Tara Bognar, a 38-year-old public school teacher in New York City, can‚Äôt help wondering how her career path would have been different if she had been a man.
For one, she never would have allowed her boss to put his hand on her knee ‚ÄĒ or on her back, shoulder or thigh ‚ÄĒ when they met in the conference room for professional meetings. But then again, had she been a man, his hand likely would not have found its way onto her bare leg in the first place.
Bognar was 28 when she began her first professional job as a program assistant for Steven M. Cohen, the prolific researcher and noted Jewish sociologist who has spent a career studying the American Jewish community. Cohen, the founder and current director of the Berman Jewish Policy Archive (BJPA), a centralized electronic database on Jewish communal policy research, hired Bognar and one other young employee in 2008 to help manage the technical details of the archive‚Äôs launch.
Though Cohen was known to be ‚Äúhandsy‚ÄĚ ‚ÄĒ ‚Äúin that awkward, creepy uncle way,‚ÄĚ Bognar described ‚ÄĒ he began to ‚Äúpush the limits,‚ÄĚ she told The Jewish Week. In staff meetings, she recalled,¬†he would place his hand on her knee, shoulder or back, and keep it there throughout the entire meeting. He would also ask her intimate questions about her love life ‚ÄĒ questions he would ‚Äúnever ask‚ÄĚ a male colleague, she believed.
In the days since Keren McGinity, an American studies professor at Brandeis University, ¬†published a disturbing op-ed article in The Jewish Week alleging sexual assault at the hands of an unnamed leading academic, speculation quickly turned to Cohen, arguably the Jewish community‚Äôs best known ¬†sociologist.
Now, less than a month after McGinity‚Äôs piece appeared, five women, including McGinity herself, have come forward to The Jewish Week alleging that Cohen, who had the power to make or break academic careers, sexually harassed them; three other women came forward to The Jewish Week to allege sexual misconduct, primarily in the form of intrusive sexual questions and offensive remarks. Some of the allegations of unwanted touching, propositions for sex, inappropriate sexual talk and in McGinity‚Äôs case, forcible kissing, stretch back decades; others date from as recently as 2011.
In the wake of McGinity‚Äôs piece and Cohen‚Äôs initial ‚Äúouting‚ÄĚ on a Jewish #MeToo Facebook group, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Cohen‚Äôs current employer, has opened a Title IX investigation against him, The Jewish Week has learned. In addition, The Jewish Week has also learned that Cohen was removed abruptly from the itinerary of the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies summer program at Brandeis University, where he was scheduled to present on June 25, and preemptively canceled from the Association for Jewish Studies (AJS) annual conference, where he has been a distinguished speaker for years. (Christine Hayes, the president of AJS, would not confirm the cancelation, but wrote to The Jewish Week that AJS takes the problem of sexual misconduct in academia ‚Äúseriously.‚ÄĚ)
The communal reaction has caught some by surprise.
This is the first time I can recall that major Jewish institutions have taken such swift and appropriate action in response to allegations of this nature‚Ä¶
‚ÄúThis is the first time I can recall that major Jewish institutions have taken such swift and appropriate action in response to allegations of this nature,‚ÄĚ said Rafael Medoff, one of the leaders of the Committee on Ethics in Jewish Leadership, an ad hoc committee created in 2016 to respond to a series of scandals and ‚Äúethical lapses‚ÄĚ in the Jewish community.
(Cohen was among the nearly 400 Jewish scholars, officials and activists who signed the committee‚Äôs original declaration of principles pledging to address the problem of corruption in American Jewish institutions in 2016. The committee removed Cohen‚Äôs name from its Declaration earlier this year, when¬†evidence emerged of his sexual misconduct.)
Cohen does not contest the allegations. Reached in Israel this week, he said in a statement to The Jewish Week: ‚ÄúI appreciate the opportunity to respond to the accounts in this article, as described to me by The Jewish Week prior to posting the article. This is not the time or the place to address or question specifics.
‚ÄúRather,‚ÄĚ he wrote, ‚ÄúI recognize that there is a pattern here. It‚Äôs one that speaks to my inappropriate behavior for which I take full responsibility. I am deeply apologetic to the women whom I have hurt by my words or my actions.
I am deeply apologetic to the women whom I have hurt by my words or my actions.
‚ÄúI have undertaken a critical and painful examination of my behavior. In consultation with clergy, therapists and professional experts, I am engaged in a process of education, recognition, remorse and repair. I don‚Äôt know how long this teshuva process will take. But I am committed to making the changes that are necessary to avoid recurrences in the future and, when the time is right, seek to apologize directly to, and ask forgiveness from, those I have unintentionally hurt.‚ÄĚ
In all, it may prove to be a stunning fall from grace for a respected Jewish academic described by those in the field as ‚Äúthe gatekeeper of Jewish academia,‚ÄĚ someone who received grant funding from many major Jewish organizations and an academic who could catapult ‚ÄĒ or stymie ‚ÄĒ a young scholar‚Äôs career.
When Bognar first accepted the position to work for Cohen, she thought it would open doors.
‚ÄúIt was my first job out of graduate school,‚ÄĚ recalled Bognar, who had previously completed a degree in law. ‚ÄúCohen was such an established figure in the community, and he was known for mentoring people early on in their careers. It seemed like a great opportunity.‚ÄĚ
Cohen‚Äôs inappropriate touching and questioning left her shocked and confused; his decision to touch her in front of other employees left Bognar uncertain about how to proceed. ‚ÄúIt seemed he knew how to stay just on the edge of what was a socially acceptable way to touch women.‚ÄĚ
It seemed he knew how to stay just on the edge of what was a socially acceptable way to touch women.
Feeling she had no recourse ‚ÄĒ Cohen was the director of the initiative and had no apparent supervisor at NYU, where the project was then housed ‚ÄĒ she remained in the job for three years. She has since chosen to pursue a career outside the Jewish community.
A male colleague who worked with Bognar at the Berman Archive confirmed Bognar‚Äôs account of events. He told The Jewish Week that Cohen would ‚Äúregularly‚ÄĚ touch Bognar during professional staff meetings and ‚Äúaggressively‚ÄĚ ask her questions about her romantic relationships, sexual history and childbearing plans. Cohen would justify his invasive questioning by citing his profession as a sociologist and demographer, the male colleague said.
Ari Kelman, associate director of the BJPA, said no allegations of this nature were made against Cohen while he was on staff at the archive. Cohen remains director of the archive ‚Äúat present,‚ÄĚ he said.
Despite a flurry of activity in response to the allegations against Cohen, no institution ‚ÄĒ including his current employer, HUC-HIR ‚ÄĒ has mentioned the sociologist by name in terms of taking action against him.
However, two of the eight women interviewed for this article said they were personally contacted by Title IX personnel at the Reform seminary to find out more about allegations regarding Cohen.
Upon request from The Jewish Week, HUC released a statement on July 2 confirming that the institution is ‚Äúinvestigating‚ÄĚ the circumstances of a complaint to ‚Äúdetermine what occurred‚ÄĚ and to ‚Äúprovide remedies, as appropriate.‚ÄĚ
The investigation comes as the Jewish community continues to reckon with sexual harassment in Jewish communal spaces. A December 2017 story in The Jewish Week ‚ÄĒ published just weeks after the Harvey Weinstein scandal broke and the #MeToo movement gained momentum ‚ÄĒ detailed pervasive incidents of sexual harassment directed at female clergy among the liberal denominations; rabbis described facing crude comments, inappropriate advances and gender discrimination at the hands of hiring teams, rabbinic supervisors and congregants. Further efforts to address the issue emerged after Len Robinson, the former executive director of NJY Camps, was forced to resign after women stepped forward with claims of sexual harassment stretching back decades.
Though several organizations have undertaken initiatives to tackle the problem, The Jewish Week reported last month that many on the frontlines ‚ÄĒ including female clergy and community lay leaders ‚ÄĒ believe the issue has yet to be adequately addressed.
McGinity, who directs a graduate program at Hebrew College, a pluralistic learning center in Boston, wrote in The Jewish Week last month detailing her experience of being sexually assaulted while at a Jewish academic conference. In the article, McGinity ‚ÄĒ who does not name her harasser ‚ÄĒ describes an older man luring her to a candlelit dinner under the guise of professional guidance, peppering her with personal questions about her love life before following her up to her hotel room, forcibly pushing her up against a wall, pressing his body against her and kissing her neck.
McGinity later told The Jewish Week that the person she described in the article is Cohen.
She alleges that the incident took place on Dec. 19, 2011 at the annual Association for Jewish Studies (AJS) conference, held that year at the Grand Hyatt in Washington, D.C. Cohen was a regular ‚Äústar‚ÄĚ at the conference, a colleague who attended the conference said; he was known to mentor younger academics, in addition to presenting. McGinity, then 43, was then a scholar-in-residence at the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute. The position ‚ÄĒ a one-semester appointment ‚ÄĒ was nearing its end and she was in the market for her next post. Cohen, who had advised her on professional opportunities in the past and presented himself as a ‚Äúchampion‚ÄĚ of gender equality, proposed the one-on-one dinner to McGinity as a professional opportunity.
McGinity‚Äôs account was corroborated by a co-worker at the time who requested to remain anonymous. In an interview with The Jewish Week, the co-worker said McGinity emailed him just days after the alleged incident took place, describing what had taken place as ‚Äúdisturbing.‚ÄĚ
Of the eight women interviewed for this article, seven noted that Cohen was in a position of professional power and superiority when the respective incidents took place.
Another woman, who requested to remain anonymous for fear of professional retribution, similarly met Cohen at the annual 2011 AJS conference. A graduate student at the time, she attended a networking event for young academics hosted by AJS. She became uncomfortable when, after introducing herself to Cohen, she said he stared ‚Äúintently‚ÄĚ at her name tag before putting his hand on her left breast, where the name tag was placed.
‚ÄúI was floored,‚ÄĚ said the Jewish studies scholar who was in her late 20s at the time. Others in the room saw what happened and came over to inquire. ‚ÄúOne colleague was like, What the f*** was that?‚ÄĚ she recalled. Another colleague ‚Äúlaughed it off,‚ÄĚ saying Cohen is ‚Äúknown for being ‚Äėgross‚Äô with his female program assistants.‚ÄĚ Later, she requested that AJS change their name tags from pin-ons to necklaces.
Several of the women interviewed said it was not a coincidence that Cohen allegedly preyed upon female academics, including celebrated feminist scholars.
This was about conquest.
‚ÄúThis was about conquest,‚ÄĚ said a 64-year-old organizational consultant who described being sexually assaulted by Cohen in 1992. She requested to remain anonymous for privacy reasons. At the time, Cohen was a professor at the Jerusalem-based Hebrew University, where she was participating in a fellowship. Cohen was her project adviser.
‚ÄúWe met in his office to discuss the writer‚Äôs block I had been experiencing,‚ÄĚ she recalled in an interview with The Jewish Week. ‚ÄúHe [Cohen] told me he found masturbation to be a good way to deal with writer‚Äôs block, and that I should try it.‚ÄĚ¬†She ignored the comment and continued the conversation about her research.
A short time later, she made a phone call in Cohen‚Äôs office. While she was on the phone ‚ÄĒ ‚Äúmy back was to him,‚ÄĚ she said ‚ÄĒ he came up behind her and ‚Äúput his hands down my pants and grabbed me.‚ÄĚ
‚ÄúI yelled, ‚ÄėAre you out of your mind? What the f*** are you doing? What do you want to do, ruin your career, your marriage?‚Äô‚ÄĚ she recalled saying. He ‚Äúlaughed it off,‚ÄĚ she said. She described the alleged incident as ‚Äúperverted.‚ÄĚ
When she told her program supervisor what had happened, he said, ‚ÄúIf you have a complaint, take it up with the law.‚ÄĚ He also ‚Äúscreamed at me to stop ruining this man‚Äôs life,‚ÄĚ she recalled. ‚ÄúHe said, ‚ÄėHe [Cohen] has kids and a wife ‚ÄĒ do you want that on your conscience?‚Äô‚ÄĚ
(The supervisor, who the source requested not be named, has since died.)
He said, ‚ÄėHe [Cohen] has kids and a wife ‚ÄĒ do you want that on your conscience?‚Äô
Several years later, she heard from a colleague that another woman had alleged sexual harassment against Cohen while he was a visiting scholar at the JCC in Chicago. (The colleague confirmed her recollection of the incident, though her memory of the details were ‚Äúall too faint‚ÄĚ to comment, she said.)
‚ÄúI remember thinking, ‚ÄėThis has got to stop,‚Äô‚ÄĚ said the woman allegedly harassed by Cohen in 1992. She said she went to Mordecai Nisan, the dean and head of the school of education at Hebrew University from 1989 to 1992.
‚ÄúHe said he would put a letter in Cohen‚Äôs file,‚ÄĚ she recalled. To the best of her knowledge, no other action was taken.
Nisan died in 2017; the university has not responded to request for comment.
Intent upon alerting her superiors to what she now realized to be a pattern of behavior, she went back to the program director who had originally dismissed her complaint. He once again ‚Äúshut me down,‚ÄĚ she said. ‚ÄúI said, ‚ÄėYou need to do something about this because it‚Äôs been continuing,‚Äô‚ÄĚ she said. ‚ÄúHe yelled at me to drop it. ‚ÄėDon‚Äôt you care about ruining this man‚Äôs life?‚Äô‚ÄĚ
While HUC-HIR made it clear that they will take action ‚ÄĒ ranging from suspension to termination of employment ‚ÄĒ against anyone found in violation of the institution‚Äôs sexual misconduct policy, Cohen‚Äôs role in the Jewish institutional web extends far beyond a contract of employment.
Cohen, 68, who received his Ph.D. in sociology from Columbia University in 1974, has been at the forefront of sociological study of the Jewish community for decades. His research has been funded by a number of major Jewish philanthropic organizations, including the Jewish Agency for Israel, the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, the Jim Joseph Foundation, the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies, UJA-Federation of New York, the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA), Hillel International and the JCC Association of North America. His studies deal with such issues as the impact of intermarriage, the lasting effects of Taglit-Birthright Israel trips and discrimination against women in the Jewish professional world.
A prolific author, Cohen has written dozens of scholarly articles, op-eds and books. His work on major sociological studies have widely influenced the Jewish community‚Äôs funding priorities over the past decade.
‚ÄúHe [Cohen] is the gatekeeper of Jewish academia,‚ÄĚ said Caryn Aviv, a Jewish academic and non-profit entrepreneur who holds a doctorate in sociology and anthropology. Aviv worked with Cohen on multiple research projects over the years, including collaborating on a national survey of Jewish LGBTQ organizations in 2009. (HUC-JIR partnered with Jewish Mosaic on the study, an LGBTQ Jewish organization that has since merged with Keshet. Aviv served as the director of research for Jewish Mosaic.)
‚ÄúSteve is the one getting the grants. He‚Äôs the one getting the money to research and publish big studies,‚ÄĚ said Aviv. For someone in this field, choosing not to work with him ‚Äúimmediately limits a young academic‚Äôs career potential.‚ÄĚ
While Aviv says she was never ‚Äútargeted sexually‚ÄĚ by Cohen, she recalled his ‚Äúblatantly homophobic comments about my sexual orientation‚ÄĚ over the course of their collaboration. While reviewing data, Aviv, who openly identifies as lesbian, recalled him asking probing questions about her sex life, ‚Äúhow lesbians get pregnant‚ÄĚ and who might be the ‚Äúreal dad‚ÄĚ of a gay couple who select to pursue biological parenthood.
Steve is the one getting the grants. He‚Äôs the one getting the money to research and publish big studies. [For someone in this field, choosing not to work with him] immediately limits a young academic‚Äôs career potential.
‚ÄúI was shocked,‚ÄĚ she said. ‚ÄúI told him, ‚ÄėYou cannot say those things to me. You cannot say those things to anybody.‚Äô‚ÄĚ
Though Aviv did not want to work with Cohen again after the experience, his presence in the field made that ‚Äúnear impossible.‚ÄĚ
‚ÄúHe has the power to make or break careers,‚ÄĚ said Aviv, herself a veteran in the field of Jewish academia; one research project inevitably leads to the next. Cohen was known to mentor younger women; many of the junior colleagues on Cohen‚Äôs research projects were women. Cohen would reward his prize mentees with speaking gigs at scholarly conferences, letters of recommendation and hiring opportunities that might have been otherwise unavailable.
Female scholars, who hold only 38 percent of university tenured positions in the U.S., are left with few options, said Aviv: ‚ÄúIf you can‚Äôt get past the gatekeeper, you don‚Äôt stand a chance to get a seat at the table.‚ÄĚ
He has the power to make or break careers‚Ä¶. If you can‚Äôt get past the gatekeeper, you don‚Äôt stand a chance to get a seat at the table.
Still, despite allegations of harassment, several prominent female scholars spoke out in support of Cohen in recent days.
Sylvia Barack Fishman, a scholar of Judaic Studies and longtime colleague and research collaborator of Cohen‚Äôs, said she observed Cohen ‚Äúgenerously nurture‚ÄĚ the careers of ‚Äúmany young men and women‚ÄĚ over the years. She has heard ‚Äúnothing but good things‚ÄĚ about his mentorship, she told The Jewish Week.
Barack Fishman ‚ÄĒ former co-director of the Hadassah Brandeis Institute, a research center dedicated to Jewish women and gender and a board member of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA) ‚ÄĒ said she finds it ‚Äúdishonest‚ÄĚ when language used to describe sexual harassment ‚Äúdoes not differentiate between ambiguous and egregious situations.‚ÄĚ
In the current hypersensitive environment, it is easy to pathologize what might be construed as ordinary public behavior‚Ä¶
‚ÄúIn the current hypersensitive environment, it is easy to pathologize what might be construed as ordinary public behavior,‚ÄĚ she said, referring to the global #MeToo movement. ‚ÄúThis ironically may serve to valorize victimhood,‚ÄĚ she wrote in an email in response to allegations of sexual harassment against Cohen. (Barack Fishman was not privy to details of all the harassment claims against Cohen at the time of her comment.)
Indeed, Cohen has a long history of advocating for the advancement of female Jewish professionals. He served as the only male board member for Advancing Women Professionals and the Jewish Community (AWP), a nonprofit launched in 2001 to create more equitable workspaces for female professionals. Though the organization is no longer in operation, its founding president, Shifra Bronznick, said no allegations of sexual misconduct came to her attention during Cohen‚Äôs tenure at AWP.
(Bronznick emphasized that, had any such allegations come to her attention while AWP was in operation, she would have cut ties with Cohen ‚Äúdecisively and immediately.‚ÄĚ)
A young female academic closely mentored by Cohen for the last several years said her experiences have been overwhelmingly positive. (She requested to remain anonymous because she was not privy to details of the allegations against Cohen.)
She described him as ‚Äúvery supportive‚ÄĚ of her career and cited his ‚Äúpositive response‚ÄĚ when she told him that she was expecting a child. ‚ÄúHe went out of his way to bring women to the table,‚ÄĚ she said, recalling that Cohen would make a special effort to recruit female experts and academics if women were not sufficiently represented on a research project.
While he would sometimes say ‚Äúslightly inappropriate things‚ÄĚ and ask her ‚Äúvery personal questions,‚ÄĚ his manner never seemed overtly sexual, she said. ‚ÄúHe‚Äôs a social scientist, so he was always asking people questions.‚ÄĚ And while he was known to hug, kiss and act in an ‚Äúinformal‚ÄĚ way with colleagues, she said she would be ‚Äúshocked‚ÄĚ to discover that Cohen allegedly used his authority ‚Äúto hurt people in any way.‚ÄĚ
In the 1980s, when Cohen invited a fellow Columbia University scholar up to his apartment to work on an academic paper, she was not suspicious. (The subject of this allegation requested to remain anonymous for privacy reasons.)
At the time, they ran in the same social circles and she thought little of it. While Cohen had a reputation for ‚Äúsleeping with all the smart Jewish women‚ÄĚ on campus ‚ÄĒ a claim he bragged about openly, according to the source ‚ÄĒ she was around 40 at the time and married with two children. ‚ÄúI wasn‚Äôt stupid,‚ÄĚ she said, describing several other run-ins she had as a rising female voice in an academic world dominated by men. ‚ÄúI just didn‚Äôt think he would pull that with me.‚ÄĚ
The two were collaborating on an academic journal. When she knocked on his apartment door, he answered wearing ‚Äúnothing but his underwear,‚ÄĚ she recalled.
‚ÄúI should have left right then and there,‚ÄĚ she said, reflecting on the incident with a note of self-reproach in her voice. ‚ÄúBut I considered myself sophisticated. I had managed to handle things like this in past ‚ÄĒ I would be able to manage this, too.‚ÄĚ
As they sat down in the living room to work on the papers, Cohen ‚Äúsolicited me for sexual activity,‚ÄĚ she recalled. She could not recall exactly what he said. ‚ÄúHe made it clear that he wanted to have sex with me,‚ÄĚ she said. She rebuffed his solicitations but remained to finish working on the journal. Though she ‚Äúnever collaborated with him again,‚ÄĚ she did continue to see him in social and professional contexts after the alleged incident. She did not warn other women about what had happened to her.
‚Ä¶It was the ‚Äô80s. You just moved on.
‚ÄúI don‚Äôt think particularly highly of my response,‚ÄĚ she said. ‚ÄúBut it was the ‚Äô80s. You just moved on.‚ÄĚ
Today, the source is an intellectual leader and a tenured professor. She has dedicated a significant part of her career to advising female scholars on how to rise through the ranks of a male-dominated academic ecosystem.
She did not think about what had happened in Cohen‚Äôs apartment for decades. That changed when she read McGinity‚Äôs June article. Though Cohen was not named, she immediately noted the resemblance to her own experience.
‚ÄúI hoped he would change. But men like that don‚Äôt change. I should have known.
‚ÄúKeren wouldn‚Äôt tell me who it was, but I guessed right on my first guess,‚ÄĚ she said. ‚ÄúI must have repressed the memory for years. It wasn‚Äôt until Keren connected with me that the memories rose to the surface.‚ÄĚ
‚ÄúI hoped he would change,‚ÄĚ she said, her voice trailing off as she reflected on what had happened to her so many years ago, and what has transpired since. ‚ÄúBut men like that don‚Äôt change. I should have known.‚ÄĚ
McGinity, who has become a resource and confidant for many women with similar experiences, has been ‚Äútruly amazed and humbled‚ÄĚ by the outpouring of support she has received ‚ÄĒ from men and women, community leaders and others who have been subjected to sexual misconduct in a workplace setting.
The Jewish community can‚Äôt authentically chart a course forward until we reckon with our past. It is our communal responsibility to normalize the process of speaking up, without fear or repercussions.
‚ÄúI was compelled to speak out, despite my own fear and hesitations, because I thought my story could help other women who have suffered similar indignities,‚ÄĚ she said. The response has left her feeling vindicated. She hopes her story ‚ÄĒ and the decision to share her name ‚ÄĒ will empower others to do the same.
‚ÄúThe Jewish community can‚Äôt authentically chart a course forward until we reckon with our past,‚ÄĚ McGinity said. ‚ÄúIt is our communal responsibility to normalize the process of speaking up, without fear or repercussions.‚ÄĚ
Avigayil Halpern contributed to this report.¬†