Rabbi Elyse Goldstein says an investigation into sexual harassment at a rabbinic seminary should be a ‘warning shofar blast’ to Jewish organizations everywhere

Rabbi Elyse Goldstein

Earlier this year, the board of governors of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, my rabbinic seminary, retained Morgan Lewis, a leading law firm, to conduct an independent investigation and thoroughly review allegations of past sexual harassment, gender bias, and other forms of inequitable treatment at HUC-JIR.

The report was released earlier this month—and it contained serious and credible allegations of gender and other forms of discrimination and sexual harassment at HUC-JIR, occurring over decades.

There were no secrets: the Jewish Telegraphic Agency picked up the story and soon every major Jewish and secular newspaper was shouting headlines about the misconduct of some of the prominent men who ordained me. Scores of former and current students bravely came forward to give witness to what we women instinctively felt for decades was going on behind closed doors.

If you think this report damns only HUC-JIR, think again.

It should give pause—and a warning shofar blast—to every synagogue, every JCC, every Federation, every Jewish institution where for too long there has been an underlying culture of mansplaining, tolerance of off-colour locker-room men’s talk, behind doors rating of women’s looks, men’s voices overtaking and getting credit for women’s ideas, women being paid less than men for the same work, women being overlooked for promotions and senior positions. Women being assumed to “want” less responsibility or less religious privilege has been the backdrop of women’s experiences.

Are we so sure of our righteousness that we don’t hear the white noise of sexism which quietly still plays in the background of our own community?

Ask a woman who works in construction, or in a restaurant kitchen, or in the police force or the army, about the men who use their power to subjugate and control.  Now ask a female rabbi, professor, doctor or lawyer. Then do not be surprised, but be—with me—disillusioned, disheartened, angry, and sad.

When I arrived in Toronto in 1983,  the only female rabbi in this country in those first years, I was blessed to work with Rabbi Dow Marmur, who did not suffer fools lightly and did not tolerate even the slightest suggestion that my rabbinate be viewed as different from his. But still, I paid the price every woman in the 1980s paid for being the only woman in a room full of powerful men. I was ignored and made invisible, teased and questioned about my motivation for being a rabbi, criticized for the same strong opinions a male rabbi would be praised as having, made to present my credentials over and over, condescended to and patronized and called “dear” and “sweetie” too many times to count. 

Told to back down and not rush on the feminist stuff. Told to dress down and not be too feminine but also dress up and not be too masculine. I consider myself lucky that only a few male congregants tried to kiss me on the mouth or squeeze my waist on the Oneg Shabbat reception line, or told me how sexy they found it to listen to me or see me on the bimah.

I was an exotic specimen in the ’80s and I accepted that, as all the female rabbis of my class did. I counted on my male colleagues to be my allies and they often were, but equally often they simply did not understand why I was making such a fuss. In the years since, we have all grown wiser and gentler and more aware, and their shared disheartened reactions to the report have heartened me.

I consider myself naive that I didn’t “really” know what these professors were doing, and blessed that none of them ever accosted me. Somehow, I still learned some good Torah from them, though now those lessons leave a bitter taste in my mouth. When I look at my semikhah, I see their signatures on it through tears.

The investigation was done with deep intent to begin a process of vidui (confession), and teshuvah (repentance).  That brings me some comfort. I await HUC-JIR’s action plan to manifest that intent, and I’ll welcome the Toronto Jewish community’s soul-searching to put its own house in order as well.

Rabbi Elyse Goldstein is the founding rabbi of City Shul in downtown Toronto, and was the first female president of the Toronto Board of Rabbis.