How a synagogue heals itself

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For a congregation shaken by accusations of rabbinic sexual misconduct, quickly re-establishing familiar routines of services and rituals may be the key to its emotional recovery.

"I think the greatest comfort you can give to congregants is to once again allow them to live their lives with some sense of order," Rabbi Mark Schiftan said.

Schiftan served as interim senior rabbi at San Francisco's Congregation Emanu-El for 1-1/2 years, after Rabbi Robert Kirschner resigned amid allegations of sexual improprieties in early 1992.

"We made it very clear to the congregation that one person or one rabbi cannot bring about the collapse of a congregation…I was very proud of the spirit of the congregation," Schiftan said.

Today, the temple's leaders said, remnants from the past psychological shock rarely crop up — due in part to how the congregation handled the trauma at the time.

"I just don't believe anyone is having angst over this anymore," said Paul Matzger, who is the temple's immediate past president and was the vice president when Kirschner left.

Yet Rabbi Stephen Pearce, who became Kirschner's permanent replacement in mid-1993, said the incident will always remain in the back of the temple's institutional memory.

"It is a legacy," he said.

Schiftan, who left San Francisco to become leader of San Jose's Temple Emanu-El in mid-1994, offered a similar assessment. He compared a congregation facing such trauma to a family dealing with a loss such as death. Neither will ever completely recover.

"That loss is never truly over. No matter how complete the healing, the scar always remains," he said.

Kirschner quit on New Year's Day 1992 after three congregants and an Emanu-El employee alleged he had engaged in sexual misconduct. With the widespread media coverage that followed, a dozen women — not all of them congregants — eventually came forward with similar stories.

He denied the accusations at the time. But Kirschner, in response to a recent Jewish Telegraphic Agency request for an interview, has issued his first public apology for "sexual relations outside my marriage" during his 11 years at one of Northern California's largest synagogues.

At the time, the allegations plunged the temple's 1,600 families into turmoil. Their reactions ranged from shock, sorrow and outrage to embarrassment, disbelief and a sense of betrayal.

"It hit like a thunderbolt," Matzger said.

Before knowing whether the allegations were true or false, Schiftan said, Emanu-El took a number of immediate steps to deal with the emotional trauma.

The Reform synagogue held two congregational meetings of up to 200 members each and offered individual counseling to victims, congregants and employees.

Soon after, Emanu-El drafted its first sexual harassment policy.

But Schiftan maintained that continuing the spiritual life — Shabbat services, holiday celebrations, weddings, b'nai mitzvah and programming — was the most important element of all during those "very long and often lonely days."

As far as the alleged victims, Matzger said the original three congregants who came forward are no longer members of Emanu-El. Matzger said he doesn't know whether any others remain.

Pearce, who said he never saw a list of alleged victims, said it would have made sense for these women to leave. "Let them heal and get some therapy and start fresh," he said. "They should get on with their lives."

While Emanu-El has had the advantage of time — nearly five years — to heal and reflect, another Bay Area congregation has been dealing with a fresher wound.

San Leandro's Temple Beth Sholom fired its longtime rabbi in May, amid allegations of financial wrongdoing. A month later, a congregant who was also a part-time employee filed a lawsuit alleging sexual harassment.

Rabbi Ira Book has denied both charges. Book filed his own lawsuit against the East Bay synagogue last month, alleging breach of contract, slander and libel.

Regardless of the outcome of either lawsuit, synagogue leaders acknowledged that congregants have suffered a shock.

Like Schiftan, Cantor Linda Hirschhorn said preserving the cycle of services and rituals has kept the congregation functioning as it heals.

"We're just right at the beginning. It's most important for community life to continue, for no one to feel cheated," said Hirschhorn, the Conservative synagogue's sole spiritual leader until a new rabbi is hired.

Shortly after Book was placed on administrative leave in March, Hirschhorn said, a significant event occurred.

The congregation held an already scheduled service to honor volunteers. The event helped congregants realize they were the ones who would sustain the 240-household synagogue, regardless of its leadership.

"The main concern was: Can we survive and continue?" Hirschhorn said. "We discovered we could."

Marvin Zinn, Beth Sholom's board president, agreed, saying he learned that "everyone is expendable."

At the same time, he credited Hirschhorn for helping the congregation forge ahead.

"She's done a magnificent job," Zinn said. "She's held it together."

Like Emanu-El, Beth Sholom offered psychological counseling. But no one at Beth Sholom showed an interest, Zinn said.

While the passage of time has eased the trauma of a sex scandal in the case of Emanu-El, some there still question whether the matter could have been handled better.

Emanu-El's Matzger criticized the response of the Reform movement at the time of the Kirschner controversy, particularly by its rabbinic association known as the Central Conference of American Rabbis.

"What I found out early on: The CCAR was of no help, except to suggest an appropriate severance package," he said. "We were kind of on our own."

But Matzger doesn't regret Emanu-El's response to the situation. He continues to defend Kirschner's exit package, which has been cited as $230,000 in severance pay, accrued pension and equity from a jointly owned home. Kirschner's wife and four children didn't need to suffer any more than they already had, Matzger said.

"What are you going to do? Put him on the welfare rolls? We are a Jewish institution," Matzger said.

Today, Kirschner is suspended from the Central Conference of American Rabbis until at least the year 2000. He works as program director at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles, which has strong ties to the Reform movement.

Since his resignation, Kirschner has returned to Emanu-El only once. In February, he responded to a family request and officiated at the funeral service of Rhoda Goldman, who was board president when Kirschner left.

Despite the potential reactions, Pearce approved of Kirschner's appearance in that instance. "It was a family funeral," he said. "They had the right to ask for that rabbi."

A few people made angry phone calls to Pearce, but "more than that, people said it's great he could be here and get on with his life."

Kirschner did not mention the scandal from the bimah that day.

Though his brief return to Emanu-El might appear monumental, Matzger even envisions a time when Kirschner could come back as a visiting rabbi before the entire congregation in a "spirit of reconciliation."

Such a scenario would mark the "final healing," Matzger said, because it would show that everyone had made peace with the past.

"Under the right circumstances and given sufficient time, it was and still is my…hope that Bob Kirschner can return to Emanu-El" as a guest speaker, Matzger said.

Those "right circumstances," he added, include an acknowledgment of wrongdoing directly to Emanu-El, and evidence of his spiritual and emotional recovery.

Matzger doesn't view this scenario as impossible.

"I don't think he's a fallen man for all time."