Harassment Case Raises Questions in Jewish Community

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Irina Goldstein, a 34-year-old Jewish woman and Soviet immigrant, ran as a Republican for an at-large City Council this spring, excited by the chance to make a dent in the stronghold the Democratic Party has on Philadelphia.

Irina Goldstein
Irina Goldstein (Photo courtesy of Irina Goldstein)

But the first-time candidate only managed to win 5.81% of the vote in the GOP primary and, when The Philadelphia Inquirer asked her what she learned during her first run for office, she said this:

“I just didn’t realize how many more people were suffering,” she said.

A few weeks later, the would-be election footnote morphed into headline news about a different kind of suffering when the Inquirer ran another story about Goldstein.

This time, it was about the chairman of the Pennsylvania Republican Party, Val DiGiorgio.

DiGiorgio, Goldstein alleged, had dangled the prospect of getting her meetings with donors and power players within the Republican Party, to help her get elected. Meanwhile, he initiated sexually charged conversations with her, to which she at first assented.

Later, she began to feel harassed by DiGiorgio’s messages, according to the Inquirer, and told him as much. DiGiorgio disputed the characterization of the conversations as harassment in a statement. He tendered his resignation on June 25, the day the story was published.

“A recent media report contains gross mischaracterizations of mutual consensual communications between myself and a former primary candidate,” DiGiorgio wrote in a statement. “My resignation should in no way be confused as confirmation of these mischaracterizations. I intend to rigorously defend myself against these assertions and protect my family, my colleagues, and the party from this private matter.”

Both Goldstein and DiGiorgio have been contacted for comment for this story.

Though Goldstein’s allegation was obviously unique in terms of its venue, it was not atypical in terms of the challenges that women can face in the workplace or in relationships more generally. The Jewish Exponent spoke to local Jewish experts about the specific challenges facing Jewish women when they are sexually harassed, where they can turn if they feel that they need assistance and how attitudes toward sexual harassment and assault within the Jewish community can create issues of their own.

Robin Axelrod Sabag is the clinical supervisor and coordinator of the domestic violence program at Jewish Family and Children’s Service. She spoke about how within the Jewish community, there is an attitude toward general sexual misconduct that can allow it to continue abated: “We don’t do that.”

“Within the Jewish community, particularly within abusive relationships, we kind of have the attitude that it doesn’t happen here,” Sabag said. “It happens to the other people. Jewish men or women don’t engage in that kind of behavior.”

In fact, Sabag said, statistics show that sexual harassment or assault happens more or less evenly across the board, regardless of race, religion, financial status or nationality.
One of the consequences of that attitude, she added, is that it can be too much to believe for some within the community when sexual harassment or assault is reported, because “that’s not our people.”

Though JFCS does not itself have a legal department for women seeking aid in such situations, it is connected with groups that can provide such help. They can also provide financial assistance to those who suffer professional consequences due to their having been harassed or assaulted.

JFCS also offers extensive counseling services. Sexual harassment or assault, Sabag said, can take a serious toll on a person’s mental and physical health. Finally, JFCS can work with people who have not yet made a decision on whether or not to report their situations. Not everyone wishes to do so, and JFCS, Sabag said, works more to find the right answer for each individual than to arrive at a specific answer.

Shana Weiner, founder and executive director of Dinah, recognized the pattern of Goldstein’s alleged harassment from what she had sometimes witnessed in the world of Jewish nonprofits: A more powerful man leveraging their positions to harass or assault women working beneath them.

“It’s rampant,” she said. “It’s not rare.”

Dinah is a legal services group offering low-cost and pro bono legal representation to survivors of partner violence in the Philadelphia-area Jewish community, but offers educational services as well. One of the first things they speak to those in those sessions is the very simple fact that Sabag spoke about: These things really do happen.

“The very first thing that Dinah does in every educational setting is address the issue first and foremost that domestic abuse happens in the Jewish community,” she said. “Because so many people don’t even think that it happens, because it’s just not a ‘Jewish’ thing. ‘We’re nice.’ And it’s actually quite prominent, as prominent as it is in the general public.”

Weiner also said that the two most stereotypical archetypes of Jewish women — the “nagging mother” and the “self-centered JAP” — can contribute to a perceived lack of credibility on the part of those reporting their harassment or assault.

Though Dinah does not typically provide services to those who were in situations similar to that of Goldstein, Weiner said, they do teach women to recognize such situations when they’re in them, or when those they knew are in them. It can be as simple as recognizing that what’s happening is harassment or assault.

“Sometimes we don’t have the language to call things what they are,” Weiner said.

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