When Reform Leaders Downplay Charges of Rabbis Behaving Badly

Rabbi Eric Siroka was quietly expelled from the nation’s leading association for Reform rabbis, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, this past spring. At the time, the CCAR said only that Siroka had been expelled for refusing to comply with an ethics investigation.

By then, Siroka, a married father with two children, had moved to Washington State, where he had taken up teaching positions in Jewish adult education and at a Jewish high school.

The CCAR did so little to publicize Siroka’s expulsion that many in the Seattle community, including its rabbis, were not alerted to the expulsion nor to the underlying reason for it, which the CCAR now tells the Forward was “sexual misconduct.”

Because of the lack of information, Seattle’s Jewish leaders spent months in the dark, never questioning whether it was appropriate for Siroka to be teaching at a Jewish high school or to be involved in Jewish adult education.

READ: An Alleged Victim Speaks Out

Nor did they have reason to be concerned when, in May, Siroka set up “Everything Jewish & More!” a freelance rabbinic service for the Jewish community of Seattle.

The Forward has learned that Siroka was expelled after a woman lodged a formal complaint of sexual misconduct in the summer of 2014, when Siroka was employed at a synagogue in South Bend, Indiana. That woman would not speak to the Forward.

But the Forward has spoken to three other women who say they were sexually harassed or had an inappropriate relationship with Siroka between 2000 and this year.

One of the women was just 17 when, she says, Siroka forcefully kissed her on the mouth on multiple separate occasions while he was the spiritual leader of a synagogue in New Jersey.

Another woman says she had a brief, destructive affair with Siroka in 2013.

A third woman, from Seattle, said she had to rebuff the rabbi’s advances this year.

The CCAR is one of the largest rabbinic organizations in the world, with 2,100 members who minister to 1.5 million Reform Jews.

For some, the rabbinic group’s handling of the Siroka case raises questions about its methods and its transparency.

Several people told the Forward that the first they learned of Siroka’s expulsion was when the Forward identified him this past June in an article about rabbis who had been expelled by their denominations.

At the time, the CCAR declined to reveal the reason for Siroka’s expulsion other than to say that it was for refusing to cooperate with an ethics investigation.

When contacted again in connection with these new allegations October 15, the CCAR’s chief executive, Rabbi Steve Fox, acknowledged for the first time that Siroka’s expulsion involved concerns of “sexual misconduct.”

The CCAR conducts its investigations into rabbinic malfeasance in private.

If a rabbi is suspended or expelled, the CCAR publishes the decision in its bimonthly newsletter, which is mailed to rabbis and congregational organizations.

Fox said his group made sure that Seattle area rabbis and congregations were informed about Siroka’s expulsion.

But Fox declined to say when the CCAR first became aware of allegations against Siroka, or to explain why the CCAR withheld the sexual misconduct reason for Siroka’s expulsion until now. All Fox would say is that as late as June, the CCAR was “not able to confirm certain aspects of the matter.”

“Our concern is maintaining the confidence and confidentiality of complainants and victims, as well as the lay and rabbinic members of the community during the investigation phase,” Fox said in an email correspondence managed by BerlinRosen, a public relations firm. (BerlinRosen also represents the Forward Association, publisher of the Forward.)

“As such, we cannot provide any information that might disclose the names of complainants and victims or other confidential information that might give light to who they might be.”

Siroka, who is 48, did not respond to calls and emails from the Forward for comment. A resident at Siroka’s home address refused delivery of a letter sent by Federal Express from the Forward outlining questions of sexual misconduct the newspaper wished to discuss with him.

Siroka has a vibrant online persona and is often pictured smiling and holding a guitar. He writes regularly about Judaism, music and life, at a blog called Guitar and Pen. He had an active Twitter account under the Twitter handle @jazzrabbi until he deleted it in October during the reporting for this story. Around the same time, he deleted his Facebook account, too.

In his blog posts and short staff biographies, Siroka comes across as the epitome of a progressive rabbi, writing about social justice, marriage equality and the joys of Reform Judaism.

He left his last pulpit, in South Bend, in the summer of 2014 and arrived in Washington shortly afterward when his wife, Debra Siroka, was appointed director of lifelong learning at Temple B’nai Torah, in Bellevue, a suburb of Seattle.

Siroka quickly became involved in a variety of teaching roles. During the last academic year, he taught about global Jewish communities at Livnot Chai, Seattle’s multi-denominational community high school. He also taught adult education classes on Jewish identity at the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle, and led evening classes on Reform Judaism and Jewish music at B’nai Torah.

Rabbi Yohanna Kinberg, of Seattle’s Congregation Kol Ami, said that at the time of Siroka’s arrival it was assumed that he did not take up a pulpit position because he was “burned out.”

But early this summer Kinberg received a call from a female Jewish professional in the Washington community who had in turn received a call from another female Jewish professional in the Midwest, asking why Siroka was teaching in Seattle given his record of inappropriate behavior with women.

The caller directed Kinberg to a blog post published this past May by a woman who said she had had a destructive affair with a rabbi a couple of years previously. The author did not name Siroka, so Kinberg contacted the author directly and verified that the blog post was about him.

Later that same week, Kinberg received a call from the woman who lodged the formal complaint against Siroka with the CCAR in 2014, warning Kinberg about Siroka’s behavior with women.

“There is a whole underground network of women warning each other [about Siroka],” Kinberg said. “In this world, that’s how women really protect themselves.”

Kinberg did some more research, and for the first time she noticed the news of Siroka’s expulsion in the CCAR’s 2015 March/April newsletter, which stated that Siroka was expelled but did not give the reason for his expulsion.

Kinberg was so concerned that she published the Forward’s June article that named Siroka to Facebook.

Shortly afterward, Kinberg said she was contacted by a woman in the Seattle community who said Siroka had tried to initiate a sexual relationship with her earlier this year.

The woman, who did not wish to be named, told the Forward that Siroka gained her trust slowly, at a time of personal vulnerability.

She said she trusted and respected him because he was a rabbi, never expecting that she would have to rebuff a rabbi’s sexual advances.

But through this past spring and summer, she said, Siroka tried to turn their friendship into a sexual relationship.

“I think preying on people in positions like [mine] is how he operates, and that’s what makes him dangerous,” the woman said. “He really was exploiting that extreme vulnerability I have, and he used those rabbinic qualities and the deference and all of that to his advantage.”

Kinberg believes that the woman’s experience could have been prevented if the Seattle community had been explicitly warned about Siroka’s sexual misconduct.

“Someone ended up getting hurt,” Kinberg said. “Real women are getting really hurt because of our real lack of ability to talk about these issues and to hold people accountable for their actions.”

This past June, Reform rabbis discussed the allegations against Siroka in a private Facebook group. Few rabbis were willing to speak about it to the Forward.

When contacted, some said that they did not know enough about his case, while others did not wish to have their names publicly associated with him.

But there was another reason for their reticence.

Reform rabbis depend upon the CCAR for placement in congregations. None were willing to risk running afoul of the group’s leadership, which can make or derail their career.

One Reform rabbi from the Southeast, who would only be quoted anonymously, said that although the CCAR takes rabbinic malfeasance seriously, the CCAR’s investigative and punitive process should be more transparent.

“Those in a position of power and authority can do what they want,” the rabbi said of the CCAR’s leadership. “Sometimes those who are outspoken find themselves hamstrung.”

The Forward asked Fox whether there was a conflict of interest between his group’s mission to support rabbis and its role of investigating its own members.

Fox’s lengthy written answer did not address the question directly.

“We are fully committed to the sanctity, safety and security of our communities, which is precisely why we have designed and implemented a robust [investigative] process that is constantly being re-examined and updated,” Fox wrote, in part.

The best interests of Reform congregations are supposed to be looked after by the Union for Reform Judaism.

Mark J. Pelavin, the URJ’s chief program officer, said in an email that his organization has “every confidence in the CCAR ethics process.”

Asked whether the URJ has any concerns about how difficult the CCAR makes it for people to find out if a rabbi has been expelled, Pelavin said: “The CCAR does inform the URJ and congregations of ethics code violations, and did inform the URJ that in the case of this rabbi there have been ethics code violations involving sexual misconduct. CCAR works with the URJ and other movement partners to disseminate this information.”

But the lack of information has led some rabbis to doubt the allegations that Siroka conducted an extramarital affair.

Rabbi David Lipper, senior rabbi of Temple B’nai Torah, where Siroka is a congregant, called the allegations “hearsay.”

Lipper said he is aware that Siroka was expelled from the CCAR. But Lipper added that because Siroka is not engaged in a rabbinic capacity at the synagogue, he is “not concerned” about the circumstances surrounding Siroka’s expulsion.

Lipper said that Siroka’s occasional teaching at his synagogue was a “personnel decision and not for public consumption.”

“I’m not a judge of other rabbis,” Lipper said. “I don’t live my life in judgment of other people.”

He added, “I’m not sure what your endgame is in doing this story.”

The woman who says that Siroka initiated an intimate relationship with her when she was 17 knew Siroka as her teacher.

Although she was just 17, she sat on the committee that hired Siroka to become the pulpit rabbi at Temple Or Chadash, in Flemington, New Jersey, in the summer of 2000.

That fall, she began weekly evening study sessions with Siroka as a component of a Reform leadership program. She said that because of the study sessions, she and Siroka were often alone together in the synagogue.

“The first time he kissed me was after Friday night services, while I was sitting on a desk in the empty front office,” the woman recalled in an essay excerpted in the November 6 issue of the Forward. “He held my head tightly between. “He held my head tightly between his two strong, over-large hands and landed a long kiss right on my lips. I couldn’t move my head out of his grip or respond. I did not know what to do.”

The woman said that during future study sessions, Siroka, who was in his early 30s at the time and married, commented on the way she dressed and tried to convince her to break up with her non-Jewish boyfriend. She said that the sessions sometimes ended with Siroka holding on to her face and placing a long, hard, kiss on her mouth.

The Forward corroborated the woman’s account by speaking to a third party whom the woman told about the kissing during the time period it occurred.

The woman said that she never reported Siroka’s behavior to the authorities, but the experience alienated her from Judaism.

She said that as a teenager she wanted to become a rabbi, but in her 20s she wondered, “How could I be a rabbi when I now knew how rabbis behaved?”

She said that just seeing people practicing Judaism made her feel “disgusted, get anxiety and start to panic.”

The Forward asked Kim Turner, president of Or Chadash, if any women had officially complained about Siroka’s behavior during his tenure, which lasted until 2006. Turner did not respond.

Siroka’s next pulpit was at Temple Beth-El, in South Bend, where he also served as president of the interfaith United Religious Community of St. Joseph County.

Shoshana Kohn, former editor of Delaware’s Jewish Voice newspaper, said she had an affair with Siroka in 2013 while he was the spiritual leader of Temple Beth-El.

As she detailed in her blog post published this past May on a female empowerment website called Girl Body Pride, Siroka pursued Kohn over the Internet.

Kohn, who was married at the time, said that because of her geographic distance from Siroka, she met up with him in hotels in Washington, D.C., during Jewish conferences.

“It was the start of an affair that soon became twisted and dark,” Kohn wrote.

She said that Siroka would call her saying that he was in a strip club at that moment, or he would text her to say that he was walking onto the pulpit for Friday night services.

Kohn wrote that as the affair progressed, Siroka referred to her as “bitch, slut, mistress” and sent her photographs of his wife. When Kohn’s husband found out about the affair, Kohn said, Siroka ended the relationship.

Kohn provided emails to the Forward that corroborated her affair with Siroka.

She told the Forward that during the summer of 2013, she contacted the head of the CCAR’s ethics committee, Rabbi Douglas Krantz.

Kohn said Krantz told her that the ethics committee would launch an investigation only if Kohn filed a formal complaint against Siroka with the CCAR. She said that she found the prospect of filing such a complaint daunting, so she stalled.

The following summer, Kohn said, she was contacted by another rabbi who had heard about her affair with Siroka and who was concerned because Siroka was head of faculty at a Reform Jewish summer camp, the Olin-Sang-Ruby Union Institute, in Wisconsin.

Kohn said that she confirmed the affair, and Siroka subsequently stopped working at the camp. The Forward could not independently verify if this was the reason that Siroka’s employment at the camp ended.

But Kohn said that soon afterward Krantz called to berate her. She said that although she had not filed a formal complaint with the CCAR, Krantz told her that the ethics committee proceedings were secret and that no one should have spoken to the summer camp about Siroka.

Krantz declined to comment to the Forward. “I don’t comment about anything to any newspaper about anything,” Krantz said. “No matter what it’s about.”

Kohn said she understands that another woman contacted the CCAR and lodged a formal complaint against Siroka in the early summer of 2014.

Siroka has left behind him a trail of organizations that will not comment on his time there.

Judy Shroyer, president of Temple Beth-El, did not respond to calls and emails asking about the circumstances under which Siroka left the congregation.

A synagogue newsletter from the summer of 2014 shows a smiling Siroka being presented with a gold record plaque “for his years of dedication to our congregation.”

A synagogue administrator, who would not give her name, said: “We are not allowed to comment on Eric Siroka’s departure. There are legal restrictions on that.”

Jerry Kaye, director of the OSRUI summer camp, where Siroka rose to become head of faculty, would not comment about Siroka beyond saying, “It’s very sensitive and has legal implications.”

Debbie Massarano, director of Seattle’s Livnot Chai school, did not respond to questions asking whether the school conducted a background check on Siroka and did not explain when and why the school stopped employing him.

“Eric Siroka is not employed by Livnot Chai,” Massarano wrote in an email. “We have no further comment.”

Siroka’s last post on a Twitter account for Everything Jewish & More! was on August 17.

After the Forward started asking questions about Siroka in October, he deleted that Twitter account as well as the “Everything Jewish & More!” work listing from his LinkedIn profile.

Fox said that his group has “grave concerns” about Siroka functioning as a rabbi in the community.

“Rabbi Siroka’s behavior is completely unacceptable,” Fox said. “He is putting himself out as a rabbi for commercial purposes at the same time that he has walked away from the investigation and disciplinary process.”

Asked whether the CCAR investigative process could be more transparent, Fox said that “conducting investigations publicly would prejudice the outcome and potentially expose a victim to unwanted publicity and harm.”

Fox added: “By alerting the leadership of our congregations, working with our sister organizations, and publishing the names of expelled members in our newsletter — which is distributed to our network of rabbis, as well as leaders of other Jewish organizations — we make this information public and ensure our congregations are informed.”

Contact Paul Berger at berger@forward.com or on Twitter, @pdberger

Author

Paul Berger

Paul Berger

Paul Berger has been a staff writer at the Forward since 2011, covering crime and healthcare issues, such as sex abuse, circumcision, and fraud. He is a fluent Russian speaker and has reported from Russia and Ukraine. He also likes digging into historicalmysteries.

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