Opinion |

Michael Steinhardt Sexually Harassed Me. Rich Donors Like Him Buy the Jewish Community's Silence

Steinhardt treated me as a sex object. He harassed women over the course of decades: we didn't dare speak out, and the men who witnessed his behavior chose to appease it. His money bought him immunity - until now

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Michael Steinhardt and Rachel Sabath Beit-Halachmi
Michael Steinhardt and Rachel Sabath Beit-HalachmiCredit: Natan Dvir and Marvin Steindler

"You want me to be your concubine?!?"

That was the question I found myself uttering, incredulously, in response to Michael Steinhardt’s invitation. It was the mid-1990s and I was a 27 year-old recently ordained rabbi, meeting the generous 50+ year old donor who was funding my professional position.

I thought our meeting had been organized to talk about my work and about the big Jewish ideas we were developing. I was excited and nervous because Steinhardt’s funding was for a pilot year only, and during the meeting I wanted to demonstrate to Steinhardt the project’s value proposition and to assure him that I was the best rabbinic professional for the job.

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But Steinhardt didn’t want to talk about the project, my qualifications, or to discuss the Jewish future as a concept. It became clear immediately that discussing the Jewish future meant the urgent necessity of my body playing an immediate reproductive role in attaining his goals for the Jewish people.

The words Steinhardt uttered to me were disgusting, demeaning and deeply disturbing. His use of the Biblical Hebrew term for concubine (pilegesh) to describe his desires, and his giddiness about his idea that the ancient institution could and "should" be reinstated, were beyond comprehension.

Steinhardt’s "urgent" expression of building the Jewish people was first made explicit when an unwitting young male professional briefly entered the office where we were meeting, and Steinhardt encouraged me to have sex with him - as a first step towards that goal.

After the young man left, Steinhardt had a new idea, that I should be his concubine. Stunned, I asked him directly: "Are you saying that you want me to be your pilegesh (concubine)?" I repeated his words exactly, in order to allow for him to pause, realize the problem of what he said and possibly retract it.

When he did not, I said that I still planned to find my bashert (Yiddish for intended one) and have my own family so being his concubine was out of the question. I also remember asking  Steinhardt how his wife would feel about his invitation, but he said something to the effect of: "I don’t know how she would feel about it, but I would sure enjoy it." 

I, and another female colleague who experienced something similar, reported the disturbing behavior to Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, the primary teacher for the Steinhardt Fellows. At the time, it felt very comforting that he took our complaints seriously. He assured us that he found such behavior troubling. But the communal message I and many of my colleagues heard loud and clear when we reported incidents like these was that when significant funding is at stake, the dignity of some people will, at times, need to be compromised.

The unspoken, but clearly understood, reality was that the status of the donor and his dollars was more important than the dignity and defense of women. In the case of Michael Steinhardt in particular, his money bought him immunity over and over again.

In stark contrast to the core Jewish value of tzelem elohim - that every person is created in the image of God - and Rabbi Greenberg’s emphasis of the rabbinic teachings that all humanity is of equal value in the eyes of God, Michael Steinhardt, the eponymous funder of that program treated me - quite literally - as a sex object of unequal value.

Illustration: Very few men vocally rejected Steinhardt’s behavior to his face. We women were simply expected to endure itCredit: \ FABRIZIO BENSCH/ REUTERS

For more than 20 years I didn’t dare speak about what happened with Steinhardt. I couldn’t bear repeating the words he used, and I could not explain how they made me feel. But I made sure that I was never in the same room again with Steinhardt, despite the many opportunities I had to be involved in projects, organizations and institutions that have benefitted from his funding, and whose goals I share.

Over the last year or so it became increasingly clear however, that I could no longer remain silent in the face of the emerging, painful truth: Steinhardt’s grotesque behavior had not only hurt me, but he had continued to hurt others according to a serial pattern. Many, many other women had suffered over the last two decades.

In many cases there were bystanders and witnesses who stood idly by, sometimes laughing, maybe wringing their hands, but generally unwilling to speak up and vocally reject Steinhardt’s behavior to his face, much less work to prevent him from harassing others. They became serial enablers.

The silence of those witnesses served to reinforce our understanding, as victims, that even if there were witnesses, and even if we reported the behavior according to the rules of the institution, there would be no negative consequences for the offender. We were simply expected to endure such behavior and if we couldn’t take the heat we should get out of the kitchen.

What we learned was that even if there are systems in place to respond to, and take action against, sexual harassment, in more cases than not, the systems fail.

For all these years, I, along with too many colleagues, have been afraid to share or report such stories because we were, and are, afraid of retaliation; of becoming persona non grata in the Jewish professional world for compromising significant funding; afraid lest we be seen as "unnecessarily" publicly sullying the reputation of a powerful Jewish philanthropist and business leader.

I am still afraid of those repercussions. Although I kept silent about my own experience, I heard first-hand the experiences of dozens of colleagues who suffered similar gender-based degradation - and worse - at the hands of Steinhardt and other powerful Jewish communal leaders. I have often wondered: At what cost to the ethical standards of our community is our silence?

Illustration: We're still far from the tipping point when sexual harassment in the Jewish community is a social, legal and ethical tabooCredit: AP

There was no #MeToo movement back then, but Judaism and the laws of basic human dignity taught me that I - that all of us - deserve better. 

This #WeToo era demands that we also ask bigger cultural and ethical questions that focus not only on the offender, but also on the role of the bystanders and Jewish leaders who witness and or receive complaints about harassment and abuse, but do nothing.

I believed then, and know now with certainty, that we all deserve professional environments that are safe from sexual harassment and the dangers of retaliation when we report it. In stepping forward, we and those who support us, believe that we all must work toward a higher communal standard.

We know that every community is judged by the moral standards and expectations its leaders model, and by how they uphold and enforce ethical standards. How have our leaders enabled a culture of entitlement that allows for abuse? What role must leaders play in order to protect the next generations of emerging leaders from that toxicity?

While there are some important initiatives in place, they are not standardized practice and often do not ensure a different outcome. When we witness such behavior, what is our obligation to sound the alarm? How far are we from the tipping point when sexual harassment in the Jewish community is a social, legal and ethical taboo?

The 20+ Jewish organizations that came forward with statements of supportrespect for our experiences and belief in the veracity of our stories, have enabled us to stand firmly in our collective quest for ethical and honorable behavior in all areas of Jewish communal life.

Every member of the community can learn from their example, regardless of and because of their position and purse, to insist that we all be part of the difficult conversations and training necessary for a full reckoning. We must simultaneously engage in this tikkun, repairing what has been broken, perverted and sullied, by holding accountable all those found guilty of such behavior and responsible for enabling it.

We cannot grant passes to the mega donors or other powerful leaders, there must be zero tolerance for all.  No excuses that such behavior is the price we must pay to enjoy funding and support. We must collectively confront behavior that violates our ethical standards - and respond decisively.

No room either, for apologetics that aim to minimize or delegitimate harassment, complicity and their damaging consequences.

Steinhardt called his own behavior "boorish, disrespectful, and just plain dumb" – but instead of formally apologizing, he went on to defend it as part of his "schtick." His foundation backed the "It’s only banter" line: "Michael is an equal-opportunity teaser - teasing men and women alike."  A friend of his attacked the whistleblowers, claiming Steinhardt has been "pilloried…disproportionately" and it was "overkill" when he hadn’t forced actual physical contact.

In my 23-year career since that fateful encounter, I have had many wonderful relationships of mutual respect with lay leaders and donors from across Jewish denominations in Israel and the U.S. Together we have worked on exciting and important endeavors for the sake of the Jewish people. As a rabbi and scholar, I have remained committed to these efforts both professionally and personally. When there is deep mutually respectful partnership, there is no room for demeaning and harassing behavior.

Ethics violators must be challenged without fear or favor if we are to have a community that protects and supports all of us: Torah lesson at Bet Daniel, Tel Aviv, March 2014Credit: Nir Keidar

This #WeToo moment is a painful but necessary process of tochecha/reproof, reckoning, teshuva/repentance and restitution. We must also pursue restorative justice because only then will the necessary cultural shift begin to occur. Restorative justice in the context of sexual harassment is a complex process that  focuses on repairing the harm caused to individuals, families and friends, and communities, but is one which must take place in order for the Jewish communal environment and all contexts in which we live and work to be safe for all and respectful of all of us.

Yes, there are overlapping family, financial and institutional interests and relationships that complicate such a cultural shift toward a higher standard, but since coming forward, I have become even more aware of how many allies, partners, and funders we have in the pursuit of justice. Those who never abuse their power in a sexual manner, and who are committed to eradicate the diseases of sexism and sexual harassment in the Jewish community, are part of the repair we seek.

The cultural shift, however, will only occur when offenders and bystanders face consequences that don’t whitewash bad behavior, that encourage others to behave better; and when no one is expected to tolerate unethical behavior of any kind. This will mean that the power of wealth should not compel otherwise good people to compromise their ethical standards and protect the powerful over the powerless.

In coming forward I hope that we are approaching the moment when there are enough professional and funding partners to ensure the kind of ethical quality of life we deserve; that violators will be challenged without fear or favor; that in the not-so-distant future we will have a community that has internalized the value of tzelem elohim which protects and supports all of us.

Only then will our society be one that lives and celebrates the Jewish values we teach.

Rabbi Rachel Sabath Beit-Halachmi serves as a senior fellow of the Kaplan Center for Jewish Peoplehood and previously as Assistant Professor of Jewish Thought and Ethics and National Director of Recruitment and Admissions at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion; Vice President of the Shalom Hartman Institute, and as rabbi of Congregation Shirat HaYam on Nantucket Island. She holds a PhD in Jewish philosophy from the Jewish Theological Seminary and currently lives in Cincinnati. Twitter: @RabbiSabath