Cantor Nathan Lam during his first service at Temple of the Arts, March 25, 2022. (Screenshot/YouTube)
Cantor Nathan Lam during his first service at Temple of the Arts, March 25, 2022. (Screenshot/YouTube)

Cantor in sexual misconduct scandals should not lead Yom Kippur services in L.A.

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News that a cantor at the center of sexual misconduct allegations will help lead Yom Kippur services at a Beverly Hills synagogue is deeply troubling. It’s also a vivid reminder of the need for major Jewish organizations to establish standards and institute uniform procedures to keep sexual predators and harassers from being legitimized in the community.  The controversial cantor, Nathan Lam, is featured in advertisements for High Holiday services at the Temple of the Arts in Beverly Hills.

The Forward last year reported that a female rabbi and cantor who was once Lam’s student accused him of “sexual misconduct,” and described his actions toward her as “predatory.” The Stephen S. Wise Temple in Los Angeles, where Lam had been employed as cantor, announced in December 2020 that its investigation found he had “engaged in an inappropriate sexual relationship” and violated the ethics codes for both Reform and Conservative cantors.

Wise Temple also said it had “received reports and complaints about other potentially inappropriate relationships,” including “unwanted advances and dating of congregants,” according to the Forward.

The Academy for Jewish Religion California, where Lam had led the cantorial program since 2001, conducted its own “extensive and very thorough investigation” concerning Lam’s behavior. As a result, the Forward reported, the AJRCA told the complainant “that it would have fired Lam had he not retired” and that after Lam stepped down, “the school barred him from reemployment.” Lam “left those posts [at Wise Temple and the AJRCA] under pressure” as a result of the sexual misconduct allegations. He “stepped down shortly before the [AJRCA’s] probe was completed.”

The problem, however, is that the Nathan Lam scandal is just the tip of a much bigger #MeToo iceberg in the American Jewish community.

Reform Judaism’s rabbinical school, Hebrew Union College, recently issued a report documenting sexual harassment and assaults by at least six of its leaders and professors. Two other Reform institutions are currently conducting similar investigations, as is the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.

Investigations are important and necessary. But what penalties or other consequences will the leaders of those institutions impose on colleagues who knew about the abuse, but enabled it by remaining silent?

Consider the fact that Jewish film festivals are now hosting “American Birthright,” by director Becky Tahel, an exploration of Jewish marriage patterns. Among those appearing in the film to discuss Jewish identity and continuity is Steven M. Cohen, formerly a prominent sociologist of the Jewish community, who is an admitted but unrepentant sexual abuser.

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Cohen has never made a full public accounting of his actions. Nor has he ever apologized fully and unconditionally to his victims, including those who went public and the many more who did not. He has never paid them restitution or otherwise made tangible amends. Instead, he has repeatedly sought reentry into Jewish communal space. In the absence of such tangible acts, Cohen’s inclusion in “American Birthright,” or any other public recognition or role, is an offense not only to his victims but also to necessary standards of accountability and nontolerance of sexual abuse in Jewish communal spaces. (For detailed suggestions on the steps that should be required for such reentry, see this.)

Change must come from the top. In early 2020, Dianne Lob became only the third woman to chair the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the umbrella for more than 50 American Jewish groups. As someone who helped to shatter one of most significant glass ceilings in the organized American Jewish community, Lob should have been among the first to help the community address the crisis of sexual harassment and abuse in Jewish professional life.

My colleagues and I in the Committee on Ethics in Jewish Leadership organized a petition by 250 Jewish scholars, rabbis, and community activists urging the Conference of Presidents to “bar from its activities any Jewish organizational representative who has committed sexual harassment or assault.”

Lob responded: “I am pleased to learn from current Conference of Presidents leadership that the Conference has a longstanding, robust policy against sexual harassment. We will remain attentive to this serious issue.”

That response ducked the issue of the Conference of Presidents barring abusers from its meetings. We appealed to Lob again and received no response. More than two years have passed, and still the Conference has yet to take even the minimal step we proposed.

Action by the Conference of Presidents to ban from its functions any Jewish organizational representative who has committed sexual harassment or assault would set an important and much-needed example of leadership on this critical issue and for zero tolerance of sexual harassment or abuse in Jewish communal life.

Individuals who have been credibly charged with sexual misconduct should not be leading Yom Kippur services, nor should they be allowed to attend meetings of the Conference of Presidents. Surely the #MeToo movement should have taught us that by now.

Rafael Medoff
Rafael Medoff

Rafael Medoff is a historian, author and member of the steering committee of the Committee on Ethics in Jewish Leadership.