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Sexual harassment allegations rock Orthodox Jewish feminist group
JTA — For years, two former executive directors of a pioneering group for Orthodox Jewish feminists believed that they had been retaliated against for raising concerns about the behavior of the group’s board chair, a prominent sex therapist who had been the subject of a glowing profile in the New York Times.
They had chronicled alleged bullying, demeaning comments about their appearance, inappropriate sex talk and, for one of them, the uncomfortable experience of being given a vibrator unsolicited by one’s boss.
But even as the #MeToo movement swept the country, eliciting revelation after revelation about workplace harassment and abuse, the women stayed publicly silent. They had promised not to reveal their experiences or their criticism when they left the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, one after being fired and the other after resigning unhappily.
According to the promises they made in their separation agreements, known as non-disclosure agreements or NDAs, the women would be subject to legal consequences if they disparaged their former employer, even “anonymously or otherwise.”
Then, on Monday, the sex therapist, Bat Sheva Marcus, revealed the entire saga in an explosive essay published in Tablet.
In the essay, she describes a former employee named “Sarah” who, Marcus alleges, accused her of workplace harassment over some “lighthearted remarks” that were blown out of proportion, prompting an outside investigation of her leadership at JOFA, and leading her to resign under pressure as board chair.
The essay has vaulted the tensions at JOFA into public view, raising questions about whether a group founded to disrupt oppressive gender dynamics ended up reinforcing them. Now, some with ties to JOFA are reconsidering them, while meanwhile pressure is growing on a liberal Modern Orthodox yeshiva to distance itself from Marcus, who sits on its board and co-hosts a sex-focused podcast with its head rabbi.
As Facebook filled with critical accounts of Marcus’s behavior and expressions of solidarity with “Sarah,” JOFA announced that it would drop the practice of requiring NDAs for employees who depart.
“This past week has caused us, once again, to ask ourselves hard questions. While it is true that we used non-disparagement clauses within separation agreements, we have never enforced them. We now understand that is not enough,” Pam Scheininger, JOFA’s president, said in a statement posted to the group’s website Wednesday that did not mention Marcus by name. “We recognize that part of healing is stating unequivocally that people have the right to speak their truths.”
That freed Sharon Weiss-Greenberg, who was JOFA’s executive director from 2014 to 2018, to confirm that she is “Sarah.”
She told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that she has never spoken publicly about her experience before because of the NDA she signed when leaving the feminist group. But while she acknowledged that Marcus’s essay described her experiences, she said details of the essay and JOFA’s statements were inaccurate and emphasized that she had sought redress within the organization for many years, only to be rebuffed by the board.
“I was trying to help them do the right thing the whole time,” Weiss-Greenberg said. (From 2020 to 2021, she worked on The Hub, an online events portal at My Jewish Learning, which like JTA is part of 70 Faces Media.) “There’s a #MeToo journal that JOFA did,” Weiss-Greenberg said. “Part of me thought that if we were writing about behaviors that were happening in our own home, we would wake up to it. I was wrong.”
In an extended statement that Weiss-Greenberg posted to Facebook on Wednesday, she said she hoped JOFA’s board, some of whose members have served since the group’s founding in 1996, would face scrutiny for their handling of allegations against Marcus.
“If we cannot fix these problems among boards that claim to raise that feminist banner high, we cannot possibly hope to fix them in the broader world,” she wrote. “We need to look squarely in the face of certain members of Jewish leadership and ask: are you really, actually a feminist? Do you actually stand up for women, for their rights, or when they are harmed? My experience with the JOFA board was often, unfortunately, a resounding ‘no.’”
Weiss-Greenberg was not alone in reporting what she said was abusive behavior by Marcus, who served as the board chair, with influence over her employment and the direction of the organization, while she was executive director.
“It was not just ‘Sarah’ who was abused by Batsheva [sic] Marcus. There is a whole line of women who she has mistreated with her anti-feminist bullying and toxicity over the years. Including me,” wrote Elana Sztokman, who led the group in 2013 and 2014, on Facebook Monday. In an extended essay on Substack, Sztokman said she had been fired the same day she wrote a letter to JOFA’s board saying that Marcus “had been emotionally abusive for over a year.”
She said Marcus had given her a vibrator after asking her a series of invasive questions about her sex life.
“It is not nice, or empowering, or feminist,” Sztokman wrote about the incident. “It is invasive, controlling, and sexually violating. Because there was no consent.”
Marcus’s belief that vibrators are an essential tool for women has been core to her attention-grabbing career as a sex therapist working with many Orthodox women. In 2000, four years after she helped found JOFA, she co-founded the Maze Women’s Sexual Health clinic, which operates locations in New York City and upstate and claims to treat more than 1,000 women per year, many of them Orthodox.
Marcus describes her work as treating “female sexual dysfunction,” which often involves introducing Orthodox women to the concept of sexual pleasure and helping them explore their own sexual needs within the contours of Jewish laws about intimacy between husbands and wives.
She’s also the author of a book, “Sex Points,” and a frequent public speaker on issues of women’s sexuality. (Her many public appearances included a Facebook Live and podcast episode with Kveller, the Jewish parenting website that is also part of 70 Faces Media.)
Marcus is a licensed clinical social worker whose credentials include a Ph.D. in human sexuality, which she obtained in 2007 from the Institute for Advanced Study of Human Sexuality, an unaccredited San Francisco-based institution that shut down in 2018 after receiving a series of fines from California’s higher education bureau. For her nine-page dissertation, which is posted on Maze’s website, she provided vibrators to 17 women who had never used them and monitored their usage.
Handing out vibrators is something Marcus has done outside of her research with frequency — including, by her own admission, to her professional associations who do not ask for them. In her essay, she describes giving the toys to “a number of senior board members who had expressed interest,” without asking first: “They had loved the surprise gift, and one told me she couldn’t stop laughing when she opened the box.”
Marcus says in the essay that she thinks it is important for women to be able to talk freely to each other about sexual matters and that she believed “Sarah” had welcomed and encouraged their conversations. She also says she agreed to go forward with an independent investigation after being told of the allegations against her and, ultimately, agreed to resign in order to save JOFA’s reputation, even though she believed that “to give in was to capitulate to extortion.”
Marcus did not respond to requests for comment from JTA. Neither did Scheininger, who on Wednesday told the Forward, “The Tablet article was published without our knowledge or endorsement, and JOFA does not support its content in either substance or tone.”
Rabbi Dov Linzer, the president of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School, also did not reply to a request for comment; nor did his predecessor and the yeshiva’s founder, Rabbi Avi Weiss. Linzer is Marcus’s co-host on a sex-focused podcast, “The Joy of Text,” that the influential liberal Orthodox seminary in the Bronx has produced for several years. Last fall, Chovevei Torah brought Marcus on as a board member.
Weiss-Greenberg’s husband, Ben Greenberg, was ordained by the yeshiva and is leading a push to have Marcus removed from the board. He said he had been trying to get the school to acknowledge Marcus’s history of allegedly troubling behavior since November, when her appointment was announced, and that he had been frustrated by a lack of responsiveness.
“It was time to publicly call out the institution after trying privately,” Greenberg told JTA. He said he was told that YCT board members met on Tuesday night to discuss Marcus and her essay but that no decision had been made there.
“Sometimes the places that are closest to you need those who are invested in it to have an intervention, and to stand up and say, ‘Hey, you’ve been doing something wrong. And you’ve been doing it for a long time,’” Greenberg added.
Asher Lovy, an advocate for survivors of child sex abuse in the Orthodox community, told JTA he first found out about Marcus’s behavior in 2018, while working with JOFA to pass the Child Victims Act in the New York statehouse.
Over the next few years, he said he tried to pressure the organization to distance itself from Marcus and adopt a new anti-harassment policy. But he said the NDAs were an obstacle to mounting the kind of campaign that his organization, Za’akah, has led against other people in the Jewish world who have been accused of abuse.
“I tried to find a way to expose JOFA in a way that would protect the people who had signed non-disclosure agreements,” Lovy said.
In 2019, according to Lovy, the SRE Network, a group of around 150 Jewish organizations seeking to create workplaces that are safe, respectful and equitable in the wake of the #MeToo movement, asked him if Za’akah would join. Because JOFA was also a member, Lovy said no — and began pressuring SRE to adopt a new policy to force members to commit to not use NDAs or confidentiality clauses.
Such clauses are standard in many kinds of employment agreements, but they have become increasingly controversial in recent years amid growing attention about the prevalence and costs of workplace harassment and abuse, and some states have banned them. In 2020, after multiple women accused Mike Bloomberg, then a candidate for president, of sexual harassment, it was revealed that NDAs had shielded him from having to account publicly for decades of allegations.
Sztokman, Weiss-Greenberg and Lovy believed that the same phenomenon had taken place at JOFA. Last week, following what Sztokman said was a difficult but cathartic experience speaking with a representative of the SRE Network, the group made JOFA an “inactive” member, removing its logo from its website. It also announced a new policy requiring member organizations using NDAs to not use them “to prevent victim-survivors from coming forward to report past or recent abuse or misconduct through the appropriate channels.”
It was at that point that Scheininger issued a first statement, which Lovy published, defending the use of NDAs but acknowledging concern about their effects. She emphasized that JOFA had never gone after a former employee for violating the agreements “although we have heard several reports of violations.”
Six days later came Marcus’s essay, stunning the community of Orthodox feminists in which she had been a towering figure for decades. (The author of this article has collaborated on a podcast with Tablet Studios, a division of Tablet, where Marcus’ essay appeared.)
Expressions of support for Weiss-Greenberg and Sztokman have been robust from within the community, even as some say they want to know more about what happened before assigning blame.
“Organizations are a complex web of individuals,” Rabba Rachel Kohl Finegold, a member of the clergy team at Montreal’s Orthodox Congregation Shaar Hashomayim, wrote on Facebook, in a post announcing that she was stepping back, for now, from the informal board that edits JOFA’s journal.
“I expect that in the coming weeks and months, there will be more clarity regarding which individuals are to take responsibility and for what piece of the problem, as well as how JOFA and other organizations are being implicated here, as a whole, will respond,” she wrote. “Until then, I will wait, with the victims’ experiences in my heart, but withholding further public conclusions.”
The saga is a low moment for JOFA, whose first conference, in 1997, was a landmark moment for Orthodox feminists at a time when women had few opportunities for leadership in Orthodox congregations and communities. But it comes at a time when its role is uncertain: in recent years, the group’s significance has waned as the space it initially carved out has grown more crowded.
“When JOFA was founded, they were practically the only ones representing a collective voice for Orthodox feminism,” Kohl Finegold, a leading voice in Orthodox feminism and the first Orthodox woman to serve as synagogue clergy in Canada, told JTA via email. “Now, there are thankfully many institutions in North America, Israel, and elsewhere, who are doing this work. JOFA was one of the first (alongside Drisha and a small handful of others), but the landscape of Orthodox feminism has expanded dramatically since then.”
Sztokman, who is based in Israel, continues to work on issues of feminism in Jewish communities but stopped identifying as Orthodox during her time working at JOFA. Weiss-Greenberg also now lives in Israel and is working in a field unconnected to Judaism.
Marcus remains a clinician at Maze Women’s Sexual Health, a receptionist at the clinic said on Wednesday. But she may also be beginning to branch out on her own. Four days before Marcus published her essay, she released a first video on her own YouTube channel, unconnected to Maze. It was an introduction to Jewish perspectives on sex.