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Savannah Rabbi Who Gave Sex Abuse Talk to 9-Year-Old Girls Quits Synagogue

A rabbi whose sex abuse lesson to children divided a Savannah community has decided not to pursue a new contract at his synagogue.

Rabbi Ruven Barkan decided not renew his contract with Congregation Agudath Achim and “will be seeking other rabbinic opportunities,” according to a January 6 email from the synagogue board and the rabbi to congregants.

Barkan did not respond to a request for comment.

Several families left the Conservative congregation after Barkan terrified a class of nine-year-old girls during the fall of 2013 by teaching them about child sex slavery.

The lesson took place at the Shalom School, Savannah’s only supplementary Jewish school which Agudath Achim runs in partnership with Savannah’s only Reform Congregation Mickve Israel.

Barkan was kept out of the school for the rest of the academic year after some parents said they could no longer trust Barkan with their children.

Despite the opposition to Barkan, many Agudath Achim congregants supported their rabbi.

The synagogue board voted in October to recommend that its congregation not renew Barkan’s contract when the contract expires this summer. But in a subsequent ballot, congregants voted by 132 votes to 53 to keep their rabbi.

Those negotiations were due to begin at the end of last year.

Agudath Achim’s president, Steve Roth, declined to say whether those negotiations started before Barkan decided not to renew his contract. In the email to congregants, Roth said: “Congregation [Agudath Achim] has benefited greatly from the Rabbi’s passionate leadership and is saddened by his decision to leave.”

Simone Wilker, an Agudath Achim Congregant, said that she and others were surprised that Barkan decided not to renew his contract. Wilker added that despite the intense emotions of the past year, she was confident that the tight-knit community would heal.

“Even though there have been difference of opinion, underlying that is a cohesiveness and a sense of pride in the Jewish community,” she said.

Barkan will remain at the synagogue until his contract ends in July.

Contact Paul Berger at berger@forward.com or on Twitter @pdberger

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