For women in Jewish fundraising, harassment is an occupational hazard

The Jewish Women’s Foundation of New York organized a town hall on sexual harassment in the Jewish nonprofit community, Jan. 25 , 2018. (Deborah Nussbaum Cohen)

NEW YORK (JTA) — She was young, Jewish and the founder of a nonprofit organization that aids deprived children in Southeast Asia. He was a potential funder more than twice her age, promising donations and introductions to influential people.

“He dangled a lot of carrots,” she said in retrospect.

But the fundraiser, who spoke on condition she not be named for fear of jeopardizing future professional prospects, received no donations from the man who promised so much. Instead he stroked her thigh, propositioned her, belittled her and at their first and only meeting gave her gifts, like a bracelet, more appropriate for a mistress. More than two years later he continues to leave suitor-like messages from ever-changing phone numbers.

They had initially connected through a Jewish group that matches donors and causes. When the founder reported the incident to a leader there, it was brushed off, she said. Today she has had many more experiences like that working in the Jewish nonprofit world and frequently declines private meetings with male potential funders — “leaving money on the table,” she told JTA. She said it has significantly diminished the number of children her organization can help.

Similar experiences at a prominent Israel-related nonprofit left her disillusioned with the way sexual harassment is handled, and recently she decided to step back from working in the Jewish nonprofit world altogether.

From in-person town hall-style gatherings to online testimonials, female fundraisers working in the Jewish world are sharing similar stories of harassment. A closed Facebook group urging women to share their experiences is called #GamAni, the Hebrew translation of #MeToo. It currently has 590 members.

To be sure, the issue is not limited to the Jewish or nonprofit spheres — the #MeToo moment started in October with Harvey Weinstein’s outing as an alleged serial sexual harasser and abuser in Hollywood, which quickly led to a cascade of allegations against men in the media, politics and other for-profit and nonprofit organizations. In many cases they resulted in the resignation or firing of the men. The issue affects women at every level in every industry, experts say, but especially those who are vulnerable because they are seeking career help, as in Hollywood; access, as in political lobbying; and donations, as in the nonprofit community.

Several people interviewed noted that unlike the Hollywood and media scandals, the accusers in the nonprofit world have neither the fame nor the professional security to put their names forward.

Firm numbers about the prevalence of sexual harassment in nonprofit organizations do not yet exist, said Stacy Palmer, editor of the Chronicle of Philanthropy, which has commissioned a poll on the issue. Results are expected next month. So there is no way to know how the Jewish community compares to other faith-based or ethnic philanthropies.

But in the nonprofit field, “there are a lot of women in fundraising compared with men,” Palmer told JTA. Studies “suggest as many of 75 percent of fundraisers are women, though at the top levels many men hold the top jobs. Among rank-and-file fundraisers it’s a very female job,” she said.

There is also a key difference between nonprofit and other fields: At the end of the day, in the nonproft world, donors hold nearly all the power. Most big-money donors are male. So are most CEOs. Women constitute under 17 percent of chief executives in the Jewish nonprofit world, according to the Forward.

Those are reasons cited by women who say they will discuss their allegations privately but are not willing to go public with the name of the perpetrator or even their own names. The risks both personal and professional are too great, they say, even if they currently hold a senior position.

Earlier this month, The Jewish Week of New York reported on a list in circulation naming men involved in Jewish communal life accused over the years of sexual harassment or abuse. Similar to the “Shitty Media Men” list that also gathered anonymous allegations, the Jewish list, which was seen by dozen men and women who spoke with JTA, was briefly public but quickly disappeared from public view. None of those interviewed say they know who created it.

Elana Sztokman, author of three books relating to gender dynamics and a student at the Reform movement’s rabbinical school in Jerusalem, wrote on her blog of a male colleague who demanded that she protect a man on the secret list who had been accused by multiple women of being abusive. Sztokman wrote that the colleague, a rabbi who holds a “position of power in the Jewish world,” asked if she could use her connections to quash the list and protect the other highly visible man, one who is frequently invited to keynote conferences and colloquia. Sztokman, who said she did not create the list but shared it at one point, declined.

“Does he understand how women who make accusations are cast as mentally unstable, as problematic, as not-team players, as angry, as having a chip on their shoulder, as having an agenda, as unemployable?” she wrote of the man who pressured her. “He was so willing and eager to take all this time to help his friend keep his reputation. But when did he or anyone like him ever do that for women who experienced sexual abuse? Never.”

Rather than “out” accused sexual abusers, a growing number of female professional leaders and funders are taking a different tack: directingtime and money to changing organizational culture. A preliminary group of 30 funders, organization heads and abuse experts met in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 29. Lisa Eisen, vice president of the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, organized the group. More people are now being invited into the effort, Eisen told JTA, and working groups are being formed.

“There’s a great deal of interest in the funding community and Jewish community to make change,” Eisen said. “We want to develop a communal pledge together with standards, a clearinghouse of resources, a focus on policies, procedures and training, awareness efforts, and reporting and investigation mechanisms.”

There will also be money for organizations to tap for work on sexual harassment and abuse.

“Short-, medium- and long-term change needs to happen,” Eisen said. “Our aim is to put a fund or funds together.”

Money is already being poured into other somewhat scattershot efforts: Webinars and in-person seminars are being run by groups ranging from the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance to the Reform movement’s Women’s Rabbinic Network. Training about handling and preventing sexual harassment is being held at some local Jewish federations and through Hillel International, among others.

Naomi Eisenberger, founding executive director of The Good People Fund, which funnels grant money to small, grassroots nonprofits, organized a training for the heads of small- and medium-sized Jewish nonprofits in New York. Fran Sepler, an expert on workplace harassment who developed programs used by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, runs the training. She gave a workshop to leaders of a dozen Jewish groups in December. Registration has opened for a second, larger group for a workshop starting in late April.

Though the $1,000 cost per organization is no small expense for small organizations, coordinators say there is still more demand than they can meet.

Eisenberger became aware of the prevalence of sexual harassment even before the Weinstein scandal broke: A young woman whose organization gets money through the Good People Fund had turned to her for advice about how she could respond to the sexual harassment she had faced. When Eisenberger approached larger, more-established Jewish organizations to see how they dealt with it, “I met a brick wall,” she said.

She circulated a survey in late 2016 to see how much of an issue it was. She hoped for 100 responses. When 180 quickly arrived, she realized it was a bigger issue than she had realized.

One group is working to address the issue solely on the donor side of the equation: the Jewish Funders Network. JFN has some 1,800 grant-making members. JFN has been aware of the power disparity between funders and grantees for some time, and the abuses that too often arise from the donors’ sense of entitlement, president and CEO Andres Spokoiny said in an interview. But discussion within JFN’s board of directors ramped up when #MeToo began.

“Funders don’t have a code of ethics. It doesn’t exist,” Spoikony told JTA. “JFN understands situations of abuse, harassment and even assault within the context of power imbalances between funders and grantees.”

In addition to holding several member webinars, JFN recently added a chapter to its ethics guidelines on sexual harassment and abuse. And for the first time, JFN included language specific to the issue in a note to members before its annual conference, which will be held March 11-15 in Tel Aviv.

“We did it because we felt funders were not being sensitive” to the power imbalance between them and those who seek their donations, Spoikony told JTA.

While there is no way to know if these guidelines will bring about change, women are demonstrating a growing demand for space to air grievances and see that change happens.

At a Jan. 25 town hall organized by the Jewish Women’s Foundation of New York, guest readers shared dozens of experiences submitted by women working in the Jewish community. Some 275 people filled the meeting room and more were on a waiting list, said Jamie Allen Black, the foundation’s executive director.

“My supervisor expressed empathy, helped intervene and supported me through addressing issues with peers, but any instances with donors was shrugged off or defended,” read one testimony.

“As an intern, I told my boss what had occurred and she laughed and said, ‘Well, he gave $25,000 today, so you must have done something right,” read another.

According to a third: “One donor flat out told me donations were contingent on dating him.”

How Rhonda Abrams dealt with being sexually harassed has been the exception. Immediately after a donor made sexual advances, the 27-year-old director of the Hillel in Portland, Oregon, reported the incident to the chair of her board and to Hillel International.

Reaction came fast and strong. Her Hillel chapter board sent the donor, a man prominent in Portland’s small Jewish community, a strongly worded letter saying his money was no longer wanted and warning him to stay away from Abrams. The CEO of Hillel International, Eric Fingerhut, immediately called her. Within days the head of Hillel’s human resources department had flown in so they could both meet with leaders of Portland’s Jewish federation. The federation quickly gathered leaders of local Jewish groups to think about ways to address sexual harassment, and assigned three staffers to develop policies and protocols.

A week after she was harassed, Abrams published a powerful essay in JTA about her experience.

Abrams’ coming forward also accelerated work on sexual harassment policies at Hillel International, said Mimi Kravetz, its chief talent officer. Hillel has a network of 180 chapters serving 550 North American college campuses. The organization updated its employee handbook and distributed it to Hillel’s 1,200 staff members worldwide — many are recent college graduates. It also sent out information on how staffers should protect themselves and others from sexual harassment, and how to report it. The organization ran an online town hall in which staffers shared their experiences, and by next month will have run three training sessions.

Abrams said she received individual phone calls and emails from “every single senior woman” working at Hillel International “offering support and praise for the way I handled it.”

“Locally and beyond, the community has been so supportive,” she said. “I want people to know how positive the reaction has been, and that you don’t have to keep silent. If I can publicly say what happened to me and not be afraid, my hope is that other women will do the same.”

Not everyone is confident that there will be a notable change in how sexual harassment and abuse are handled by Jewish nonprofits, no matter how many trainings and programs are run for fundraisers and donors.

“At the end of the day organizations want the money from donors, and staff people are obviously less important than the money,” said Rachel Canar, an American-born, Tel Aviv-based development consultant who in the past worked for a wide range of liberal Jewish groups.

In the ecology of the Jewish community, fundraisers “are more expendable” than donors, she said in an interview. No matter how much effort goes into addressing sexual harassment and abuse, “I can’t picture that changing.”