The largest union of Orthodox rabbis has expelled one of its members from the organization following an investigation into several women’s allegations of sexual harassment.
In a March 18 statement, the Rabbinical Council of America said that Rabbi Mordecai Tendler “has refused to cooperate with the [organization] in its investigation, and has refused to appear at a hearing.” RCA also stated that Tendler, the scion of a prominent rabbinic family, had “engaged in conduct inappropriate for an Orthodox rabbi.”
“Therefore,” the statement declared, “Rabbi Mordecai Tendler has been expelled from the RCA.”
The action took effect immediately, according to the RCA employee who shared the statement with the Forward.
According to several sources familiar with the proceedings, including two alleged victims, Tendler was accused of propositioning women while serving in his role as either rabbinic counselor or religious arbiter.
Speaking through two spokesmen in recent months, Tendler, who is married and has 8 children, vehemently has denied the allegations.
Just hours after the RCA announced its decision, Tendler’s spokesman, consultant Hank Sheinkopf, issued a statement defending the rabbi and criticizing the RCA.
“The charges against Rabbi Tendler are baseless and there is nothing in the RCA proceedings, findings or in its letter that substantiates any charges of misconduct,” Sheinkopf said. “The RCA proceedings against Rabbi Mordecai Tendler have been reminiscent of the Salem Witch Trials.”
RCA officials declined to answer questions about the case. The organization sent an e-mail to members, urging them not to comment on the situation.
The RCA’s decision was praised by one alleged victim, Batye Seigel, a 54-year-old clinical aesthetician, who said that Tendler propositioned her 12 years ago while adjudicating her divorce and a rent dispute in private rabbinical court proceedings.
“I’m glad that there’s a little justice in this world,” Seigel said. “I think that people should get what they deserve — both good and bad.”
One Monsey woman who has been urging alleged victims to come forward throughout the investigation, said that she has been intimidated and harassed by people identifying themselves as Tendler’s supporters. The woman, who asked not to be identified, said that she has been careful to guard her anonymity, but Sunday evening one of the rabbi’s backers posted her photograph and personal information on a Web site, along with a statement arguing that her anonymity did not need to be protected because she had run around “defaming” Tendler.
Tendler is the son of Yeshiva University professor Rabbi Moshe Tendler, a Talmud instructor at the university and a leading Orthodox expert on bioethical issues. The senior Tendler, who has been condemned by ultra-Orthodox critics upset over his stance against a circumcision-related ritual, serves on the RCA’s top religious committee. He did not return calls seeking comment on the RCA’s decision to expel his son.
Mordecai Tendler is also a grandson of the late Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, the Orthodox world’s most respected religious arbiter for much of the 20th century. A noted authority on his grandfather’s writings, Tendler, a part-time instructor at Y.U.’s affiliated rabbinical seminary, has emerged as a leading defender of the increasingly beleaguered Modern Orthodox community of Monsey in its communal turf struggles against the dominant ultra-Orthodox majority.
Prior to the RCA’s investigation, Tendler had earned praise from Orthodox feminist leaders for his open-minded approach to women’s issues. He composed a popular prayer on behalf of agunot, or women who have been unable to secure a religious divorce decree from their husbands.
Sheinkopf compared Tendler’s plight to that of teenagers who had been abused by Rabbi Baruch Lanner, a top leader at the National Conference of Synagogue Youth, the youth group run by the Orthodox Union. In 1989, a panel of RCA-affiliated rabbis ruled that Lanner could continue to work as an educator in the Orthodox community.
“Just as the RCA failed to protect defenseless children from Rabbi Lanner, now they are failing to protect the rights of one of its most prominent leaders,” Sheinkopf said.
In addition to threatening Tendler’s standing in the Modern Orthodox community, the accusations against him have tested the resolve and ability of the RCA to investigate allegations of sexual abuse. With more than 1,000 members, the RCA deals with a wide range of religious and social issues, in addition to sponsoring an influential rabbinical court. Its handling of the case has drawn intense criticism from both Tendler’s camp and his accusers.
The executive vice president of the RCA, Basil Herring, said that this was not the first time the organization had expelled a member. But he refused to say how many rabbis had previously been thrown out or when the last expulsion occurred.
Tendler’s backers said he was never given an opportunity to face his accusers and that he has criticized RCA officials for confirming to the media that an investigation was under way. On the other side, Tendler’s alleged victims said that RCA passed their names along to the rabbi without their permission.
At this point, Seigel said, the key aim should be to remove Tendler from positions of power.
“People need to recognize that there’s a reason he was [expelled from the RCA], that there was an investigation of him by an agency outside the Orthodox community, so it really was objective,” Seigel said. “People need to acknowledge that. Now, he needs to be taken out of a position of power so that he can no longer victimize anyone.”
Tendler is the founder and religious leader of Kehillat New Hempstead, a Modern Orthodox congregation near Monsey. RCA officials have said that they do not have the power to remove Tendler from his pulpit.
On Monday evening, a group of members of Kehillat New Hempstead met with Tendler to inform him that they were leaving the congregation, according to a source in Monsey. The group consisted of rabbis and administrators from Yeshiva University; the Frisch School, an Orthodox high school in Paramus, N.J., and Salanter Akiba Riverdale Academy, an Orthodox elementary school known as SAR.
Phone calls to the president of the synagogue, Eric Lafazan, and to the president of its sisterhood, Shelley Karben, were not returned.
The decision to dismiss Tendler from the RCA has sparked an impassioned debate between his critics and his supporters, particularly on the Internet.
The debate raged on jewishwhistleblower.blogspot.com, an anonymous blog dedicated to exposing allegations of abuse in the Jewish community. The site usually attracts between two and eight responses for each posting, yet the news of Tendler’s dismissal drew 250 responses as of Tuesday morning, taking on the character of a fiery town meeting.
On Tuesday, Yeshiva University e-mailed a statement to the Forward saying that the school’s rabbinical seminary accepts the RCA’s jurisdiction on this matter, and therefore Mordecai Tendler’s seminar will no longer be offered.
According to sources familiar with the situation, in June the RCA hired the Dallas-based sexual abuse investigation agency Praesidium, Inc., to investigate the women’s complaints.
The firm boasts of having investigated more than 400 cases of abuse, including some involving the pedophile scandal that rocked the Catholic Church.
This past summer, Praesidium conducted telephone interviews with alleged victims and other witnesses concerning alleged incidents spanning the last 12 years. The agency was building on an earlier case file compiled in late 2003 by an RCA vice president, Rabbi Mark Dratch.
The RCA was roundly criticized for giving Tendler and the attorney who was advising him, Arnold Kriss, a copy of an internal report on the sexual harassment allegations, which included the names of his accusers. Several alleged victims said that when they cooperated with the investigation they never gave permission for their names to be shared.