Couldn’t Stay Silent

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As a 27-year-old female Hillel executive director, I spend my days focused on enriching the lives of Jewish students in my community. Working for an organization with a mission and vision so closely aligned with my values is a privilege.

One of my most important responsibilities is to raise the funds needed to carry out the work with students that I care about so passionately.

Last month, I received an email from a prominent donor in our community asking to meet for breakfast. I have felt uneasy around him before, as he has suggested the type of clothing I should wear for professional events, but like many women in my position, I have become an expert at laughing off inappropriate comments. And meeting with donors to sustain our program is, after all, my job.

When I arrived, we met each other with a hug, which is a common greeting in our tightknit Jewish community. But this time, the donor reached down and grabbed my butt before putting his arm around my shoulders and walking me to our table. I called him out immediately.

“Did you just grab my butt!?” I exclaimed.

“No, I didn’t,” he said with a wink.

During the awkward meal that followed, I felt more and more uncomfortable. And as we left the restaurant, he pulled me in close to his face in what felt like an attempt to kiss me on the mouth, our noses nearly touching, then placed his hands near my breasts and made a squeezing gesture, saying he needed “to grab a thing or two.”

I was shaking. But immediately I felt the need to speak up, even though it might affect my standing in the community in several ways. I don’t want my name tied to a scandal, and I also don’t want other organizations finding themselves with holes in their budgets because I decided to say something.

Thankfully, my local board, Hillel International and my local federation have proven to me what it means to do the right thing, the Jewish thing. My local board insisted that we cut all communication with this donor, despite the financial strain it may cause our organization. Hillel International offered extensive support, including a timely launch of materials for Hillel professionals to help in other situations of sexual harassment and assault. They also put their money where their mouths are, offering to help make up the lost funds. This week, my local federation is convening constituent agency leaders to launch communal discussions around sexual harassment.

No one should endure such treatment. As nerve-wracking as it may be, there’s real power in standing up, walking away and saying, “no thank you.”

—Rhonda Abrams

Rhonda Abrams is director of the Greater Portland, Ore., Hillel.

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