Cleveland rabbi arrested for soliciting an investigator who posed as an underage boy online
This story was reported and written by Stephen Langel and Amanda Koehn of the Cleveland Jewish News, and Arno Rosenfeld and Lauren Hakimi of the Forward.
A Cleveland-area rabbi was arrested and suspended from his congregation after allegedly engaging in explicit online conversations and attempting to meet with an undercover investigator posing as a 15-year-old boy.
Rabbi Stephen Weiss, who has served as senior rabbi at B’nai Jeshurun Congregation in Pepper Pike, Ohio, since 2001, was arrested Monday evening by law enforcement officers with the Ohio Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force. The 60-year-old had traveled to a pre-arranged location to allegedly engage in sexual activity with the purported child, after communicating on a social networking app.
According to court records, the vehicle he was driving was searched and law enforcement officers found a box of condoms, two bottles of lubricant and erectile dysfunction medication. Weiss was charged with attempted unlawful sexual conduct with a minor, soliciting sexual services and possessing criminal tools, according to the prosecutor’s office.
Weiss posted a $50,000 bond, records show, and is required to wear a GPS standard monitoring device as a condition of his jail release.
“It just seems so out of character,” said Ellen Teitelman Wohl, who has been a member of B’nai Jeshurun for more than 30 years. “He’s always been a strong advocate for children and Jewish education.” She described feeling “violated and empty” because “Rabbi Weiss was the person we went to for guidance and comfort.”
The arrest comes amid a spate of rabbinic misconduct allegations in Ohio and a broad reckoning around sexual harassment and abuse across major American Jewish institutions.
The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the movement with which Weiss and B’nai Jeshurun are affiliated, launched an investigation into sexual harassment in its youth program last August after the Times of Israel reported three people came forward with claims against a former counselor with the program, known as United Synagogue Youth. The Union for Reform Judaism released the findings of a similar investigation in February, finding alarming incidents of sexual harassment at several of its summer camps.
Weiss, whose synagogue biography says that he was once a USY adviser and, as a teenager, was president of its Far West region, has not been accused of any wrongdoing connected to the youth group, camps, or B’nai Jeshurun.
Rabbi Jacob Blumenthal, CEO of both United Synagogue and the Rabbinical Assembly, described the allegations as “truly horrible and disgusting.” He said the R.A.’s ethics committee had already begun its own “process” for “adjudicating such matters” and that movement’s leadership was “in close touch” with B’nai Jeshurun’s leaders and believed it had “taken the right steps in immediately suspending Weiss.”
“These deeply disturbing accusations betray the sacred trust our communities put in their clergy and must be fully and immediately investigated and dealt with,” Blumenthal said in a statement. “Nothing is more important to us as synagogue leaders than the safety and well being of our congregants and those in our care, particularly our young people.”
Weiss has been charged with one count of attempted unlawful sexual conduct with a minor, one count of importuning and one count of possessing criminal tools, according to the prosecutor’s office, and could face up to 3.5 years in prison if convicted. Lexi Giering, a spokesperson for the prosecutor’s office, told the Cleveland Jewish News that the timing for next steps, including presentation of the charges to a grand jury, is not yet clear.
The day after Weiss’s arrest, an email to the B’nai Jeshurun community announced that the synagogue had suspended him from his position and barred him from the premises. B’nai Jeshurun President Rebekah Dorman and Senior Rabbi Hal Rudin-Luria, newly appointed to his position following Weiss’s suspension, also wrote that the synagogue was “unaware of any other alleged criminal incidents involving Rabbi Weiss.”
The synagogue said it would make confidential counseling available to congregants.
“Our synagogue has been strong and vibrant for 156 years and faced many challenges along the way,” Dorman and Rudin-Luria wrote. “We will continue on in that tradition as a synagogue family that supports and cares for each other in challenging times.”
Rudin-Luria turned down an interview request and a synagogue official declined to say whether it was planning to launch its own investigation.
Neither Weiss nor his attorney returned a Cleveland Jewish News request for comment. Lexi Giering, communications management for the prosecutor’s office, declined an interview request from the Forward.
Members of the community reacted to the news of Weiss’s arrest with a mix of emotions.
On Facebook, Elisa Radwansky-Chiominto said that Weiss had performed her daughter’s consecration ceremony, and that she was “disgusted” by the news.
Mary Blank Szekely, who described herself as a former member of B’nai Jeshurun, said she had fond memories of Weiss. “In the years I was there he was very kind and showed such depth in his spirituality,” Szekely wrote. “How did this happen to him?”
Another former member, who said she had recently left the congregation after six years, said in an interview: “It’s just a complete shock.” She spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive subject. The woman said that Rudin-Luria had been serving as the public face of the synagogue for awhile.
“Rabbi Weiss was there and part of the clergy, but when I think about going to synagogue Rabbi Hal’s presence was felt more,” the woman said. But, she added, Weiss “was definitely well-respected.”
One former student in B’nai Jeshurun’s religious school, now a 31-year-old man who requested anonymity, said he was surprised when just before the pandemic Weiss reached out to him on social media. The rabbi invited him on a trip to Poland, the “Ride for the Living,” which explores Jewish life in that country.
“I thought it was kind of weird,” the man said, because he is not a member of the congregation and had no relationship with the rabbi, though he occasionally watches the synagogue’s online services. He said his memories of Weiss are from when he was in ninth or tenth grade. “He always seemed really friendly. He would occasionally go from classroom to classroom and do demonstrations for the students, but I never got to know him on a personal basis.”
Weiss’ arrest comes amid a spate of recent revelations about misdeeds by rabbis in Ohio. In the Toledo area last month, Rabbi David Kaufman was arrested after being accused of rape; he was fired by his synagogue, which said in a statement that the accusation did not involve a member of the congregation. And in Canton, Rabbi Jon Adland was named in a Reform movement report as having previously been engaged in misconduct involving a 14-year-old girl.
In the latter case, congregants did not learn about the rabbi’s alleged misdeeds while he served them. The community severed ties to Adland after the release of the national report.
Born in Chicago, Weiss was ordained at the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary in 1990, according to a biography on B’nai Jeshurun’s website that was removed after his arrest. It listed his involvement with the Conservative movement’s youth group, USY, and said he had also helped create a camp and two day schools, and was once president of the Greater Cleveland Board of Rabbis.
Weiss previously worked at Ahavath Achim Synagogue in Atlanta in the 1990s, and came to B’nai Jeshurun from Temple Shaarey Zedek outside Detroit.
Robert Rich, director of Shaarey Zedek, said he was unaware of the allegations against Weiss and could not immediately comment on whether his synagogue planned any kind of response. Ahavath Achim officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday.