Sacred Spaces – A Synagogue Initiative for the #Me Too Era

In this week’s Parasha, Bo, we find the commandment to wear tefillin. Tefillin are small square black boxes that contain certain biblical verses. These boxes are attached to straps. We attach one box to our arm, and one box to our head by means of these straps. Each day during morning prayers, except on the Sabbath and on holidays, traditional Jews wear these tefillin in observance of this commandment

The precise commandment is, “You shall place a sign upon your hand, and a reminder between your eyes, in order that the Law of G-d shall be in your mouth.”

The first part of this verse is quite clear. The tefillin are a sign and a reminder. But a sign and a reminder of what? Since this commandment is given in the context of the Exodus story, we deduce that the tefillin are reminders  to us of G-d’s role in bringing our people from slavery to freedom.  They remind us of the values of Justice, of Freedom, of Kindness – the values by which G-d wants us to live our lives. However, the second part of the verse  is a bit more difficult. What does it mean that “The Law of G-d shall be in your mouth?”

The contemporary Rabbi Jack Riemer has taught me that this means that we must speak up on behalf of the values that Judaism teaches. The verse teaches that it is not sufficient to merely “remember” these values, but to stand up for them in our daily lives. We not only must live by these values ourselves, we need to speak up when we see these values violated in our community, in our nation, in our world.

One of these values is respect for one another. We are to remember that our fellows are created “BeTzelem Elohim” – in the image of G-d – and treat them accordingly. We have recently been reminded of our failure as a society to do this by the spread of the #Me Too Movement. This movement calls attention to the ways in which we have failed to treat everyone with the respect every human being deserves.

The #Me Too movement was founded in 2006 by an African American woman named Tarana Burke. A survivor of sexual abuse herself, she became convinced of the need to develop a community of survivors on social media using the hashtag #Me Too. The movement exploded in 2017 when Hollywood actresses and actors began to reveal the sexual abuse and harassment prevalent in the movie industry. Suddenly, many women, and men, were coming forward with posts on Facebook saying “me too” – I have experienced sexual abuse and assault.

I should not have been surprised when I saw posts by congregants on Facebook with the hashtag #Me Too. I should not have been surprised when I saw posts from family from friends and from neighbors with the hashtag #Me Too. I should not have been surprised to learn about the prevalence of sexual abuse and assault in our country and our world. I knew that this happened. I just didn’t realize that it happened to the people I knew.

In April of last year I received a notice through the Chicago Board of Rabbis that the Jewish United Fund of Chicago – the JUF – was funding an initiative called “Sacred Spaces”. Five congregations in Chicagoland would be chosen to participate in this ground breaking program. The core of the program is a series of five half-day workshops held in Chicago that would educate us about abuse, harassment and bullying and prepare us to write a policy and develop a standing committee to address these issues in our own community  should they occur.

I want to make clear that when I applied for our congregation to participate in this program I did not do so because I thought there was abuse and harassment occurring in our synagogue. I applied because I was very aware that abuse and harassment can occur in any institution, whether it is a sacred community like a church, mosque, or synagogue, or whether it is a secular institution or business. The #Me Too movement helped make me, and others, more aware of the magnitude and devastating effects of this problem in our society. The question was, and is, what can we do about it?

Congregation Beth Shalom was accepted as one of the five congregations in Chicagoland that would undergo this training. Our Board of Directors gave us the official stamp of approval to participate. A group of five synagogues in the Washington DC area are also participating in the same program in their community.

The 10 people on our committee represent a cross section of our congregation. Besides me, Cantor Perman, Dore Tarr, Jill Lexier, Ann Rabin, Julia Rabin, Al Barshevsky, Chris Igo, Erica Scott, and Eric Forster are the members of our committee. We have attended four of the half-day seminars – our final meeting is this Wednesday at Spertus. Aside from these seminars, our committee has met numerous times on our own. Thus far we have written a values statement, a description of the roles and responsibilities of a standing committee and procedures for screening and hiring new employees.
Our goal ultimately is to expand beyond this committee and involve the entire congregation in creating a culture that is more aware of the potential for abuse and harassment, in putting policies into place that will help minimize the chance of it happening here, and in developing the tools to address it in respectful, lawful, confidential and professional ways should it occur in our congregation.

Our Torah reading this week describes the final three plagues that afflicted Egypt. The ninth plague is described as a “thick darkness” that descended on Egypt; a darkness so severe that “a man could not see his fellow.” Some have understood this metaphorically, as describing a society in which a person could not see the pain of their fellow human being. The #Me Too movement has helped shed light on an on the private suffering of our fellow human being and the shame they had to endure. It has helped pull the curtain back on an area of life that had heretofore been hidden. Now that we have seen it, we have the responsibility to speak up and do something about it. The Sacred Spaces initiative is our opportunity to do something about that in our small corner of the world.

Shabbat Shalom