Jewfem Blog

When Jewish organizations are run by bad guys

This text is the introduction I wrote to a chapter about Gender Abuse in my upcoming book on sexual abuse in the Jewish community. I would love to hear your thoughts and feedback:

I want to share a story. 

 In September 1998, I started my very first job in the Jewish communal world since completing my Master's Degree in Jewish education – and I was excited. I was 28 years old, a mother of three finally getting out into the world, and eager to embark on work as a research assistant at this prominent Jewish foundation, the beginning of my journey to serve the Jewish community in which I was born and bred. On my first day. I opened the door to the office, walked in, and said to the receptionist, "Good morning!"

"SHHHHH!!!!!!" The receptionist replied, in a panic.

I was stunned. I looked around, wondering what was going on. All the secretaries were sitting at their desks staring at me.
I didn't understand. The receptionist turned to one of the women in the foyer and said, "Didn't anyone give her the talk?"

What talk? I wondered, getting nervous.

"The talk", it turned out, was a list of instructions of how the women of the organization were expected to behave when the CEO was in the house. The CEO, a 70-something professor emeritus and one of only three men in the building, had expectations. That included quiet at all times, every piece of paper in its place, and the women around serving his every need. The kitchen was stocked with the brand of juice he liked, the supply closed was neatly piled with the specific folders that he liked, and we all walked around without shoes when he was around. Secretaries were fired for sticking the wrong Scotch tape on the dividers in the binders used for board meetings. The wrong Scotch tape.

While everyone frantically complied – including me, so-called "research assistant" with my shiny new Master's Degree, fretting over the correct alignment of binder dividers – we would regularly hear him yelling two floors upstairs. His second-in-command whom I'll call Marjorie, a very well-educated and well-regarded woman who both got the brunt of his fury and also acted as his great defender to the world, would sometimes come downstairs and give us orders and instructions as per his demands. That was how the office worked.
Of course, when VIPs arrived – academics, scholars, rabbis, donors, or the Foundation's founder – none of this was apparent. We all scuttled around serving not only the Professor – who was always charming and gracious when outsiders were watching – but also the VIPs. It was exciting to have people around who were considered "important", even if I personally had never heard of them, but it was also nerve-wracking. At any moment, a misstep could cost you your job. I once screwed up by answering a request of one of the VIP guests. She had asked if her hotel had a pool, and I said that it did not, which was the truth. Marjorie found out and ripped in to me for not finding a way to move her to another location where she would have pool access. My position survived that error, but I was on thin ice. The whole time. Me and my fancy degree.

I kept at it, in this demeaning, scary, go-nowhere, all-fluff position in this highbrow foundation named for the guy whose name is on buildings all around the Jewish world. This was my first "real" job in Jewish communal life, the first one since I became a mother and finished my degree, and I didn't know what to compare it to. Plus, I both wanted and needed this work. Mostly, I had no framework in which to understand how wrong this all was. Even though it was awful from literally the second I walked in there, I could not imagine quitting a job on the first day. So I stayed – for four years.

This was not a case of sexual abuse or even harassment. It was just every-day, run-of-the-mill, toxic workplace culture. And the entire place was infected with it. The Foundation head, who visited maybe once a year, was worse. When he arrived, even the professor came downstairs with the staff and walked on eggshells himself.

But the toxicity was often gendered. The entire administrative staff was female. The entire top floor – except for Marjorie – was male. 

Even though I shared a job title with two other men, I was the only one expected to be running around doing mindless admin work. The other two had offices next to the Professor where they stayed all day long, writing their books and getting handsome speaking gigs. Plus, a little factoid that may or may not be relevant: The Professor, who was obviously noxious, had been married and divorced three times, and some of his ex-wives accused him of battery.

One of those guys, who I'll call George, ended up being my supervisor for two years as he ran one of the international training programs – and in some ways, he was worse. He was younger and more charming, and did not yell from the top floor, and many people would call him a "nice guy" for his ability to smile, engage, and give a good speech. His tactics for humiliating women were subtler and harder to see coming, and turned out to be much more damaging to the women around him. Beneath that "nice" veneer lay an arsenal of verbal and emotional tactics of abuse that could completely unglue you. He would mock women's bodies, find your insecurities and undermine you with them, and play mind-twisting games to make you feel like you are nothing. "Look at you," he once said to me as I was sitting across from his desk trying to figure out what I had done wrong this time. "Look at your demeanor." I had no idea what he was talking about, but I stayed still and silent. "Who would want to be in the same room as you?" Things like that. For years after that, I was extremely self-conscious about my "demeanor", even though I had no idea what that even meant.

When the Professor died, he was lionized as an amazing educator, although many of us quietly shared the truths that we knew about his character. When the head of the Foundation died a few years later, nobody dared whisper a bad word about him. He was, after all, a man who donated tens of millions of dollars to Jewish causes. And who left behind a culture of gendered toxicity that infected every staffer, every VIP visitor, and every cohort of fellows that walked through their doors.

This kind of abuse is not necessarily about sex. It isn't about a boss or a donor offering a sexual quid pro quo. It isn't even necessarily about body commentary, though that was part of my experience. This is about this intense and insidious workplace culture that systematically demeans, dehumanizes, shames, torments, and weakens women, leaving us without power or defenses.

It is Gender Abuse. Toxic masculinity. And it exists in many Jewish settings: workplaces, synagogues, schools, and more

And it would be remiss to try and understand how sexual abuse happens in the workplace or anywhere else in the Jewish world without unpacking this dynamic.

Some people will hear stories like this and dismiss it as a "big ego" or "megalomania". Or, as one man replied in a conversation about these issues, "So he's an a**hole. Doesn't mean he's abusive." Perhaps the Jewish community is so conditioned to allowing megalomaniacs to be in charge that it is difficult to see how damaging it is to the people working in this environment, and to entire organizations.

My goal in this chapter is to explore the details and depths of Gender Abuse in Jewish workplaces in order to understand how they foment settings ripe for all kinds of other abuses.

Dr. Elana Maryles Sztokman is an award-winning author, anthropologist, feminist activist, indie-publisher, and writing coach. Her forthcoming book, When Rabbis Abuse: Understanding the dynamics of high profile sexual abuse in the Jewish community, will be published by Lioness Books in March 2022

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