Any woman who thinks she is safe from sexual harassment and assault just because she is working or socializing in a Jewish space should think again.
Last month, social media users found their Facebook and Twitter feeds flooded with “#MeToo” posts from women disclosing that they too had been victims of sexual assault or harassment. Within two days after the initiative was launched by actress Alyssa Milano, “#MeToo” had been tweeted about a million times, according to CBS News. Facebook displayed more than 12 million “posts, comments and reactions in less than 24 hours, by 4.7 million users around the world.”
While Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein’s sexual assaults became national news, with more than 80 women coming forward with personal accounts of sexual abuse by the film producer, many women in Pittsburgh’s Jewish community were reminded of traumatic episodes in their own lives, often occurring within Jewish institutions, or perpetrated by Jewish men whom they had been taught to trust.
Some of the local accounts occurred years ago, yet several of the victims were reluctant to share their stories publicly for fear of “backlash,” as one source put it — even given the assurance of anonymity.
Those who did agree to go on the record for the Chronicle have been given pseudonyms to protect their identities.
Sara, an executive at a local Jewish organization, still feels betrayed when she recalls being molested twice when she was in her teens: first by a teacher at the Jewish high school in Canada she was attending, and then by the husband of a faculty member who worked at that high school after a Shabbat dinner at their home.
“It happened 40 years ago, but I can say that it made me stronger,” Sara said. “But whenever I drive by the places where it happened, it still conjures up bad memories.”
Sara remembered sitting in the last row of a bus while traveling with a troupe of Jewish actors to perform in a show. A teacher at her Jewish high school was sitting next to her and put his hand “down and up my shirt,” she said.
“He was not much older than me, but I was under 18,” Sara said. “This was not accidental touching. I remember the guy and I remember his name. He was married to a woman that I knew. I didn’t feel physically in danger, but I felt physically violated. And I had to keep seeing him and his wife again.”
Sara did not tell anyone what happened.
“This was the mid- ’70s,” she said. “There was no reporting. First of all, it’s a guy you know, and he’s a teacher, so that’s a challenge. Then, you know the wife, so that’s another challenge.”
Sara recalled the other incident that happened in a Jewish context that has left its mark on her psyche.
She had been invited to Shabbat dinner at the home of a female faculty member to whom Sara had grown close and confided during the time of her parents’ divorce. After dinner, the woman offered that her husband would drive Sara home.
“I knew this man from synagogue and from being at their house for dinner,” Sara said. “We got in the car, and he drove about a half mile from his house, then pulled over to the side of the road. He’s bigger than I am and much older — a generation older. He’s in his 40s, with grown children. He reached over and grabbed me by the shoulders, and threatened me to not tell his wife.”
He pulled Sara toward him and began to take off her clothes.
“I remember yelling, kicking and reaching for the door,” she said. “He kept threatening that if I told his wife, I would lose her [as a confidant]. But I got the hell out of Dodge.”
Sara walked home and told herself she would never tell anyone what happened until he died. She wanted to protect his wife, she said.
“Part of not coming forward is thinking, ‘Do you want to ruin their life?’” she said. “But part of me wonders if he did it to someone else.”
Sara knows it is important to tell these stories to empower other women.
We need to talk about it, to tell our daughters these things happen and that it’s OK to fight back,” she said. “And I hope people don’t think they are insulated in a Jewish setting.
Rebecca, an executive now in her 50s and living in a Pittsburgh suburb, can still remember her fear of being raped in a grapefruit grove while volunteering on a kibbutz in Israel when she was a college student.
“I was 19,” she recalled. “I was on a six-week program with AZYF [American Zionist Youth Foundation], and we were spending four weeks working on a kibbutz. This guy had been the field adviser, and he had taken us out in trucks to the cotton fields. We were weeding. He asked me to go with him to get the group its morning snack.”
When they got to the grapefruit grove, he began chasing Rebecca, with the intent to rape her, she said.
“I somehow convinced him not to,” she said. “I told him that I was religious and would be ruined if he violated me. He had a wife and kids on the kibbutz. I think he was in his 40s.”
She recalled being “really scared.”
She also felt “betrayed.”
“I felt like I was in a safe space,” she said. “It didn’t occur to me that this could happen, or that Jews would do this.”
Rebecca did report the incident to the head of the program, who was “horrified,” she said. And she never saw her attacker again.
For Rachael, a Squirrel Hill native now in her 40s, a sexual assault in the gym at Congregation Beth Shalom that occurred when she was in middle school is still etched in her memory.
“I think I was 13 or 14,” she said. “I hadn’t been to Beth Shalom in a while and I was in the gym on the fourth floor playing with a basketball. There was this guy who was probably about 18 and he was also playing with a basketball. He came up behind me and pressed his body against mine.”
Rachael later found out who he was and that he was Jewish. She was not scared, she said, and she did not report the incident to anyone.
Now she wonders if she should have told someone.
“Maybe I should have said something,” she said, adding that now she had some feelings of guilt because of the possibility that he could have assaulted other girls too.
On Nov. 12, the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh will host a program called “#MeToo, a Jewish Perspective” as part of the Global Day of Jewish Learning. The study session about harassment and abuse will feature Foundation Scholar Rabbi Danny Schiff and Danielle Kranjec, the Hillel Jewish University Center senior Jewish educator.
“Any sexually abusive behavior is patently unacceptable,” Schiff said. “Nevertheless, it has become absolutely clear that abusive behavior toward women is rife in our society.”
Schiff and Kranjec will be addressing abuse through the lens of Jewish texts.
“We want to reflect on the instances of sexual abuse within our sources and the reality that the sexual abuse of women is by no means a new phenomenon,” Schiff said. “Most importantly, we want to explore the insights offered by our tradition as we attempt to address the widespread misconduct from which far too many continue to suffer.” PJC
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at