Kirschner assesses scandal and his life

For the first time since his sexual improprieties with female congregants and other women made headlines eight years ago, Robert Kirschner has spoken publicly about the scandal.

His ruminations on the saga take center stage in a new history of San Francisco's Congregation Emanu-El.

Kirschner does offer self-reflection. But in atoning for his sexual misconduct, Emanu-El's former senior rabbi doesn't give anything more than "a partial apology," said Fred Rosenbaum, author of "Visions of Reform: Congregation Emanu-El and the Jews of San Francisco 1849-1999."

Kirschner is blunt.

"I will not accept responsibility for the allegations that were falsely and maliciously brought, that were simply untrue," he tells Rosenbaum.

"These [sex] acts were between consenting adults. That's the limit of it," Kirschner adds in the 76-page chapter titled "Fallen Star."

The man who resigned as Emanu-El's head rabbi on New Year's Day 1992 — accused of having sex with female congregants, sometimes in his synagogue office — goes on to blame a media feeding frenzy for many of his woes, even though 15 pages earlier he said he didn't want to "make any excuses."

In a sweeping 10-hour interview with Rosenbaum, Kirschner describes his reaction to the media coverage of the scandal as "worse than I ever could have thought — my life as I knew it ended."

But he does put some of the blame on himself.

"I climbed too far, too fast and seemed to develop a certain form of narcissism, arrogance [and] obliviousness to the feelings of others," the 49-year-old said.

"I wasn't aware of it and [that] was part of the problem."

Although he owns up to the truth that he engaged in sexual relations outside his marriage — accusations he initially denied when the scandal broke — readers learn almost nothing about the liaisons themselves.

In an interview, Rosenbaum acknowledges he left out "the steamy, lurid details," even though he knows "that there are some people who are interested in this kind of prurient detail."

Writes Rosenbaum: "By his own admission, he had many adulterous affairs, several of them with his congregants, which he consummated in the temple."

But that's about as steamy as it gets. In fact, the first 56 pages of the chapter focus squarely on Kirschner's mostly positive contributions to the Reform congregation, where he was a pioneer of social justice during his tenure there from 1985 through 1991.

"I really praise him, and I believe justifiably," Rosenbaum said in an interview. "On a personal basis, before the scandal, I admired Kirschner greatly. And I still admire him for what he accomplished in terms of the programs he was able to implement…for his vision, his innovation, his great ability as a sermonizer and a scholar."

When the chapter finally turns toward Kirschner's sexual deeds, Rosenbaum sets the tone by writing, "In one sense, [Kirschner's] actions may be seen as a mirror of the times."

Rosenbaum goes on: "He belonged to a generation known for its self-indulgence, and had reached the top during a decade marked by excess, in a city that celebrated sexual freedom. It was a period too when his marriage was deeply troubled and when the pressures of his work were the most intense."

Kirschner insists, however, that all of those were minor factors and instead offers a psychological explanation.

"When you are elevated — literally — on this pulpit," Kirschner said, "with the light on your face, kind of the way I remember thinking in my youth of Jesus, you get that look from people…of admiration and even more. It can be very seductive; it can be toxic for someone like me…

"I didn't have the most important attributes needed to serve in that capacity; that is self-knowledge, humility, experience."

Rosenbaum writes that Kirschner "was privately cautioned twice about his sexual misconduct" — by Rabbi Jacob Milgrom, a former professor at U.C. Berkeley, and by Rabbi Malcolm Sparer, the then-president of the Board of Rabbis of Northern California.

But Rosenbaum writes that Kirschner "denied his misdeeds to both men, and quickly put their warnings out of his mind." Neither men relayed the complaints they had received to the congregation's board.

Although Kirschner did issue a written apology through the Jewish Telegraphic Agency in the mid-1990s, which was printed in the Jewish Bulletin, he has not spoken publicly about the scandal to anyone except Rosenbaum.

In fact, a recent phone call from the Bulletin to him in Los Angeles, requesting an interview or his comments on the new book, ended abruptly with a stern "No," immediately followed by the sound of the phone being emphatically hung up.

Two years ago, he agreed to meet with Rosenbaum, who was updating his 1980 history book about Emanu-El, "Architects of Reform," with developments of the last 20 years.

The new project was commissioned by Emanu-El in conjunction with its 150th anniversary this year, but Rosenbaum apparently had the freedom to write whatever he wanted.

Still, Emanu-El Rabbi Stephen Pearce admitted that he scoured the manuscript before it went to press, "and had there been something egregious, I would have had a discussion with Fred."

Pearce, who is the congregation's senior rabbi, nevertheless claimed editorial constraint was not an issue. He insisted, "This was not an exposé. It's a purely historical account. We were not interested in catering to people's prurient interests."

Rosenbaum said he wasn't seeking to illuminate any shocking revelations from Kirschner, whom he describes as "well into middle age, portly and without the neatly trimmed red beard he sported in San Francisco."

The "remarkably forthcoming" interview lasted as it did, Rosenbaum said, still expressing amazement, because of a rare but powerful rainstorm in Los Angeles. All Kirschner's appointments for the day were canceled, and phone service was out at the Skirball Cultural Center, a Jewish museum where Kirschner is now the program director.

"So the two of us just sat and talked. Hour after hour went by, the day turned into evening and we didn't stop until 8:30," Rosenbaum said.

Kirschner resigned on the first day of 1992 amid accusations from three congregants and a synagogue employee that he had sexually exploited or harassed them.

Eight more women later came forward to the congregation board to complain about the rabbi's conduct, including more members of his congregation and two students from the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley. There were rumors of more, perhaps many more, sexual liaisons — which the book does not address.

"It wasn't just one or two cases," Rosenbaum said in an interview, "but a pattern of unwanted sexual advances."

Some of the women went public with their accusations. One of the students called the Bulletin with her story, and three women sounded off in the San Francisco Examiner.

In his book, Rosenbaum chose to focus on facts that were not as titillating as some news stories, such as some congregation leaders' early reluctance to believe the accusations against Kirschner. He "simply didn't fit the 'profile' of someone who would abuse his exalted office in this manner," Rosenbaum writes.

The chapter goes on to address the media's entrance into the foray, how synagogue leaders reacted to the scandal, Kirschner's resignation and his eventual suspension by the Reform movement's Central Conference of American Rabbis.

There is also a short passage on the rebuked attempt of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles to hire him as a part-time teacher 1-1/2 years after the scandal.

The book tells of Kirschner returning to the Emanu-El pulpit only once since his resignation. It was in 1996, when he delivered a eulogy for Rhoda Goldman, "with the title of 'doctor' rather than 'rabbi,'" Rosenbaum writes. Goldman, one of Kirschner's close friends, was the congregation president when he resigned.

One thing the book doesn't do is offer any overt apologies from Kirschner.

"I'm not sure that a book would have necessarily been the proper venue for that," Pearce said. At the same time, Pearce expressed regret that Kirschner "has yet to formally apologize to the congregation and the victims."

Kirschner was a rabbinical prodigy, becoming the youngest spiritual leader in Reform Judaism when he was installed as Emanu-El's head rabbi at age 34 in 1985. He took over for the retiring Rabbi Joseph Asher.

Kirschner oversaw an increase in the synagogue's membership from 1,000 households to 1,500 and made a national name for himself by taking progressive stands toward AIDS patients and the homeless. Emanu-El is an institution "on the moral and spiritual horizon of our community," he said at the time.

In 1985, he delivered what Rosenbaum describes as a "catalytic Kol Nidre sermon" about his visit with a young Jew dying from AIDS. At a time when anti-gay sentiment was widespread, he pointed out the neglect and disdain the homosexual community received. He also lashed out at an injuction in Leviticus that makes homosexuality punishable by death.

"The sermon, published in Reform Judaism, energized the entire movement on the issue," writes Rosenbaum.

That's not to say all of the chapter's first 56 pages put Kirschner in a glow.

Rosenbaum writes that synagogue employees and lay people described him as "top-down, autocratic and even abusive…[Some say] he lacked warmth and collegiality. Most remember him as being quick to anger and stinting on praise."

Rosenbaum points to older congregants expressing disappointment that while Kirschner was making a name for himself, he didn't even know their names when he met them in synagogue.

But none of that would have brought him down had he managed to stay faithful to his wife. That failure, Rosenbaum writes in the first sentence of the chapter, made Kirschner's tenure resemble a "Greek tragedy."

As evidence that he was struggling with inner demons, Rosenbaum quotes Kirschner's 1991 Kol Nidre sermon as a veiled acknowledgment of his dilemma. Speaking of physical imperfections such as Moses' stutter and Jacob's limp, Kirschner said, "We too have defects, limitations and obstacles to overcome…We are not flawless as the ancient priests."

His wife divorced him following the scandal, although the chapter gives few details about Reesa and the couple's four children. It does say that Kirschner remarried in Los Angeles and that his new wife is a computer specialist around his age, a child of Jewish Austrian refugees.

"Yet despite the promising fresh start in his professional and personal life, Kirschner remains a man filled with anguish and regret about the past," Rosenbaum writes.

When the Skirball center opened to the public in Los Angeles, fliers were found in the restroom attacking Kirschner as a sexual predator.

"Who I am now is somebody who feels very different, has a different life," Kirschner said. "I'm not ashamed of who I was, but I don't feel very acquainted with him."

Toward the end of the chapter, Kirschner said he resented the term "victim" being applied to his sexual partners, women he described as "consenting adults."

Rosenbaum writes, "But can there be authentic consent for a sexual relationship between a rabbi and a counselee, a student, a potential convert?"

He cites a noted ethicist, Rachel Adler, as answering that question: "Certainly not."

Kirschner sums up, "I had this image of myself — it turns out perhaps a flawed one…I felt I was destined for something. I wanted to make a difference in the world.

"A big struggle for me now is to try to figure out how to live without this kind of self-image…I feel that kind of winnowing…and the humbling that came with it…needed to happen."

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Andy Altman-Ohr

Andy Altman-Ohr was J.’s managing editor and Hardly Strictly Bagels columnist until he retired in 2016 to travel and live abroad. He and his wife have a home base in Mexico, where he continues his dalliance with Jewish journalism.