “I am asking my true fans and supporters who respect me as an artist and a human to not get involved with the purchasing trading or posting of unreleased images or music.” The reason I was surprised at her reaction was because the week before, she had done a topless photo shoot for a French magazine. It was a strange juxtaposition to me, that she would upset about this photo of her in her underwear when just days before the entire world just saw her undressed. But then I realized, it’s all about control, about power. The French shoot was her choice and with her direction. The leaked photo, despite everything Madonna had done, was still an invasion of her privacy. I have been thinking about this the past few days since posting a blog about the impact of Freundel’s actions on his victims and on other practicing Jewish women. What I argued in this post is that there is a such thing as sexual abuse that does not involve physical contact, and that we should not dismiss the impact of this kind of abuse on its victims just because there was no sexual penetration. In fact, I wrote, that the recovery from this so-called non-violent abuse can be just as emotionally challenging as violent sexual abuse because of the way it plays with the victim’s mind. - See more at: http://lilith.org/blog/2015/05/voyeurism-and-the-yeshiva-girl/#sthash.AEoekrmc.dpuf

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