The main union of Modern Orthodox rabbis is investigating allegations of sexual harassment against the scion of a prominent rabbinic family, the Forward has learned.
Officials at the Rabbinical Council of America, an organization representing more than 1,000 Orthodox clergymen, confirmed that the organization is examining sexual harassment allegations against Rabbi Mordecai Tendler. He is a son of Yeshiva University professor Rabbi Moshe Tendler, a leading Orthodox arbiter of bioethical issues, and a grandson of the late Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, the Orthodox world’s most respected religious arbiter for much of the 20th century.
A spokesman for the younger Tendler vehemently denied the allegations. “Rabbi Tendler denies all of the allegations that are being made in their entirety,” the spokesman wrote in a statement sent to the Forward. “No misconduct was committed by him.”
Tendler has been hailed by some Orthodox feminists for his attempts to bolster the standing of women in the Orthodox community and for his efforts on behalf of agunot, or women who have been unable to secure a religious divorce decree from their husbands. A respected authority on his grandfather’s writ- ings and a part-time instructor at Yeshiva University, Tendler also has emerged as a leading defender of the increasingly beleaguered Modern Orthodox community of Monsey, N.Y., in its communal turf struggles against the dominant ultra-Orthodox majority.
Sources familiar with the situation say that the RCA has solicited the services of a private investigations firm from Texas to probe the allegations against Tendler.
“We take all these allegations very seriously and certainly don’t want to whitewash it,” said Rabbi Kenneth Auman, president of the RCA. “On the other hand, we also have to bear in mind the protection of the accused, and therefore I would prefer to wait with a statement, until we hear the final report.”
Auman declined to discuss details of the allegations and would not divulge the name of the firm hired by the RCA to conduct the investigation.
In his statement to the Forward, Tendler’s spokesman stated that “we are fully confident that the RCA will totally vindicate Rabbi Tendler after their investigation is finished.” The spokesman also wrote: “We have asked the Forward, in the interest of fairness, not to publish this story until a full and complete investigation was completed by the Rabbinical Council of America. The pending RCA investigation, which was to be confidential, was unfairly revealed to the Forward before Rabbi Tendler was even interviewed by the RCA. We are saddened that the Forward decided to publish this story, and hope that Rabbi Tendler’s excellent reputation will not be tarnished because of it.”
Several sources have informed the Forward that a number of women have told friends and Jewish communal figures that Tendler, who is married with eight children, had propositioned them while serving in his role as either rabbinic counselor or religious arbiter.
Two of Tendler’s accusers outlined their allegations in interviews with the Forward, but asked not to be identified. It does not appear that any woman has filed a criminal complaint against Tendler.
A source who has spoken to several of the alleged victims told the Forward that the women were afraid to come forth. In addition, several alleged victims have refused to air their claims publicly, for fear of committing sacrilege by shaming a prominent rabbi.
Tendler is the founder and religious leader of Kehillat New Hempstead, a Modern Orthodox congregation near Monsey. During his tenure there, he has earned praise from Orthodox feminist leaders for his open-minded approach to women’s issues. He composed a popular prayer on behalf of agunot that is recited around the world.
“He is very sensitive to the agunah’s plight,” said Blu Greenberg, a well-known author and lecturer on feminist and Orthodox issues, in an interview with the Forward. “He spares no effort, and does an intensive investigation of each case, in order to find a halachic methodology that could render the agunah’s marriage null and void, and thus release her from her status as an agunah.”
Greenberg added: “I hope and pray that the allegations against him will be found in a court to be not true.”
While Tendler has developed a positive reputation in some Orthodox circles, two prominent rabbis, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told the Forward that they first heard about complaints regarding Tendler several years ago.
Several women first brought their allegations to Rabbi Mark Dratch, a member of the RCA’s executive board who specializes in religious questions regarding abuse against women and children. “After a while,” Dratch said, “I decided, in the name of objectivity, to hand the issue over to the RCA.” He did so in January. “I’m sure the conclusion will be considerate and sensitive to all sides concerned,” Dratch said.
According to sources familiar with the situation, in June the RCA hired the Texas firm in an attempt to assure all parties that the investigation was impartial. Since then, a non-Jewish female detective from the firm has been interviewing the alleged victims.
According to two sources, Tendler reached a settlement with one woman who claims to have been seduced by the rabbi while seeing him for marriage counseling. When contacted by the Forward, the woman’s lawyer declined to discuss the issue. Tendler’s lawyer also refused to comment.
Around the time of the alleged settlement, according to a different woman who has complained to the RCA about Tendler, she and other members of the rabbi’s synagogue, Kehillat New Hempstead, received an anonymous letter in the spring of 2003 warning “daughters, wives and other vulnerable women in the community” of the allegations against Tendler. The letter stated that the message was being sent by “a group of rabbis, mental health professionals and physicians from a wide range of religious observance within the Orthodox world.”
Several weeks later, some of the women who have accused Tendler of wrongdoing received a letter dated August 4, 2003 from Bradley Rephen, a lawyer claiming to represent Tendler. In the letter, Rephen, then an active member of Kehillat New Hempstead, accused the alleged victims of writing the “maliciously fictionalized” letter, and advised them to immediately “cease any further slanderous conduct referencing Rabbi Tendler.”
Tendler’s spokesman described Rephen as “a well-meaning member of the community” who wrote the letter “on behalf of Rabbi Tendler.”
Two months after Rephen’s first letter, the women received a second letter dated October 20 from Rephen, stating that “this law firm no longer represents Rabbi Mordecai Tendler and Kehillat New Hempstead. All communications should be directed to Rabbi Tendler and/or the board of directors of Kehillat New Hempstead.”
Rephen did not return calls for comment.
Batya Siegel, a 54-year-old clinical aesthetician who has met with the private investigator hired by the RCA, told the Forward that about 12 years ago Tendler propositioned her while he adjudicated her divorce and a rent dispute.
Tendler’s spokesman denied the allegations.
Siegel first became Orthodox in 1976. Five years later, she said, she moved to Monsey with her new husband and her children from a previous marriage, in order to be part of a supportive Orthodox community and to seek spiritual guidance from Tendler. Several years after moving to Monsey, Siegel decided to divorce her husband. “So there I was, with 5 children, no job and no financial support,” she said. “Some time later, I was evicted because I couldn’t pay the rent. The landlord called me to a beis din [rabbinical court] in Rabbi Tendler’s shul. Rabbi Tendler was also on the beis din for my get [divorce decree] which was still pending, but I figured it probably didn’t matter if you had the same rabbi in two separate beis dins.”
According to Siegel, who now goes by a different name, the three rabbis handling her rent dispute said she had another month or two to move out. As soon as the proceedings were over and everyone else had left, the woman alleged, she was about to leave too, when Tendler propositioned her.
“You can imagine my shock,” Siegel told the Forward. “I ran out of there. He started calling me almost every day after that.”
She added: “You have to understand, Rabbi Tendler had tremendous power over me then. He was on the beis din for my divorce, which was still not settled, so I couldn’t tell him off the way I wanted to. I was afraid he’d use it against me and I’d never have my get. So I kept him at bay by answering: ‘After the divorce, we’ll talk about it.’”
As soon as the other rabbinic tribunal presented her with the get, Siegel said, she hurried out the door, but Tendler ran after her and said “You’ve got your get; remember what you promised.” Siegel said that she turned around and responded “with some choice words” and drove off. Tendler, she said, never called her again.
The account offered by Siegel was challenged by her former landlord and by Tendler’s spokesman.
“These allegations, recently made, supposedly are based on incidents that happened years ago,” Tendler’s spokesman said. “Ms. Siegel’s alleged incident occurred nine years ago. This fact by itself makes [her] credibility suspect, and [her] allegations should be rejected out of hand.”
Siegel’s former landlord, Suri Horowitz, signed a letter last week denying that any beit din involving Tendler took place. Horowitz told the Forward that the letter was accurate and that she signed it at the request of Tendler’s camp.
Siegel, meanwhile, stood by her original story, saying that Tendler had been involved in both rabbinic tribunals.