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Investigation says many students at LA rabbinical school experienced sexism and homophobia but it was not ‘systematic’

‘We hear you deeply and pledge to do better,’ said a letter from American Jewish University

A law firm hired to investigate alumni complaints about sexism and harassment at the Ziegler School of Rabbinical Studies found that the concerns were not shared by most graduates, but were widely corroborated by those who did not complete the program.

The firm, Cozen O’Connor, said nearly 90% of about 150 graduates of Ziegler, a Conservative seminary that is part of LA’s American Jewish University, interviewed said there was no “culture or climate of discrimination or harassment” at the school. But the firm also surveyed more than a dozen former students, 80% of whom said there was such an environment, and “reported experiencing deep and lasting pain during and after their time at Ziegler,” the university wrote in a letter to its community.

The investigation was prompted by an April 2023 letter from 13 former Ziegler students to the Rabbinical Assembly, an arm of the Conservative movement, alleging a range of abuses. The school said it learned about the letter from an article it in the Forward.

The letter accused the school of “enforcing a double-standard against women, tolerating or contributing to homophobia and transphobia in the program and dismissing student concerns that the environment had become toxic.”

The university said on Monday that the law firm had interviewed 12 of the letter’s 13 signatories, and that some of the events the students had described occurred as stated but “others either did not or lacked necessary context.”

The report “does not conclude” that sexism and homophobia “were widespread or systematic,” the university said.

Instead, the investigators attributed the gender concerns to the historically patriarchal nature of religious Judaism.

“We are deeply saddened and upset to learn of the hurt expressed by these individuals,” the letter from the university added. “Our message to them: ‘We hear you deeply and pledge to do better.’”

The university said it would adopt all of the firm’s recommendations, which included revamping its Title IX program and improving student support services.

Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg, one of the signers of the initial letter, said she was now aware of at least 40 former students with negative experiences related to abuse of power.

Many of those former students, Ruttenberg said in an interview, “are angry, if unsurprised, that this statement by AJU so blatantly obfuscates what former students reported.” She called on the university to release the law firm’s full report.

Cozen O’Connor did not respond to a request for comment.

The Rabbinical Assembly’s ethics committee, known as the Va’ad HaKavod, investigates rabbis who have been accused of wrongdoing, but said after it received the initial letter that it could not investigate an entire school. The signatories subsequently called for ethics inquiries into Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson and Rabbi Cheryl Peretz, Ziegler’s dean and associate dean; the Jewish Telegraphic Agency reported in March that the law firm is also conducting a separate investigation into their conduct.

The Assembly said Monday that that investigation is still underway.

“While the Cozen O’Connor report has not been shared with the RA or the RA’s ethics committee, the AJU’s announcement today clearly acknowledges that some students were treated poorly and that there are specific areas for improvement,” the group said in a statement. “The RA supports their leadership taking responsibility to address the concerns raised in the report.”

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