Opinion | Rabbis Take Steps to Address Harassment Issue

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By Rabbi Joshua Waxman and Rabbi Jill Maderer

All people of conscience have been shaken and disturbed by the revelations that have come to light in recent months about prominent public individuals who have abused their power to create hostile and humiliating workplace environments.

We have seen countless examples of people in power using promises of advancement or threats of demotion to demand sexual favors from employees. Of course, the organizations that have employed these predators have publicly promoted values of respect for all employees and zero tolerance for harassment, even as they have privately devalued and humiliated victims. The values these companies have publicly espoused are not matched by their inner workings.

In discussing the Ark, which lay first at the center of the Mishkan which the Israelites carried with them in the desert and then was housed in Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem, the rabbis of the Talmud make an important observation. The Torah provides a detailed description of the construction of the Ark, which is to be made of acacia wood and then covered with gold, both inside and out (Exodus 25:11).

Given that the Ark is never to be opened, the ancient rabbis wonder why the inside needs to be coated with gold just like the outside. In response, they derive the principle of “tocho k’varo” — that our inner values must match our outward appearances if our community and our religious institutions can be places where God can truly dwell (B. Yoma 72b).

If the twinned problems of sexual harassment and cover-ups are out there in the wider community, then they’re in here, in our Jewish community.

Jewish communal leaders have also been guilty of such offenses. All of us have work to do to prevent harassment, sexual assault and devaluing or disrespectful language or behavior. This includes Jewish leaders who represent critical Jewish teachings and values such as dignity for all people — people who should be held to the highest standard for ethical behavior.

All of us, including in the Jewish world, are at risk of putting on one face in public but revealing a different one in private. We need to do the sacred work to ensure that what is on the inside matches what is on the outside.

The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia recognizes that we need to ensure our local Jewish organizations are truly embracing and living the ethical standards and values that we publicly promote, including the imperative of tocho k’varo.

As an organization, we have joined with Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia to create two half-day trainings for synagogue employees who hold supervisory responsibilities. These trainings, following the B’kavod: Safe, Respectful Jewish Workplaces curriculum, focus on the synagogue environment and provide crucial information and guidance to improve our communal institutions and to commit to making our synagogue communities safe and supportive environments.

And the Board of Rabbis recognizes we need to do still more — not just demanding that our communal leaders to take part in these crucial trainings, but engaging in them ourselves. As clergy we have an indispensable role to play both in understanding the dangers that people in positions of authority can fall into, and in modelling our own moral leadership by taking a clear stand against harassment and abusive conditions in our communities.

Therefore, the Board of Rabbis has worked with the B’kavod staff to create a special training program for rabbis and cantors, focusing on the issues we face as spiritual leaders. The training will take place next week, and we are subsidizing the cost for all participants to emphasize the vital importance we place on making sure our synagogues and the organizations where we work can be safe and supportive for all people who work, visit, and pray in them.

In a time of increasing awareness around this critical issue, our moral leadership demands that we take a proactive stance to help protect against dangers and dynamics that we know exist in the Jewish world, just as in the wider world. The two of us have solid feminist credentials and consider ourselves sensitive, aware and caring. Still, we understand that we — all of us — make mistakes and need to learn how to do better.

While there is no precipitating event in the local community that leads us to take this step, we believe that raising and responding to these issues is part of our commitment and responsibility as rabbis and spiritual leaders, and we are grateful for the opportunity for growth this program and the conversations that come out of it will provide.

The Ark was the place where, according to Torah, God’s presence was most directly manifest. If our synagogues are also to be houses of God, we need to ensure that, like the Ark, our inside matches our outside. Only when our highest values permeate every aspect of what we do, inside and out, are our synagogues worthy of being places where God’s presence can truly dwell.

Rabbi Joshua Waxman is spiritual leader of Congregation Or Hadash in Fort Washington and is president of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia. Rabbi Jill Maderer is senior rabbi of Congregation Rodeph Shalom in Philadelphia.

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