By Marcia Bronstein
First, it was the #MeToo social media campaign, but I didn’t have a story of being raped or forced into sexual acts. So I did not speak out.
Then came the accusations of inappropriate actions by men toward women who were looking for work, but I didn’t have a story about a door being opened by a naked man or asked to perform a sex act during an interview. I did not speak out.
And then, while watching a session about women from the 2018 General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America, two presenters shared their beliefs that Jewish women have a responsibility to give a voice to appropriate behavior and honor those who made sacrifices and spoke out on our behalf.
Then I felt that I should speak out, because buried deep inside me are experiences I have long hid that others could learn from. Most important, as we teach our daughters and younger professionals about empowerment, we also must share stories about situations when we felt confused and powerless.
So, today I speak out — as a woman, as a Jew and as a Jewish communal professional.
In 1978, as a student at a New York state university, I sought out a statistics professor during office hours to receive help with several math problems. The professor moved his chair from behind the desk next to me under the premise of looking at my work. He placed his hand on my knee and his fingers on my cheek, and explained that I shouldn’t worry about the class work because we could work something out, and I would get a good grade. Shocked and scared, I gathered my books and left. A few days later, I dropped the class and planned to retake it the next semester with another professor.
During my senior year of college in 1980, I worked in the New York State Legislature for my hometown assemblyman. I penned resolutions, did research and spoke to constituents. I was happy to be applying my skillset in a non-school-related environment.
One morning, the assemblyman’s chief of staff handed me a package to deliver to another office. When I delivered it, I was given another package and told to bring it to a different office, which I did. The same thing happened again and again, taking me to six different offices. When I returned, the chief of staff asked how it went, I told him and he laughed, as did others who looked up from their desks. It was “intern beauty queen contest day” and us young women were sent from office to office to be rated. Later that day, I was told that I won. I was humiliated and hurt.
Toward the end of my yearlong internship, I was asked to run as a Bronx committeewoman on the ticket for my district and to help my assemblyman, which I agreed to. I was also very surprised to be offered a job by the chief of staff, who told me how much my work meant to the district. I was stunned when I learned of the huge salary until I was made to understand that several “benefits” would also be expected. I declined by stating that I had decided to go to graduate school.
On the next Election Day, my name was on the ticket and I won the committee seat. However, I seldom showed up to meetings because I was too uncomfortable. And I didn’t talk about what went on — I was ashamed because I didn’t know if I would be believed. To this day, I do not know if the assemblyman knew of the antics in his office or if anything would have changed had I told him.
When I took a development job in Philadelphia in 1984, I was excited. It was a transfer of sorts, as I was working in the New Jersey office and moving to Philadelphia and getting married. It seemed to be a great place to work, a large development department of 25 people, with new challenges and opportunities. Roots run deep in Philadelphia. People who grow up here also stay, and it seemed that everyone in the Jewish community of 250,000 people knew everyone else. I was welcomed into the community and thrilled that I chose Philadelphia.
After 18 months on the job and a new promotion, I was standing in the elevator holding large bags in both hands when in walked a development volunteer leader, a renowned philanthropist who said hello. I replied, and he mentioned how much I was juggling, and I smiled. He suddenly embraced me and kissed me; I was horrified as I felt his tongue enter my mouth. When the elevator door opened, he walked out. I remained standing there, holding the two bags, feeling stunned and confounded.
I sought out the campaign director to tell him what transpired. He saw that I was still shaken about the interaction and tried to assure me that it was just a friendly interaction, that the volunteer really liked me and that it might have been a compliment. Still in shock, I clearly explained that it was not so, and I could not accept that kind of thinking.
Later in the afternoon, I was called to the CEO’s office and asked to explain what had happened. He promised that I would never be alone with that volunteer again. I was asked to trust that he would be handling the situation. The CEO honored his commitment. He modeled appropriate behavior through his own interactions and set the tone for other volunteers and staff.
I worked there for 14 years, received several promotions and many continuing education opportunities in the field. Most importantly, I had the support and respect of the CEO as well as the various department directors. I found my voice to ask for intervention when it was necessary and to be there to support younger professionals. The CEO had protected me, though I still do not know whether that volunteer leader was ever told that his behavior was inappropriate.
Over the last 30 years in the field of Jewish communal service, I’ve learned:
- If you feel uncomfortable or unsafe, and you are physically able to leave, do so. Process what happened in a safe environment.
- Not every situation is the same — the legislature beauty contest versus being touched inappropriately — one is in very bad taste and one crosses the line.
- Find allies, talk about it with someone you trust in or outside your work environment.
- Talk to HR. Today the guidelines are clearly outlined and employees are to be protected against harassment. While employees of various organizations may have very different HR experiences, at AJC, HR policies do protect employees.
- Never let a situation define you — know when it is not your fault and stay true to your ideals and beliefs.
- Have a sense of humor, but know the difference between a mild joke and inappropriate behavior.
- Men in the workplace need to take a stand to end harassment of women. When someone says something in jest that is inappropriate, men need to speak up. If they don’t do it on their own, ask them to. If something sexist comes up in a meeting, use it as a teachable moment. For example, when I received a promotion and was invited to attend an executive planning meeting, a volunteer asked me for a cup of coffee. I turned and looked at the director, who then said, “I will be happy to get you your coffee. Do you want cream or sugar?” The meeting paused until he got the coffee and gave it to the volunteer. It happened only one more time at a different meeting and the director did the same thing. He taught all those in the room (and a plethora of those who had the story repeated to them) how to act.
- While today I work for a nonprofit where the CEO does the right thing, colleagues are more aware and there is a strong culture on workplace propriety, it does not diminish the experiences I had earlier in my career. We all must be remain vigilant, as clearly this is still happening to many women in all disciplines of work.
- Get a mentor and be a mentor. Sometimes you need to talk to someone and sometimes someone needs to talk to you. The most important qualities are honesty, a strong moral compass and high ethical standards. These people exist; seek them out.
In the spirit of telling and retelling stories, these are the messages that I tell my daughter, her peers and my younger colleagues. As is pointed out regularly in the media now, being silent should not be an option.
It is our responsibility as Jewish women to give a voice to appropriate behavior in the workplace, to make sure that we honor those who paved the way for us and to also plant seeds for harassment-free workplace environments for future generations.
Marcia Bronstein is the AJC’s regional director for Philadelphia and South Jersey.