I was invited to frame “The Story of How We Got Here” at ACT’s recent gathering to show solidarity and support for survivors of sexual assault, misconduct, and abuse in the halls and spaces of Reform Jewish life. Folks have been asking for me to publish my remarks, so I’m putting them here.
I was asked to tell the story of how we got here, and Lizzie reminded me a good organizer starts with how I became part of “we”. I am here because, as evidence mounts of a deep need for true reform, I fear our movement’s propensity to yield to, paraphrasing George W. Bush, the soft complicity of low expectations.
There are young people heading to work for the URJ this summer. Many of them signed the first employment contract in their lives to get there. They are about to experience their first workplace sexual harrassment and misconduct training. Viewed from this lens, what template are we providing for them? Viewed from this lens, how can we measure the magnitude of our obligation?
I had to think for a long time about being trusted with this role. Because I am a writer and I like to tell important stories, I feel like it is a good use of my skills. I’m also a man who was a boy who grew up at camp and left when I was twenty-nine.
I often joke that I grew up there twice, because when I finally arrived at the end of my adolescence–13 years after my Bar Mitzvah–I was also hired for the first time as a unit head at Camp Harlam, where I learned a lot about doing a job that I really loved, got really good at it, and gained confidence in my own ability to handle responsibility and trust myself with my own future. That was the second growing up. I owe much of it to my campers. My biggest fear as I speak right now is that one of them might hear this and think me a hypocrite.
I also owe a great deal of that growth to four people I worked for or with at Harlam without whom I would have neither the perspective nor emotional maturity to contribute to this work. I would like to thank them by name (alphabetically): Lisa David, Alyssa Kress, Cori Miller, and Lori Zlotoff.
The line is a good one, about growing up twice at camp. It’s funny because it captures something that people who know me well know to be accurate. But I get to say it because I am a man with the sort of privilege where I only realized what boyishness actually meant when mine stopped working. Or not as often.
This work has revealed to me a lot of my own blindspots. It is humbling to sit on a Zoom call and learn over and again how little I understand about what it means to feel unsafe. Blindspots are tricky and insidious, lacking an agenda but able to cause great immorality in the world. Suffering from the consequences of one’s blindspots, in my experience, can be so embarrassing that it becomes tempting to perform the sort of human-mind-magic that allows one to fold one’s awareness of a blind spot into the blindspot itself.
At Camp Harlam I worked with teenagers, so I am very familiar with what it’s like to have a conversation about why blind spots lose their power in justifying our decisions and behavior as we approach, and then move through, adulthood. It just isn’t much of an excuse to the people who suffer the consequences created by our lack of perception. This is a complicated thing to grasp at fifteen. It is a complicated thing to grasp at thirty-three.
Through this work, I have heard and read stories from people who found themselves in positions of suffering and fearful vulnerability. You will hear some of them tonight. I implore you to listen to the words. Do not stop listening to the words. I am a very nervous public speaker when I am not addressing teenagers, so if someone said this before I were about to speak (“Listen to the words”), I wouldn’t be thrilled. It’s the reason I always prepare for situations like this by writing remarks in advance, like our speakers tonight. Consider what it took for these people to share their words with you. Despite the clinical language, it is emotional work to ‘organize one’s thoughts’. Particularly as it relates to one’s own experience of the world. Particularly one’s own traumas.
Emotionally draining to find the words, to arrange them into sentences that place bodies in rooms and objects in hands and thoughts in minds and feelings in chests. And then it is a whole different kind of draining to know those words, that came from your mind and your careful, painful work, will go out into the world for other people’s scrutiny. This is a vulnerable act. I urge you to listen to their words. These women were asked to share their stories with the law firm that assembled the sexual misconduct report. I care not one iota for the legal vagaries–Federal, state, halachic–that might complicate my fiercely held belief that in soliciting these words, the URJ took on a portion of custodianship over these stories and a moral obligation to these three women and other reporters, who took the time and energy and courage to organize their thoughts.
Vulnerability came up twice up there, but I sorta meant a different thing each time. Vulnerability is contradictory that way. First I mentioned fearful vulnerability. As I have experienced it, this kind of vulnerability freezes the blood. It is, perhaps, humanity’s most haunting emotion.
The second vulnerability was in relation to the act of sharing words. I think of this as hopeful vulnerability–that’s not quite the word for it, but it’s a feeling I most strongly associate with three things: spending time with my nephew and niece, the final pages of a truly great novel, and camp. It is a necessary feeling for me, for all of us I think. It is the feeling where emotion and spirituality meet to join hands.
So I would like to close by talking again, for a moment, about myself. Because I am carrying a lot of anger about harm acted upon individuals, but I would also like to take a moment to recognize and acknowledge my horrible, heartbreaking disappointment, my deep and painful offense as a member of this community. People were targeted and assaulted and made to feel dangerously vulnerable by perpetrators vested with authority by the place that taught me, taught so many of us, how to tend to that second, hopeful vulnerability in the deep places inside us, and to try with all our might to let it out into the sun.
We will grow beyond this shame together.