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Former rabbinical students complain to Conservative movement about sexism at seminary

Letter to Rabbinical Assembly’s ethics committee describes culture of harassment alienating women and queer students

Several former rabbinical students sent a letter to the Conservative movement earlier this month demanding an investigation into what they described as a culture of sexism and sexual harassment at the Ziegler School of Rabbinical Studies and calling for a change in leadership at the Los Angeles-based seminary.

The letter to the ethics committee of the Rabbinical Assembly did not refer to any member of the Ziegler faculty or administration by name, according to a draft viewed by the Forward. A source familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity said that the committee — known as the Va’ad HaKavod, Hebrew for honorable council — responded that it was unable to address such a general complaint about an institution.

A draft of the letter viewed by the Forward included more than two pages of bullet-pointed examples of staff at the seminary, called the Ziegler School of Rabbinical Studies, enforcing a double-standard against women, tolerating or contributing to homophobia and transphobia in the program, and dismissing student concerns that the environment had become toxic.

As a result, the letter states, “women, trans men and non-binary individuals are not succeeding at becoming rabbis under Ziegler’s tutelage on par with cisgender men.”

“We believe that members of the administration have misused their power and been insufficiently reflective regarding the departures by women and others who leave the program,” the letter continues. “While the examples listed do not include unequivocally illegal violations, we believe that the clear pattern of misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, shaming and double standards — consistent over two decades — is sufficient to raise concern on the Va’ad’s part.”

The Va’ad has the authority to suspend or expel rabbis from the Conservative movement, and in 2021 it began publishing the names of censured rabbis on its website. But it has never undertaken an investigation into an institution like Ziegler.

The letter was signed by 13 former rabbinical students and community members of its parent institution, American Jewish University, at the time the Forward viewed the draft. A Rabbinical Assembly spokesperson said it was received April 10.

“Our goal is that every one of our spaces in our movement is inclusive, safe and sensitive to diverse needs, experiences and identities,” the spokesperson said. “We take the letter and the experiences it describes seriously and will begin a process through the Va’ad HaKavod as soon as it receives a formal complaint.”

“We call on any respondent affiliated with the movement in this way to engage in a process with an independent agency to investigate these concerns and invite anyone with information to share it. That will lead to a more full understanding of these concerns and recommendations to change.”

It is the latest challenge facing Ziegler, which was founded in 1996 and has produced some of Conservative Judaism’s foremost thinkers, but recently slashed tuition in response to declining enrollment.

The Conservative movement overall has struggled with shrinking synagogue membership for at least a decade amid periodic complaints of impropriety in the rabbinate.

Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, dean of the Ziegler School, did not immediately respond to a phone message on Monday.

AJU said in a statement in response to the story Monday morning: “American Jewish University (AJU) has not seen the letter described in this story, and therefore cannot comment on its alleged contents. AJU and the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies are deeply committed to creating a safe, welcoming, and inclusive environment for every student. There are a range of measures in place at AJU to foster a safe climate for all students, staff, and faculty, including extensive training for staff and faculty, a lawful Title IX policy and the presence of a Title IX officer, and rigorous protocols for investigating and responding to incidents of wrongdoing. All of these measures were created in compliance with applicable law and in consultation with outside experts promoting best practices.”

Though it is unclear who organized the letter, the first signatory on the draft viewed by the Forward was Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg, who was ordained by Ziegler in 2008 and now is scholar-in-residence at the National Council for Jewish Women. Ruttenberg also spearheaded a 2021 open letter signed by 500 rabbis contesting Steven M. Cohen’s efforts to return to public life after allegations of sexual assault and sexual harassment cost him his job at Hebrew Union College, a Reform seminary based in Cincinnati.

Ruttenberg said Monday she was unavailable for an interview. Two other people who signed the letter declined to comment or did not respond.

The letter said its impetus was the recent departure of “yet another” female rabbinical student from the program, but did not name her. Sources who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they feared professional repercussions said the student left after filing a Title IX sexual harassment complaint against a fellow student who was later expelled.

The letter calls for Ziegler to hire a “well-trained” Title IX officer to handle such complaints.

It also complains about the school’s handling of a stalking allegation made by a female student. “The administration treated it as a disagreement between two equal parties, and failed to protect her even after the other student threatened to kill her or burn down her apartment,” the letter states, adding that the administration allowed the student who made these threats to stay in the program.

If the authors of the letter follow up by naming specific rabbis in a formal complaint — and the Va’ad chooses to investigate — the investigation process can take from three to eight months. That process is led and handled by the Va’ad without the help of a third-party investigator.

American Jewish University president Jeffrey Herbst wrote in a letter to the AJU community that while he could not comment on the letter’s contents because he had not seen it, the school had measures in place to ensure student safety on campus, including rigorous protocols for investigating alleged incidents. He did not say whether the school planned to launch an investigation into the culture at Ziegler.

“First and foremost, AJU is deeply committed to creating a safe, welcoming, and inclusive environment for every member of our community,” Herbst wrote. “This will continue to be our north star as we continue to grow and evolve our programs.”

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