Federation makes fighting harassment, workplace bullying a top priority

Andrew Rehfeld, Ph.D., is President and CEO of Jewish Federation of St. Louis.


Editor’s note: Jewish Federation President and CEO Andrew Rehfeld’s commentary below is adapted from a speech he gave at the JProStl luncheon Feb. 1 at the Jewish Community Center. 

For the past six years I have had the pleasure of closing the annual JPro luncheon, which brings together hundreds of St. Louis Jewish professionals and celebrates their achievements. This indeed is what “JPro” stands for, and I want to congratulate the 10 award recipients honored today. 

I also want to thank the Jewish Community Center for its support of this event. Our strong partnership — the professionalism of the J’s staff is a gift to our community. I recognize my predecessor, Barry Rosenberg, whose vision to make the development of our Jewish professional community a priority was instrumental to the creation of JPro, and to Shelly Chanitz the first professional leader of JPro, both of whom are here with us today. We are honored by the presence of Erica Goldman from the national JPro association. I also want to recognize the ongoing leadership of Jonathan Deutsch, the lay chair of the Millstone Advisory Committee, along with Gerry Greiman, board chair of the Federation, for their ongoing guidance and commitment. I want to thank the continued volunteer leadership of JPro by Julie Gibbs and Marianne Chervitz.  And finally, I want to thank Marci Meyer Eisen, whose vision of what this event could be has come to exceed expectations in a remarkably short period of time.

Why do we do this each year?  

The St. Louis Jewish professional community is here for a reason. It stands for something more than simply clocking in hours and receiving our paychecks. We build the JPro community as a community of meaning, a community of purpose, and a community of moral value that elevates the work we do.  

Usually, we use this lunch simply to celebrate our work.  But on occasion, events in the external world require us to step back before we do. 

Over the past year, we have heard troubling reports of sexual harassment and worse in the workplace that have destroyed people’s lives. These revelations have inspired solidarity among women and their allies. These actions affect more than just the specific women and men who are their victims. The revelations create a dynamic sense of fear throughout the industries that so far have been involved. 

Sexual harassment in the workplace is a very specific instance of a much broader problem: the abuse of power over those in a subordinate position. Its victims are those who depend upon other individuals for their personal welfare and professional success. 

The abuse of power in any of its forms is a violation of the Jewish values that JPro stands for. In particular, it violates the Jewish idea of b’tzelem Elohim, that we are each created in the image of God.  

Each of us, no more or less than the other, is deserving of respect as a human being. When individuals abuse power, they are treating their victims as a means to their own ends, rather than as human beings with a divine spark, worthy of value in and of themselves. When we treat people as a means to our own ends, we violate b’tzelem Elohim, because no image of the divine should ever be treated that way. 

I have been inspired by the ways in which our Jewish communal professionals strive to respect each other with dignity, and indeed the honorees today are emblematic of this high standard we set for ourselves. But I am also concerned by what I have seen in the past few years: those in positions of power being abusive to their subordinates, or tolerating a work environment in which such actions are allowed to fester.   

Let me be clear: I am not now speaking of acts of sexual harassment. I am speaking the more mundane acts of bullying and aggression. They are exhibited through demeaning language that supervisors use to address their subordinates. They are exhibited by the tone in which we address each other, sometimes shouting out of frustration.  And they are exhibited by displays of hostile emotive reactions that is a form of abuse. We all have occasional and understandable lapses. But when it becomes the norm on an ongoing basis that is not addressed, the behavior has no place within an ethical workplace.  

Today as we honor the achievements of our professionals, we as a Jewish community must reaffirm and hold ourselves to a higher standard. Supervisors who engage in these behaviors slowly erode the dignity and self worth of each individual who works for them. Their behavior gives tacit permission for others to act in the same way. It creates the very conditions in which sexual harassment and worse can thrive. If we want to truly celebrate all that we honor here today, we must not tolerate it in any way.  

The Jewish Federation of St. Louis is making this a top issue this year for our Jewish professional community.  Within our organization, we are adding anti-bullying policies that reaffirm the dignity of each of our employees and protect them, not merely from sexual harassment but also from this far more mundane abuse. We are working with JPro to create a resource to support all our workplaces. And we are working with our senior rabbis to develop Jewish resources about gender and sexuality, harassment and, more broadly, bullying as well. 

I know this is not the kind of message I usually deliver at this celebratory lunch. But it is simply too important and critical a moment to avoid speaking directly about it.  

So let us today, at this very moment of celebration, remember the reason we are here to celebrate: We are honoring the contributions of these extraordinary individuals to the moral fabric of our Jewish professional community. It is an environment where our service to others begins with our service to one another. It is an environment where the treatment of our work colleagues aspires to the same ideals that we strive to treat all those we serve. And it is an environment where the principle of b’tzelm Elohim is embodied in the very work cultures that we create on a daily basis.  

That is the value of JPro. That is what we are here to celebrate today. And that is why we honor those who inspire us each to do a little better for all. 

Congratulations to all the award recipients again. And thank you all so much for everything you do. See you next year.

Andrew Rehfeld is president and CEO of Jewish Federation of St. Louis.