I was deeply saddened when I learned what happened between the board members of JOFA and its professional staff. Allegations of sexual harassment were brought to the JOFA board by an employee, and the board neglected to adequately pursue these allegations in a timely fashion.
It pains me that JOFA, which was founded to promote women’s active participation in Jewish ritual and to advocate for the rights and needs of Jewish women, did such a poor job in recognizing the vulnerability of its own employees. As a religious Jewish feminist, I feel a particular sense of grief and anger at JOFA’s years-long refusal to face this shameful behavior head-on and take responsibility for its inaction as the behavior occurred.
JOFA is an organization that has regularly called out others for their insensitivities. JOFA has taken others to task for not recognizing and protecting women who are vulnerable. Shame on JOFA for not recognizing what was happening in its own walls.
Bat Sheva Marcus was the president of the JOFA board, and it was against her that these allegations were brought. Bat Sheva made mistakes of judgment. She believed her conversations with JOFA employees were consensual and agreed upon. She believed her behavior was wanted and appreciated. Bat Sheva failed to recognize the pain she caused to others and failed to carefully attend to the power dynamics of her relationships. Bat Sheva made mistakes that I believe she has not fully acknowledged.
And Bat Sheva is also much more than these mistakes. Bat Sheva Marcus is a hospitable, philanthropic, and generous woman. As the clinical director of Maze Women’s Sexual Health, Bat Sheva has had many, many helpful conversations with hundreds of individuals over decades.
In addition to the anger and deep disappointment that I feel, I call upon our Jewish community to work towards a deeper understanding of these difficult occurrences. We need to be able to accommodate the complexity of human beings. We need to hold individuals responsible for their misjudgments and misbehaviors, and we need to consider the totality of these individuals. Character assassination does not further our understanding of human behavior.
We are angry at those who use intrusive and insensitive language because these individuals lack the understanding that their words and behaviors have damaging effects. The public discourse about this situation is not accurate with its own use of language. We need to make clear distinctions between abuse, harassment, and causing discomfort. None of these behaviors are acceptable, and when describing these behaviors, we cannot and should not use these words interchangeably.
As a society we have demonstrated the capacity to hold on to contradictory ideas. The basis of JOFA — Jewish Orthodox Feminism — is considered by many to be a contradictory idea. To be a feminist and an Orthodox Jew can be filled with contradictions. Let us use that same capacity to understand these contradictory ideas to grasp this truth: good people do bad things. That does not make them bad people. Good and important organizations make mistakes; that doesn’t negate the decades of important contributions made by these organizations.
The lesson that I have learned from these very troubling series of events, beyond our call for external accountability, is to look inward. I encourage all of us to ask ourselves — each and every one of us — whom have I hurt? To whom do I need to listen when I am confronted by others? Many of us are in positions of authority — professional, social, familial, and religious authority. We must be extremely careful how and what we say to the people over whom we have power. We all need to do better. We all need to judge ourselves at least as carefully as we judge others.
We are in the weeks of counting the Omer. We are marking time from our Exodus from Egypt to our arrival at Mount Sinai. These are times of reflection and preparation. Let us use this time to work on ourselves, to be kinder and more thoughtful, and to judge with compassion. Let us strive for self-reflection and nuance; for taking responsibility and compassion; and for owning our mistakes.