‘Working From Home’ Does Not Mean Safe at Home


Jewish organizations are grappling with historically challenging decisions right now: furloughs and layoffs; reallocation of resources to new areas of need; whether, when and under what circumstances to bring staff back to in-person office space; and more.

In the face of this, we must ask ourselves a fundamental question: As we navigate this landscape, are our organizations diligently aligning our Jewish values with our missions?

This is the goal of organizations working with the Safety Respect Equity network. Ta’amod and others SRE grantees are focused on Jewish workplace culture, which research and considerable anecdotal evidence collected over recent years has shown us is deeply laden with inequity and unhealthy behaviors.

Workers at Jewish nonprofits reported to the organization Leading Edge last year a series of harassing and abusive behaviors, from sexist name-calling and jokes with innuendo to sexual assault and rape. Further, half of all workers generally report being bullied at some point in their career.

This is not to say that there is something inherent in the Jewish community that makes this so, nor is it to say that all Jewish professionals perpetuate these problems. Statistics show that the Jewish community is no better and no worse than the secular community and other faith-based communities.

Even in the #metoo age, abusive behavior in Jewish communal organizations (including schools and congregations) has remained largely ignored except for a few highly publicized cases. Even in the most high-profile cases, there was little accountability.

Even before the pandemic, the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission gathered testimony that one in four US women experienced some form of workplace harassment, including discrimination in hiring and promotions and sexual harassment – and most were afraid to report to their managers for fear of retribution.

Remote workplaces have never been immune to such behaviors, but the increase in the number of people working from home and the heightened anxiety and lack of personal connection create a fertile landscape for workplace harassment. While the EEOC does not distinguish between physical and virtual workplaces, remote offices became a growing trend long before the pandemic.

Now, with many of us relying more heavily on remote work channels like Slack, Microsoft Workplace, Google chat and Zoom, the same bad behavior common in the physical office space is already penetrating virtual workspaces.

As the New Year approaches, Jewish tradition asks us to take a heshbon nefesh, an ‘accounting of the soul.’

In one case, a CEO sent work-from-home guidelines to staff requiring them to physically distance from their families during work hours, specifying the only times they would be allowed to leave their home offices. In the past month, individuals have reported that during group video meetings they have being interrupted more often, given dirty looks or received public negative feedback that likely would have been delivered privately in an office. We have also heard about Zoom meetings in which individuals were intentionally excluded in ways that could be construed as bullying.

Since we’re still in the midst of this pandemic, we don’t yet have the research to determine whether these stories represent deeper trends. But what we’re already hearing underscores that just because we’re working remotely doesn’t mean we’re immune from toxic workplace culture.

While we’re all understandably focused on getting safely through this pandemic, we cannot let the very serious issue of workplace discrimination fall by the wayside. Bad behavior can be even more insidious, as fear and anxiety is a new baseline and physical distance may encourage inappropriate behavior.

Jewish organizations face unique challenges that stand in the way of change. The systemic lack of resources, perpetually stressed budgets and understaffing, the competition for funding and struggle for relevance in an ever-changing Jewish community are all inhibiting factors.  

Ripple effects

The good news is that the Jewish communal landscape has the resources, tools and support leaders require. Myriad organizations, individuals and social media pages offer training, coaching, consultancy and funding. Ta’amod provides information and referrals to create a respectful workplace culture that intrinsically reduces the risk of inequity, discrimination, abuse and harassment.

Even with the extreme pressures of Covid-19, we face an opportunity. As leaders are forced to pivot and re-imagine their organizations and their work, there is also a space to make values-based decisions around equity, gender and racial justice.

Safe, respectful, equitable organized Jewish life has deep ripple effects. Jewish professionals feel good about their work and often more connected to community and identity. An open pipeline to leadership makes organizations more adaptable and innovative, which impacts relevancy and longevity.

The question is, will we as a Jewish professional community rise to the call? Will we pause and check our fear in order to devote the time and resources needed to view this work as an immediate need? Will funders support this work and scale back cumbersome grant-writing and reporting demands that contribute to inequity and fatigue?

As the New Year approaches, Jewish tradition asks us to take a heshbon nefesh, an “accounting of the soul.” This bold and courageous action applies no less to our organizations and communal places than it does to us as individuals. At this time of pandemic and a national reckoning around racial justice, only the deep commitment of Jewish leadership to diversity, equity and justice and the willingness to do the real work it takes to meet those goals will determine if we can respond to these challenges and emerge a healthier, stronger and more just Jewish community for the future.

Nicole Nevarez is National Director of Ta’amod: Stand Up, which seeks to help Jewish communal institutions and all who work, learn or worship at them develop cultures of safety, respect and equity.