(JTA) — After a series of high-profile revelations about sexual misconduct within its ranks, the world’s largest Jewish denomination has initiated three separate independent investigations into how it deals with allegations of abuse.
In an unprecedented move, the Reform movement’s seminary, rabbinical association and synagogue network have each hired different expert law firms to investigate allegations of cases of harassment and abuse with a focus on policies and practices that have failed to ensure accountability.
Rabbis, cantors, synagogue congregants, rabbinical students and anyone else with relevant information are being encouraged to come forward and speak to specially trained attorneys, who promise confidentiality and sensitivity.
“Something historic is happening,” Rabbi Mary Zamore, who has been pressing the movement to make changes, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “I never thought I would see this day.”
The investigations have the potential to bring long-buried misconduct to light and to change the movement’s policies about how it handles complaints about its rabbis and employees. Some are seeing an erosion of a culture of silence around sexual misconduct that advocates and community leaders say has pervaded the denomination and sometimes prevented allegations involving rabbis from coming to light.
As executive director of the Women’s Rabbinic Network, a group that bills itself as the “conscience of the Reform movement,” Zamore has long pushed for the #MeToo reckoning that she says is now underway.
She said many of the roughly 600 rabbis in her network have observed for decades how survivors who complained through official channels were often ignored or dismissed. She believes they would be treated differently if they come forward now to participate in the investigations.
“All three institutions have really committed to independent investigations done by high quality, trauma-informed law firms,” said Zamore, who has been acting as an informal advisor to Reform leaders in their efforts. “They have all indicated they will be engaging in the process of teshuva [or repentance] and enacting changes.”
How to participate in the Reform movement’s misconduct investigations
Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion hired the law firm Morgan Lewis to hear complaints involving harassment or discrimination by faculty and staff and investigate how seminary leaders responded to instances of inappropriate behavior. The deadline to share information is Aug. 16. The email address to reach the lawyers is HUC-JIRInvestigation@morganlewis.com.
The Central Conference of American Rabbis hired the firm Alcalaw to look into its past and current ethics processes. Those who wish to speak about past instances should email the law firm at firstname.lastname@example.org by Aug. 27, and those with new complaints are invited to contact the rabbinic organization’s ethics committee at this email: email@example.com.
The Union for Reform Judaism hired the law firm Debevoise & Plimpton for its investigation. Anyone with any information about misconduct or discrimination relating to URJ is encouraged to email URJInvestigation@debevoise.com. There is no deadline.
The current wave of soul searching began in late April and early May after reports surfaced about sexual abuse by Rabbi Sheldon Zimmerman, who was president of the Reform rabbinical school between 1996 and 2000 before resigning abruptly. The behavior dated back to his time as a pulpit rabbi in the 1970s and ’80s.
The violations that led to Zimmerman’s resignation were not fully disclosed at the time, and many observers were left with the impression that he was guilty of nothing more than having consensual affairs. In fact, a Reform movement internal investigation had found a pattern of sexually predatory behavior by Zimmerman including that he fondled and kissed a teenager.
With those findings obscured from public view, he went on to work as vice president of the Birthright Israel program and rabbi of the Jewish Center of the Hamptons. The investigation’s findings were not revealed until this year, when New York City’s Central Synagogue, where Zimmerman had been rabbi from 1972 to 1985, investigated its own history.
The revelation triggered outrage and generated a new call to action by activists in the Reform movement.
“Internal mechanisms have failed to bring justice and healing to so many victims and accountability to the Reform Jewish community writ large,” Zamore’s Women’s Rabbinic Network said in a statement on April 28.
Within days, the movement’s main organizations announced that they were hiring outside law firms.
The movement’s seminary, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, hired the law firm Morgan Lewis. The Central Conference of American Rabbis is working with Alcalaw, and the congregational network, the Union for Reform Judaism, has Debevoise & Plimpton for its investigation.
In addition, two other major Reform congregations, Temple Emanu-El in Dallas — where Zimmerman served as senior rabbi from 1985 to 1996 — and Stephen Wise Temple in Los Angeles, have since launched their own internal investigations.
Each institution had acted on its own accord but all three movement groups were responding to the same news, according to Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, which represents some 850 synagogues in the United States and more than 2 million congregants.
“The decision made by the URJ’s leadership to retain outside counsel to conduct an impartial investigation was made independently, although it is a response to the same public reports of sexual misconduct within the Reform Movement that have led the HUC-JIR and CCAR leadership to also have investigations conducted,” Jacobs wrote in response to questions from the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.
Rabbi Hara Person, chief executive of CCAR, also cited the press reports but added that her organization had begun discussing the issue last fall when it decided to revise its ethics process. She said that past updates had not produced a code that reflects current ethical standards and practices.
“It was a system that was created for a different time, a quieter time, before #MeToo, with different mores, in a pre-social media world,” Person said in an interview. “Historically, there’s been a lot of shame and reluctance of people not wanting to come forward and that’s really changed in recent years.”
Meanwhile, at Hebrew Union College, officials declined to answer questions, saying that it would be inappropriate to comment on details while the investigation is ongoing.
“Earlier this year, HUC alumni shared accounts of inequitable and dismaying experiences at HUC and in the field over the past decades,” the seminary said in a statement. “We are anguished and upset by what we have heard, and take these accounts very seriously.”
A history of promises
It’s far from the first time that the Reform movement has made promises, formed committees and launched overhauls of ethics codes.
In the 1980s, CCAR convened a task force of senior leaders that met for two years and decided to promote discussion about sexual misconduct at conferences and in the group’s publications.
But by the mid-1990s, the work of the task force looked like a farce. Its members had privately referred to themselves as the “the well-oiled zipper committee,” according to a 1996 report by JTA. Complaints took years to be investigated and often resulted in only symbolic or ineffectual punishments. Those who complained felt they were ostracized while offenders remained welcome as their violations were often kept confidential. They were invited to undergo a process of repentance — an idea with deep roots in Jewish tradition.
“There is a lot of leaning toward giving the offending clergy the opportunity to repent, and sometimes premature placement back in congregational or other settings,” Rabbi Julie Spitzer said at the time, speaking as a leading advocate and expert on clergy sexual abuse within the Reform movement.
Allegations of sexual harassment against Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, the late Orthodox musician and spiritual leader, had come to light; a Reform rabbi was convicted of hiring assassins to kill his wife in an effort to obscure an affair; and a rabbi working at the Orthodox Union was accused of molesting youth.
Susan Weidman Schneider, then the editor of Lilith, a feminist Jewish magazine, said there was a palpable change in the wake of these revelations.
“The wall of silence around clergy misconduct is being taken down,” she said in a 2000 interview with JTA.
But in the decades that followed, it turned out that the wall had not been completely demolished, and was in some cases propped back up by the mishandling of allegations and weak processes for ethical correction.
For example, in 2015, the Forward revealed that CCAR had botched an effort to hold a rabbi accountable for alleged sexual misconduct toward numerous women, including a 17-year-old congregant.
The rabbinic organization had expelled Rabbi Eric Siroka for refusing to comply with an ethics investigation but didn’t publicize exactly why he’d been investigated in the first place. So Siroka moved his family to another state where he was hired to teach Jewish high schoolers in a community that had no understanding of his past.
That community was outraged to learn Siroka had been accused, among other similar allegations, of forcibly kissing a congregant who was 17 multiple times.
Shortly afterward, the CCAR began listing on its website the names of rabbis who were expelled, suspended or censured and what ethics code they had violated, according to Person, who took over the organization in 2019.
“That’s a huge change. And I think it adds a tremendous amount of integrity to the process,” Person said.
But that change has not led to the transparency that many advocates seek. In a case that made headlines only a few years later, a woman accused her rabbi at Judea Reform Congregation in Durham, North Carolina, of sexual misconduct in a complaint to CCAR. The organization censured Rabbi Larry Bach, but the congregation did not find out about the allegation or investigation until the woman notified them of what happened.
In an interview with JTA, Sarah Hoffman, the woman in that case, said she recently spoke to the lawyers hired by CCAR for two hours about Bach and her experience of seeking accountability.
A problem for all movements
Rabbinic ethics committees across denominations — not just Reform but also Conservative, Reconstructionist and Orthodox — at times have seemed ill-equipped to police their own members. Indeed, the Reform movement is not alone in its array of scandals or its history of institutional failures, said Elana Wien, the executive director of the SRE Network, a Jewish advocacy group focused on equity and workplace safety issues.
“Issues of sexual harassment and discrimination are not unique to the Jewish community nor to the Reform movement,” Wien said. “Whenever you don’t have healthy culture and policies and training reporting mechanisms, inappropriate behavior is able to continue.”
Zamore and other advocates have hope that this round of reckoning will be meaningful. They point out that all three investigations are examining not just cases of wrongdoing but are also studying how improper behavior had been handled by those in power.
What’s helping inspire confidence, for them, is that the Reform movement has for the first time outsourced the investigatory work to expert law firms with reputations for integrity.
“Here you have three organizations that have affirmatively reached out for new information and they are investing the resources — it’s not cheap to find out the truth of what happened over decades,” said Chai Feldblum, a lawyer who served on the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission under presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump and was responsible for enforcing laws against workplace discrimination.
After her second term on the commission ended, Feldblum went on to do private investigations into misconduct as part of her work for Morgan Lewis, the law firm hired by HUC. She has since left that role and now provides pro bono advice to the Women’s Rabbinic Network.
She outlined how these types of investigation tend to play out and why they are likely trustworthy.
After the client — in this case, agencies of the Reform movement — defines the scope of work, the lawyers have the autonomy to act. They try to gather as much relevant information as possible and are able to promise confidentiality for nearly all cases. The lawyers are trained to interview people who are relating traumatic events.
“An investigator can be kind and empathetic while still being neutral and seeking out the truth,” Feldblum said.
An image begins to emerge. The type and severity of allegations become clear. Then there’s the matter of what, if anything, happened in response to complaints.
According to Feldblum, with the caliber of law firms involved, the result of this process is more likely to be the truth than a fiction designed to satisfy the client. “Law firms have reputations to uphold,” Feldblum said.
Sometimes the lawyers are asked to make recommendations. Then it’s up to the clients to decide what findings to make public and what to change.
If the effort lives up to the expectations of advocates like Zamore and Wien, it could have implications across the Jewish world and beyond.
“There is an opportunity for the Reform movement to model what it looks like to reckon with sexual harassment and discrimination,” Wien said.
Jacobs, the head of URJ, said it’s still early in the investigation but promised there would be a public component to its process and that the URJ would heed the advice of the lawyers it had hired.
“Key findings of the investigation will be shared with the community and the URJ will act on the recommendations from the Debevoise investigative team,” he said in an email.
Some activists remain skeptical that the latest investigations will get to the root problems.
“Investigations like these are a drop in the bucket, and don’t address the broader problem in the organized Jewish community in which there are no widely recognized standards on how institutions should treat people against whom there are credible allegations of misconduct,” said Rafael Medoff of the Committee on Ethics in Jewish Leadership.
Medoff, a Holocaust historian, is one of four Jewish academics steering the committee, a loose group that promotes “the values of accountability, transparency, democracy and fairness in American Jewish organizations and institutions.”
Medoff says the historic moment ushered by the #MeToo movement demands the Jewish community do more to contend with sexual harassment and abuse.
“There have been serious cases of sexual harassment and abuse across the political and denominational spectrum,” he said. “It’s one of the great tragedies of the American Jewish community.”