The JOFA Scandal Confirms that All Workplaces are Toxic
By Chanel Dubofsky and Alana Suskin
As we leave the seder table, one of the questions we might ask ourselves is “why are we doing this again?” Did we learn nothing from the last time? Did none of the questions or the lessons manage to stick? Apparently not. Each year new aspects come to light, and there are new iterations of pharaoh.
This year, maybe we should talk more about the crying out of the slaves who were oppressed with their labor. As we are rocked by the scandal coming out of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA), we must revisit the conversations about how women – and workers in general – are treated in the workplace. It seems we’re not yet capable of imagining ourselves as if we personally have left Egypt, instead continuing to make the case for why certain kinds of abusive behavior are acceptable – we’re just arguing about which ones.
In summary, on April 11, Bat Sheva Marcus, former board President of JOFA, published a self-congratulatory piece in Tablet magazine about her own behavior at JOFA (which was fairly damning, although she doesn’t seem to have noticed that). It’s unclear why she decided to write the piece then, but, according to the Forward, may be related to Zaakah urging JOFA to release former employees from non disclosure agreements (NDAs) regarding Marcus’s behavior. Former JOFA executive directors Elana Sztokman and Sharon Weiss-Greenberg have since detailed their experiences with Marcus and JOFA executives, as well as JOFA board members, in public Facebook posts.
Jewish communal and non-profit workplaces, as is quite well-known, are overwhelmingly staffed by women and are notoriously underpaid -even though executives are heavily male, and generally quite well-remunerated. These staff positions are vulnerable to the kind of anger and authoritarianism that we do not normally recognize as abusive, even though it is. And in many social media spaces created to discuss workplace matters in Jewish communal work, it is extremely common that when someone “posts a rant” about such behavior, there is a flood of agreement and specific examples.
While Marcus’s behavior has been declared “inappropriate” via an internal investigation, it wasn’t been deemed “harassment” by that same investigation. What we’re talking about, regardless of what an internal investigation tells us, is abusive behavior in the workplace. This particular case may have caught the Jewish community’s imagination, because of its salacious elements (a vibrator! An Orthodox sex therapist!). The online arguments ping-pong over whether what Marcus did was “actually” sexual harassment.
But really, who cares?
Those defending Marcus seem to believe that as long as she didn’t sexually abuse someone, perhaps even physically do so, “move along, there’s nothing to see here.” And this is the general attitude in American society as well. But the truth is that this particular case really highlights the problem because though it has sexual overtones, much of it is actually regular workplace problems – just done by someone who happens to use sexual language to be a bully. And that’s really the key here: we have created a society where workers are considered expendable, and abusive workplaces are considered “normal” – which is how we end up with only the most extreme cases being censured – and even then, even outright sexual harassment rarely results in any consequences for the harasser. It’s notable that it is a female-led and run organization that we are talking about. I wonder, had it been one run by men – as most are – with a woman being harassed, whether any notice would have been taken at all.
Why should sexual attacks on women by men be the minimum floor for even examining the problem? The fact that we consider so much abusive behavior the norm and acceptable is the actual problem, of which sexual harassment or abuse is a more extreme example. Where is the line about what’s sexual harassment? Why should it matter whether it’s sexual or not? Why are we hearing people say things like “It’s only mean boss behavior?” Why is it worse once sex comes into it? Why do we need to say “Oh, it’s sexual abuse” in order to take it seriously and name it as bad and unacceptable behavior?
We need to recognize the flaws embedded in the structure of work which allow those with power to harass and abuse workers “beneath” them and that those flaws are a regular feature of American workplaces: it’s not just about JOFA and it is not acceptable.
If you’ve ever worked in any non-profit organization, Jewish or not, you might have encountered the idea that your co-workers are “family,” and that the organization is innately fragile, either because of its financial reality, its ideology, or both. An organization with Orthodox feminist framework is still new and its existence disturbs the old boys network that until JOFA’s inception ran the show. And so no matter what’s going on on the inside, we hang on by our fingernails, putting what’s happening to us aside in the name of change-making. But if our boss makes us cry, so be it, we’ll deal with it, that’s not what the whole organization is about, after all. It’s not worth lighting it up, destroying everything that’s been built.
The Hasidic masters often identified the impulse to do evil with an internal pharaoh; it’s so much more difficult to address the harm we do when we identify with it and want to excuse it. We tolerate things in the name of the community, or of family, or of justice, that we probably know we shouldn’t. There are so many aspects to this problem that we know this essay is not the end of this conversation, and we invite your responses.