An aerial view of American Jewish University's Sunny & Isadore Familian Campus in the Bel Air neighborhood of Los Angeles. (Courtesy)
An aerial view of American Jewish University's Sunny & Isadore Familian Campus in the Bel Air neighborhood of Los Angeles. (Courtesy)

A Conservative rabbinical school is trying to sweep sexual harassment under the rug

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One of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion’s senior administrators, who leads the school’s efforts to protect women, came to campus dressed up as the lead attorney hired to investigate gender-based discrimination at the Reform rabbinical school. She made her point, walking around with a notepad, writing everything she observed.

It was Purim 2023 at the Los Angeles campus of Hebrew Union College, and her costume was a hit.

By then, HUC had progressed enough in addressing its history of gender-based discrimination to have a good laugh about it. Many of my HUC classmates enjoyed the spoof. I was laughing too, but what was supposed to be a silly costume hit much deeper for me.

Just weeks earlier, I had dropped out of a different rabbinical school, the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at American Jewish University in Los Angeles, because its administration did not take actions necessary to protect me from the sexual harassment I experienced in my rabbinic class of six students. It had yet to take even the first step to acknowledge that gender-based discrimination has taken place on its campus.

I wanted to be a student at Ziegler. I wanted to dig deep into Jewish text and learn with some of the best teachers in the rabbinate. I wanted to reckon with my own relationship with halachah (Jewish law). I wanted to meet colleagues who would become lifelong friends.

Soon, I learned that what happened to me had happened to many others. Thanks to the incredible support of women who understood these issues all too well, dozens of women who had transferred from Ziegler, or worse left Jewish leadership altogether, shared their own similar stories. With their support, my experience at Ziegler gained national news coverage, and demands for accountability increased.

It did not end well for me at Ziegler. At the end of the first week of my second semester at Ziegler, I drove out of the student parking lot for the last time, unable to focus on the study of Torah after spending each day sitting across from the male student who harassed me in a university that would not protect me.

When I left Ziegler in early 2023, I did not mean to start an ongoing struggle with the Ziegler administration nor the Conservative movement as a whole. But I care about the Jewish people. Though I was raised as a Reform Jew, I had chosen the Conservative seminary because I believed it was a better match for me. 

I care about making all of our Jewish spaces safe for everyone. That is why I joined a group of brilliant alumni who wrote a letter outlining several simple and easy steps to make Ziegler a safer, more equitable place for all its students. I knew I could no longer study there, and I hoped that my efforts to end the culture of sexual harassment I experienced would protect future students, build future enrollment and strengthen the future of the rabbinic school, the American Jewish University and the Conservative movement.

AJU has erased the actual lived experiences of each and every person who told of being victimized at the school.

Only after that alumni letter brought the issue to the public’s attention did AJU agree to hire the law firm Cozen O’Connor to conduct its own investigation into reports of the school’s culture of sexism, discrimination and favoritism toward male students. When a subsequent news story brought more attention to the issue, more than 40 former Ziegler students of all genders felt enough support to share their stories too. As more and more former students spoke out, they brought the depth and scope of Ziegler’s harmful culture into sharper focus.

American Jewish University received the Cozen O’Connor report but has not shared its detailed content. Instead, it sent an email in mid-June exonerating itself of the most serious charges. “Through this period of introspection and self-reflection, we have learned many valuable lessons,” the email stated.

No one at AJU signed the email. No one has taken responsibility. With a sweeping apology to “those individuals who have been harmed,” AJU has erased the actual lived experiences of each and every person who told of being victimized at the school. Teshuvah (repentance) must be personal. This is not teshuvah.

AJU’s apparent decision to protect its own reputation at the expense of those victimized in its classrooms brings harm on itself. AJU’s email is an attempt to close doors. A focus on gender equity achieved through a process of true teshuvah could open so many more.

My new rabbinical school, HUC, received me with open, trusting and protective arms. 

In 2021, when HUC conducted its own investigation of gender-based discrimination and sexual harassment, the school released the report publicly, believing it was the necessary first step to take accountability and bring change.

And it wasn’t just HUC. When the Reform movement’s rabbinic association, the Central Conference of Reform Rabbis, conducted a similar investigation, it released the report too. The Reform movement’s congregational arm, the Union for Reform Judaism, did the same with its own report.

That is why students and faculty at HUC could laugh when a professor dressed up as a gender-rights lawyer on Purim.

And guess what — she won the costume contest!

Shayna Dollinger (Courtesy)
Shayna Dollinger

Shayna Dollinger (she/her) is a rabbinical and education student at the Los Angeles campus of Hebrew Union College. She is currently spending her summer as education director at URJ Camp Newman in Santa Rosa. She grew up in San Rafael.