Second in a Series: Rabbinic sexual misconduct is rarely taken seriously

NEW YORK — Does the Jewish community take rabbinic sexual misconduct seriously?

The answer depends on who's being questioned, but many leaders lean toward a no.

Officials of the major religious movements contend that when a congregant complains of being sexually exploited or harassed by her or his rabbi, the matter is handled cautiously but effectively.

"We're dealing with [the] issues, and we will take seriously rabbis' behaviors in all areas of their lives," says Rabbi Joel Meyers, executive vice president of the Conservative movement's Rabbinical Assembly.

But "we want to be very careful in coming to any kind of a judgment, to first understand what the situation is before we jump to conclusions," he says.

On the other hand, many movement leaders say they believe more needs to be done in response to rabbinic sexual impropriety, which some maintain is much more common than the community acknowledges.

In the Reconstructionist and Reform movements, the issue has recently received more attention. That is evidenced by the development of new policies for handling the issue, and more attention paid to the matter at professional gatherings and in rabbinic journals.

Yet others — including clergy sex abuse experts, women who call themselves victims of rabbinic sexual exploitation, members of congregations where such conduct has allegedly occurred, and a few rabbis working to change the way the issue is handled — say Jewish religious leaders' response generally remains ineffectual.

"If this area is ever to be taken as seriously as it needs to be, the message must come from our leaders," says Arthur Gross Schaefer, an attorney and the rabbi of Reform congregation Kehilat HaAlonim in Ojai.

Adds Gross Schaefer, who has for the past few years been pushing his movement to better handle rabbinic sexual exploitation, "In the past, that message has been less than clear."

Those involved in such cases say that until very recently the response of many synagogues to those few women who complained of sexual misconduct by their rabbis was to try to persuade the clergyman to leave the congregation quietly, all the while hoping the real reason for his departure did not leak out.

For their part, rabbinic professional organizations have often helped the rabbi in question secure another job.

"There's a desire to reshuffle people, to keep it quiet and move them to a new community where they succumb to the same temptations," says Rabbi Debra Orenstein, a Conservative rabbi who serves as a senior fellow at the Wilstein Institute in Los Angeles.

Rabbi Julie Spitzer, director of the New York Federation of Reform Synagogues, and the Union of American Hebrew Congregations' expert on rabbinic sexual misconduct, tends to agree. "A lot of organizations want to handle things quietly, in-house," she says.

The situation only began to change, she notes, "when the women who had been victims started to come forward."

But rarely do those women go beyond their congregations to their movements' ethics committee to pursue disciplinary action. Few congregants even know that that rabbinical organizations — let alone ethics committees — exist, and the movements do little to help educate their constituents about where they can turn in cases of rabbinic misconduct, say those involved with the issue.

Awareness of clergy sexual abuse has grown in American society over the past several years. That awareness seems to be making a slow but growing impact on the way the matter is viewed by the Jewish community's grass roots and its leaders.

The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia, for example, recently held a symposium on rabbinic sexual misconduct.

For its part, the Reconstructionist movement, the smallest mainstream denomination in American Jewish life, has recently implemented a stringent approach to the matter.

The Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association's ethics committee formulated an initial policy in 1995, and refined it this year when its members were confronted by a tough case involving one of the movement's rabbis who molested young boys years ago.

The RRA expelled the rabbi earlier this year, becoming the first rabbinical organization to expel a member for sexual misconduct.

Under its new policy, the group notified all the movement's congregations and the other movements to ensure that a rabbi who has a serious problem involving sexual misconduct does not work as a religious leader again.

"It is necessary not to endanger anyone else," says Rabbi Leila Gal Berner, chairwoman of the association's ethics committee and the spiritual leader of Bet Haverim in Atlanta.

In contrast to the RRA's action, the centrist Orthodox rabbinical organization has not disciplined one of its members for sexual misconduct in years, if ever, says Rabbi Steven Dworken, executive vice president of the Orthodox Rabbinical Council of America.

"I really don't think it goes on in Orthodox circles the way it does in others," he says. "I don't think that in any way, shape or form it's a problem in our ranks."

Yet the recent experiences of several Orthodox individuals have led them to disagree with Dworken's assessment.

Three years ago, two women who had studied closely with a prominent Orthodox rabbi in a large Northwestern city claimed he had courted them and had sex with them several years earlier. One of the women had studied with the rabbi in order to convert to Judaism, and the other to become observant.

"My soul had been raped," says one of the women, who asked that her name not be used.

"The community got rid of the rabbi and hushed up what it was about," says another Orthodox rabbi in the same city who is familiar with the case.

The accused rabbi, a member of the Rabbinical Council of America and the married father of four, agreed to step down from his pulpit but wanted to remain in the community. One of his victims threatened to go public if he stayed in the city so he relocated to an ultrareligious community on the East Coast.

The synagogue board paid out his contract, and the rabbi left with more than $30,000, one of his victims and the other rabbi say in interviews.

At no point did either of the women who came forward approach the RCA with charges. But they did appeal to some leading Orthodox authorities for guidance about taking the rabbi to a beit din, or religious court, says the woman who was interviewed.

"They said that halachically they don't recognize clergy [sexual] abuse," she says, referring to Jewish law.

"Ironically, despite all of the authority that the religion heaps on the rabbi, they halachically insist that he's just another adulterer and we were of consensual age," she adds.

According to Rabbi Gedalia Dov Schwartz, a leading Orthodox halachic authority, Jewish law's view of a rabbi's sexual exploitation of a congregant "would be no different than anyone else" having an adulterous affair.

The Orthodox rabbi in question did not respond to requests for an interview.

In the meantime, the Conservative movement also is finding sexual issues among its congregants. Rabbinic misconduct is rarely brought to the attention of the Rabbinical Assembly, however. And even when it is, no formal procedure is in place to handle the matter. Nor is there a written ethics code.

"In today's environment a report means someone is guilty. We have tried to maintain very carefully the fact that someone is innocent until proven otherwise," says Meyers, who investigates most complaints to the Rabbinical Assembly himself and tries to resolve them.

Rabbi Milton Feierstein, immediate past chairman of the Va'ad Hakavod, the R.A.'s ethics committee, says the Conservative rabbinate is developing "a code of appropriate rabbinic practice that would cover things like the rabbi in relationship to his congregation and to other rabbis."

But "we've been at the talking stage for almost two years," he notes.

Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin, a member of the R.A.'s executive council, says she once approached Meyers to tell him about a report of a rabbi's sexual exploitation of a congregant.

Meyers "said there was essentially nothing we can do. He said to tell the victim to get a lawyer," says Cardin.

Meyers does not remember that case but acknowledges that "maybe I said it and really blew it, and I'm ready to admit that I can be as blind as anybody else."

Since he assumed his job at the R.A. in 1989, four cases of sexual misconduct have come to his attention, says Meyers. Two of the four cases turned out "not to be true," he says. One involved a false accusation.

In a fourth case, which involved a rabbi using "inappropriate behavior but nothing physical," the R.A. required the rabbi to take specific steps toward repentance, including acknowledging his wrongdoing to his victim and to his congregation as well as consulting with a rabbinic mentor, Meyers says.

In the Reform movement, the Central Conference of American Rabbis recently has been working actively to address the issue. CCAR leaders agree with critics that the organization needs to improve the way rabbinic sexual misconduct is handled.

"We're in the process of refining what we do," says Rabbi Jeffrey Stiffman, past chair of the CCAR's ethics committee. "There are a lot of new findings and [increased] willingness to face the problem."

But change is coming slowly, according to some Reform congregants and rabbis who charge that the system too often protects offenders and punishes victims.

In the mid-1980s the CCAR convened a task force — jokingly called "the well-oiled zipper committee," according to several sources — to look at the matter.

After meeting for about two years, committee participants, including the CCAR's senior leaders, decided that discussions and papers about sexual misconduct would be promoted at CCAR conventions and in the organization's journal.

A decade later, some Reform rabbis and congregants are angry that the issue still hasn't moved beyond that.

"When it's time for the CCAR to take action about an ethical issue like grapes being picked by migrant workers, they come up with a policy immediately," says one Reform rabbi who has been agitating within the organization to see the issue addressed in a concrete way. "But when it comes to monitoring and peer supervision, we can't act."

There's "such fear" of taking a stand against a colleague, says the rabbi, who asked that her name not be used because, she says, she has already been marginalized by her peers for speaking out on the issue within the CCAR.

To give the Reform movement its due, it did formulate a sexual harassment policy, which was adopted in October 1995.

Intended to help congregations draft their own sexual misconduct guidelines, a copy was sent to each Reform congregation's president, and was written up in the movement's magazine for congregants, Reform Judaism.

But, the UAHC's Spitzer says, the guidelines' impact has been limited. "There are lots of guidelines but a lot of confusion and denial on the part of congregations."

Currently, when a victim formally complains to the CCAR's ethics committee, the charge is investigated through a process that has, in some cases, taken years. The committee then makes recommendations to the CCAR's executive committee, which decides on appropriate discipline.

Until now, the resolution of recent cases of sexual misconduct involving Reform rabbis has varied widely — from a slap on the wrist to temporary suspension.

In the four years that Stiffman chaired the ethics committee, a position that ended this year, the CCAR temporarily suspended between five and eight rabbis for periods of one to 10 years for sexual misconduct, he says.

The CCAR established a new ethics review committee this March to assess and possibly overhaul the way allegations of rabbinic sexual misconduct and abuse are handled.

"We have to develop a mode of investigation that may not yet be in place," says Rabbi Jack Stern, a highly esteemed veteran member of the Reform clergy who is serving as chair of the new committee.

He expects the task force to report to the CCAR at its annual convention next spring.

One of the system's most serious flaws, critics charge, is that none of the movements' rabbinical organizations consistently specifies what must take place to illustrate sincere repentance in order for a suspension to be lifted or an expulsion revoked.

That makes it unclear to the perpetrator, his victims and even those movement leaders responsible for discipline whether or not the rabbi has gone through that process, say both critics of the system and those involved in changing the process.

"There is a lot of leaning toward giving the offending clergy the opportunity to repent, and sometimes [giving] premature placement back in congregational or other settings," says Spitzer.

According to Stern of the CCAR's oversight committee, "We have to deal with the area of tshuvah. [repentance]. We haven't begun yet. All we know are the areas that we should be discussing and making recommendations, but nothing is foregone."

The great sages of Jewish tradition, from Maimonides to Joseph Soloveichik, have elucidated elements common to all acts of repentance, according to Reform Rabbi Arthur Gross Schaefer, who has written about sexual misconduct and repentance for the CCAR Journal: Reform Jewish Quarterly.

Repentance for sexual misconduct must include self-examination, acknowledgment of wrongdoing, an appeal to the victims for forgiveness, and some restitution for damages caused, he writes in the article.

"Tshuvah is not achieved simply by an offending rabbi saying that he/she is sorry, seeing a therapist or being placed on suspension for a period of time," he writes.

Then Gross Schaefer adds in an interview, "When we deal with the difficult issues of rabbinic sexual misconduct, we have not taken seriously our own tradition.

"Until we are willing to take tshuvah seriously, we are doing a major disservice to our victims, to our congregations and to our colleagues."