2017-12-06 / Local News

Community leaders discuss how #METOO is changing our society

JAYNE JACOVA FELD Voice staff


The #WETOO panel included (from left), Project SARAH Coordinator Hilary Platt; Jonel Vilches, prevention specialist for Services Empowering Rights of Victims in Camden County; Marla Meyers, executive director of Samost Jewish Family and Children’s Service; Missy Wayne, a JFCS trustee and co-chair of Project SARAH; Eve Cantor, director of special initiatives at Foxman Torah Institute; Cong. Sons of Israel Rabbi Ephraim Epstein; Allison Snyder, director of HR Business Partnerships of Fulton Bank; and Voorhees Police Executive and School Security Officer Chris Wachter. Also on the panel was Assemblywoman Pamela Lampitt. The #WETOO panel included (from left), Project SARAH Coordinator Hilary Platt; Jonel Vilches, prevention specialist for Services Empowering Rights of Victims in Camden County; Marla Meyers, executive director of Samost Jewish Family and Children’s Service; Missy Wayne, a JFCS trustee and co-chair of Project SARAH; Eve Cantor, director of special initiatives at Foxman Torah Institute; Cong. Sons of Israel Rabbi Ephraim Epstein; Allison Snyder, director of HR Business Partnerships of Fulton Bank; and Voorhees Police Executive and School Security Officer Chris Wachter. Also on the panel was Assemblywoman Pamela Lampitt. On the day Today Show Host Matt Lauer landed on the ever-expanding list of powerful men facing consequences for alleged misconduct on the job, local community and business leaders gathered to discuss how the #METOO movement was changing societal norms.

“For decades and hundreds of years leading up to this, somehow this type of behavior was OK,” said Marla Meyers, executive director of Samost Jewish Family and Children’s Service. “But I do believe a doorway has opened up and we have to seize the moment to empower ourselves and say no more.”

#WETOO, a forum on sexual harassment held Nov. 28 at the Weinberg Jewish Community Campus, was so named because changing hearts, minds and behavior about abusive relationships documented back to biblical times will require a strong societal response, explained co-moderator Eve Cantor, director of special initiatives at Foxman Torah Institute.

Besides Meyers, who teamed up with Cong. Sons of Israel Rabbi Ephraim Epstein to discuss what Jewish law says about sexual misconduct and abuse, other panelists included: Voorhees Police Executive and School Security Officer Chris Wachter; Allison Snyder, director of HR Business Partnerships of Fulton Bank; State Assemblywoman Pamela Lampitt; JFCS Project SARAH Coordinator Hilary Platt; and Jonel Vilches, prevention specialist for Services Empowering Rights of Victims in Camden County. Missy Wayne, a JFCS trustee and co-chair of Project SARAH, was co-moderator.

On the legal side, Wachter said that sexual harassment by definition is a form of bullying that could potentially be a criminal offense and typically escalates if not dealt with seriously. However, it is often hard to get victims to come forward for fear of being stigmatized or not being believed.

“From the law enforcement perspective, we want you to come forward so we can investigate and you could be protected,” Wachter said, noting that police tasked with investigating such matters will consider the aggressor’s history, going back to past workplaces, to make a determination.

For Lampitt, a harrowing experience early in her career was among the reasons she decided to run for public office and champion women and children’s rights. Back in the late 1980s when she was new in her job at the University of Pennsylvania, Lampitt recalled, her boss made an aggressive pass at her when the two of them were alone in a car driving to a vendor’s office.

It was shocking to Lampitt, who was young, married and the mother of a young child at the time, as well as 200 pounds lighter than the abuser she could not easily fight off. After the fact, more surprising to her was her HR department’s dismal response.

“They didn’t fire him; they didn’t take my word for it, they just moved him to another job, which was really just the next office over,” said Lampitt.

She considered quitting but ended up taking advice from her mother to find strength from within. Now in her 36th year of employment at Penn as the director of business services, Lampitt heads the Assembly’s Women and Children Committee, which focuses on policy issues affecting New Jersey’s middle-class and working families, including equal pay for women, as well as initiatives to combat domestic violence.

“When I reflect back now, I would want that man fired; I would want that man arrested and I would want that man to understand that he could not do what he did to me,” she said.

Snyder said that, in her role in HR, she has not encountered many cases of clear-cut sexual harassment but often will deal with bullying and abusive power situations. She said of late there has been much discussion of whether companies are willing to help employees or more likely to try to protect themselves, especially when a powerful harasser is a top moneymaker or high up the ladder.

“Engagement is my number one priority, that is what I am held responsible for,” Snyder noted. “So if engagement is my number one priority, by definition it means it’s not just about the legal implications for my company. If we do the right thing for our employees, then we are going to have a more successful, more profitable company.”

Epstein noted that that week’s Torah portion deals with the rape of Jacob’s daughter Dinah by a local prince. It is one of the first documented cases of #WETOO. Sadly, it’s not the only one as he sourced other cases in which powerful men used their positions to abuse women. But Jewish law also establishes yichud or “safe spaces” where both men and women should truly feel out of harm’s way.

“Finally, although in a perfect world, men and women in positions of power would demonstrate appropriate respect towards anyone they come into contact with, I don’t have to tell you we don’t live in a perfect world, and power corrupts,” Epstein said. “We must educate, speak up, maintain healthy boundaries for ourselves and demonstrate goodness towards one and another.”

Platt spoke about bystander intervention and the many ways friends, co-workers and those who witness a bad scene can help out others in troubling situations.

“We will not see any differences until we make real changes and we hold each other accountable,” she said.

Project SARAH, she noted, hosts a number of workshops and educational courses, including Protect U, a class for students before they go to college providing education and tools that will help reduce risk and keep them safe during their college years.

Jonel Vilches spoke about his role in local schools teaching kids 12 and up about healthy relationships, consent, personal boundaries and other topics that most have never encountered.

“They don’t know these things; they aren’t having these conversations with their parents at home,” he said. “The last thing families talk about at the dinner table is how to have a healthy sexual relationship with someone, but they need to have these conversations.” 

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