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Reform Rabbi Was Secretly Censured For Affair With Congregant

When a Reform rabbi resigned from his Durham, North Carolina synagogue recently, the synagogue’s lawyer said the problem was “sexual in nature.”

Now the Forward has learned what those words meant. The rabbi had a yearlong, sexual relationship with a woman who regularly worshipped at the synagogue. The Reform movement’s rabbinical association had censured him for it. But the synagogue found out about the affair and the censure from the woman — not the rabbi, nor the rabbinical association.

The affair has revived concerns about how forthcoming Jewish religious organizations should be when dealing with allegations of sexual misconduct against rabbis. The Reform movement’s Central Conference of American Rabbis defends its procedures, citing its effort to balance the needs of congregants with those of rabbis’ families. Watchdogs and experts, however, say the movement’s process for investigating sexual misconduct is unconventional, and may prioritize clergy’s needs at the cost of its own integrity.

“Misconduct that involves inappropriate sexual behavior for the leading moral voice of a community is devastating. But what’s more devastating is the cover-up,” said Thane Rosenbaum, director of the NYU School of Law’s Forum on Law, Culture and Society and a member of the Committee on Ethics in Jewish Leadership. Rosenbaum added that the CCAR “felt as if they had an obligation to protect one of their own.”

That person was Larry Bach, 49, the married senior rabbi at Judea Reform Congregation, which is the largest Reform synagogue in the Raleigh-Durham area, according to its website.

Bach started working at Judea Reform in July 2015, after he had served as the rabbi for a congregation in El Paso, Texas for 17 years. The CCAR had “reprimanded” Bach for something he did there, according to both the CCAR and Judea Reform’s lawyer. But Judea Reform didn’t know that when they hired Bach. Reprimands are confidential and not shared with synagogues, the CCAR said. Bach did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

“I tried to give him compassion”

In December 2016, Bach, and a woman, then 29 and also married, met on OKCupid, a dating website. Bach and his wife had “opened” their marriage, according to his account of the affair, which the Forward has viewed. Bach and the woman, who asked to be referred to as Rebecca, bonded over shared interests in mysticism, veganism and Jewish spirituality, according to screenshots of instant messages and other documents Rebecca shared with the Forward. Rebecca also described her marriage during the time of the affair as “open.”

Rebecca said the relationship became sexual after Bach came onto her in her apartment, and she felt she had to agree to sex. A person close to Rebecca said that she had also described the encounter to them that way.

“I tried to give him compassion,” she told the Forward. “And that’s the kind of compassion that the CCAR and others in the community are trying to give him. But they don’t understand that so much compassion only enables him.”

According to records of instant messages, Bach called Rebecca his “chavruta,” a Hebrew term that usually refers to a study partner but which Bach described as a “friend for a higher purpose” in one Facebook message from December 2017.

Over the course of their affair, Rebecca attended Judea Reform but did not join the synagogue. Posts on her Facebook page from 2017 show her attending holiday services at the synagogue and going to the homes of synagogue members for meals. She says she also regularly attended Saturday morning Torah study sessions led by Bach.

In December 2017, about a year after the affair started, Rebecca broke it off, according to documents from the CCAR’s subsequent investigation. In one of those documents, she said that Bach had broken her trust by dating other women.

She filed a complaint against Bach with the CCAR in February, which she shared with the Forward. In the complaint, she said that her relationship with Bach had been consensual. She repeatedly expressed concern for Bach’s well being. In one email, to a CCAR caseworker, she apologized for bringing the complaint forward.

“I truly loved him and have deep gratitude for all that he showed and gave during the course of the year,” she wrote in the complaint. “I am reporting all of this out of concern for his neshama [soul] and the psychological safety and integrity of his relationships.”

She also claimed that Bach forced her to keep their relationship a secret, and forbid her to become a member of the synagogue because, as she says he told her, “That would make it much worse if we were to be caught.”

Yet almost immediately after filing her first complaint, Rebecca began sending the CCAR additional emails about their relationship. She accused Bach of using his spiritual authority and stature in the Raleigh-Durham community to manipulate her into being in a relationship with him.

“I think he took advantage of my naivety and idealization of his position,” she said in an email sent in early March.

The CCAR responded to the official complaint by communicating with Rebecca over e-mail, and passing her statements and evidence to Bach, who responded to them. Bach’s responses were also shared with Rebecca. Bach denied that he had prohibited her from joining the synagogue, and disputed the notion that there was a power imbalance created by his professional status.

At the end of the process, the CCAR “censured” Bach and closed its investigation. It told Rebecca of this decision in a letter dated March 29, but did not tell Judea Reform. The letter, which Rebecca shared with the Forward, did not say which sections of the organization’s Code of Ethics that Bach had violated. It also did not explain what effect the censure would have on Bach’s professional life, other than requiring him to begin a “t’shuvah,” or repentance, process outlined by the CCAR’s Ethics Committee. It asked Rebecca to “be discreet” about sharing the letter or the outcome of the complaint process.

Rebecca responded with a list of questions about the censure, including which sections of the Code of Ethics Bach violated and what consequences the censure would carry. In response, the caseworker specified which sections of the code Bach violated.

“Without going into this case in particular, I can tell you that our goal is bringing rabbis to a place in which they are safe and sacred to themselves, their families, and their community,” the caseworker wrote. “It is not one of punishment. We must also balance the needs of the community.”

“My deceit broke the trust of my congregation”

Judea Reform didn’t find out about any of this until Rebecca informed them, on April 6. According to emails shared with the Forward, Rebecca contacted the synagogue’s president under the assumption that he already knew of the censure, and wrote that she wanted to meet with him to discuss how “to ensure that this never happens again.” Bach later informed the synagogue of his previous reprimand, according to Judea Reform’s lawyer, Valerie Johnson.

The board was “shocked” that the CCAR had disciplined Bach without immediately telling them, Johnson told the Forward. The CCAR was going to tell the synagogue, but its policy is to first give the rabbi accused 30 days to appeal, the organization told the Forward.

“In every case during my tenure, the CCAR has informed the synagogue when a censure is issued for a rabbi currently employed there,” Rabbi Steven Fox, the CCAR’s chief executive, said in a statement shared with the Forward.

Thane Rosenbaum said that the CCAR should have informed Judea Reform about Rebecca’s complaint as soon as it was made.

“Forget the censure. As soon as they’ve been made aware of a problem, they have a duty to warn and inform,” Rosenbaum said. “This is like saying the public shouldn’t know a person has been indicted until there’s a determination of guilt.”

The synagogue received Bach’s resignation letter around April 24. By April 29, according to the Durham Herald-Sun, which first reported Bach’s resignation, the CCAR had reopened its investigation into Bach and Rebecca’s relationship. Fox said the CCAR reopened the investigation after Rebecca “brought new information and evidence to light, which had previously not been revealed.”

Bach wrote the congregation a letter, acknowledging that he had not followed the terms of his prior reprimand that were laid out by the CCAR.

“I instead engaged in a course of conduct that showed both poor judgment and bad decision making,” he wrote. “I now understand that my deceit broke the trust of my Congregation.”

“As I leave I ask for your forgiveness,” he added. “I am so sorry for the hurt this letter will cause, just as I am sorry for the hurt I have caused through the events that have led me to write it.”

“I’ve never seen that happen”

The CCAR’s Code of Ethics does not explicitly prohibit a relationship between rabbi and congregant. It states that that keeping a relationship secret “ought to give the rabbi serious pause and propel him/her, at the very least, to seek moral counsel.” It adds that any sexual “act or behavior, even if it appears to be consensual, which exploits the vulnerability of another, compromises the moral integrity of the rabbi and is an ethical violation.”

Experts in the field of “clergy sexual misconduct,” however, say consent between a rabbi and a congregant — as between an adult and someone who is underage — is by definition difficult to establish. At least six states have laws that make any sex act with a clergyperson non-consensual if the clergyperson initiates sexual contact by exploiting his or her role as spiritual adviser.

Rebecca told the CCAR’s caseworker that she considers several sexual encounters she had with Bach to have been non-consensual, because she said that he had emotionally manipulated her into sex acts. In at least one case, she says, Bach explicitly referenced Jewish mysticism in manipulating her into having sex.

“That’s a pattern with him, where I say I don’t want something, then he tries to get it anyway, and if whenever I gave up the fight and enjoyed it, it must have been consensual,” she wrote in an additional statement sent to the Ethics Committee in April, after the censure was handed down and the synagogue had learned of it. “He coerced me.”

A 2017 study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention considers “sexual coercion” to be one of five types of sexual violence, and lists “clergy” in its list of “persons of authority” who can commit sexual coercion.

The CCAR did not follow widely accepted guidelines for investigating complaints of sexual misconduct, according to two human resources experts, each of whom has over 25 years of experience consulting on sexuality in the workplace. The CCAR’s process draws on input from its own rabbis and outside laypeople, the organization said. Its Code of Ethics was first adopted in 2003 and last updated in May 2017.

The CCAR did not interview Rebecca in person, and sent her emails directly to Bach, according to emails shared with the Forward. After both Rebecca’s first and second statements, Bach had two weeks to write his response, as stipulated in the CCAR’s Code of Ethics.

In the business world, companies do things very differently, according to Sharon Sellers, the president of SLS Consulting in South Carolina. The best practice, she said, is to begin an investigation only after the person bringing the complaint has sat for an extended in-person interview. Sellers, who recently advised the U.S. House of Representatives on its policy for investigating workplace sexual harassment, said that typically the investigators create a written statement based on the interview and have the source sign it.

The next step, she said, would be to then conduct an in-person interview with the person being accused of sexual misconduct. Sellers said that giving the accused party time to craft a response makes it difficult to ascertain what really happened.

“[T]hey may reframe their story based on what they realize you’re trying to ask them,” she said.

Another human resources professional agreed that allowing Bach to respond directly to Rebecca’s complaint was highly unusual.

“I’ve never seen that happen,” said Lisa Brown Alexander, the CEO of Nonprofit HR, a consultancy firm that exclusively advises not-for-profits. “To take just written statements and nothing more, it’s certainly not something that I’ve seen done over the 25-plus years that I’ve been in this business.”

Both Sellers and Alexander also said that investigations of sexual misconduct are typically conducted by a third party. According to emails viewed by the Forward, three people on the CCAR’s Ethics Committee, including its chair, recused themselves from the investigation into Bach because they know him personally. In response to a question about whether the CCAR had ever used a third party to investigate a claim of sexual misconduct, the organization said, “The CCAR strives for a balanced ethics process, which includes the perspectives of other rabbis as well as external lay people.”

Even though the CCAR doesn’t have any say on where its member rabbis are hired, it still should have alerted Judea Reform to Bach’s disciplinary history, said Jane Fredericksen, executive director of the FaithTrust Institute, which advises religious organizations on addressing allegations of sexual misconduct against faith leaders.

“If there has been a violation of the [organization’s sexual misconduct] policy, we would advocate for transparency,” Fredericksen said.

According to emails viewed by the Forward, the CCAR’s fact-finding team is planning to begin conducting in-person interviews in Durham in June. When Rebecca told the lead investigator she would be not be in Durham during the appointed date, the investigator suggested they speak over Skype. Rebecca has asked the investigator to meet her in person.

“If you get to see Larry in person, then I do not believe it is fair for you to not see me in person as well,” she wrote.

Rebecca told the Forward that she feels ignored by Judea Reform and the Reform movement at large. She has found the experience alienating, she says, because Judea Reform was her “spiritual home” while she was in a relationship with Bach. Now she feels she will have to leave the Durham area, because she worries that her identity will get out and affect her job prospects locally. In a May 11 email to the CCAR, she said that she had already heard people gossiping about Bach’s resignation in a way that was “too close to true details.”

“I spent a year of my life in that congregation,” she told the Forward. “I broke the fast in their houses. And now I have a scarlet letter on me.”

Do you know more about this story? Contact Ari Feldman at [email protected]


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