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When Rabbis Go Astray (part 1 0f 5): Rabbinic Sexual Exploitation; Leaders Breach a Sacred Trust

September 19, 1996
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On a hot summer day in 1991, when her husband had taken their two adolescent sons out of town, Connie Rappaport’s rabbi asked to come over for a swim in the lake near her house.

Rabbi Arnold Fink, the family’s spiritual leader at Beth El Hebrew Congregation in Alexandria, Va., for more than a decade, had been counseling one of the boys and had grown close to Rappaport and her sons.

“I was welcoming a friend and teacher who had been part of my religious and family life for a long time,” said Rappaport.

As they ate the ice cream sundaes she had served, Fink suddenly shoved his spoon in her mouth and said, “`You must taste mine,'” Rappaport recalled in an interview.

“In the next instant he grabbed me and pulled me over to him in a tight embrace. I found myself locked with him in an intense and passionate kiss.

“A passionate, sexual involvement was not what I expected,” Rappaport, a free- lance radio reporter, said of her ensuing six-month relationship with the rabbi.

Fink, in a recent interview, acknowledged the relationship, but said it was appropriate because he was not counseling her in any way at the time and he believed that Rappaport was in the process of getting divorced.

But Rappaport says that although her marriage was troubled, she planned to stay with her husband another several years until their sons were in college. She was also dealing with the recent death of her mother.

“I honestly did not know how to say `no’ to my rabbi, the most important authority figure in my life at the time,” Rappaport said.

Rappaport’s story is far from unique.

Although the overwhelming majority of rabbis do not misuse their power by sexually harassing or abusing their congregants, sexual exploitation happens more often than anyone would like to think.

“We’re dealing with a huge problem that I don’t think we fully understand,” said Rabbi Mark Winer, senior rabbi at the Jewish Community Center of White Plains, N.Y.

Rabbinic sexual exploitation involves more than adultery. It is the misuse of a powerful role, experts say, and includes unwanted sexual advances toward a congregant, verbal or physical harassment, taking advantage of a counseling relationship or even acquiescing to a congregant’s overtures.

American society has grown more conscious of the issue of clergy sexual misconduct in recent years. And the problem has not escaped the Jewish community, as several recent cases illustrate:

In a well-publicized case, Rabbi Robert Kirschner, a charismatic and successful young Reform rabbi who led Northern California’s largest synagogue, allegedly sexually exploited and harassed female congregants — including an anorexic woman — over a period of several years.

The father of four children, Kirschner was married at the time. When four of his victims came forward to the synagogue board and demanded his resignation, he complied, with an exit package worth close to $400,000, according to local news reports.

A dozen women ultimately came forward to complain and at least three women settled out of court with the synagogue and its insurance company.

Today, Kirschner works as the program director of the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles, which is affiliated with the Reform movement’s rabbinical seminary.

Early in 1995, a congregant complained that she had been fondled by a widely beloved Conservative rabbi. The rabbi had led her Philadelphia-area synagogue for nearly 50 years. Once she came forward, the floodgates opened. At least a dozen women in the congregation said the rabbi had been verbally harassing and fondling them, with some incidents dating back 40 years. The rabbi was forced to retire early.

In mid-1995, a Reconstructionist rabbi was accused of pedophilia by someone he allegedly had molested 17 years earlier, when he worked as youth director at the boy’s congregation.

When questioned by members of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association’s ethics committee, the rabbi admitted to having molested one or two other minors since being ordained eight years before. The association expelled him earlier this year.

The married senior rabbi of one of modern Orthodoxy’s most highly respected synagogues in the Northeast began dating a congregant who had been coming to him for counseling while she was separated from her husband. The rabbi divorced his wife and married the congregant. The synagogue did not renew his contract.

Although no official statistics measuring the extent of the problem of rabbinic sexual misconduct exist, there are some reliable indicators, say those who have studied the issue.

In the mid-1980s, when Winer, a member of the Reform rabbinic organization’s executive committee, informally studied the approximately 60 largest congregations in his movement, he found that during a 20-year span, allegations of rabbinic sexual misconduct resulted in nearly as many pulpit changes as deaths and retirements combined.

Experts on clergy sexual misconduct — Jews and non-Jews — estimate that the incidence of rabbinic sexual exploitation is about the same as among Protestant ministers.

A 1992 analysis of surveys of Protestant ministers from five mainline denominations revealed that 39 percent had had sexual relationships of some type with congregants, according to Marie Fortune, founder and director of the Seattle-based Center for the Prevention of Sexual and Domestic Violence.

Twelve percent of the ministers surveyed admitted to having sexual intercourse with their congregants.

Leaders of each of the American Jewish community’s major religious organizations vehemently disagree that the Protestant figures apply to the Jewish community.

“That number bears no relationship to the reality of incidents in our community,” said Rabbi Eric Yoffie, the head of the Reform movement’s Union of American Hebrew Congregations. “I think it is a wildly exaggerated figure and until there is evidence to the contrary, I don’t believe it.”

Rabbi Joel Meyers, executive vice president of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, said, “I don’t believe 38 percent is right.”

“I don’t want to sound like I’m denying the fact that I know there probably is such sexual exploitation,” he said, but “our approach to the whole issue of human functioning, including sexuality, as Jews is quite different than that of Protestants or Catholics, and I think that our approach by and large is much healthier. I have a feeling that there is less of the exploitative.”

Rabbi Steven Dworken, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Council of America, an Orthodox organization with about 1,000 members, said the Orthodox rabbinate, too, is less exploitative.

“I would like to think that it doesn’t exist,” he said. “We’re all human beings and all have the potential to make mistakes. But there are different levels of mistakes and I would like to think that an Orthodox individual would be particularly careful when it comes to any kind of suggestion of impropriety.”

But many rabbis working in congregations and other settings say the comparison with the Protestant figures confirms their own sense of what is happening in the rabbinate.

“People who make light of it, who say it’s a few rotten apples, don’t get it,” Winer said. “When you have an epidemic like this, you have to look at something going on underneath the surface.”

Rabbi Nina Cardin, a member of the executive council of the Conservative movement’s rabbinic organization, said she believes that “we as rabbis don’t yet know how to handle this.”

When a married rabbi has sex with a congregant, or a single rabbi has sex with a married congregant, more than adultery is at issue. Similarly, any sexual relationship between a rabbi and a congregant he or she is counseling – – formally or informally — is widely considered inappropriate.

Jewish and non-Jewish experts in the field say that there is something that comes with the title “rabbi” that some members of the clergy do not understand and others exploit: power.

Rabbis have spiritual, psychological and emotional power over their congregants, say experts in clergy sexual misconduct.

No matter how egalitarian the relationship between rabbi and congregant appears to be, they say, there remains an ineluctable imbalance of power.

“Rabbis, or any religious figures, embody a representation of God whether they want to or not,” said Debra Warwick-Sabino, director of the California Center for Pastoral Counseling, an agency that deals with clergy sexual misconduct.

“With other people you have a secular type of trust, but with clergy there is a sacred trust,” said Warwick-Sabino.

Warwick-Sabino said she was sexually harassed by Kirschner, the California rabbi, which she says led her to study the issue professionally.

Some rabbis — particularly those who have dated members of their synagogues – – dispute the notion of an imbalance in the dynamic with congregants.

“A rabbi is not God, not an emissary of God. A rabbi is a teacher; our tradition is clear on that,” said Fink, the Virginia rabbi accused by a former congregant of sexual exploitation.

But that congregant, Rappaport, had a different view. “I never called him `Arnold.’ He was `Rabbi,'” she said. “I felt like I was making love to God. That’s what made it so powerful.

“It was the most intense spiritual and sexual relationship I’d ever had in my life.”

Fink, who has since remarried, said in a telephone interview that when he dated Rappaport, he made it clear to her that “I’m dating her as a person, not as a rabbi, that this could in no way be construed as a rabbi or counselor relationship.”

“When we had the relationship, whatever power we had was a shared power,” he said.

After the rabbi broke off the relationship, Rappaport brought a complaint to the Reform movement’s rabbinical organization, claiming that Fink had exploited her.

In response, the ethics committee of the Central Conference of American Rabbis sent Fink a letter of censure for conducting a relationship that it said had “the appearance of impropriety.”

“In publicly accusing me, Connie grabbed a different kind of power,” Fink said. “My hands are tied behind my back. The congregation has been victimized by it.”

Fortune, of the Center for the Prevention of Sexual and Domestic Violence, said: “A congregant who turns to her rabbi for counsel or as a student is not his peer.

“She is not in a position to be fully consenting even though she may be eagerly engaged in this process” of sexual relations and “may even have initiated it.”

Arthur Gross Schaefer, a Reform rabbi at Kehilat HaAlonim, in Ojai, Calif., said his peers, by and large, “don’t understand that `consenting adults’ really doesn’t mean `consenting adults.'”

Gross Schaefer, also a professor of business law and ethics at Loyola Marymount College in Los Angeles, has been one of a handful of rabbis within the Reform movement advocating a change in the way rabbinic sexual misconduct is handled.

According to Rabbi Howard Jaffe, a member of the executive committee of the Reform movement’s CCAR, “The role of rabbi is theoretically one of teacher, but in reality is, in the vast majority of cases, much more akin to that of pastor.”

Mental health professionals call it a “diminished capacity to consent” when congregants or patients are unable to rebuff an unwanted overture because of the powerful influence of clergy members, therapists or doctors.

The central professional organizations in some other fields have established stringent ethics codes about such relationships and have prosecuted violators.

The American Psychiatric Association’s ethics code, for example, clearly states that “sexual contact between psychiatrists and their patients is unethical.”

It is also a widely accepted standard in the mental health community that therapists not begin a social relationship of any kind with a client until two years have passed since the end of the professional relationship.

Fifteen states have criminalized sexual exploitation between therapists and clients, most making it a felony. Some of those laws apply to clergy as well.

In Gross Schaefer’s view, when a rabbi sexually exploits a congregant in some way, the damage can be more profound than when a doctor or therapist does the same thing.

“Not only is a congregant being abused by a very powerful figure, but the tradition is abusing them and God is abusing them.”

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