How a rabbi suspended for sexual misconduct can stay in the pulpit
Rabbi Jeremy Gerber earned the dubious distinction last fall of becoming the first synagogue leader to have his suspension from the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly announced publicly, part of the group’s effort to hold members more accountable for misconduct.
Yet Gerber has remained in his pulpit in suburban Philadelphia — sermonizing, spearheading the synagogue’s racial justice initiative and offering a benediction last May at the Pennsylvania legislature. In an ironic twist, Gerber also appeared on a national sex-advice podcast midway through his two-year sanction for initiating inappropriate sexual conversations with a congregant.
None of this violated the narrow terms of Gerber’s suspension, underscoring the obstacles national Jewish institutions face as they try to crack down on misconduct across thousands of individually run synagogues, camps, day schools, JCCs and other organizations.
Spurred by the #MeToo movement and a series of revelations that respected clergy, philanthropists, academics and others had harassed or assaulted women, many leading Jewish organizations and seminaries have taken steps over the past year to review and overhaul their policies. But while the Reform movement can bar rabbis from performing any rabbinical duties, a Rabbinical Assembly suspension only prohibits participation in the group’s conferences and job-placement services, having no direct effect on how the sanctioned rabbi interacts with congregants or the broader public.
“We don’t hire the rabbis, we don’t supervise them or employ them,” explained Hara Person, chief of the Reform Central Conference of American Rabbis, which like the R.A. has recently sought to sharpen its disciplinary processes. “But we have this ethics system, which is the mechanism by which we try to maintain the highest standards of rabbinic behavior.”
Because of the decentralized way Jewish life is organized in the United States, there is no way to know how many rabbis or congregations are grappling with how to adjudicate misconduct. But a deep look back at Gerber’s case -– which involved the rabbi sending Facebook messages querying a congregant who also worked for the synagogue about her sex life, and sharing intimate details of his own over several weeks in 2018 –- provides a window into the growing challenge individual synagogues and national institutions face.
The Rabbinical Assembly’s suspension came nearly a year after Congregation Ohev Shalom, which Gerber has led since 2009, concluded its own investigation and decided that keeping him in the pulpit and creating a new ethics code for clergy was the best option for the synagogue. “We have been engaged in a process of healing and continue to commit to having our sacred community remain a safe and welcoming place for all,” Ohev Shalom’s leadership said in a statement.
But the episode and its contentious aftermath prompted an exodus of about a dozen members, including past presidents and sisterhood stalwarts, and caused a broader upset that is still being felt.
“The rabbi, they decided, was more important than that member of the congregation and all the other members that chose to leave,” said Judy Hausen, a longtime member of Ohev Shalom who is friendly with the victim and left the shul over its handling of the case.
A beloved rabbi
When Gerber was first applying to be Ohev Shalom’s rabbi 12 years ago, he impressed search committee members by remembering the names of everyone he met during a weekend tryout.
“I thought we hit the jackpot when we got him as a rabbi,” said Doris Elofer, a former president of the shul who was on that committee. “He had an uncanny knack to be able to connect to someone’s soul.”
Gerber was raised in Sweden, where his father was cantor at the Great Synagogue of Stockholm, and was ordained at the Jewish Theological Seminary in 2009. He soon joined Ohev Shalom, where he started a blog, “Take On Torah,” and founded a racial justice group to build bridges between the the synagogue’s current home in suburban Wallingford and nearby Chester, a rundown industrial town along the Delaware River where it was founded.
Now 41, Gerber sports a trim beard a touch lighter than his short brown hair, and has an open, personal style; his High Holiday sermon in 2018 was about having been diagnosed with an eating disorder and he preaches “radical honesty.”
Judaism “is about being in relationship,” he wrote in his bio on the congregation’s website. “With each other, God, our ancient (and modern) texts, Israel (in all its complexity), and with the wider community around us.”
Philadelphia’s wealthy Main Line suburbs are studded with synagogues, Jewish schools and a JCC. Ohev Shalom, about a 30-minute drive south, is, as one former president of the shul put it, “the Jewish center” in its area, and one of few synagogue options.
The congregation’s active brotherhood and sisterhood help weave it deeply into many congregants’ social lives, which made it especially painful when word of Gerber’s untoward behavior with an active and longtime member started spreading.
“When I heard about this I remember I cried a lot,” Elofer said, “because I knew that this was going to affect the community forever.”
A line is crossed
It was in August 2018 that Gerber first reached out to a congregant on Facebook for advice about sex and marriage. He was friendly with the woman, who had belonged to the congregation for more than 20 years and served as interim executive director when Gerber was hired.
The Forward agreed to the woman’s condition that she not be named in this story because she is a victim of sexual misconduct. She spoke several times over the past three months with a reporter, and shared the content of some of the messages. Gerber declined to be interviewed, but answered questions via email, saying the woman was “an active participant” in the conversations and calling her version of what happened “selective and one-sided.”
The woman said that in those first Facebook messages, Gerber brought up a sex-advice columnist who talked about open marriages, in which couples have sex with other people, and asked if she thought that it would be “cheating” to exchange text messages about sexual fantasies with someone other than one’s spouse, so long as the spouse was OK with it.
She replied that she did not think such texting should be considered cheating in that circumstance — but when he asked about her fantasies, declined to share. “I know this will disappoint you, but I’m not going there,” she texted, according to partial transcripts of the conversation reviewed by the Forward. “I think my sharing personal details would do more harm than good, and really blur the line between being a supportive friend and sexting.”
The woman said she told Gerber that she was uncomfortable with the tenor of the conversation, and asked him to dial things back. “I liked our friendship the way it was,” she said in one message. “Snarky, obnoxious, and yes — playful.”
Gerber initially agreed to take “giant steps” back, but quickly began testing the limits. He said he wished both his wife and the woman’s husband would be OK with the two of them engaging in a sexually explicit conversation, according to the transcript. Then he proposed taking the conversation off Facebook, to a messaging platform where they could assume “alter egos” and talk about sex.
She declined and asked him not to contact her until the following week.
But two days later, Gerber sent her another Facebook message: Would she be interested in continuing the conversation using the “secret” feature on Facebook Messenger that allows users to make texts disappear after being sent?
She demurred, and told Gerber that the situation was “messing with my mind.”
Gerber apologized. “I’m sorry I started all of this,” he wrote. “If I could take it back I would.”
In his email to the Forward, Gerber confirmed his apology, but characterized the tenor of the text exchanges differently.
“I did initiate the sexual aspects of the conversation, while repeatedly maintaining it was about processing challenges in my marriage and not intended to be about her and me,” Gerber wrote. “In the couple of weeks that we wrote back and forth on this topic, she was an active participant and she reciprocated the communication.”
Gerber declined to provide further detail about the conversations, and said he had deleted most of the messages at the woman’s request.
The synagogue investigates
These texts extended several weeks, into a High Holiday season in which Gerber delivered four sermons on the theme of “radical honesty,” telling congregants that he’d been surprised no one objected to his having brought a spoken-word poet to perform during the prior year’s Yom Kippur service.
“The majority of you seem to believe and feel that I have the best interests of the congregation at heart, and that I’m doing what I do for the right reasons,” Gerber said. “I was a provocateur, a rabble-rouser. I was being an edgy rabbi… and then you all just loved it?”
After the holidays, the woman told a board member about her discomfort with Gerber’s texting. But it was not until the spring that she brought a formal complaint to the synagogue’s president and three vice presidents. She recalled a friendly reception from the group, many of whom were close friends of hers; they hired an employment lawyer to investigate.
“It was clear this was a complex situation and would need professional guidance,” the current officers, led by Joel Fein, the president, said in written responses to questions from the Forward.
The lawyer’s report was never shared with the synagogue’s full board or membership. The officers said the lawyer determined that Gerber violated his contract, but that the inappropriate conversations with the woman were “mutual.”
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Having an outsider with relevant expertise investigate such situations is generally considered best practice. But Elofer, the former Ohev Shalom president who helped hire Gerber in 2009 and later left the synagogue in part over its handling of the situation, said she and others were frustrated that the matter was only considered through the lens of employment law, and had suggested the officers also consult rabbis for more perspective on the ethical concerns.
Chai Feldblum, a former member of the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, said preventing sexual harassment is not just about following the letter of a contract.
“This is all about culture,” said Feldblum, who has also investigated rabbinic misconduct. “Entities, in this case a synagogue, should want their culture to be one in which harassment or improper relationships are not countenanced in any part of that organization.”
The synagogue officers said that they acted to improve Ohev Shalom’s culture following the incident with Gerber, drafting a comprehensive code of ethics for Ohev Shalom clergy to sign in which they commit to “avoid even the appearance of wrongdoing.”
“I will reach out for help if I feel temptation or confusion regarding my interpersonal behaviors and choices,” reads one of its bullet points.
The leaders also said that they “sanctioned” Gerber, but would not provide details.
In the summer of 2019, the officers indicated to the woman that Gerber would remain in the pulpit. She decided to quit the congregation and began sharing her story with some friends.
At Gerber’s request, Ohev Shalom’s leadership invited congregants to an emergency board meeting that July.
Amy Graham, who was the synagogue’s president at the time, said she detailed the complaint against Gerber and the investigation’s finding that “Rabbi Gerber’s written communications constituted sexual misconduct as defined in our employee handbook.” Then Graham turned the floor over to Gerber and the woman he had texted.
The woman invoked the Rabbinical Assembly’s code of conduct, which includes a lengthy section on “boundary violations” and states “sexualized behavior” with congregants “is a violation of the rabbinic relationship.”
“Who are we as a Conservative shul,” she posited, “if we decide that the Rabbinical Assembly’s expectation that our clergy not use their power for personal gain, especially with regard to sexual misconduct, is too lofty a goal?”
For his part, Gerber apologized to the congregation and, according to multiple people who were there, said that he had gone to the woman seeking support during a difficult point in his marriage. Then they both left the room, and the meeting became chaotic, with some congregants hurling insults.
“I literally heard a board member saying that the person who was involved — she must be a slut,” said Hausen, who left the congregation soon after.
But the meeting ended with a general acceptance of the attorney’s report. Shortly thereafter, the board finalized the decision to retain Gerber, who led High Holiday services two months later.
The woman’s family and several other longtime congregants were not in the pews.
Suspension’s questionable impact
Having failed to convince Ohev Shalom’s leadership to dismiss Gerber, the woman turned to the Rabbinical Assembly’s Va’ad Hakavod, or ethics committee, filing a complaint in late July 2019. Earlier that month, Gerber himself had sent an email to a member of the committee asking to speak about an urgent matter. But “the R.A. informed me that they could not respond to the situation,” he said in his response to the Forward’s inquiry, “nor would they investigate, without a formal complaint being filed.”
The woman said the R.A.’s investigation did not appear to begin in earnest until March 2020, when Rabbi Daniel Pressman took over the committee. The woman turned transcripts of her conversation with Gerber over to Pressman, who also met with the leaders of Ohev Shalom.
In a follow-up email in April, David Hoffman, an Ohev board member, thanked Pressman and another ethics committee member for offering “positive comments” about the board’s actions.
“We also wanted to advise you that Rabbi Gerber has been a tremendous leader during this very difficult time,” Hoffman wrote, referring to the onset of the pandemic. “All in all, Rabbi Gerber has been a steady hand during very turbulent times and we are thankful to have him as our Rabbi.”
In June 2020, the R.A.’s executive committee approved the Va’ad’s recommendation to suspend Gerber for two years. Both Pressman and a spokesperson for the broader group said they could not discuss the scope of the probe or its finding, citing a policy of not speaking to journalists about specific cases.
Though the umbrella group’s suspension seems more severe than Ohev Shalom’s undisclosed sanction, the synagogue’s officers said in the email interview that there was no substantive discrepancy. “R.A. representatives validated our approach,” the officers said, “from our investigation through our remediation activities, and considered it a reasonable decision to retain the rabbi.”
Gerber added that “the synagogue and the R.A. came to quite similar conclusions, even though the practical implications might appear different.”
There were actually few practical implications of the suspension or its later disclosure to the public. Gerber continued to officiate at b’nai mitzvah and other life-cycle events, to lead services, to write his blog.
And, in a move that particularly piqued some of his detractors, Gerber made a guest appearance on “Savage Lovecast,” a sex-advice show hosted by nationally-syndicated columnist Dan Savage — the same expert he had referenced in his inappropriate conversations with the female congregant.
It was about six months into Gerber’s suspension when Savage invited him onto the show to address the frustrations of a listener over the prohibitions on intercourse after monthly visits to the mikveh, or Jewish ritual bath. Gerber suggested the woman consult with her rabbi about shortening the no-intercourse window. And he proposed an idea that echoed the proposition he’d made to his own congregant — the very thing that had led to his suspension.
“What if they wrote to each other?” Gerber mused. “You could write like, ‘This is what I’m going to do to you when we can finally be together again,’ and make it sort of much more of a play thing — acknowledging that for many couples, things can become very rote.”
Asked about the prudence of his appearance on a sex-advice podcast during his suspension for sexual misconduct, Gerber pointed out that the caller he gave advice to was “anonymous, and there is no expectation (or intent) for experts to ever connect with the callers at any point.”
“I wanted his listeners to know that there are religious leaders who try very hard not to judge, who aspire to be accepting, and who focus on God’s compassion and inclusion,” Gerber said in the email.
Six months after the podcast appearance, State Sen. Tim Kearney hosted Gerber as he delivered an invocation to the Pennsylvania legislature. “Guide them in their work,” Gerber prayed in the state Capitol, “help them to discern what is right, true, and just, while also compassionate and caring for all our citizens.”
A spokesperson for Kearney said the Forward’s inquiry was “the first time” the office had “heard of the allegations or suspension.”
Some left, wanting for change
Suspension is the Rabbinical Assembly’s second-most severe punishment, between probation and expulsion. It includes mandatory therapy and mentorship, both of which also apply to rabbis placed on probation, and also bars a rabbi from participating in the group’s career-placement program — the primary way Conservative rabbis land jobs — and from the organization’s conferences and committees.
“My temporary suspension from the R.A. is similar to me losing my ‘union’ status,” Gerber said. “I remain a fully ordained rabbi with the privilege to carry out all my work as a member of the clergy.”
The Reform movement goes farther, with the option of barring members from “providing any rabbinic services to individuals or communities.” Still, the stamp of disapproval has had some local implications for Gerber: the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia has blocked him from hosting events during his suspension. “When an individual has been sanctioned, and in this case by the Conservative movement, we will not provide them with communal platforms,” said Michael Balaban, the federation’s chief.
One goal of the R.A.’s new policy of publicly naming suspended or expelled rabbis, which applies to its more than 1,600 members, was that it might lead to such wider repercussions.
“As a society we have learned the dangers when we fail to speak up and speak out,” the R.A.’s Rabbi Sheryl Katzman said in a statement announcing the new approach last fall.
But it is unclear that naming is enough.
More than 20 years ago, the Reform movement announced that Rabbi Sheldon Zimmerman would resign as president of its Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion because of a violation of an ethics policy on “personal relationships.”
Yet Zimmerman went on to hold various leadership positions in the community before fuller details of his misconduct — including accusations that he was a sexual predator and had assaulted a 17-year-old — were revealed last year.
The Reform movement’s Central Conference of American Rabbis subsequently launched a deep examination of its ethics policies, producing a December report that goes farther than any other major Jewish group in promising improvements in adjudicating misconduct cases.
The report identified a host of problems with the movement’s current process, including a policy that had allowed rabbis to escape sanction by resigning their membership in the CCAR. But it also identified a crisis of confidence among synagogue members — and rabbis themselves — that the umbrella body could fairly discipline clergy.
One congregational leader told investigators that his synagogue had “a lot of cynicism” about the rabbinical association. A rabbi said the group was a “good old boys network and if you had the right creds, contacts, were thought especially well of, then your experience would be better.”
Another challenge for the rabbinical associations is that local synagogue leaders tend to believe they have a better grasp on the circumstances surrounding a complicated or fraught situation like Gerber’s than a council of rabbis based hundreds or thousands of miles away.
As Ohev’s officers put it in their statement to the Forward: “With recognition that not all matters are identical, we feel that the primary role should remain with the individual synagogue.”
David Pollack, a former Ohev president who has remained a member despite discomfort with the board’s decision to retain Gerber, was more blunt. At the end of the day, the ethics guidelines and investigative procedures of the nation’s largest Jewish institutions may count for relatively little compared to people’s feelings about a leader they know personally.
“They suspended the rabbi,” Pollack said, “and the community still wanted to retain him for their pulpit.”
The woman who Gerber texted said she has been to therapy to deal with the trauma, and said the most painful aspect of the ordeal has been feeling like she was driven out of her Jewish home.
“I can forgive him for the sexual misconduct,” she said, “but I can’t forgive the theft of the synagogue — that’s just, how can a rabbi do that?”