Last in a Series: Conspiracy of silence fuels rabbis sexual misdeeds

NEW YORK — When women charge sexual exploitation by a rabbi, a conspiracy of silence often ensues.

The secrecy protects the perpetrators, leaving victims alienated.

Victims who speak out often find themselves ostracized by their religious communities. And they say that when they turn to the rabbi's professional association or their movement's congregational organization, they feel unwelcome.

Many congregants are unable to imagine that their spiritual leader, who has overseen so many significant moments in their lives, is capable of sexual misconduct.

"By and large, the people who are exploitative are charismatic and well-loved, not sleazy people on the street who we're all going to be afraid of," said Debra Warwick-Sabino, an expert in clergy sexual abuse.

"When you say to someone that their rabbi is capable of this, for them to suspend their disbelief would cause such a spiritual crisis in their own lives that it's easier for them to say `Boys will be boys' than face that faith crisis," said Warwick-Sabino, who directs the California Center for Pastoral Counseling, a Sacramento-based agency that handles clergy sexual misconduct.

At the congregational meetings that follow allegations of rabbinic sexual misconduct, synagogue members often ostracize accusers. Some accusers have been called "liars," "whores" and worse, she said.

"Even in situations where the perpetrator admits all the things the women allege, congregations sometimes will line up behind the rabbi," said Marie Fortune, another expert on clergy sexual abuse. "It blows my mind."

Fortune, a United Church of Christ minister and the founding director of the Seattle-based Center for the Prevention of Sexual and Domestic Violence, has handled more than 3,500 clergy sexual misconduct cases in dozens of faiths and denominations.

She has run a seminar on the topic at a regional meeting of Reform rabbis as well as one for students at Los Angeles' Reform rabbinical seminary, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.

Women who have experienced rabbinic exploitation usually feel a deep and degrading sense of shame and guilt, experts say.

They often feel they have a lot to lose: their place in their synagogue communities, respect and success in their careers and even, in some cases, their marriages.

At Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco, some congregants allegedly tried to discredit the women who came forward to charge their rabbi, Robert Kirschner, with sexual exploitation.

At a congregational meeting soon after Kirschner resigned, the women were accused of wanting to ruin the well-liked rabbi's career. They were called "harlots" and "jezebels," some of the women reported.

Two of the women overheard a congregant saying "`Boys will be boys. I don't see what the big deal is,'" said Warwick-Sabino, one of the women who claimed Kirschner sexually harassed her. Then a student at Berkeley's Graduate Theological Union, she has since become a professional in the field of clergy sexual abuse.

In a letter to the dean of the Reform movement's Los Angeles rabbinical seminary, she wrote that she heard another congregant saying: "If [Kirschner] made a pass at me, I'd be flattered. I wouldn't object."

The Emanu-El congregants' responses were typical, experts say.

In one highly publicized case, Michele Samit — who does not claim to be a victim of rabbinic sexual misconduct — says her community vilified her after she wrote a book about the relationship between Anita Green and Green's rabbi, Steven Jacobs.

Green was the president of Shir Chadash/The New Reform Congregation in Los Angeles when she was murdered in 1990.

Her husband, Mel Green, was convicted of ordering the killing, and is now serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole.

Although the Greens were separated at the time of the murder, Anita's affair with Jacobs began while she was still living with her husband, according to Samit's book, "No Sanctuary: The True Story of a Rabbi's Deadly Affair."

Mel Green was an angry, jealous and violent man who had long threatened Anita, even in public, Samit wrote.

Several people who were Jacobs' congregants at the time said in telephone interviews that at Green's funeral, Jacobs — who had first denied but later reluctantly admitted the relationship — eulogized the dead woman not as a rabbi talking about his temple president but as a lover.

Samit wrote of the eulogy: "The rabbi recalled `admiring or just staring at her beautiful nails and her gentle hands; those hands, her skin so very soft, so reassuring, those beautiful hands.'

"No one [in the congregation] said anything" about it, Samit said in a recent interview, referring to what she believed was Jacobs' inappropriate language.

"The reaction of the congregation was nothing. Not even discussion."

That's what convinced Samit she had to leave the congregation and the rabbi who had been her lifelong spiritual guide, she said. She said she was the target of a smear campaign.

"People called me from the congregation and harangued me. They said, `You egomaniacal whore, you think you're better than us. How could you destroy such a wonderful man?'

"This was the most painful thing. Rabbi Jacobs was my hero. I had him on such a pedestal. He bat mitzvahed me" and presided at her wedding. "I baby-sat his kids. We were so close."

Jacobs denied that his relationship with Green was an illicit affair.

"She was a dear friend, my temple president, and after the fact that she was going through a divorce and I had already been divorced, there was a romantic relationship," he said in a recent telephone interview.

He described Samit's book as "full of lies," and said some have accused him of adultery because "people are angry when you achieve a lot in rabbinic life.

"I would not be in the position and stay in the position if people didn't know who I am."

Samit said she believes she and every other member of Jacobs' congregation bear some responsibility for Anita Green's murder.

"There were signs to all of us that Anita was in danger, and we ignored them because we wouldn't dare cross our beloved rabbi," she said.

Another congregant, Michael Hirsh, outraged by his rabbi's behavior and his community's response, wrote to the head of the Reform rabbinical association's ethics committee in April 1993, charging Jacobs with violating the group's ethics code and demanding that it assess Jacobs' behavior.

Rabbi Jeffrey Stiffman, then the head of the committee, wrote back to Hirsh that Jacobs had agreed "to uphold all provisions of our Code of Ethics," which requires rabbis "to adhere to an exemplary moral code" and "to avoid even the appearance of sexual misconduct."

Hirsh responded to Stiffman with a letter saying that the action amounted to nothing more than "a rabbinic consent decree" for Jacobs to do it all over again.

"If there is a shanda [shame] here, it is not only in Jacobs' immoral conduct but in your organization's complicity in covering it up," wrote Hirsh, a former investigative journalist and current television producer.

Jacobs remains the rabbi of Temple Kol Tikvah, the name adopted after Shir Chadash merged with another synagogue.

Experts in clergy sexual abuse say congregants' denial is dangerous because a rabbi can harass and exploit numerous victims for decades on end without any of the individuals knowing the others exist, forcing each to suffer alone.

If a rabbi has sexually exploited one congregant, he almost always has exploited several, Fortune said, without referring specifically to any of the above-mentioned cases.

In the end, while rabbinic perpetrators often take a new job within their movements or even stay in their pulpits after a slap on the wrist from their rabbinical organizations, it seems the victims often go away.

They often break all ties to the Jewish community and, in some cases, convert to another religion.

According to Fortune, denial of the problem is so pervasive because "none of us wants this to be happening."

There is "long-term damage being done here that we're going to be living with for years," she said.

"It doesn't have to be that bad if we respond better."