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US Orthodox feminist group commissions internal probe after harassment allegations

Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance has been rocked in recent weeks by multiple claims against founder Bat Sheva Marcus, a prominent Orthodox sex guru

Sex therapist Dr. Bat Sheva Marcus, who is the clinical director at New York’s Maze Women’s Sexual Health. (Nusrat Mulla)
Sex therapist Dr. Bat Sheva Marcus, who is the clinical director at New York’s Maze Women’s Sexual Health. (Nusrat Mulla)

JTA — An embattled Orthodox feminist group has commissioned an external review of its “workplace and board culture,” weeks after multiple former employees shared allegations of harassment against a prominent sex therapist who was the group’s former board chair.

The Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance announced Wednesday that it had contracted an outside firm to investigate its culture, as well as leaders’ responses to “concerns raised by former JOFA employees.” It will be the second independent investigation commissioned by the organization stemming from allegations against Bat Sheva Marcus, following an earlier one in 2018.

Two former executive directors had previously said they had felt harassed by Marcus, the group’s co-founder and former board chair who is also a well known sex therapist with many Orthodox women patients. They said JOFA’s practice of having former employees sign non-disclosure agreements had impeded their ability to speak up about their experiences sooner.

“In recent weeks, a number of individuals formerly affiliated with JOFA have raised concerns about sexual harassment, retaliation, and our workplace environment,” reads a joint statement signed by JOFA board president Pam Scheininger, incoming president Mindy Feldman Hecht and executive director Daphne Lazar Price. “These discussions have sparked renewed introspection for all of us at JOFA.”

The organization heads did not name Marcus directly but noted that there had been “very real criticism of actions taken by our prior board president, and how we as an organization responded to those actions.”

Marcus has not been associated with JOFA since 2018, when she was asked to leave following the first independent investigation into her behavior; both investigations have stemmed at least partly from the same former employee’s complaints.

The new review will be conducted by Cozen O’Connor’s Institutional Response Group, which specializes in investigations of allegations of institutional gender- and sex-based discrimination. To ensure independence, JOFA selected a subcommittee of three board members who were not involved in any of the allegations to “facilitate” Cozen O’Connor’s work.

The group’s latest reckoning was prompted by an essay Marcus penned in Tablet detailing the accusations against her. Almost immediately, JOFA freed all former employees from their non-disclosure agreements. Marcus also resigned from the board of a liberal Orthodox seminary in New York following pressure from its alumni. And a handful of people affiliated with JOFA said they would step back from their involvement with the group.

Meanwhile, Elana Sztokman, one of the group’s former executive directors who had come forward with allegations against Marcus, is preparing to release a new book, “When Rabbis Abuse: Power, Gender, and Status in the Dynamics of Sexual Abuse in Jewish Culture.”

Marcus released a statement, saying, “I have never harassed anyone. Empowering women through frank and open conversation is my life’s work and it was clear at the time my conversations at JOFA were welcome and appreciated. An independent review of these allegations in 2018 confirmed this, and concluded unequivocally that there was no harassment. I applaud JOFA for taking steps to examine their practices and update their policies regarding non-disclosure agreements. Women have the right to use their voices and the workplace should be no exception.”

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