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Who’s Investigating Rabbis Who Cross the Line?

A rabbi who surfs the Internet for transsexual escorts stands trial for borrowing and stealing almost $500,000 from his congregation to pay off an extortionist.

Another rabbi is sentenced to more than six years in jail for videotaping naked women in his synagogue’s ritual bath.

A third rabbi is being told to leave his pulpit following media reports about his decades-long penchant for spending time in saunas with naked boys and men.

And that’s just news reports over the past few weeks.

A congregant might wonder who’s watching the rabbis.

The answer, to a large extent, is that the rabbis are watching themselves.

“It’s a very big problem,” said Shmuel Herzfeld, a Modern Orthodox rabbi who leads Washington’s Ohev Sholom: The National Synagogue. “There’s a pattern of rabbis [across the religious spectrum] being unable to exercise the proper judgment in investigating accusations made against their own colleagues.”

Contrary to some perceptions, the leading Reform, Conservative and Modern Orthodox rabbinic associations have taken severe action against some wayward members in recent years. But the three groups vary greatly when it comes to the transparency of their investigations and their willingness to make their decisions public.

According to a Forward survey of the three largest such groups, they have suspended or forced out a total of 14 rabbis over the past five years.

These rabbis were disciplined for reasons varying in severity and type. For explanation, see below.

The Forward pressed the three groups to reveal the number of rabbis who have been investigated, suspended or expelled, as well as those rabbis’ names, and the reasons for their expulsion — information that is presumably crucial for current and potential future congregants and synagogue trustees to know when selecting a spiritual leader.

Of the three, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the largest Reform rabbinical organization, was the most reticent to reveal why it ousted its rabbis — six in total — during the past five years.

A spokesman said the six were expelled because of “failure to comply with an ongoing disciplinary process.” The group initially would provide no further information. A CCAR spokesman later offered details on some, but not all, of the rabbis expelled after it was noted that several months earlier, CCAR officials had been willing to divulge greater details to a Forward reporter regarding one of the six.

The six Reform rabbis expelled since 2010 are:

Jonathan Gerard of Easton, Pennsylvania, who was suspended for a breach of ethical guidelines relating to sexual boundaries. He was subsequently expelled for failing to cooperate with the CCAR Ethics Committee.

Martin Levy of Santa Fe, New Mexico, who also violated ethical guidelines relating to sexual boundaries and was subsequently expelled for failing to cooperate with the CCAR Ethics Committee.

Yosef Magidovitch formerly of Highland Park, Illinois, and now in Israel. He was expelled for failing to cooperate with the Ethics Committee before the conclusion of an ongoing investigation. The group did not reveal the subject of the investigation.

Mark Peilen of Southside, Alabama, who was expelled for failing to cooperate with the Ethics Committee before the conclusion of an ongoing investigation. The group did not reveal the subject of that investigation.

Jacques Cukierkorn of Overland Park, Kansas, who was suspended for a breach of ethical guidelines relating to financial affairs and subsequently expelled for failure to cooperate with the CCAR ethics Committee.

Eric Siroka, formerly of South Bend, Indiana, now of Seattle, who was expelled for failure to cooperate with the CCAR Ethics Committee before the conclusion of an ongoing investigation. The CCAR did not reveal the subject of the investigation.

The Rabbinical Council of America, Modern Orthodoxy’s largest rabbinical group, confirmed that it had ousted three members during the past five years. But it would identify only two of them: Michael Broyde and Barry Freundel.

The Forward was able to confirm from one source with firsthand knowledge of the matter that the third rabbi expelled from the group was Marc Schneier, spiritual leader of The Hampton Synagogue, on Long Island’s Westhampton Beach, N.Y. The expulsion was confirmed by a second source who learned of Schneier’s ousting several weeks ago.

Neither was willing to speak on-the-record. But the RCA had previously announced its intention to investigate Schneier when an affair he had with a congregant was exposed in 2010 during a highly publicized divorce from his fourth wife. Schneier subsequently married the congregant.

The RCA did not publicize Schneier’s expulsion, which happened earlier this year. When contacted, the RCA declined to say when Schneier was expelled and did not give the reason for his expulsion.

Rabbi Mark Dratch, executive vice-president of the RCA, hung up on a Forward reporter before the reporter had a chance to ask whether the RCA would confirm that Schneier had been expelled from the group.

Before he hung up, Dratch said the RCA would respond to all the Forward’s questions regarding Schneier when it was “in a position” to do so.

Reached by the Forward, Schneier said that the RCA had never informed him that he had been expelled. He called the idea “crazy.”

Morris Tuchman, president of Schneier’s congregation, told the Forward he was “unaware” that Schneier had been expelled.

Broyde was forced to resign from the RCA last year after he was exposed for assuming a fake online persona.

A legal expert who sat on the RCA’s rabbinical court, the Beth Din of America, Broyde used a pseudonym over a 20-year period to lavish praise on his own work and to infiltrate a rival Modern Orthodox rabbinic group’s listserv.

The second named RCA rabbi, Freundel, was expelled in February after he pleaded guilty to using hidden cameras to record more than 50 naked women at his synagogue’s ritual bath. Freundel was sentenced to six and a half years in prison on May 15 for voyeurism.

So far, the RCA has annoucned no plans to discipline Rabbi Jonathan Rosenblatt, 58, spiritual leader of the Bronx’s Riverdale Jewish Center. Rosenblatt is fighting for his pulpit after revelations that were published in The New York Times at the end of May.

The Bronx District Attorney’s Office asked people on June 3 to come forward with information after some men told the Times that they felt uncomfortable when, as boys or young men, Rosenblatt took them to the gym and stared at their naked bodies during shower and sauna sessions.

The RCA fielded two separate requests, from Yeshiva University and from Rosenblatt’s synagogue, the Riverdale Jewish Center, to assist in devising plans to limit Rosenblatt’s interaction with rabbinical students and congregants in gym showers and saunas.

No one alleged that Rosenblatt had sexual contact with the boys or the young men. But Rosenblatt’s behavior made some people feel uncomfortable. The RCA took no further action in either case.

The group also investigated two separate allegations against Freundel — both unrelated to the voyeurism he was later charged with — and imposed no sanctions against him.

The Rabbinical Assembly, the rabbinic organization for the Conservative movement, was more open about the rabbis it has disciplined. According to its executive vice president, Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, during the past five years, the R.A. has taken action regarding five members:

Rabbi Joel Wasser of Tampa, Florida, and then Littleton, Colorado, was suspended in 2013 due to what Schnofeld described as “certain health issues” that could have interfered with his fitness to serve. He died in 2014.

Rabbi Bryan Bramly of Chandler, Arizona, was suspended in 2010 after he was charged with—and denied— sexually abusing a 7-year-old girl a decade earlier. Bramly’s suspension was lifted about six months later, when a New York prosecutor dropped the charges against him upon finding “certain inconsistencies in the evidence” provided by his accuser.

Rabbi Jonathan Ginsburg of St. Paul resigned “with prejudice,” meaning that he is ineligible for readmission, after he set up a long-distance conversion body without the R.A.’s endorsement.

Rabbi Henri Noach of Israel, but now living in Tokyo, was expelled for an “inappropriate relationship with a member of his community.”

The fifth Conservative rabbi subjected to R.A. disciplinary measures is Barry Starr, a former president of the Massachusetts Board of Rabbis and a spiritual leader of Temple Israel, in Sharon, Massachusetts, for almost 30 years.

Starr’s congregation was shocked when the rabbi stepped down last year after admitting to “marital infidelity and other serious personal conduct.”

It soon emerged that Nicholas Zemeitus, a local petty criminal, had been extorting Starr for years over allegations that Starr had a sexual relationship with a teenage boy.

Zemeitus was charged with larceny and extortion. Starr was charged with larceny and embezzlement related to his misuse of congregational funds.

Both men pleaded not guilty.

During Starr’s court case, which began on June 2, it emerged that many of Zemeitus’s claims about Starr were untrue.

The police found no evidence that Starr had had sex with underage boys, nor did they find evidence of child pornography on Starr’s computer, according to reports in the Boston Globe.

Prosecutors did find evidence that Starr sought out transsexual escorts online. They believe that he paid Zemeitus $450,000, about $350,000 of which was taken from the synagogue’s discretionary fund.

Starr is believed to have repaid money back into the fund whenever he was able. At the time of his arrest, prosecutors believe, he owed the fund $67,000, the Boston Globe reported.

Schonfeld called Starr’s case “a shocking and tragic situation.”

She said that when a rabbi is arrested or charged, he or she is automatically suspended from the R.A. “They remain in that suspended state until you have the outcome of secular legal process,” she said.

The means by which the three rabbinic groups investigate misconduct allegations — and how much they are prepared to say about this — varied significantly.

The R.A. does not inform congregations of ongoing investigations involving their spiritual leaders unless or until it determines a complaint is valid, Schonfeld said. Suspensions and expulsions are publicized in the R.A.’s newsletter.

According to Schonfeld, the R.A. investigates allegations against its rabbis by using an internal disciplinary committee comprising “experienced rabbis who have the respect of the community.”

In most cases, an initial panel of three rabbis, consisting of both men and women, conducts the investigation, which may include consultation with lay specialists in law, medicine and psychology. This panel’s findings go to the assembly’s full disciplinary committee, whose recommendation goes, in turn, to the R.A.’s executive council for a final decision.

The Orthodox RCA adopted a detailed policy in 2004 for investigating allegations of sexual impropriety following a scandal involving Baruch Lanner, one of its most prominent rabbis. But the group will not say how many rabbis it has investigated for sexual impropriety during the past five years. “That information is confidential,” the RCA told the Forward in a statement.

The RCA’s investigative process includes an assessment of the allegations and an investigation conducted by professionals from inside and outside the RCA.

The findings are evaluated by a council of rabbis, which can censure or expel the rabbi from the RCA.

In its statement to the Forward, the RCA cautioned that it does not consider itself as primarily “a policing organization.”

“The first line of responsibility lies with the individual communities, whom we will readily assist when asked,” the RCA said.

Herzfeld, a frequent critic of the RCA, called the group’s statement “disingenuous and disappointing.”

He said that in recent years the RCA has increased its reach and power, tightening its control of conversion, issuing national statements on organ donation and brain death, and publicly chastising a member, Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, for participating with non-Jews in the National Prayer Service.

Herzfeld said the RCA’s failure to sufficiently investigate or provide oversight of its rabbis proves that it is time for the RCA to employ lay leaders to steer rabbis through investigations of its own members.

According to the CCAR’s spokesman, the Reform rabbinic group notifies a rabbi’s supervisor or congregation whenever it launches an investigation.

“If there is a finding of wrongdoing,” the group said in a statement, “all CCAR members are notified.” Its spokesman declined to tell the Forward how many rabbis it has investigated during the past five years. But in its statement, the CCAR said that most rabbis are suspended or expelled “as a result of either sexual misconduct or financial improprieties. They have been both rare and deeply disturbing.”

Contact Paul Berger at [email protected] or on Twitter, @pdberger

Editor’s Note: This article includes a survey of reported disciplinary actions of the three leading rabbinic associations in the United States, involving alleged conduct varying widely in severity. The only thing that rabbis named here as subjects of discipline have in common is that their discipline by a rabbinic association was reported. Reported discipline against any rabbis named in the survey should not be understood as stating or implying any facts about any of the other rabbis named in the survey.

Letter to the Editor:

To the Editor: You cannot imagine how hurtful it was for me to read my name listed in an article by Paul Berger about “investigating rabbis who cross the line” (June 11). I resigned from the CCAR over a dispute around an easily disprovable and self-serving accusation against me made by a woman profoundly disappointed by my drawing a line with her. The CCAR, under the guise of protecting both of our “privacy” refused to interview anyone on my synagogue board — though the board unanimously supported me and knew of the conspiratorial nature of the woman’s accusation. Because I resigned before being exonerated, the CCAR considered it as if I had been expelled. But the truth is that I resigned, innocent of the accusation but frustrated by an inept investigation and incendiary political climate. Three years after this dispute with the CCAR my congregation honored me with a humbling surprise that brought my brothers and children to town to witness a celebration that included talks by local and state Jewish communal leaders and government officials, a proclamation of praise by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania House for my achievements in the congregation and in the larger community, and a series of presentations from within the congregation and religious school of all that I had meant to them over the years of my rabbinate. And a year after that, upon retiring, I was named Rabbi emeritus by the congregation. — Rabbi Jonathan H. Gerard

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