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Jewish community examines harassment and inequality in the #MeToo era


It’s time for the Jewish community to examine issues such as workplace harassment, gender discrimination and the wage gap between men and women, says Rabbi Stephen Wise, spiritual leader at Shaarei-Beth El Congregation in Oakville, Ont.

“We know this isn’t exclusive to Hollywood,” Rabbi Wise said.

Not long after stories of sexual harassment began coming out of the entertainment industry, Rabbi Wise started asking female rabbis and the women who work in his own synagogue about their experiences.

He said he started hearing stories, “About trying to get a job, comments from men about the way they dress, comments about the way they look or the fact that women are not paid as well as men in the Jewish world.”

Rabbi Wise decided that, “As rabbis, we don’t want to be in the ivory tower,” and with the Reform Rabbis of Greater Toronto, he organized a program to discuss workplace harassment. The evening, titled “Changing Realities: Judaism in the Age of #MeToo,” will be held on May 23 at Temple Sinai in Toronto.


Employment lawyer Janice Rubin, who specializes in workplace issues and sexual harassment, will discuss how Jewish ethics have influenced her work. Rubin, a co-founder and managing partner in the firm Rubin Tomlinson, investigated allegations about former CBC radio host Jian Ghomeshi, on behalf of the public broadcaster.

Rabbis Debra Landsberg (Temple Emanu-El), Yael Splansky (Holy Blossom Temple) and Erin Polansky (Neshamah Congregation) are also scheduled to speak at the event.

“Everybody has a story, but I don’t think this is the time to air our dirty laundry,” Rabbi Polansky said. “Our members need to know their Jewish community supports them and that synagogues are safe spaces to talk about anything.”

There are instances where there has been “inappropriate behaviour” by synagogue members toward rabbis, both men and women, and cases where rabbis have abused their positions, Rabbi Polansky said.

“We’re not saying that nothing has happened in the Jewish community, but we don’t need to put people on trial.”

Stephen Wise
Rabbi Stephen Wise

Rabbi Polansky hopes the evening will “acknowledge that people’s experiences are real,” and allow participants to share practical advice.

Rabbi Wise said that taking action on sexual harassment won’t stop with that evening. He has also organized a workshop for synagogue leaders, including clergy and executive directors, to discuss the problem in further depth and to work through various scenarios.

Rabbi Micah Streiffer of Temple Kol Ami in Thornhill, Ont., has prepared resources on the subject for Reform clergy, who are being asked to discuss issues of harassment and gender discrimination over Shavuot.

Shavuot, which is dedicated to Jewish learning and the time when the story of Ruth is traditionally read, is a perfect time to further explore these issues, Rabbi Wise said.

“In the Book of Ruth, there’s a moment with Boaz that could be interpreted in many different ways,” he said. “There’s room there to open the discussion.”

“Changing Realities: Judaism in the Age of #MeToo” will be held on May 23 at Temple Sinai, 210 Wilson Ave., at 7:30 p.m. There is no charge, but people are asked to RSVP to [email protected].

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