The leader of America’s largest rabbinical organization vowed to improve his group’s disciplinary process following a Forward investigation that highlighted failures to alert a Jewish community of alleged sexual misconduct by a Reform rabbi.
In a series of private emails and Facebook posts to rabbis, obtained by the Forward, Rabbi Steve Fox said that the Central Conference of American Rabbis would “enhance” its ethics process and do a better job of alerting congregations of when a rabbi has been expelled.
But Fox, who is chief executive of CCAR, also defended his group’s investigative process.
Fox said that the November 2 Forward article about Rabbi Eric Siroka failed to take into account the needs of everyone involved in the disciplinary proceedings, including accused rabbis and their families.
“Many in our community are close with Siroka’s family and with others involved in this case, and these matters are always a challenge in protecting the wider community while ensuring privacy where needed,” Fox wrote in a November 3 Facebook post to a closed group of rabbis.
Several rabbis at this year’s biennial conference of the Union for Reform Judaism, in Orlando, agreed with Fox’s remarks.
Rabbi Zoe Klein of Los Angeles’s Temple Isaiah said she supported the committee’s decision to expel Siroka, initially for unspecified ethical failures, an announcement that was minimally publicized in a CCAR newsletter.
“What I don’t like,” she said, in an apparent reference to the Forward article, “is the public scapegoating of individuals.”
Klein argued that clergy were sometimes seduction targets by adult congregants who may be married or emotionally unstable.
“An affair is not a crime in American law,” she said.
The three women that the Forward interviewed for its article alleged that Siroka, a married father of two, made sexual advances toward them at moments of emotional weakness or vulnerability.
The article also showed how, in the fall of 2014, Siroka was able to take up teaching positions at a Jewish high school and in Jewish adult education, in Seattle, even though he was under investigation by CCAR for allegations of sexual misconduct involving a fourth woman.
Siroka refused to cooperate with that investigation, and this past spring the CCAR expelled him. But he continued to teach, and even set up a freelance rabbinic service in May.
Siroka, who is 48, did not respond to a phone call and emails from the Forward asking for comment. Previously he has not responded to calls, emails and a letter from the Forward asking for comment.
Many members of Seattle’s Jewish community, including a Reform rabbi, told the Forward they were unaware of Siroka’s expulsion, which was publicized only in the CCAR’s internal newsletter and, according to the CCAR, in private communications with URJ, the congregational arm of the Reform movement.
Now, Fox says that the CCAR will try to do a better job of alerting rabbis when a colleague has been expelled. In a November 5 email to rabbis, Fox said that in the future, the CCAR would notify members through the CCAR’s private Facebook group and through RavKav, a private list serve for CCAR rabbis.
Fox’s email did not say anything about alerting the broader public to members who had been expelled by, for example, posting the names of expelled rabbis on the CCAR’s website.
Siroka was the pulpit rabbi at Temple Beth-El, in South Bend, Indiana, for eight years.
The congregation’s board will not say why Siroka left his pulpit in 2014. The CCAR will give no details about the sexual misconduct complaint that was made against him.
But the Forward has spoken to three women who say that Siroka behaved in an inappropriate manner with them over a span of 15 years.
The oldest allegation dates from 2000, when Siroka was the rabbi of Or Chadash, a synagogue in Flemington, New Jersey, and already married. A woman who did not wish to be named said that Siroka forcefully kissed her on the mouth on multiple occasions when she was 17.
A second woman, Shoshanna Kohn, said that Siroka pursued her and initiated an affair with her in 2013.
A third woman, who did not wish to be named, said that Siroka tried to initiate a sexual relationship with her in Seattle earlier this year, but she rebuffed his advances.
Fox’s communication with rabbis took place against the backdrop of this year’s URJ biennial conference.
For the most part, leaders of the URJ, including members of the CCAR’s ethics committee, which handled the investigation, defended their action — automatically expelling Siroka because he refused to cooperate with them, but without specifying the sexual misconduct allegation that set off the investigation.
Rabbi Richard Address, a member of the ethics committee, which handled the Siroka investigation, said: “I have full faith and confidence in my colleagues on the committee. They are 100% dedicated to our colleagues and, at the same time, to the health and safety of our congregants and congregations.”
However, he and others acknowledged that weighing those two competing elements could be a challenge.
“The nature of the balance is that when a rabbi is unsafe, and we have clear evidence that he or she is doing harm, protection of the community is paramount,” said Rabbi Aaron Panken, president of Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion.
Panken said he was not familiar with the details of the Siroka case, since the committee’s work is confidential. But as a former member of the CCAR’s ethics committee, he said he also supported the process.
“This is a very fair and careful process that serves to protect any individual who is harmed, and to make sure a rabbi who is not safe for their community— in the very rare instance in which that happens — is prevented from harming others,” Panken said.
Rabbi Jonathan Blake of the Westchester Reform Temple in Scarsdale, New York, said that while he did not know all the details of the Siroka charges, “there is a difference between serial adultery and illegal activities.” The goal of the ethics committee, he said, was “to protect the community and rehabilitate the perpetrator.”
But Rabbi Steven Engel of Orlando’s Congregation of Reform Judaism, who welcomed delegates to the convention, sharply disagreed.
“As rabbis we have a responsibility to hold ourselves to the highest standards of behavior,” he said. “We owe it to our profession, to our people, and to the God we preach about, pray to and live by.”