Harassment allegations mount against leading Jewish sociologist
Women academics cite pattern of sexual improprieties at the hands of Steven M. Cohen, who has expressed ‘remorse’ for his actions
Tara Bognar, a 38-year-old public school teacher in New York City, can’t 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 — or on her back, shoulder, or thigh — 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 immediate past 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’s launch.
Though Cohen was known to be “handsy” — “in that awkward, creepy uncle way,” Bognar described — he began to “push the limits,” she told NJJN. 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 — questions he would “never ask” a male colleague, she believed.
In the month since Keren McGinity, an American studies professor at Brandeis University, published a disturbing op-ed article in The New York Jewish Week, NJJN’s sister publication, alleging sexual assault at the hands of an unnamed leading academic, speculation quickly turned to Cohen, arguably the Jewish community’s best known sociologist.
Now, less than a month after McGinity’s 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 forcible kissing, stretch back decades; others date from as recently as 2011.
In the wake of McGinity’s piece and Cohen’s initial “outing” on a Jewish #MeToo Facebook group, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Cohen’s current employer, has opened a Title IX investigation against him, NJJN has learned. In addition, NJJN has also learned that Cohen was removed abruptly from the itinerary of the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies summer program at Brandeis University, 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 NJJN that AJS takes the problem of sexual misconduct in academia “seriously.”)
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,” 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 “ethical lapses” in the Jewish community.
(Cohen was among the nearly 400 Jewish scholars, officials, and activists who signed the committee’s original declaration of principles pledging to address the problem of corruption in American-Jewish institutions in 2016. The committee removed Cohen’s name from its declaration earlier this year, when evidence emerged of his sexual misconduct.)
Cohen does not contest the allegations. Reached in Israel last week, he said in a statement to NJJN: “I 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.
“Rather,” he wrote, “I recognize that there is a pattern here. It’s 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 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’t 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.”
In all, it may prove to be a stunning fall from grace for a respected Jewish academic described by those in the field as “the gatekeeper of Jewish academia,” someone who received grant funding from many major Jewish organizations and an academic who could catapult — or stymie — a young scholar’s career.
When Bognar first accepted the position to work for Cohen at Berman Jewish Policy Archive, she thought it would open doors. “It was my first job out of graduate school,” recalled Bognar, who had previously completed a degree in law. “Cohen 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.”
Cohen’s 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.
Feeling she had no recourse — Cohen was the director of the initiative and had no apparent supervisor at NYU, where the project was then housed — 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’s account of events. He told NJJN that Cohen would “regularly” touch Bognar during professional staff meetings and “aggressively” 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.
After an earlier version of this story appeared on July 19 on The Jewish Week’s website, NJJN learned that Cohen resigned from his position as director of BJPA. Associate director Ari Kelman said no allegations of this nature were made against Cohen while he was on staff of BJPA, but confirmed on Monday that Cohen had stepped down.
An investigation underway
Despite a flurry of activity in response to the allegations against Cohen, no institution — including his current employer, HUC-HIR — 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 NJJN, HUC released a statement on July 2 confirming that the institution is “investigating” the circumstances of a complaint to “determine what occurred” and to “provide remedies, as appropriate.”
The investigation comes as the Jewish community continues to reckon with sexual harassment in Jewish communal spaces. A December 2017 story in NJJN — published just weeks after the Harvey Weinstein scandal broke and the #MeToo movement gained momentum — detailed pervasive incidents of sexual harassment directed at female clergy among the liberal denominations. 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.
NJJN reported last month that Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest New Jersey is instituting what is believed to be a first-of-its-kind measure to address the issue of harassment in Jewish workplaces: the hiring of a new, full-time “Community Sexual Harassment Protection Counselor,” according to executive vice president/CEO Dov Ben-Shimon, and several organizations have undertaken similar initiatives to tackle the problem. However, many on the frontlines — including female clergy and community lay leaders — told NJJN in the same piece that they believe the issue has yet to be adequately addressed.
In her article, McGinity — who does not name her harasser — 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 AJS conference in Washington, D.C. Cohen was a regular “star” at the conference, a colleague who attended the conference said. McGinity, then 43, was then a scholar-in-residence at the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute. The position — a one-semester appointment — 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 “champion” of gender equality, proposed the one-on-one dinner to McGinity as a professional opportunity.
McGinity’s account was corroborated by a co-worker at the time who requested to remain anonymous. In an interview with NJJN, the co-worker said McGinity emailed him just days after the alleged incident took place, describing what had taken place as “disturbing.”
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 “intently” at her name tag before putting his hand on her left breast, where the name tag was placed.
“I was floored,” 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. “One colleague was like, What the f*** was that?” she recalled. Another colleague “laughed it off,” saying Cohen is “known for being ‘gross’ with his female program assistants.”
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,” 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.
“We met in his office to discuss the writer’s block I had been experiencing,” she recalled in an interview with NJJN. “He [Cohen] told me he found masturbation to be a good way to deal with writer’s block, and that I should try it.” She ignored the comment and continued the conversation about her research.
A short time later, she made a phone call in Cohen’s office. While she was on the phone — “my back was to him,” she said — he came up behind her and “put his hands down my pants and grabbed me.”
“I yelled, ‘Are you out of your mind? What the f*** are you doing? What do you want to do, ruin your career, your marriage?’” she recalled saying. He “laughed it off,” she said.
When she told her program supervisor what had happened, he said, “If you have a complaint, take it up with the law.” He also “screamed at me to stop ruining this man’s life,” she recalled. “He said, ‘He [Cohen] has kids and a wife — do you want that on your conscience?’”
(The supervisor, who the source requested not be named, has since died.)
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 “all too faint” to comment, she said.)
“I remember thinking, ‘This has got to stop,’” 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.
“He said he would put a letter in Cohen’s file,” 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 “shut me down,” she said. “I said, ‘You need to do something about this because it’s been continuing,’” she said. “He yelled at me to drop it. ‘Don’t you care about ruining this man’s life?’”
Jewish academia’s ‘gatekeeper’
While HUC-HIR made it clear that they will take action — ranging from suspension to termination of employment — against anyone found in violation of the institution’s sexual misconduct policy, Cohen’s 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’s funding priorities over the past decade.
“He [Cohen] is the gatekeeper of Jewish academia,” 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.
“Steve is the one getting the grants. He’s the one getting the money to research and publish big studies,” said Aviv. For someone in this field, choosing not to work with him “immediately limits a young academic’s career potential.”
While Aviv says she was never “targeted sexually” by Cohen, she recalled his “blatantly homophobic comments about my sexual orientation” over the course of their collaboration. While reviewing data, Aviv, who openly identifies as lesbian, recalled him asking probing questions about her sex life, “how lesbians get pregnant,” and who might be the “real dad” of a gay couple who select to pursue biological parenthood.
“I was shocked,” she said. “I told him, ‘You cannot say those things to me. You cannot say those things to anybody.’” Though Aviv did not want to work with Cohen again after the experience, his presence in the field made that “near impossible.”
“He has the power to make or break careers,” said Aviv, herself a veteran in the field of Jewish academia. Cohen would reward his prize mentees with speaking gigs at scholarly conferences, letters of recommendation, and hiring opportunities.
Female scholars, who hold only 38 percent of university tenured positions in the United States, are left with few options, said Aviv: “If you can’t get past the gatekeeper, you don’t stand a chance to get a seat at the table.”
‘Misreading’ ordinary behavior?
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’s, said she observed Cohen “generously nurture” the careers of “many young men and women” over the years. She has heard “nothing but good things” about his mentorship, she told NJJN.
Barack Fishman — 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) — said she finds it “dishonest” when language used to describe sexual harassment “does not differentiate between ambiguous and egregious situations.”
“In the current hypersensitive environment, it is easy to pathologize what might be construed as ordinary public behavior,” she said, referring to the global #MeToo movement. “This ironically may serve to valorize victimhood,” 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’s 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 “decisively and immediately.”)
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 “very supportive” of her career and cited his “positive response” when she told him that she was expecting a child. “He went out of his way to bring women to the table,” 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 “slightly inappropriate things” and ask her “very personal questions,” his manner never seemed overtly sexual, she said. “He’s a social scientist, so he was always asking people questions.” And while he was known to hug, kiss, and act in an “informal” way with colleagues, she said she would be “shocked” to discover that Cohen allegedly used his authority “to hurt people in any way.”
‘I didn’t think he would pull that with me’
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 “sleeping with all the smart Jewish women” on campus — a claim he bragged about openly, according to the source — she was around 40 at the time and married with two children. “I wasn’t stupid,” she said, describing several other run-ins she had as a rising female voice in an academic world dominated by men. “I just didn’t think he would pull that with me.”
The two were collaborating on an academic journal. When she knocked on his apartment door, he answered wearing “nothing but his underwear,” she recalled.
“I should have left right then and there,” she said, reflecting on the incident with a note of self-reproach in her voice. “But I considered myself sophisticated. I had managed to handle things like this in past — I would be able to manage this, too.”
As they sat down in the living room to work on the papers, Cohen “solicited me for sexual activity,” she recalled. She could not recall exactly what he said. “He made it clear that he wanted to have sex with me,” she said. She rebuffed his solicitations but remained to finish working on the journal. Though she “never collaborated with him again,” 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.
“I don’t think particularly highly of my response,” she said. “But it was the ’80s. You just moved on.”
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’s apartment for decades. That changed when she read McGinity’s June article. Though Cohen was not named, she immediately noted the resemblance to her own experience.
“Keren wouldn’t tell me who it was, but I guessed right on my first guess,” she said. “I must have repressed the memory for years. It wasn’t until Keren connected with me that the memories rose to the surface.”
“I hoped he would change,” she said, her voice trailing off as she reflected on what had happened to her so many years ago, and what has transpired since. “But men like that don’t change. I should have known.”