torah by the Forward

For the Conservative movement, an audit of ethics policies might be overdue

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When the Conservative movement censured an upstate New York rabbi in 2019 for a problematic relationship with a woman who had received his rabbinic guidance and attended services, there was no public written record of the offense or the punishment.

There was no announcement to the congregation, Temple Beth-El in Poughkeepsie, indicating any problem with its senior rabbi, Daniel Victor, according to three current and former members of the synagogue and a former member of the board. The movement’s Rabbinic Assembly required that Rabbi Victor have a rabbinic mentor and therapist for two years, these members said. The former member of the board, who resigned over the matter, said in a recent interview that other members still don’t know the full story — that Victor, according to the three current and former members, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation in the community, pursued a member of the community, initiated sex and then abruptly dumped her.

“It was handled incredibly badly,” said one of the current members. “Because of the way that it’s been handled, it’s a really big thing.”

The fallout at Temple Beth-El has dragged on for years. The current and former members and the former board member said that at least five families have left the synagogue over the matter and more are staying away from services. Two members of the board resigned over Beth-El’s handling of the complaint. The woman from Victor’s relationship, who declined to be interviewed for this article, has left Jewish communal life altogether, the synagogue members said. (She was never officially a member of the congregation, but Victor both helped to plan and performed a lifecycle event for her.)

The synagogue, through its president, Donna Gordon, declined to comment, but the executive board sent an email to congregants ahead of this article’s publication that said the board dealt with the issue “in a confidential and appropriate manner.”

Victor said in an email to the Forward that he “acted like a gentleman throughout the relationship” but “would have made different choices” if he could do things over again.

“The internal process within my synagogue and the R.A. in addressing the issue were in my view fair, which provided some relief,” he continued. “The larger challenge I faced was from the few individuals who were refusing to forgive me. I continue to seek forgiveness and promote healing, understanding, and reconciliation.

“Of course, I regret that there were hurt feelings and acknowledge that I could have handled it better, but I adamantly reject the notion that I used my position of rabbi in any way to take advantage of the person with whom I had the relationship,” he added.

While there are unique factors to the situation in Poughkeepsie — a small town, an unmarried rabbi, the thorns and roses of a close-knit community — the Conservative movement broadly has a checkered record of handling misconduct complaints, according to interviews with Conservative congregants and leaders, complainants and ethics experts.

“Within the Conservative movement specifically, people have not been heard, people have been re-traumatized or further traumatized, and felt like they had nowhere to go,” said Nicole Nevarez, the national director of Ta’amod, an organization that works with Jewish organizations to improve their workplace cultures. “The Conservative movement is, in general, in a state where there’s a tension between traditionalism and progressivism, and so I think that that is likely what’s going on.”

As many organizations, religious and secular, grapple with boundary issues and abuses of power, the Rabbinical Assembly is in the midst of a formal examination of the limits of its code of conduct and how it handles complaints. It has hired an outside firm, Sacred Spaces, to audit its policies, talk to people who have gone through the complaint process and ultimately make recommendations. People close to the revision process say it’s sincere — that R.A. leadership really wants things to change for the better.

“We may indeed learn that we missed the mark in the past,” said the R.A.’s CEO, Rabbi Jacob Blumenthal, in a statement. “Our own teshuvah means being accountable for and learning from any past mistakes and creating a plan for excellence going forward that brings all our current and future work to a higher and more present-day standard,” he said, using the Hebrew word for repentance.

As the R.A. begins its revision process, a parallel soul-searching is happening in the Reform movement. Last month, a probe by Manhattan’s Central Synagogue found that its senior rabbi in the 1970s and 1980s, Sheldon Zimmerman, had engaged in “sexually predatory behavior” with at least three female congregants and employees, including a teenager. The Central Conference of American Rabbis — which suspended Zimmerman in 2000, forcing him to step down as president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion — along with several other Reform movement institutions are investigating their own processes for handling misconduct.

The complaint process

For those who have witnessed or directly experienced ethical violations by Conservative rabbis — including financial improprieties and sexual misconduct — the process of reporting them can be fraught.

Each synagogue is different, but most have no obligation to bring transgressions to the attention of the R.A., which serves as both a quasi union representing rabbis and an investigatory body through its ethics committee, the Va’ad Hakavod. Members of the R.A. are asked to report transgressions if a colleague is confronted and the problem isn’t addressed. For other professional associations, like the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association, such reporting is mandatory.

The process can take months — in the Poughkeepsie case, multiple complaints were made in April 2019, and the Va’ad Hakavod did not deliver a censure and recommendation until December.

“I honestly believe there are glaciers that move more quickly than the ethics committee of the R.A.,” said a current member.

In the meantime, people in Poughkeepsie who voiced concern about the relationship to the rabbi or the synagogue said they faced hostility and intimidation. The R.A. updates the accused rabbi in writing at every step of the process, but only delivers news of the outcome verbally.

“I unequivocally did not engage in any form of intimidation or express hostility to anyone that voiced displeasure regarding my relationship—quite the opposite,” Victor said. “Since the relationship ended, I have repeatedly apologized, asked for forgiveness, and proactively sought counsel to improve myself and better understand the ethical issues at play.”

People who have reported other complaints described a bungled investigation process led by people without proper training.

One woman, who worked at a Conservative movement organization and spoke on the condition of anonymity out of concern it could hurt her career, said her ex-husband is a rabbi and Jewish educator who abused her and her children. She was ultimately granted sole physical and legal custody.

When she reported what she described as her then-husband’s physical, verbal, emotional and financial abuse to the R.A. in 2018, she said, the Va’ad Hakavod asked her to rehash the same episodes of physical violence and manipulation over and over.

“It felt very wrong that they would always forget. I would always have to repeat things,” she said. “No one said, ‘I’m so sorry you experienced that.’”

When the Va’ad Hakavod ultimately did issue a ruling on her husband’s case, she said, the body declined to tell her the punishment.

In another widely publicized case, back in 1999, the R.A. agreed to retain as a member Rabbi Arthur Charles Shalman, who was found to have violated rules against “improper touching” and “improper suggestions” after his synagogue, Temple Shaarey Zedek in Buffalo, voted to keep him on the bimah. Rabbi Shalman was ultimately expelled in 2008 after the R.A. finished a second investigation into an inappropriate relationship with a congregant.

Shalman, when reached by phone, declined to comment.

The then-synagogue president, Iris Zackheim, called the second investigation “a shock to most people in the congregation” in an interview with the Forward in 2008.

“A lot of people are devastated,” she said at the time.

The R.A. does not publicize the names of rabbis who have been disciplined, unlike the Reform movement’s C.C.A.R, which only started in the practice in 2017. The Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association also lists disciplined rabbis, though it’s not clear when the policy began.

But Rabbi Sheryl Katzman, the senior director of member-engagement at the R.A. and an ex-officio member of the Va’ad Hakavod, said the R.A. is planning on changing that policy so that the community and other denominations are aware of which rabbis have been sanctioned.

Competing pressures

The R.A. established a Gender and Power committee in 2019 to study issues related to sexual harassment and gender inequity. That committee and the Va’ad Hakavod and found that its code of conduct needed to be updated. The revision of the code started in April, and is in the first of three phases.

Other Conservative organizations have started their own looks inward: the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the synagogue association, launched a tip line in 2017 after allegations surfaced on Facebook that one of its employees had molested a youth member in the 1980s.

In 2017, the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles introduced a course to train rabbinical students how to handle experiencing sexual harassment.

Rabbi Katzman said the R.A. is zeroing in on guidance about rabbi-congregant dating. Right now, the code of conduct simply advises rabbis to “be alert to the temptations” that may arise, “be especially sensitive to the delicate nature and possible adverse consequences of such a relationship” and “proceed with caution.”

Dating as a rabbi can be complicated. Single rabbis often want to marry and start families, but potential mates may be synagogue members or potential members. Carefully navigating issues of power and consent can yield healthy, long-term relationships, but secrecy and impulsivity can send individuals and whole congregations into disarray.

(Rabbi Daniel Pressman, the chair of the Va’ad Hakavod, is engaged to a former congregant, but in a statement to the Forward, Rabbi Blumenthal of the R.A. said that Pressman’s “understanding of rabbinic boundaries is highly developed” and that he’s “a strong proponent of re-examining our Code of Conduct and our procedures, including issues surrounding gender and power dynamics.”)

“It’s much too much right now left to their discretion and I think our rabbis are asking for more guidance,” Katzman said.

Another issue that will be addressed, she said, is the complex roles of the R.A. as both prosecutor and defender of rabbis accused of wrongdoing, which is true of other denominations’ rabbinic associations as well.

“The Va’ad Hakavod is there to ensure the safety of individuals and ensure the safety of rabbis,” Katzman said. “It’s absolutely one of our questions — what does it mean to play both roles?”

Ethics experts suggested that even the appearance of a conflict of interest could make it harder for the Va’ad Hakavod — or any rabbinical association — to do its job.

Just last year, Blumenthal, the head of the R.A., became the head of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, a network of 600 Conservative Jewish communities in North America. Now, the organization defending and investigating rabbis, the R.A., is led by the same person leading the organization representing the synagogues.

“The structure of rabbinic associations is deeply problematic,” said Nevarez of Ta’amod, the nonprofit serving Jewish workplaces. “It gets very blurry and challenging to be truly successful.”

But Rabbi David Teutsch, the the founding director of the Center for Jewish Ethics of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, said shared leadership might lead to “more coordination” between the USCJ, which provides support to synagogues dealing with misconduct, and the R.A., which issues recommendations.

“It certainly is a sign of real progress that they want to revise the code of conduct,” he said.

Turn and face the change

Despite these challenges, Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg, a scholar in residence at the National Council of Jewish Women who serves on the R.A.’s Gender and Power committee described thoughtful and careful research by the R.A. as it considers other denominations’ policies and best practices.

“I feel proud of this work and it makes me feel hopeful,” she said. “It really does.”

But for some in the Conservative movement, hope is in short supply.

Arnie Draiman, a nonprofit consultant based in Israel and a former United Synagogue Youth adviser, said even well-intentioned Jewish communities have to fight the impulse to “guard their own” and “close ranks.”

“There have been terribly shocking episodes among rabbis of various movements, and you tell me — I haven’t seen much significant change,” he said. “Show me the change. I don’t see it.”

Correction, June 1, 11:46 a.m.: A previous version of this story misspelled Rabbi David Teutsch’s surname and misstated the affiliation of the Center for Jewish Ethics. This story has also been updated to say that Victor was required, rather than recommended, to have a rabbinic mentor and therapist for two years, and that Shalman was expelled from the R.A. rather than resigning himself.

Author

Molly Boigon

Molly Boigon

Molly Boigon is an investigative reporter at the Forward. Contact her at boigon@forward.com or follow her on Twitter @MollyBoigon.

For the Conservative movement, an audit of ethics policies might be overdue

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