Wednesday, October 29, 2014

When Sexual Harassment Becomes the Norm

Stephanie Doucette
There has been so much written about the Freundel ‘Peeping Tom’ scandal that some might feel they are on ‘information overload’. I wouldn’t blame them. This is actually my 4th piece on the subject. So forgive me if I am adding to that ‘overload’. I hadn’t intended to write about it again. But something struck me in the Forward’s latest editorial about it that in my view deserves comment.

Quoting from a story in the New York Jewish Week by Stephanie Doucette (a 22-year-old graduate student who became uncomfortable with Freundel shortly after she began the process of conversion with him) - she writes: 
Although I was very cautious around him, I continued my conversion,” Doucette wrote in the New York Jewish Week. “Then, some time later, I began having issues with some of the male congregants saying sexually inappropriate things to me. It was at that point that I went to Rabbi Freundel for help, but he seemed to simply shrug the problem off and explained that as a young, attractive female, this was going to happen in any community. He then remarked that if he were younger and single he would be interested in me as well.”
Although this did not merit an independent comment in the editorial, I don’t think it should be glossed over. What kind of society do we live in when there are Orthodox men who think it’s OK to say sexually inappropriate things to a woman. Is this not sexual harassment? And what kind of rabbi shrugs it off when a woman he mentors for conversion tells him that?

Well we now know what kind of man Freundel (alledgedly) is. But what about the men in that Shul who sexually harassed her? Is that standard operating procedure in the Modern Orthodox world? Is it so ‘standard’  that even the rabbi’ shrugs it off?!  Is it so standard that even Ms. Doucette thought it unworthy of taking it any further?!

There is something definitely wrong with this picture. I don’t know to what such behavior can be attributed other than the culture in which we live. I have often criticized the right for shunning the culture. I still feel they are mistaken in the lengths they go to avoid it. But at the same time I can’t help but think that what one experiences through the general culture contributes mightily to this kind of behavior. 

The entertainment media is full of socially inappropriate comments between men and women.  Comments with heavily sexual connotations.   When one emerses themselves too much in that culture, it is easy to become a part of it. So that the language used therein becomes your own. The casual nature of intimate relationships seen even on broadcast television where there actually is a degree of censorship (believe it or not) can easily be adopted among religious Jews. They can become so used to seeing and hearing it on TV that they think it’s normal to act that way. On a TV sitcom such comments can be seen as cute and even humorous. But in real life they are an assault to a woman’s honor and dignity.

As someone who advocates interaction with the culture, I am disappointed that there are people influenced by it to the point of emulating it.  As moral and ethical Jews we should be able to separate ourselves from the behavior seen on TV or any other entertainment forum. We are better than that. We have to know who and what we are. The Torah tells us that we are a ‘Mamleches Kohanim V’Goy Kadosh’ - a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. This is our mandate. We ought to behave like it. 

It’s one thing to see a morally questionable character that might be glorified in the context of a TV show. But it is another to mimic that behavior and think it’s just being clever and cute. It isn’t. It’s insulting and embarrassing. As Ms. Doucette pointed out.

I understand that not everyone ‘apes’ what they see on TV and in the movies. Perhaps most of us don’t. But there are enough of us that do… and it ought to stop.

Why do some people do it and others don’t? That is a complicated question that probably has to do with parenting, peer pressure, and the genetic predisposition to such behavior. But it doesn’t matter. It’s wrong. If one is predisposed to it, then they may have to work doubly hard to prevent it. Whatever it takes.

It wouldn’t hurt to have more public discussions by the religious community leadership. Like public lectures about what is and isn’t appropriate casual behavior between the sexes.

I would hate to think that avoiding the culture entirely is the only way to prevent bad behavior. Because that would result in the kind of isolation that would in my view result in a whole different set of problems. Which can result in behavior just as bad or even worse.  As was the case of sexual abuse by another high profile rabbi in one of his conversions cases a few years ago.  There has to be a happy medium between over-exposure and no exposure. Because either extreme is bad.