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Local workshops will guide unity against harassment, bias

Guila Benchimol, Ph.D., will lead Safety Respect Equity workshops in Tucson Feb. 16-17 for the Jewish community.

The national Safety Respect Equity coalition examines issues of sexual harassment and gender discrimination in the Jewish community. The movement addresses privilege and power inequity, and devises solutions to ensure that existing structures no longer negatively influence how community business is done. The focus is on the values and priorities of Jewish professionals, volunteers, and donors in North America.

Southern Arizona’s Jewish community began working in May to set standards for community-wide — rather than single agency — implementation of safety, equity, inclusiveness, dignity, and respect for all. The next phase continues Feb. 16-17 with two education sessions.

“As an outgrowth of the Me Too Movement, all of us have had the opportunity to reflect on and take account of a variety of ways in which women and other professionals within the Jewish communal workspace have been subjected to inappropriate and compromising behavior,” says Graham Hoffman, president and CEO of the Jewish Community Foundation of Southern Arizona. “There are a number of ways we need to train, fortify, prepare, and equip our community to be better, safer, more respectful, and more equitable for everyone.

“We recognize the opportunity to move together in a holistic way to advance the cause for all our constituents, professionals, volunteers, and donors in our community. While we are the first Jewish community in the country to attempt to do this in a community-wide way, we can not only champion it for Tucson and Southern Arizona but be pioneers for communities across North America. People in the Southwest should know about pioneering. It is not without risk, back-steps, and mistakes, but you push forward anyway,” Hoffman says.

“Creating a safe, respectful, and equitable environment for each community member — volunteers, professionals, and donors — is essential to our ability to fulfill our mission of bringing the Jewish community together to help those in need,” says Deborah Oseran, Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona board chair.

Michelle Blumenberg, executive director of the University of Arizona Hillel Foundation, is co-chair of the Tucson SRE Taskforce with Todd Rockoff, president and CEO of the Tucson Jewish Community Center. “Overall, we look to create a Jewish community where everyone feels welcome, safe and respected, be they professionals, board members, customers, students, clients or members. We want to advance the values of safety, respect, and equity in a holistic, community way,” says Blumenberg. Taskforce members include Hoffman, Maya Horowitz, Allison Wexler, Jane Espinoza, Ori Green, Susan Kasle, Melissa Zimmerman, Emily Lunne, and Gila Silverman.

The SRE movement was introduced locally on May 21 with the “From #MeToo to #WeToo: Uplifting Safety, Respect, and Equity in Our Tucson Jewish Community” event hosted by the local Jewish professionals’ network.

“SRE is part of the work to understand power and balance in an employment structure, for lay leaders and board members of all genders. It is foolish to assume it affects one gender or orientation. A preponderance of women is affected in the safety space. With light being shined on it at least we can correct it and go forward,” says Rockoff. “The May workshop focused mostly on safety. The February workshops will move into respect and equity.”

At the May workshop, participants were charged with determining how Jewish values can be applied to tackling and curtailing these issues in our community. The February educational workshops will continue with a session for board members of agencies and synagogues and a second session for staff, Blumenberg says.

Guila Benchimol, Ph.D., a senior advisor to the national SRE coalition and a research associate at the Canadian Centre for the Study of Social and Legal Responses to Violence will lead the workshops. She will demonstrate the links between safety, respect, and equity. “These are Jewish issues that organizations should prioritize the responsibilities of lay leaders and Jewish professionals in creating safe, respectful, and equitable Jewish spaces,” she told the AJP.

“The goal is an overview of SRE and what it all means,” she adds. “Attendees will leave knowing what they can do where they exist in the community, to make people aware of issues and to discover their place. Are they being complicit in bad behavior? What can you do as an individual to change our culture?”

Action stems from a 13-point commitment pledge signed by coalition member agencies to adhere to high ethical and legal standards for prevention and response to sexual harassment and gender discrimination. It includes a commitment to adopt institution-wide policies and procedures, reporting and response, education and training, and to provide leadership, resources, and knowledge to assure the measures are implemented and effective.

An initial diagnostic tool guides committed agencies to assess their current policies, leadership, training, reporting, and accountability to bring them into compliance with SRE. “Now, Hillel, JCC, Jewish Family & Children’s Services, and the Foundation all have adopted the commitment,” Blumenberg says. “Each agency is at a different space in this. We look to create a common diagnostic tool so everyone can look at policies, processes, and how they will conduct an investigation if it arises.” JFSA will sign the commitment at its February board meeting.

“Policies and procedures always are a work in progress. While we already were in very good shape at the J, now we have raised the level of consciousness to create a secure, respectful, and equitable environment,” Rockoff says. “The key is creating a culture of awareness that exists every day. The review of standards and awareness really has to live inside the ethos of the organization. We are living and working with human beings. As new employees are hired, this topic is covered on the first day of orientation, and with board members.

“This is a powerful movement and can cause disequilibrium. Employee response at the J has been positive. I’m proud of the way our staff has embraced it. Many staff came to me and said thank you for the J taking this on,” Rockoff says.

“We need to be aware of transgressions among professionals, lay leaders, customers, and clients,” Blumenberg says. “Although agencies or synagogues have been dealing with these issues one by one, it is good to look at the forest view ­— what is our landscape and are we all being respectful of others. There have been instances of inappropriate behavior. We are stepping up and stepping into making change and we have a community open to do that.”

“The J has had several situations over the past year where we have used the principles and concepts of the commitment to handle the issues,” Rockoff notes.

“On the personal level, I reflect back on an experience as a 25-year-old when I witnessed deeply inappropriate remarks from a major donor during a solicitation meeting,” Hoffman recalls. “While I didn’t feel equipped or empowered at the time to stand up and address the behavior, particularly as several more senior professionals in the meeting also bit their tongues, I know now that we can, as a community, provide the leadership to do better and prevent such situations.

“While it may prove difficult at times to bring together five generations of constituents engaged in Jewish life in Southern Arizona — particularly around issues of evolving consciousness like SRE, where expectations and social conventions that have long been overlooked are now being brought to light — we must do what is difficult to pave the way to a better future for the entire community,” says Hoffman.

Silverman, a cultural anthropologist and Visiting Scholar at University of Arizona’s  Center for Judaic Studies, who conducts research on gender and Judaism, represents Congregation M’Kor Hayim on the taskforce. She says that this taskforce is part of a larger national effort to change our community culture a little at a time. “Judaism in general is inherently patriarchal. Jewish women are sent lots of subtle messages that their opinions and voices don’t count as much, or are not taken as seriously. Much of this happens in ways that are not obvious to the men involved, but of which women are acutely aware.  Anything we can do to move that needle, culturally, is good.”

Tucson, a mid-sized community with small-town flavor and a substantial Jewish population (about 30,000), is positioned to pioneer an approach that offers insights for other communities to replicate the coalition-based system

“Although we are not among the largest Jewish communities, our local Jewish professionals are nationally recognized for their vision and leadership, and so it is that our Southern Arizona Jewish community is the first to establish a community-wide approach to the adoption of the SRE principles that surely will become a national model,” says Oseran. “From feedback from national agencies, we believe this is groundbreaking and setting the bar. A coalition of organizations working together, it is uniquely Tucson,” Rockoff adds.

“This is a conversation also taking place in the broader Southern Arizona community in parallel and in concert with us as ‘Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion,’” says Hoffman. “We’ve already begun conversations with a number of partners, collaborators, and peers across the non-profit community to champion these efforts together. These include the Community Foundation of Southern Arizona, the Women’s Foundation of Southern Arizona, and the Association of Fundraising Professionals.”

“Equity is all about collaboration,” says Clint Mabie, CEO, and president of the Community Foundation. “Where other organizations are promoting greater equity, we’re going to be part of it.  All of us need to collaborate on issues like this because of greater and greater importance to have a strong, unified voice about equity in our community.”

“Culture change takes time, strategy, and effort,” Blumenberg says.  The third step will be a series of workshops, understanding there always will be new people joining, so ongoing education is needed.”