With its themes of introspection, t’shuva (repentance or return), renewal, and new beginnings, the Jewish New Year is a chance to consider our communal culture and reflect on how we can achieve a climate of organizational wellness that will contribute to the overall health and wellbeing of the community. Organizations, like individuals, can profoundly benefit from a process of cheshbon nefesh, or soul-searching.
A healthy Jewish workplace—whether in a synagogue or organization—is one in which all participants feel safe, supported, and respected, and where the culture fosters sacredness, healing, productivity, collaboration, and creativity. When issues come up that are complex and challenging, decisions are made with thoughtfulness, research-based knowledge, intentionality, and sincere regard for Jewish values.
Sacred Spaces is a national organization whose mission is timely: They work to build healthy Jewish communities by partnering with Jewish institutions to prevent and respond to sexual, physical, and emotional abuse; harassment; and violence across all ages and stages of life. With the support of a grant from the Covenant Foundation, Sacred Spaces has created and is distributing an important, user-friendly publication, Respect and Responsibility: A Jewish Ethics Study Guide, for Jewish professionals and lay leaders across the denominational spectrum. The study guide was prepared in partnership with The Center for Jewish Ethics of Reconstructing Judaism. Sacred Spaces is also working to train Jewish educators to use the guide.
Judith Belasco, Executive Director of Sacred Spaces, explained what her organization means when they speak of respect and responsibility. “When we use the term ‘respect,’ we are not referencing respect for an individual in a position of authority or power, but rather respect for the inherent godliness, or tzelem elohim, that each person has,” she said.
“When we use the term ‘organizational responsibility,’” she continued, “we are referring to an organization’s moral obligation to take proactive measures to prevent harassment, discrimination, and abuse, and to respond immediately and ethically should suspicions of abuse or neglect arise.”
“We’ve seen when institutions get it wrong,” Belasco added. “For instance, when a case comes forward, a community can become divisive between victim-survivors, supporters, and the institutions. Sacred Spaces is built on the belief that there’s another way: You can have a response that is both trauma-informed and fair, and that response can help to create a culture that can optimally strengthen the institution.”
Belasco also explained that Sacred Spaces tries to “emphasize readiness,” which entails identifying the core values of the institution and its understanding of safety and respect, rather than responding only after an incident has already occurred.
The Respect and Responsibility study guide is particularly helpful in framing institutional and communal conversations. Now available on the Sacred Spaces website, the 16 essays (with more to be added) are written by a cross-section of rabbis of different denominations and professionals across a range of disciplines including educators, social workers, and psychologists. The four units are “Grounding Values”; “Teachings on Leadership, Power and Responsibility”; “Responding to Abuse”; and “Prayer, Poetry and Kavannot” (which is in development). Contributors include Rabbi David Ingber, Rabbi Mary Zamore, Dr. Elana Stein Hain, Dr. Shira Epstein, Dr. Hadar Schwartz, Rabbi Matthew Goldstone, and Rabbi Dr. Mira Wasserman.
“The ability to prevent and respond to abuse of all kinds is not specific to any one part of the Jewish community. We are striving to serve across the Jewish community,” Belasco says.
According to Sacred Spaces, the study guide addresses questions about the type of institutional change that is needed to allow the voices of those who have been harmed in the Jewish community to be heard; the challenges—and opportunities—of offering and receiving tochecha, or rebuke, in cases of harassment and abuse; and how the biblical command to pursue justice can relate to fostering dignity and safety in Jewish communal life.
In an essay of particular significance in time for the High Holy Days, Rabbi Yosef Blau offers a summary of the multidimensional teachings of Maimonides on the laws of t’shuva, or repentance. Rabbi Blau, the Senior Mashgiach Ruchani (spiritual advisor) at the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary at Yeshiva University—who serves as a spiritual guidance counselor for students—presents t’shuva as foundational to Judaism and critically important to individuals’ transformation and self-improvement. The straightforward essay is followed by discussion questions that inspire reflection on how the tenets of t’shuva can relate to issues of abuse of power. While Rabbi Blau focuses on t’shuva as a process for individuals, the questions encourage readers to think about how organizations and communities might support the t’shuva of individual perpetrators of abuse and, at the same time, engage in a communal process of repentance.
Last year Sacred Spaces engaged with more than 3,000 individuals representing more than 680 institutions. Its staff members are attuned to the nuances and rhythms of Jewish life and Jewish practice and the unspoken considerations that might be in place. Sometimes, a familial sense of community can make reporting incidents challenging, and sometimes there are long-existing and accepted power dynamics. As Belasco explained, while Jewish organizations may want to promote a culture of being warm and welcoming, that same culture can make them vulnerable to someone coming in and abusing trust.
In conversation, Belasco mentioned other key Jewish values and teachings that are highlighted in the work of Sacred Spaces: “Devote yourself to justice and support the victim” (Isaiah 1:17); Justice, justice, you shall pursue (Deuteronomy 16:20); and “Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor” (Leviticus 19:16). All of these can spark significant communal dialogue and connections.
“Healthy dialogue about values becomes foundational to building a culture of safety, respect, and equity in the organization,” Belasco said.
By Sandee Brawarsky, for The Covenant Foundation