Toronto - In a case that has rocked one of North America’s largest Conservative synagogues, a woman who was taking singing lessons from an area rabbi is claiming that the rabbi seduced her. She is seeking a total of more than $1 million in damages from both him and the synagogue he once served.
Yona Nadler, 52, brought the suit last month in Ontario Superior Court against Rabbi Tobias Gabriel and Beth Tzedec Congregation for breach of fiduciary duty and for the pain and suffering that the alleged sexual relationship caused her and her marriage.
Nadler is alleging that the synagogue failed to properly screen Gabriel as an employee and that it breached its fiduciary duty “to ensure that Gabriel would not take advantage of Yona for his own sexual gratification.” The allegations have not been proven in court.
With 6,000 members, Beth Tzedec is Toronto’s leading Conservative congregation. Its membership includes much of Canadian Jewry’s professional and business elite. Gabriel was, until recently, one of five rabbis employed by the synagogue.
He has dismissed the allegations as “groundless,” and his lawyer insisted the rabbi will challenge them vigorously in court. In a letter sent last week, however, the congregation’s president told members that “the impropriety” likely occurred, but maintained that Beth Tzedec neither condoned the behavior nor bore legal liability for it.
The plaintiff’s statement of claim alleges that the synagogue had known that Gabriel “previously engaged in sexual relations with another married woman who was attending the Beth Tzedec Synagogue while she was grieving the loss of one of her parents.”
Gabriel, who was hired by the synagogue 13 years ago and is described on its Web site as “happily married,” has “resigned” from Beth Tzedec, according to his lawyer, Alf Kwinter.
“He was not dismissed,” Kwinter emphasized.
Both Nadler and Gabriel declined to be interviewed for this article.
Last week, a joint delegation from the Rabbinical Assembly, which is the international association of Conservative rabbis, and the Cantors Assembly, the world’s largest cantors’ organization, came to Toronto to meet with the parties involved and to conduct an investigation. At press time, their findings were not yet released.
The R.A. has a “zero tolerance” policy toward rabbinical impropriety, said its executive vice president, Rabbi Joel Meyers, “but the goal is not always to just say, ‘Sorry, you’re finished.’ As rabbis, we absolutely believe that teshuvah [repentance] is possible. The question is whether there is a commitment to changed behavior.”
According to the statement of claim, in July 2006, Nadler, who was not a member of Beth Tzedec, was enrolled in a course for student cantors at the synagogue. She was the sole woman in the class given by Gabriel, and, according to a statement she has filed with the court, he became “friendly and flirtatious.” The rabbi kissed her in his office at the end of the course after she had given him “a small token of appreciation,” her statement of claim says. She then “fled” the office, “confused and shaken.”
The statement of claim alleges that the rabbi then phoned Nadler repeatedly while she was on a visit to Israel. He “pressured” her into seeing him when she returned. When they met, “Rabbi Gabriel began to kiss Yona and told her that he will take responsibility and that it would not be wrong to be intimate with him,” according to the statement of claim. He told her that “it is acceptable that she love two men.” The statement of claim alleges that the relationship progressed to sexual intercourse.
When asked if Gabriel acknowledges that a sexual relationship occurred, his lawyer replied: “Absolutely not. He has acknowledged nothing.” Statements of defense from the rabbi and the congregation are not yet due to be filed.
In his letter to congregants, Beth Tzedec president Shep Gangbar wrote, “Unfortunately, there is little doubt that the impropriety occurred.” While the synagogue “strongly affirms that such actions are improper and wrong,” it is not legally liable for the rabbi’s actions, the letter said. “Beth Tzedec has never condoned or tolerated such behavior and will never do so,” it stated. Gangbar and other synagogue officials declined interview requests.
But Nadler is arguing that the synagogue is far from blameless in the matter. Her lawyer, Simona Jellinek, told the Forward that if the lawsuit goes to trial, she can elicit testimony from another married woman who “many years ago” was also seduced by Gabriel while he was employed by the synagogue. “Beth Tzedec was well aware of what was happening, and they failed to put an end to it. Our case against the synagogue for negligence is very strong,” she said.
Jellinek said that her client’s emotional state is “very, very poor.” Nadler and her husband, who is suing the defendants for $90,000, have gone for counseling, “but whether or not their marriage will survive is unclear,” the lawyer said.
Gabriel was born in Bolivia to parents who had fled Nazi Germany. He has lived in the United States, Peru, Mexico, Israel and, since 1990, Canada. A graduate of Yeshiva University’s Cantorial School, he was hired as a cantor by Beth Tzedec in 1994 and was ordained as a rabbi at the Jewish Theological Seminary in 2006 at the age of 62. He and his wife, Sara, have been married for 31 years and they have two married sons and a daughter.