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Bullying, exclusion ‘common’ for women and non-binary people in Jewish organisations

Deborah Stone
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PLUS61J 53 (9)

DEBORAH STONE: A survey of Jewish community workers has found that gender-based discrimination is widespread across community groups, synagogues and schools

BULLYING AND EXCLUSION are common experiences for women and non-binary people working in Jewish organisations, a survey of Jewish community workers has found.

Gender-based discrimination is widespread, with progressive and left-wing organisations just as likely to have problems as those in the conservative or Orthodox spheres, despite stated ideological commitments to equality.

The study found few cases of sexual violence or sexual harassment but a great many cases where women and minorities were excluded from decision-making, refused access to important information or ostracised.

The survey was conducted by Associate Professor David Slucki and Dr Jordana Silverstein from the Australian Centre for Jewish Civilisation at Monash University, with Dr Karla Elliott, a lecturer in sociology at Monash. The project is the first to be supported by the Kerryn Baker Memorial Endowment for Gender Research, established in the ACJC in memory of the late Dr Kerryn Baker.

The research analysed data from 462 respondents, both current and former workers in Jewish community organisations including synagogues, schools and community groups.

Underpinning many of the problems is a pervasive mythology that a communal organisation is “like a family,” and therefore does not require the formal processes of a professional workplace, the study found.
Associate Professor Slucki, who holds the Loti Smorgon Research Chair in Contemporary Jewish Life and Culture, said the language of family used by community organisations was covering up problems.

While many people working in communal organisations had positive experiences and enjoyed the sense of contributing to something they believe in, it was disingenuous to think a workplace could or should behave like a family – or that feeling “like a family” meant no one would be maltreated.

“We need to ditch the family metaphor,” said Associate Professor Slucki. “People use it to leverage power imbalances and it sweeps problems under the rug. A workplace should not talk about itself as a family. It’s a place where people earn their living, and they have the right to be treated professionally.”

He said being part of a small community made it harder for people to report problems and seek justice. “There are added layers of shame and complication. This might be the shul you go to or the school where your children go to. Even if you choose to send your children to a different school, our lives are so intertwined.

“You don’t want to cause problems for someone because you know his wife and children and you don’t want him to lose his job. There’s also the dimension of it being a shande fur die goyim (shame in front of non-Jews). We don’t want to air our dirty laundry in public.”

Associate Professor Slucki said no part of the community was immune from the problems the survey had identified. “We didn’t find a significant difference between Orthodox and Progressive organisations. It’s not as simple as that. Progressive and left-wing organisations, even those that outwardly talk about equality, still have these problems.”

Dr Silverstein said Jewish organisations were no different from other workplaces in reflecting the patriarchy. “We live in Australia, and we reflect the structure of contemporary society. There’s nothing particularly unusual about what is happening in the Jewish community. Men dominate boards, even in organisations which are run by women.

“Where there are women leaders, they tend to be given the title Executive Director, where men tend to be called CEO. Even in the youth movements, the male leaders, the madrichim, tend to be seen as the cool ones, where the females are not looked up to in that way. These are problems of our entire society that have a Jewish communal dimension.”

She said her personal experience working in Jewish communal organisations was consistent with the results of the study. “I saw Jewish organisations where older men had trouble working with women and with non-binary, queer or gender fluid individuals and it became an unworkable situation.”

The study sought to assess the impact of #MakeSpaceForHer, a gender equity campaign launched by the National Council of Jewish Women Australia Victoria in 2019, in response to the fact that only 14% of communal board members were women.

The campaign asks communal organisations to take a pledge to equity, but the study found awareness of the campaign was low, not many organisations had taken the pledge, and those who had were those that least needed to do so.

Recommendations for improving Jewish workplaces including training in creating workplace policies, safety systems, gender-neutral language, and mental health; better workplace systems, career progression and wages; ensuring boards and panels have equal numbers of men and women; and including minority groups that reflect the diversity of the community.

Dr Silverstein said it was important that the responsibility for change did not fall solely on women and minorities. “Organisations need to think broadly about what good leaders look like, who undertakes leadership and why. We need to think in feminist ways about what is democratic and what perpetuates the status quo and what can bring down the hierarchies.”

Like a Family: An Investigation into Gender in Melbourne’s Jewish Organisations will be available during October on the ACJC website.

The findings and recommendations from the research will be presented in an online lecture entitled ‘Me Too’ and the Jewish community, on Wednesday, October 13, 7.30pm– 9.30pm. Register here.

Illustration: Avi Katz

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