Episode 24: Archiving #MeToo (Transcript)

Episode 24: Archiving #MeToo

[Theme music]

Nahanni Rous: Welcome back to Can We Talk, the podcast of the Jewish Women’s Archive.  I’m Nahanni Rous.

Judith Rosenbaum: And I’m Judith Rosenbaum.

Nahanni: The MeToo movement has been gaining momentum for a year now, and it’s had global impact.  More and more women are speaking up publicly about sexual assault and harassment. They're refusing to be ignored and they’re proving that their stories can create change.  

Judith: But what does MeToo look like in the Jewish community? What are the obstacles we face in our community and in our institutions when it comes to speaking up about sexual misconduct?  

Nahanni: This time on Can We Talk: MeToo in the Jewish community.  We’ll hear stories from Archiving MeToo, the story collecting project created by the Jewish Women’s Archive... we’ll get Judith's take on how the MeToo movement is impacting the Jewish community.  And later in the show, historian Keren McGinity talks about being sexually harassed and assaulted by a prominent Jewish academic… and what happened when she came forward.

Keren McGinity: This is not lashon hara, this is not gossiping or hurting someone’s good name.  This is about what’s right and what’s wrong this is about what’s helpful and what’s hurtful. 

[Theme music fades]

Nahanni: Nine months ago, the Jewish Women’s Archive launched a project called Archiving MeToo. Judith, can you tell us about the project?

Judith: Sure. As soon as the #Metoo moveemtn started to unfold, we knew that this was a historically significant moment, and that it needed to be documented in ways that are more permanent than social media. So we created the collection to provide a place for women and people of all genders to share their experiences with sexual assault and harassment-- both within the Jewish community and beyond it.  So there’s a web form on the JWA site where people submit their MeToo stories in writing or audio. And people who share their stories can be anonymous and can set the permissions and restrictions as to how story can be used. Our goal is really to document the depth and the texture of gender abuse in our society and to preserve this moment in history. 

Nahanni: What kinds of stories have you been collecting?

Judith: So many different kinds.  The stories span more than 50 years, several generations, and they’re from multiple countries.  They range from daily indignities to violent rape.  A lot of people have shared their stories anonymously, and most of them don’t name perpetrators.  The goal here is not to out offenders-- but to create a collective archive of experience.

Nahanni: So let’s listen to some excerpts, read here by members of the JWA staff.

Judith: And a note beforehand, some of these excerpts contain depictions of sexual assault.

Woman 1: When I was twelve I was raped by an older boy at Jewish summer camp. He was my "boyfriend", but he was 16 and had a good foot on me. We escaped one night to go kiss in the forest, but he had other plans. I didn't realize what had happened to me until it was over.  This happened at a Jewish summer camp. It's happening in our institutions, where our children should feel safe and joyful. We have to be more vigilant and teach young men what not to do.  :29

Woman 2: On January 13, 2017 the director of my campus Hillel sexually assaulted me.  I spoke to the rabbi and she just wanted to keep it quiet.  I filled out a police report but it went nowhere.  I didn't get any results and there could be more victims.  It's a mistake to think you're safer in a Jewish environment.  :19

Woman 3: My temple youth group director invited his friend to a youth group event. The two of them - men in their early thirties - invited me and two of my friends to a hot tub with them. They had us sit on their laps. We were twelve. 

Woman 4: I am a Cantor. In a previous congregation, 10 years ago, the Temple president’s husband always creeped me out, but I was always nice and kept a smile on my face. He would always try to put his arm around me, even in front of my husband. One Erev Shabbat, this man was assigned to bima duty and sat next to me. During a moment when I was not at my lecturn and was sitting next to him, he leaned over and whispered, “I finally have you alone, all to myself.” I said nothing and just laughed it off. During that week, I reported it to the Rabbi, who said, “If he hadn’t done this before, you wouldn’t have been believed.” I was floored! Why would I make this up? What would I have to gain? If this man had a history of being inappropriate with young women, why was he permitted to sit next to me? Why wasn’t I warned about his behavior?  1:00

Judith: These questions appear a lot in the Archiving MeToo stories: Why wasn’t I warned? Why wasn’t I believed?  Why is a man’s reputation more important than my safety?  Some women have wondered if they’ve helped normalize sexual misconduct by not acknowledging that certain experiences counted as harassment or assault.  These questions are posed again and again-- with pain, with incredulity, and with anger.

Nahanni: There are other projects currently in the Jewish community aimed at addressing sexual misconduct. What’s different about the Archiving MeToo project?

Judith: It’s tempting, when faced with painful accounts like those of the #metoo movement, to want to turn immediately to solutions and policies. It’s hard to listen to #metoo stories and to take in their magnitude and deep roots. But these stories demand some time and attention, and we want to make sure they are recorded and heard. We believe there should be many ways to share #metoo stories, and we believe that the act of storytelling in itself can be a source of strength.  Some people want to share their stories publicly and to pursue justice through the legal system. Others don’t want to relive trauma or face their abusers, and that’s their right.  We’ve created a way for people to share their stories in whatever way they wish… and we think that’s important because it allows people who might otherwise not speak up to share their stories, to add them to the historical record, and to be heard in a way that feels safe….  But obviously, public testimony has played an important role in this movement. 

Nahanni: That’s true, and that’s a good segway into Keren McGinity’s story. You and I spoke with her recently. Can you tell our listeners who she is? 

Judith: I can! Keren is the director of the Interfaith Families Jewish Engagement graduate program at Hebrew College, and the author of two books about the history of intermarriage. She joined us recently to share her own MeToo story and to talk about how that movement is affecting the Jewish community.

Nahanni: Keren, thank you so much for being with us.


Keren: Thank you for inviting me.

Nahanni: So, let’s go back to 2011. You were reaching the end of a fellowship, and were entering the academic job market. You were at a Jewish Studies conference, and went to dinner with a senior colleague who had offered to discuss career prospects with her.  This was Steven Cohen.  You told us that when you met with him, you expected to have a converstaion about your career-- basically, to be taken seriously as a scholar-- but it turned out differently.  What happened?

Keren: The dinner did not transpire as I had thought that it would-- during the course of the meal, he reached across the table and took my hand in his, and kind of held on to it and asked me a lot of probing questions.  I was greatly relieved when the dinner was over.  And we walked many blocks back to the conference hotel and he rode up in the elevator with me and got off the elevator with me and mentioned something about going back to my room which I firmly said no and goodnight… at which point he kind of wrapped his body around me and kissed me in a manner that would only be suitable for people who were consentually lovers, at which point I rushed back to my room. 

Nahanni: What happened next? How did you react?  Did you confront him?

Keren: Well, I reacted initially by being extremely shaken and upset.  It was a kind of betrayal that I hadn’t experienced before from someone who worked in the Jewish communal world.  I had, like many women, had experiences with sexual harassment and assaults over the course of my lifetime, but never from someone under a pretense of professional guidance.  

Keren: I was kind of paralyzed in the sense that I didn’t know what to do.  Given our different power dynamics, I did not think about confronting him.  And from that point on whenever we crossed paths, which unfortunately, we did because we were in the same social science circles… I would keep him at more than arms length and it was extremely uncomfortable to be anywhere in the vicinity of him.  I would dart around a room to keep away, or otherwise sit with someone that I felt more comfortable with.

Nahanni: Were you afraid that your pushing him away could have consequences for your career?

Keren: It wasn’t so much that I was concerned that by rejecting his sexual overtures that I would face repercussions exactly, but more that it… it wouldn’t open doors, for sure.  He was in a position of power, and I think it was more about not saying anything that would expose him, call him out for his behavior that I was afraid of doing.  That there could be personal and professional consequences.  

Nahanni: Were you think about all of this when it was actually happening?  What was going through your mind at the time?

Keren: When he reached across the table and took my hand I remember thinking, “What is he doing?  And why is he doing that?” I gingerly moved my hand back to my side of the table, out of kind of a concern… Like, I didn’t want to upset him in that context.  I didn’t want to hurt his ego.  And therefore I tried to steer the conversation back to professional topics and questions and networking and career building, rather than my personal love life.  I was not interested in exchanging favors of any kind.

Nahanni: Yeah.

Nahanni: Ok, so this was all in 2011. Now, this past summer-- June and July 2018--  you wrote an oped about this experience in the Jewish Week, and your op-ed was quickly followed up by an article in which multiple women described similar experiences with Steven Cohen.  How did you get to the point where you decided to make this story public?

Keren: There were a number of variables that went into me deciding to write that op-ed.  As the MeToo movement went on, I began to realize that by staying silent, I was inadvertently complicit in protecting sexual predators.  I mean I knew from the MeToo movement that the issue was much bigger than my own story and this one man.  And I also had wondered why didn’t I know what I wish I had, because then I wouldn’t have had dinner with him in the first place… and what about other women who wouldn’t know and the thought of other women being in that position weighed very heavily on my shoulders and  I was compelled to write it.  I had to do it.

Nahanni: So how did it feel then to be part of stepping forward and actually naming Stephen Cohen as the perpetrator?  

Keren: I was scared, and nervous. There were so many unknowns.

Nahanni: Like what?

Keren: How would he react? I had no idea.  What would people think?  Would people question what I said?  Would they question my scholarship?  What would happen next? Would anyone do anything to change the structure in the systems that allow that kind of behavior to go unchecked?

Nahanni: And can you talk about what has happened in the past couple months since you came forward with the story?

Keren: Sure.  That’s the upside of the story.  The response was immediate and overwhelmingly positive… I received incredible words of compassion and understanding and solidarity and gratitude.

Nahanni: Were you surprised by that?

Keren: I was.  I took a personal and a professional risk.  It seemed like a dam had been broken and there was a flood of communication and experiences that other people had had both with Steven Cohen and with other individuals. 

Nahanni: So after you and other women came forward, Hebrew Union College, where Cohen was employed, opened a Title 9 investigation, and he resigned.  He has admited-- or says he doesn’t deny-- some of the allegations against him.  So, let’s bring Judith in here.  Both of you have been involved in different forums that are trying to address sexual assault and harassment in the Jewish community.  Can you talk about some of the particular challenges?

Judith: Sure.  So first of all I want to thank you Keren for sharing your story I know it’s not easy to do and it doesn’t necessarily get easier to do it again and again… 

Judith: A few months ago before Keren’s piece and everything that has unfolded since then, I was really feeling some despair looking around the Jewish community and saying, really, is the Jewish community incapable of facing its perpetrators and bringing them down?  So now, ok, we’ve made a little bit of progress… But there are a lot of other stories out there, some of which have yet to come to light and I think one of the things that’s been really interesting for me as a communal professional is to see how much resistance there still is to acknowledging that the problems of the whole world also exist in the Jewish community … it’s almost like a joke, right, like “Oh does that really happen here?” and “But we’re Jews and we’re so menchy and our communities are so heimish” and you know, all these kinds of ways of basically not wanting to air dirty laundry or recognize that Jews are humans and therefore fallible just like anyone else and in fact here’s a lot of patriarchy baked into our culture.

Keren: I think that was part of what fed into my initial hesitation to come forward... There’s definitely a false sense of security which we’re slowly dismantling and that needs to be dismantled, in every realm of the Jewish community and the larger American community…  I recently had the opportunity to collaborate with women of other faith backgrounds and to hear their stories, and I think it’s important to realize that no community is immune.

Judith: Yeah. It’s part of also I think about from whose perspective are we seeing things.  So even the claim that well this community is like a family and so it should feel safe and secure and all these things… like well, that isn’t what family always means to women… Right, like we know from research about violence against women that the family is actually the least safe place for women.  So it maybe shouldn’t feel surprising that in a community that’s designed to feel like a family, there are also dangers to women that come along with that.

Keren: Exactly. And unfortunately women who did try to come forward before MeToo really experienced the brunt of that. Because they were told “oh he wouldn’t do that, or “you’re going to ruin his career,” “he has a family.” And I feel extremely fortunate that I didn’t hear anything like that.  And I will say, as much as I don’t like to revisit my own experiences, I do feel stronger now than I did, and know that there are other people who are rocking the boat with me.  And ultimately, it isn’t just about helping women, it’s about equality-- and it’s about working together, all of us, all genders, in order to make our communities, our lives, and the world better!  So there’s a lot of work to do, and a lot of educating and reeducating. And I include myself in that because I am a product of our society and I know that contributed to my initial frozenness and hesitation.  Even growing up and being taught, you know, if you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say it. 

Judith: As somebody who spends my life collecting and immersing myself in the stories of women’s lives, I also want to be very respectful of the fact that women have no… it is their right to tell their story or not tell their story.  And no one has the responsibility to share something if she doesn’t want to. And I guess maybe a question for you Keren, is as someone who has taken that risk of speaking up and putting yourself out there in that way, what can the Jewish community do to make it safer and easier for people?

Keren: Well I think the Jewish community has already begun doing that, which I’m very very glad to see…   I think that we need to normalize it, and we need to make a connection between coming forward, speaking out, point out bad behavior and abuses of power as being consistent with Jewish values and with Jewish tradition and with Judaism and not antithetical to them.  This is not lashon hara, this is not gossiping or hurting someone’s good name.  This is about what’s right and what’s wrong. This is about what is helpful, and what is hurtful.  We need to internalize that, and reach people within the Jewish community for whom that is hardest.  And ultimately we need to put more women in positions of power, and to try to understand what is it between the relationship between power and corruption, power and abuse of power, power and sexual harassment and assault.  Because not everyone who has power acts in the ways that sexual predators do.

Judith: And people do from all genders.  So it’s not that we need to put women in positions of power because women don’t do bad things, but just because it will require a complete resetting of power structures if we upset the current gender imbalance and that will itself create change.

Keren: Amen.

Nahanni: Keren, thank you so much for talking with us and sharing your story.

Judith: Yes, we’re really grateful to you.

Keren: Thank you for including my voice. 

Nahanni: So… Judith.  Reflections?  What are some of the ripple effects of Keren’s story?

Judith: Well, I think one of the questions her story raises-- and this is something that people in Jewish academic circles are thinking about-- is the relationship between Cohen’s behavior and his work.  His work has had such an outsized influence on American Jewish life over the past… well... several decades. Cohen was a well funded sociologist of American Jewish life. He studied marriage, intermarriage, fertility rates-- things that are very much connected to gender roles.  And often, his findings emphasized the importance of Jewish women marrying, producing Jewish babies, and raising Jewish children.  We might see that research in a different light given what we now know about his behavior towards women.

Nahanni: Can you describe some of the other initiatives in the Jewish community to confront sexual assault and harassment?

Judith: Yeah there are a lot of different projects that are doing great work and JWA is really proud to be working with some of them. The GamAni FB group - important community. B’Kavod - info line, support for people reporting, professional training. There’s an organization called Sacred Spaces - already doing this work with Jewish organizations, to help create training and policies.  There’s a new group focusing on gender equity in hiring in the Jewish community.

And the Women’s Rabbinic Network is also doing trainings, specifically with rabbinic and cantorial students

And all of these groups and individuals from them and others are part of the Safety and Equity Coalition and we have recently received some funding from the Coalition to support our Archiving MeToo project.

Nahanni: Let’s get back to the Archiving MeToo project with this story that involves a woman’s experience with the board chair of her institution.

Woman 5: I am an Orthodox Jewish woman and was the executive director of a newly formed JCRC. My board chair repeatedly would comment on my clothing that I didn't dress "like I was Orthodox" and my skirts were too short to be Orthodox. I reached out to other Executive Committee members and was told I should be careful and to let this go. When I requested regularly scheduled meetings with the board chair (rather than him just showing up in my office, which he did) he told me "I spend as much time with you as your husband, at least he gets benefits." 

Nahanni: So this is coming from a man who she is expected to act warmly toward because he’s a major donor to her institution. 

Judith: Yes, the relationship between money, power, and its abuse is so stark here, and in a lot of these stories. This is an issue where there’s still a lot of work to be done in the Jewish community. The Jewish community has proven that it’s willing to hold a powerful academic accountable for his behavior. But it remains to be seen if we’re willing to do the same with major funders of our institutions.

Nahanni: Let’s hear one last excerpt from the collection.  It’s from a woman reflecting on something that happened decades ago, when she was young. 

Woman 6: On a Friday night in Jerusalem, a young man asked if he could walk me home from synagogue. I was about 20 years old, and we both prayed in this well-known, Orthodox shul. When we reached my apartment building, he began to walk upstairs with me to my apartment. I thought it strange, but didn't object. At my door, I unlocked it, and suddenly he followed me in, then pinned me up against the wall and humped me until he came. Then he left. I have thought about this a great deal since then. He went on to finish law school and became a judge in Jerusalem. It sickened me to think he was now judging others.

Nahanni: Judith, how do you take in all these stories and process them yourself?

 Judith: It’s not easy. This year has been really hard and emotionally exhausting. From the moment the MeToo movement started, people started sharing their stories with me, I think because of my role at JWA, and that’s part of what motivated us to start the Archiving MeToo project. I check in with my staff who work with this material to make sure they’re doing ok. And personally, because of the work I do, I feel a deep sense of responsibility to carry women’s  stories -- and when those stories are dismissed or devalued, it hits me really hard - not just as a woman but as a historian of women’s lives. 

Judith: And to get back to the specific story we just heard, it’s even more painful when we consider the ripple effects of having misogynists and abusers in positions of power. They may be making policies that affect our lives. They may create workplaces that exclude women, or discourage our participation. They shape our culture in ways that are not always visible, and then we consume that culture and it influences how we see and understand the world... so it’s really about much more than just holding a few people accountable. It’s much larger than a few individual stories.

Nahanni: And yet, the MeToo movement is built on the power of individual stories-- and what the sum of them tells us about our society. 

Judith: Yeah, the collection as a whole gives us a picture of just how pervasive this kind of behavior is. Many stories describe the everyday sexism women face and, frankly, learn to accommodate. A lot of women say it took them awhile to figure out what they had experienced was not ok, and “counted” as a #metoo story. 

Nahanni: They had rationalized it for so long that it seemed normal.

Judith: Yeah.  I think another important take-away is the healing potential of sharing your story. Several women have told us that this is the first time they’re telling anyone, and it was a relief to do so and to feel witnessed and affirmed. I’m glad that JWA can hold these stories, and enable some healing.  

Nahanni: If you, our listeners, have a story you’d like to share as part of JWA’s Archiving MeToo project, please visit jwa.org/metoo and add it to the historical record.  

Judith: You can submit stories anonymously, and you decide if and how you want JWA to share your story.

[Theme music] 

Nahanni: Thank you for joining Can We Talk, the podcast of the Jewish Women’s Archive. A warm welcome to our new production assistant, Becky Long. Thanks to our readers, Dina Adelsky, Rachel King, Mikki Pugh, Larisa Klebe, Abby Belyea and Becky Long. Special thanks to Keren McGinity.  Ibby Caputo edits our scripts. Our theme music is by Girls in Trouble.  

Nahanni: Visit us online at jwa.org/canwetalk. You can also find Can We Talk just about anywhere you get your podcasts.

Judith: We’re looking for sponsors for Can We Talk! Please get in touch with us. You can also help us produce more episodes by making a donation at jwa.org/donate.

Judith: Thanks for being with us. I’m Judith Rosenbaum.

Nahanni: And I’m Nahanni Rous. See you again next month.


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Jewish Women's Archive. "Episode 24: Archiving #MeToo (Transcript)." (Viewed on May 18, 2024) <http://jwa.org/podcasts/canwetalk/episode-24-archiving-metoo/transcript>.