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Celebrity cantor finds a soft landing after sexual misconduct allegations

When Nathan Lam was installed as the new cantor of Beverly Hills Temple of the Arts last month, he framed the move as an unexpected interruption of his retirement. It had, after all, been only a few months since Lam, 75, said publicly that he was anticipating “a long sabbatical” after leaving his high-profile posts as dean of a local seminary’s cantorial program and senior cantor at Stephen Wise Temple.

It turns out that Lam, who rose to prominence as a celebrity voice coach, had in fact left those posts under pressure following an accusation of sexual misconduct by a female rabbi and cantor who was once his student. Yet Temple of the Arts, an independent congregation with ties to billionaire Haim Saban, hired him despite knowing of investigations that found he’d violated the policies of both Wise Temple and the seminary, the Academy for Jewish Religion California.

“I thought it was over and there he is getting another job,” said the woman who filed the initial complaints. “It was like a smack in the face.”

BEVERLY HILLS, CA - MAY 18: Cantor Nathan Lam attends the The Ulmer Institute Launch Celebration at Montage Beverly Hills on May 18, 2016 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Todd Williamson/Getty Images for The Ulmer Institute)

Cantor Nathan Lam attends the The Ulmer Institute Launch Celebration at Montage Beverly Hills on May 18, 2016 in Beverly Hills, California. Photo by Getty Images

Lam’s apparent quick recovery from what in other circles could have been career-ending is an example of the complex challenges the Jewish community faces as it tries to improve its handling of allegations of clergy harassment and abuse. Over the past 18 months, several major institutions of the Reform movement and the Conservative rabbinic organization have each conducted independent investigations and overhauled their policies regarding the reporting of such misconduct and discipline of offenders.

But American Jewish life is lived in thousands of local synagogues, schools, camps and community centers that have their own independent leadership, not in those large institutions. So more than five years after the #MeToo movement exploded amid revelations of Harvey Weinstein’s abusive behavior, synagogues are still struggling to navigate the new boundaries, particularly in cases like Lam’s, which involves a relationship that some may construe as consensual despite the vast power differential.

Lam and the woman who accused him of misconduct met more than 30 years ago, when she was a personal trainer and new mother experiencing marital difficulties. In interviews, they both acknowledged a years-long sexual relationship: Lam calls it an affair, but the woman said he exploited her trust, as a clergy member more than 10 years her senior who she relied on for both training and counseling; her letters to both the synagogue and the seminary described the relationship as “predatory.”

Wise Temple, one of the largest and most prominent synagogues in Southern California, announced in December that Lam, who was hired as its cantor in 1976, had “engaged in an inappropriate sexual relationship” with the woman and violated the ethics codes for both Reform and Conservative cantors.

 


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Further, the shul said it had “received reports and complaints about other potentially inappropriate relationships,” including “unwanted advances and dating of congregants.” Lam denied these allegations, calling them “rumors.”

Academy for Jewish Religion California, an independent seminary where Lam had led its cantorial program since its inception in 2001, told the complainant that it would have fired Lam had he not retired.

Yet Rabbi David Baron, who helped start Temple of the Arts, was not deterred by those findings. He said in an interview that the synagogue had conducted his own investigation – though acknowledged it was based on the cantor’s account and did not include any contact with his accuser – and found nothing to stand in the way of adding Lam to the synagogue’s roster of clergy and making him director of its music and cultural center.

“Allegations can result in instant execution before all the facts are in,” said Baron, who added that he had heard from several members of Wise Temple who were unhappy with how Lam had been treated. Lam denied that any Wise Temple members had been involved in securing his new role.

 

A cantor to the stars

Lam is a uniquely Los Angeles character, braiding together a religious career and one in Hollywood with “a voice that spans two worlds,” as a Los Angeles Times headline put it. “He has prepared boys for bar mitzvahs, and Beatles for world tours,” according to a 1991 article that cited his work with Lionel Ritchie, Burt Reynolds and Ringo Starr. “He has produced songs for God and the Go-Gos.”

Lam grew up in North Hollywood attending Temple Adat Ari El, a Conservative congregation where as an 8-year-old he was struck by a sense of awe while singing. “I was smitten,” he said. By 16 he was leading High Holiday services for synagogues in the area. He holds an honorary degree from the Jewish Theological Seminary and led the Cantors Assembly when the Conservative movement group began admitting women in 1991, despite opposition from some male clergy.

In addition to coaching celebrities and appearances on television shows like “Castle” and “Transparent,” Lam is known for his voice, having recorded 11 albums including a collaboration with the National Symphony of Israel.

Despite his celebrity, Lam’s fall from grace and subsequent rehabilitation has gotten relatively little public attention, although Wise Temple posted a summary of its investigation’s findings online in December.

“Through reflection and having sought advice from peer institutions that have navigated such matters themselves,” Rabbi Yoshi Zweiback wrote in an email to his 1,600 family congregation, “we believe it is our responsibility to share the findings from the report with you as part of our commitment to transparency and safety.”

 

It was a sign of the changing approach to sexual misconduct complaints taking hold in many Jewish institutions and some synagogues. While allegations of sexual misconduct were, historically, treated as confidential personnel matters, three leading Reform institutions released detailed reports of past misconduct over the fall and winter and the Conservative rabbinical association began publicly naming rabbis who violated its code of ethics in October.

The seminary’s investigation and findings, though, do not appear to have been publicly announced to staff or students. Lam stepped down shortly before the probe was completed last April, and the school barred him from reemployment, according to a letter AJRCA sent to the woman and obtained by the Forward. Mel Gottlieb, president of the seminary, confirmed that the school performed “an extensive and very thorough investigation,” but declined to comment on the details.

The decentralized nature of Jewish life has made it difficult for the changes regarding misconduct allegations to take hold; the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly took a seemingly big step in October by publicly naming those it has suspended, but the lone rabbi so sanctioned, Jeremy Gerber, remains in his Philadelphia-area pulpit with the full support of his synagogue’s board.

If the movements struggle to enforce change across their member-institutions, independent synagogues like Temple of the Arts are not even ostensibly accountable to an umbrella group’s guidelines.

Baron, who is 72 and a fixture in the entertainment industry, started the shul 30 years ago after leaving two prior congregations, Temple B’nai Hayim and the Synagogue for the Performing Arts, following bitter disputes. It is supported by prominent Los Angeles Jews including Saban, an investor, who along with his wife, Cheryl, donated $5 million to restore the landmark Art Deco theater on Wilshire Boulevard that houses the congregation.

Temple of the Arts has a long roster of celebrity members and Baron shares the stage with a gospel choir, an Emmy-award winning musical composer and a cantor that a local columnist compared to Whitney Houston.

Baron said his synagogue’s investigation consisted of Lam and his lawyer meeting with its board, which then hired a focus group of what Baron called “seven professional women” who were told Lam’s version of the events and asked whether they would be comfortable hiring him. The synagogue did not contact the woman Lam had a relationship with.

“We mostly heard one side, from the cantor,” Baron said. “But in life there’s his side, her side, and somewhere in the middle resides the truth.”

 

Question of consent

The woman at the center of the allegations against Lam, who spoke with the Forward on the condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation, has watched his comeback with frustration.

She said she first met Lam around 1989, when she was pregnant, and started regular voice lessons with him shortly after her son was born. They met once every few weeks at first, but the pace increased after she began exchanging personal training sessions for the lessons, she said.

“I wanted to change my life. My spiritual needs were desperately calling,” the woman wrote in a letter last spring to the Cantorial Assembly, the Conservative cantors’ group that Lam served as president of in the early 1990s and that he has assisted with fundraising in recent years.

“He told me we were saving each other’s marriages,” the woman wrote in one complaint.

Lam, in an emailed response to questions from the Forward, did not address whether he was the woman’s voice teacher. He said that he had been referred to her for physical therapy after a heart attack in 1987, and that they had an affair.

The woman, 63, now a pulpit rabbi in Los Angeles, said the sexual relationship was a form of long-term harassment exploiting her vulnerability. She said she was struggling with both parenthood and marriage when they met. Lam, who was also married, was handsome and charming, she said, offering her advice and inviting her to join him for dinner at his house or in the Wise Temple building after everyone had left for the day.

He would regularly call her promptly at 4 p.m. to ask what she was wearing, she said, or to instruct her not to wear underwear to their singing lessons. The sex started about a year after the lessons.

“He told me we were saving each other’s marriages,” she wrote in the complaint to the cantors’ group. In the interviews, she added, “It’s almost like you’re in an addiction or something that’s otherworldly.”

The Cantors Assembly’s code of ethics cautions its members that “sexual advances – verbal, physical, direct, or implied – are a violation of the clergy/congregant relationship.” It continues: “If sexual boundaries are violated by the cantor, it is understood that the relationship is not considered to be consensual.”

It is unclear what became of the woman’s complaint to the Cantors Assembly. She said Morris Garten, an attorney for the organization, suggested she conduct her own investigation into Lam’s behavior. The Cantor’s Assembly referred questions to Garten, declined to address the woman’s claim and said he could not comment on Lam or specific harassment complaints.

Lam, in his email to the Forward, said that he “readily admitted and accepted my transgression on both a moral and religious basis,” and was prepared to apologize to the woman before the seminary where he headed the cantorial program instructed him not to contact her.

But Lam has maintained that the affair was consensual and focused his repentance around the sin of adultery. “He has accepted responsibility for being in a consensual sexual relationship” with the woman “while both were married adults,” Lam’s lawyer, Robert L. Shapiro, wrote in a March letter to John Clune, a lawyer who is representing the woman and whose past clients include women who made sex-abuse claims against Kobe Bryant and Brett Kavanaugh.

As for the other women mentioned in Wise Temple’s investigative report, Lam said: “They were rumors. No facts.”

Baron, at Temple of the Arts, acknowledged that there was a power imbalance – “at the end of the day you’re the teacher and that’s the student and it’s wrong” – but said that need not stand in the way of Lam continuing as a spiritual leader, vocalist and educator. Baron said that legitimate concern over predators like Weinstein had led people to overreact in cases like Lam’s, and suggested the woman felt snubbed by Lam and was seeking revenge.

“She was clearly bent – angry – and that doesn’t excuse what he did wrong,” Baron said, “but we, as a Jewish people, believe in redemption.”

 

‘How can I live with this?’

In a 2008 study by Baylor University, more than 3% of women who regularly attend a church or synagogue reported being subject to sexual advances by clergy. These advances almost always took place in secret and the vast majority of clergy who made them were married at the time.

Karen McClintock, a professor at Southern Oregon University and author of several books about sexual abuse in religious communities, said the reason ethical codes restrict relationships between clergy and congregants is because of the inherent power imbalance.

Lam was not just a leading cantor in the area who could influence her training and career, but also, inevitably, acting in something of a pastoral role, as all clergy do, McClintock noted.

“A therapist would not have taken advantage of her malaise, her vulnerability in marriage,” she said, “and then redirected her to him as the savior of her woes, or the one you could lean on, and then sexualized that.”

The woman said she stopped having sex with Lam around 2005 but maintained a cordial relationship with him until her divorce in 2013, when she recalled telling him not to speak to her anymore. She said the divorce was triggered partly by the relationship with Lam, and that she had briefly considered suicide.

“I was like, ‘Oh my God how can I live with this?” she said. “It’s all my fault.”

Three or four years later, the two ran into each other at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. She said she averted her gaze and walked away. Later, she said, Lam mentioned the encounter to her boyfriend, who also worked at Wise Temple.

She texted Lam to say that he should not be under any illusion that they were on good terms.

He replied simply: “I owe you my life.”

“I thought ‘Great, I saved his life but what about my own?’” she said.

Correction: Due to an editing error, the original version of this article incorrectly stated that Temple of the Arts had hired Cantor Nathan Lam despite knowing of allegations that he had engaged in a “predatory” relationship; it is unclear whether the synagogue was aware of the use of the word “predatory” in the initial complaint against Lam. The article also incorrectly said that Rabbi David Baron had hired Lam at Temple of the Arts at the behest of members of Stephen S. Wise Temple who were unhappy about how Lam had been treated there; it was the Temple of the Arts board, not Rabbi Baron, who hired Lam. 

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