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#MeToo event encourages community-wide conversation

During an exercise at the Jewish community’s “From #MeToo to #WeToo” event May 21, audience members wrote reflections on banners marked “I Learned,” “I Feel,” and “I Commit to.” Colored stickers indicate “likes” from other attendees. (Maya S. Horowitz/JCF)

It is our collective responsibility as members of this community to examine the part that we play in these frameworks,” Graham Hoffman, president and CEO of the Jewish Community Foundation of Southern Arizona, told the audience at a recent community event addressing sexual harassment in the Jewish communal world. “Rabbinic wisdom teaches us the principal of B’tselem Elohim, that each human contains a spark of the Divine. In every interaction, we should strive to treat those around us with the safety, respect, and equity that we would afford to the Divine. The #MeToo movement is about not only addressing explicitly inappropriate behavior, but also confronting institutional frameworks of power.”

Community leader Anne Hameroff, left, moderated a panel at the Jewish community’s “From #MeToo to #WeToo” event May 21 with (L-R) Graham Hoffman, Jewish Community Foundation president and CEO; Melissa Zimmerman, Jewish Family & Children’s Services vice president of clinical services; and Guila Benchimol, a consultant from the SafetyRespectEquity Coalition. (Maya S. Horowitz/JCF)

Thanks to the visionary leadership of the late Saul Tobin and the Saul Tobin Fund for Jewish Continuity at the Jewish Community Foundation of Southern Arizona, volunteers, board members, and staff of Jewish agencies from across Tucson, as well as Tucson Jewish Community Center camp counselors, gathered at the Tucson J on May 21 to participate in the “From #MeToo to #WeToo: Uplifting Safety, Respect, and Equity in Our Tucson Jewish Community” event hosted by the local Jewish professionals network.

The event aimed to examine issues of sexual harassment, privilege, power inequity, and discrimination against women in the Jewish community, and discuss constructive solutions to these complex problems. Increasingly, communities are being confronted with these questions and asked to self-reflect and grapple with what it means to consciously ensure existing structures of privilege no longer negatively influence how community business is done. 

Michelle Blumenberg, executive director of the University of Arizona Hillel Foundation, brought the idea for “From #MeToo to #WeToo” to Tucson after she attended a similar presentation at the Hillel International Global Assembly in December 2018 in Denver. When she proposed a version of the presentation to agency executives in our community, they immediately agreed to begin planning.

“Like most other problems and challenges in our wider community, whether it’s alcoholism, drug abuse, or sexual harassment, people tend to think that this doesn’t happen with the Jews,” said Blumenberg. “Tucson tends to be at the forefront of addressing issues of concern in our community … I am delighted that we are doing this. I think it really says something about who we are.”

Todd Rockoff, president and CEO of the JCC, also spearheaded the planning of the event, and encouraged the inclusion of the J’s camp staff so that they could learn to be positive role models for the next generation.

The evening began with an emotional presentation of anonymous victim stories from Jewish communities around North America. Due to the nature of some of the narratives and the possibility that the evening’s discussion might trigger difficult emotions, two volunteer therapists from Jewish Family & Children Services of Southern Arizona were on hand to speak to event participants.

Following the victim stories, there was a panel discussion moderated by community leader Anne Hameroff and featuring Guila Benchimol, a consultant from the SafetyRespectEquity Coalition; Melissa Zimmerman, vice president of clinical services at JFCS, and Hoffman. Among other topics, the panel addressed how Jewish values can be applied in tackling these issues, how donor-staff relationships can be fraught at times, what men can do to be more aware and empathetic, and how best to move forward to address and curtail these issues in our community.

“I hope first and foremost that this event will cause everyone to pay more attention to interactions where inappropriate behavior could occur and be more thoughtful about how we speak to each other,” said Hameroff. “Obviously we want to stop ‘extreme’ behavior, but I tend to believe that subtle, innocuous behavior that many people aren’t even aware they are doing has a negative impact in a much broader way. And I want to believe that if people are just made aware of it, they will be thoughtful enough to rethink how they
communicate with each other.”

After the panel discussion and a brief question and answer session, audience members broke out into three groups based on their affiliations — the J’s summer camp staff, board members/volunteers, and professional/agency staff. Each group was asked to write down their thoughts on a banner with sections marked “I Learned,” “I Feel,” and “I Commit to.”

Audience members were then asked to walk around the room and place colored “like” stickers on the commitments they felt most strongly about on each of the three banners. Benchimol closed the event by asking everyone to reflect on what they had heard and to spend the summer thinking about ways their takeaways could be applied to the Jewish organizations in which they participate.

Funding for this event was provided by the Saul Tobin Fund for Jewish Continuity. A variety of organizations in the community co-sponsored the evening, including congregations Anshei Israel, Bet Shalom, Chaverim, and M’Kor Hayim; the UA Hillel Foundation; the J; JCF; JCFS; the Jewish History Museum; Handmaker Jewish Services for the Aging; Tucson Hebrew Academy; the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona; and the Jewish Women’s Foundation of New York.

Maya S. Horowitz is project manager at the Jewish Community Foundation of Southern Arizona.