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In All Streams, Steps Are Taken to Address Rabbis’ Sexual Abuse

June 16, 2004
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The Jewish religious streams increasingly are cracking down on rabbinic sexual abuse. New get-tough policies are emerging in the wake of pledges by the various denominations to respond to cases of sex abuse by rabbis and others in the past decade.

The Orthodox Union, for example, has established a detailed policy for its youth group to deal with harassment of all kinds. According to the policy posted on the Web site of the group, the National Conference of Synagogue Youth, the union has appointed ombudsmen to handle such complaints.

Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, the O.U.’s executive vice president, said the position includes two independent professionals trained in harassment issues. Officials will not say how many complaints of abuse they field each year, but, Weinreb said, “The system has been tested and we’ve found it effective.”

Weinreb hopes to get ethics guidelines in place for O.U. member synagogues as well.

Meanwhile, a! t its recent annual convention, the Rabbinical Council of America, the largest association of Orthodox rabbis in North America, approved new protocols for dealing with rabbinic abuse.

The guidelines include appointing an independent assessor to determine whether complaints are substantive.

Violations include “any form of sexual activity or sexualized contact with any person to whom the rabbi is not married or with any minor; lewd behavior; the exploitation of the rabbinic position for the purpose of gaining sexual gratification or sexual favors,” and abusive physical contact or manipulation, the policy states.

Rabbis found guilty of violations could be expelled from the rabbinic association or reprimanded and ordered to undergo counseling. Penalties depend on the severity of the offense, whether it was part of a pattern of behavior or a first offense, and whether other measures are taken to prevent future abuse.

In the Orthodox and Jewish world generally, “there! has been a recognition that there needs to be a formal protocol rathe r than an ad-hoc response to allegations,” said Rabbi Basil Herring, the Rabbinical Council of America’s executive vice president.

The Conservative movement’s congregational arm, the United Synagogue, earlier this year instituted guidelines dealing with sexual harassment in congregations.

The policy bans “leering, catcalls or touching” of a sexual nature, “insulting or obscene comments or gestures,” the display of “sexually suggestive pictures” or the telling of sexual jokes or insulting comments.

The movement’s Rabbinic Assembly, meanwhile, refers any “serious” complaints of harassment or abuse to an ethics committee, which investigates by interviewing the parties and others involved, said Rabbi Joel Meyers, the Rabbinic Assembly’s executive vice president.

Rabbis guilty of harassment or abuse can be expelled from the movement, barred or suspended from the pulpit and ordered to undergo therapy, he said.

More minor ethics infractions, such as breaking rules ! of confidentiality, might incur a “dressing down” in the form of a reprimand and mandatory apology, he said.

Unlike its Reform counterpart, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the Rabbinical Assembly does not yet have a formal ethics code in place, though the ethics panel does follow guidelines that the group’s board approved, which will be published online soon, Meyers said.

The Rabbinic Assembly, which typically receives up to three abuse or harassment complaints a year, is in the midst of drafting a policy dealing with rabbinic behavior, but not ethics, Meyers said.

“It seems odd to tell a rabbi something he ought to know — namely, not to harm another person,” he said.

The Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association was among the first, along with the Reform movement, to adapt rabbinic ethics guidelines in 1995.

Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association President Rabbi Amy Small said the movement has seen “a few cases” of abuse in the past several yea! rs, but she said she could not provide exact figures.

The associati on would not make its policy public, she added, but she said it parallels the Reform and Conservative ethics guidelines.

Any time a charge is leveled against a rabbi, Small said, rabbis in all the movements take note. In part, that’s out of compassion, but “on another level, people see it as a statement about the rabbinate” itself, she said.

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