Sexual harassment lawsuit filed against East Bay rabbi, temple

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A former part-time employee and congregant has filed a lawsuit against San Leandro's Temple Beth Sholom and its recently terminated rabbi, alleging sexual harassment and other misconduct.

"The issue here is a breach of trust…a sacred trust," Diane Josephs, the plaintiff's attorney, said Tuesday.

Rabbi Ira Book's attorney, Mark Coon, denied all allegations against his client, including one of a sexual relationship between the rabbi and the plaintiff.

Within two weeks, Coon added, the rabbi will file his own lawsuit against the synagogue alleging wrongful termination and breach of contract.

On Monday, Book himself spoke briefly to the Jewish Bulletin about the situation for the first time. He declared his innocence.

"I have been in this community longer than most rabbis," Book said. "I have served honorably the Jewish community and the extended community."

Book was placed on administrative leave in mid-March. He was fired May 20 after serving the Conservative congregation for 18 years. In a letter to congregants, the board of directors stated he was terminated based on "evidence of significant financial misconduct."

No other allegations were made.

The lawsuit was filed June 3 in Alameda County Superior Court with both an anonymous plaintiff referred to as "Roe" and anonymous defendants listed as "Rabbi Doe," "Doe Temple" and "Does 1 through 200" who are unspecified congregants.

A completely anonymous filing is unusual, several attorneys confirmed. Josephs said this was done at the request of all parties.

The suit asks for unspecified damages.

Despite the anonymous listing, Coon acknowledged the identity of the first defendant as Book, who worked at Temple Beth Sholom. At Josephs' request, the Bulletin is withholding the name of the plaintiff.

The lawsuit identifies the plaintiff as a onetime employee and congregant, who also studied with the rabbi.

The suit states that "Rabbi Doe" is married and that he persuaded the plaintiff, who was undergoing marriage counseling with him, "to engage in sexual contact…while knowing that she was extremely vulnerable." The suit attributes the woman's compliance to "the power imbalance inherent in the relationship between plaintiff and defendants as well as other reasons."

In an interview, Josephs said that "when in counseling, one basically opens up their soul with the belief that the counselor is acting in one's best interest… There is this establishment of trust that is sacrosanct in a clergy situation."

The alleged misconduct began in or before 1993 and lasted through February 1996, according to the suit.

Rabbi Doe's conduct, according to the suit, caused the plaintiff to "suffer humiliation, mental anguish and severe emotional distress."

The suit alleges that Rabbi Doe inappropriately interjected himself in the plaintiff's life, "sometimes to the point of stalking."

According to the suit, the synagogue and unnamed congregants "prior to 1993 had knowledge…that Rabbi Doe had engaged in improper and sexually harassing/discriminatory behavior with other counselees/employees/congregants and…that he was not properly credentialed."

It also declares that the synagogue and the unnamed congregants "had failed to screen him properly."

Temple Beth Sholom's recently elected board president, Marvin Zinn, declined to comment on the lawsuit's allegations against the congregation.

Coon, however, dismissed accusations against the rabbi: "Our overall response is that Rabbi Book has committed no wrongdoing whatsoever. We contend and will prove that those allegations are false and groundless."

There "was no sexual relationship between Rabbi Book and the plaintiff," Coon added.

Meanwhile, the San Leandro Police Department, which was contacted in the spring by individual synagogue board members with allegations of financial misconduct, is in a holding pattern.

Capt. Randall Stout said this week that his department will not conduct an investigation unless the board chooses to produce an audit of its fiscal records.

"What we need is a victim to come forward," Stout said.

Zinn said the synagogue has made no formal request for a police investigation. The congregation has instead been working to regain a sense of normalcy.

"As newly elected leader, my program is to go onward and upward and forget the past. We can't dwell on it and survive," Zinn said.

Last month, the congregation hired its longtime cantorial soloist as its full-time cantor. Linda Hirschhorn, who earned her cantorial ordination in May through the Conservative movement's Jewish Theological Seminary, will act as the congregation's spiritual leader until a new rabbi is hired.

The 240-household synagogue plans to hire a guest rabbi to help Hirschhorn lead High Holy Day services. After that, an already-formed committee will begin a full-fledged search for a permanent rabbi.

"We want direction," Zinn said. "We feel it's very important for this congregation to have stability."

Though a handful of members have quit since the rabbi was fired, he added, the number of departing members has been lower than expected. Zinn said that about 10 households left in June, though not all of these departures were specifically due to Book's termination. "We were surprised. He had a definite following."

It's to Hirschhorn's credit that more congregants haven't left, he said. "She's a very competent person…She's doing a great job."

Hirschhorn, who has served as Beth Sholom's part-time cantorial soloist for the past eight years, agreed that the congregation has weathered the situation well. Attendance at Friday-night and Saturday-morning services has remained steady, she noted.

"Really, the congregation has done very well. It wasn't thrown in as great a turmoil as expected," she said. "There was actually never a breakdown in synagogue life."