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Reining in Abuse in Jurisdictional Jungle, Where Does


American Judaism is not a monolith, and that may have implications in the fight against clergy sexual abuse.

On one hand, the mainstream rabbinic organizations have established in-house panels to handle cases of suspected sexual misconduct and other ethics violations by their members. On the other hand, Judaism is highly decentralized, which means individual congregations are largely free to decide how to police themselves in this area.

Consequently there is no guarantee that misconduct cases arising at the synagogue level will find their way to the ethics committees’ dockets. Even so, several sources said they were confident that serious cases would probably be brought to the attention of denominational-level officials, or the police if necessary.

Whether or not that is actually the case, reactions varied widely to the notion of congregants deciding a sexual misconduct case involving their own rabbi.

That uncomfortable prospect was one of several examined by JTA in this three-month-long investigation of policies that have been drawn up over the past several years to rein in rogue rabbis and others who sexually exploit congregants, students or others.

Rabbi Joel Meyers, executive vice president of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, said although shul-goers would probably be too lenient when asked to judge their own rabbi, “they generally understand what must be done.”

Psychotherapist and author Charlotte Rolnick Schwab, who believes that most aspects of Judaism’s internal adjudication system are dysfunctional, said the prospect of a congregation deciding a rabbi’s professional fate is especially troubling.

“The problem of dealing with rabbi-perpetrators of sexual abuse is compounded by the fact that individual synagogues have sole power over hiring and firing their rabbis,” Schwab wrote in her 2002 book “Sex, Lies, and Rabbis: Breaking a Sacred Trust.” The book continued: “The rabbinic organizations can suspend them from membership, can recommend that they resign. They can also recommend that the synagogues fire them for cause. It is shocking that many of these synagogues, even in the face of several women accusing the rabbi, vote to keep him on.”

That said, controversies stemming from allegations of rabbinic abuse are not always clear-cut. They are sometimes complex, shaded with ambiguities and subject to varying interpretations.

In one case, for example, the board of the largest Conservative synagogue in western New York, Buffalo’s Temple Shaarey Zedek, voted conditionally in March 1999 to keep its rabbi, A. Charles Shalman, after several female congregants reported that he had touched them inappropriately and had made sexually suggestive comments to them, according to press accounts.

Early the following month, the R.A.’s ethics committee, which had investigated the case, summarized its findings in a letter to Shalman that was obtained by the Forward. The letter said in part: “It is painfully clear that you have violated several principles of rabbinic conduct which have caused harm to certain of the women counseled or taught by you.”

The letter continued: “Normally, given the nature of the conduct, we would expect you to withdraw from your congregation.” But the committee relented, the letter explained, after learning that the synagogue’s board, in its March 1999 vote, had decided to permit Shalman to keep his post “under very strictly defined parameters.”

The committe, echoing the board’s decision, decided that as a condition of his continued employment at Shaarey Zedek, Shalman must undergo therapy with an R.A.-approved practitioner and report regularly to a rabbinical mentor. It also prohibited him from teaching or counseling women on an individual basis without the permission of the ethics committee.

On Aug. 19, 1999, four months after the R.A. decision was handed down, the membership of Temple Shaarey Zedek voted 232 to 87 to keep Shalman. The text of a motion issued in conjunction with the vote clearing Shalman to remain on the pulpit said in part, as reported in the media, that Shalman had been unjustly victimized by “anonymous allegations and subsequent rumors” after having tried to comfort those “in need of such assistance.”

Contacted in late December by JTA, Meyers of the R.A. said Shalman had fulfilled all the requirements mandated by the organization’s ethics committee. The case was declared closed in July 2001 and Shalman was “restored to full rabbinic status in the Rabbinical Assembly,” according to an R.A. document provided by Shalman. When contacted, he declined comment on his case.

Not just rabbis

Rabbis are not the only religious authority figures who may be accused of victimizing congregants. Cantors, among others, have committed sexually abusive acts, as indicated by several cases, high-profile and otherwise.

In one instance, a woman who was interviewed by JTA, reported being sexually assaulted by her cantor several years ago in a parking lot following a communal event. The woman, who asked that neither her name nor the name of her assailant be used, said she initially did not report the incident to the police after being advised by an acquaintance “to keep it quiet, and keep it in the community.”

But as word of the incident spread, the woman said she and her son were soon ostracized by members of the religious community that had once embraced them. They became the targets of a harassment campaign, according to the woman, that included pointed intimations that she and her son might not be Jewish.

“They destroyed my son spiritually,” said the woman, now in her mid-40s, her voice breaking. “They ripped the heart of Jerusalem from him and I had to watch it.”

Eventually the woman’s Jewish bona fides — and those of her son — were confirmed by an Orthodox beit din, a rabbinic court, sitting in New York, which also advised her to report the sexual assault to the police.

“They did everything right,” she said of the beit din.

Felony charges were filed against the cantor, who pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor count, according to authorities. He was given a one-year suspended sentence, three years probation and was ordered to undergo domestic violence counseling.

Although procedures for adjudicating sexual misconduct complaints against cantors differ from movement to movement, none of these cases are handled by the denominational rabbinic organizations — unless perhaps the cantor is also an ordained rabbi.

The Orthodox Union, which has approximately 450 member synagogues in North America, has behavioral standards covering hundreds of organizational employees, but it has no congregational ethics guidelines applying specifically to non-rabbinic clergymen, such as cantors.

“It’s a big gap; I can’t defend it,” said Rabbi Mark Dratch, who chairs the Task Force on Rabbinic Improprieties of the O.U.’s companion organization, the Rabbinical Council of America.

Conceding that such a jurisdictional loophole does exist, Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, executive vice president of the O.U., added in an e-mail that “the OU does not have ‘jurisdiction’ over cantors, or over non-rabbinic members of individual synagogues who may misbehave, but urges synagogue leadership to educate itself about such matters and bring breaches of sexual conduct to legal authorities when appropriate, or to appropriate mental health or social service agencies when necessary.”

If not the O.U. or the RCA, it was not immediately apparent which Orthodox organization would in fact have jurisdiction over a sexual misconduct complaint involving a cantor. Orthodox cantorial organizations do exist, but their representatives said they are not equipped to handle ethics complaints of this type.

As for the other denominations surveyed, the Reform and Conservative movements have cantorial associations that rule on ethics complaints against their members.

Over the past five years, five complaints alleging sexual misconduct have been filed with the Conservative movement’s Cantors Assembly, resulting in the expulsion of three cantors from the organization. The Reform movement’s American Conference of Cantors has received one complaint of sexual harassment since 2004. That complaint was investigated and found to be without merit.

The Reconstructionist movement does not yet have a full-fledged cantorial association and, as a result, most cantors working in that denomination’s synagogues belong to either the Conservative or Reform cantorial groups, according to a Reconstructionist spokesman.

Justice delayed

Several of the denominational codes have specific deadlines for promptly dealing with accusations of misconduct, but they apparently are not always followed. In fact, Rabbi Rosalind Gold, chair of the ethics committee of the Reform movement’s Central Conference of American Rabbis, identified procedural delays as one of the chief flaws in the system — a glitch in the CCAR mechanism that was evident when JTA first investigated rabbinic sexual abuse in 1996. The delays can penalize both victims of abuse and rabbis who are unjustly accused.

In one recent case, a woman maintained that she had waited six months before receiving word that her complaints against a rabbi would be investigated, despite what she characterized as a two-week reporting requirement mandated by the CCAR. The rabbi vigorously denied the allegations against him.

“Things just take too long,” Gold said. “Trying to get nine rabbis together for a meeting is really hard. I’ve seen delays hurt both complainants and rabbis. It puts them through hell.”

In the woman’s case, the ethics committee–following its routine procedures– suspended its investigation after it learned that there was litigation involving the rabbi and the complainant.

“We don’t want our ethics process to be used as evidence in a court case,” Gold explained. “It’s not written in the code; it’s been the practice since the code was put into place” in 1991. “It doesn’t happen often, and usually it involves a divorcing couple with a rabbi spouse.”

Regardless of the rationale behind the rule, Jeff Anderson, a Minnesota attorney who has handled hundreds of sex abuse cases against religious organizations, including at least one Jewish institution, said it is simply bad policy.

“If to investigate and get to the bottom of it is the right thing to do at any given point in time, it’s the right thing to do at all points in time,” Anderson said. “To suspend it because of a civil suit makes it the wrong thing. There’s no right way to do the wrong thing.”

Still, Gold defended the work of her ethics committee.

“There is no glory in it and a lot of grief,” she said. “Our committee is really committed to finding rabbis who shouldn’t be practicing. Our process isn’t perfect, but there’s no old boys network anymore.”

But there is a potential downside to the climate of increased vigilance now emerging in the Jewish world.

“Sometimes, somebody doesn’t like the rabbi and makes something up to get the rabbi fired,” said Susan Grossman, a rabbi at Beth Shalom Congregation, a Conservative synagogue in Columbia, Md.

Grossman cited the instance of a colleague who “wound up getting hauled in and fired” after innocently applying suntan lotion to children.

To guard against such episodes, it is important for denominational decision-makers to be flexible and use common sense, said Meyers of the Rabbinical Assembly.

“You can’t always find that in written ethics guidelines,” he said, explaining that sexual misconduct “cannot be generalized.”

Activities that might disqualify a rabbi for the pulpit cover an enormous range in terms of severity.

“People keep looking for black-and-white solutions to these situations,” said Meyers, “and that’s not how human relations work. Each situation is different.”

Gauging the system

In general, policies on sexual impropriety reflect the intentions of “people of good character and integrity who seem to take the issue seriously,” Dratch said. “But sometimes even these people can mishandle cases.”

The guidelines, he adds, are “only as good as the people involved in that particular case, and that’s part of the problem. They’re often not aware of the policies or they’re not well trained in this area.”

Schwab, the psychotherapist author, said she recently conducted an informal poll of scores of congregants at Conservative and Reform synagogues in Palm Beach County, Fla., and found that none of them were aware of their congregations’ policies on sexual misconduct.

Yet even when all parties are well-informed and the system functions “optimally,” it does not always dispense justice, according to Reform Rabbi Drorah Setel, an anti-abuse scholar and activist. She argued that when sex abuse victims file complaints against revered communal figures, they always run the risk of being vilified.

“To name the problem is to create the problem,” Setel explained. “That’s the mentality. Anger is directed at the victim rather than the perpetrator.”

The situation might improve, Setel added, if ethics panels had more lay people or more women, or if victims’ advocates played a more prominent role in the proceedings — anything to redirect the therapeutic focus away from the rabbis themselves. Several denominational policies, for example, encourage rabbis to seek moral rehabilitation through teshuvah, or heartfelt repentance.

“The policies are silent on teshuvah for the congregation,” Setel said. “What happens if the congregation shuns the victim? Does the congregation have to do teshuvah? There’s a whole process of reintegration into the community that is not even addressed.”

Ironically, the role of teshuvah in sexual misconduct cases was raised recently by prominent Reform Rabbi Sheldon Zimmerman, who himself had been found by the CCAR to be in violation of the organization’s guidelines on “sexual ethics and sexual boundaries.”

A former CCAR president, Zimmerman was suspended for two years by the CCAR in 2000. He then resigned as president of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, but went on to become executive vice president of birthright israel and then vice president for Renaissance and Renewal of United Jewish Communities.

Zimmerman’s post-suspension hires drew both criticism and praise. He no longer works for UJC.

The CCAR did not disclose full details of the case involving Zimmerman, but several sources interviewed around the time of his suspension said it is believed he had what was characterized by one publication as an “extramarital affair” with a congregant 15 years earlier while he was the rabbi of Central Synagogue in New York.

In 2005, Zimmerman published an article in the CCAR Journal in which he reflected on his case and on his efforts to rehabilitate himself with the help of CCAR-mandated teshuvah “mentors.” Praising some aspects of the teshuvah process and criticizing others, Zimmerman wrote that his family “needed and failed to receive communal and collegial care and support.”

Attempts to reach Zimmerman for comment were unsuccessful.

Despite these and other criticisms of the still-evolving mechanism for dealing with clergy sexual misconduct, several sources said they see evidence that concern over the problem is beginning to pay off.

Attorney Anne Underwood, for one, said she detects a change in the mind-set of institutional Judaism.

“What I don’t hear anymore,” said Underwood, who has helped various faith groups formulate ethics policies, “is ‘What do we do to legally cover our asses?’ What I’m hearing now is, ‘What do we do to keep congregations safe and rabbis and cantors healthy?'”

On a more practical level, workshops addressing the issue are becoming more commonplace across the denominations. The O.U., for example, featured such a session at its recent biennial convention in Jerusalem. A special beit din has been created in Chicago to adjudicate cases of sexual abuse.

Meanwhile, denominational leaders are placing greater emphasis on education and prevention as effective tools in combating the problem of sexual misconduct among clergymen and other trusted figures. The Union for Reform Judaism, for example, in its May 2005 leadership briefing advised board members of its congregations to ensure the safety of congregants “and reduce your risk of liability” by considering rigorous background checks of employees.

In addition, several rabbinical school curriculums now include courses on sexual misconduct and how to steer clear of it. Yeshiva University is one such school.

“I’ve seen it work,” said psychologist David Pelcovitz, who teaches at Y.U. “I’ve had young rabbis in the field call me and tell me how they’ve been able to recognize situations they wouldn’t have known how to handle before. I’ve gotten several calls like that over the last couple years, and it felt great.”

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