The Reform movement’s rabbinical association censured the rabbi of a Durham, North Carolina synagogue after receiving a complaint that was “sexual in nature,” but didn’t tell his congregation, spurring a watchdog group to demand that the movement be more forthcoming about accusations of sexual wrongdoing against its clergy.
“It’s kind of shocking,” said Shulamit Magnus, a professor of Jewish history at Oberlin College who helps lead the Committee on Ethics in Jewish Leadership, a group that has advocated for a standard set of professional ethical guidelines across Jewish organizations. “After all the awareness that’s been raised in the #MeToo era, this is not something that we should be hearing about at this stage.”
The committee’s call for more transparency comes almost a year after the Reform movement’s Central Conference of American Rabbis admitted it had not widely disclosed that another rabbi had been expelled for violating “sexual boundaries” and for “financial misconduct.” The Conference subsequently released a list of expelled rabbis.
Now activists like Magnus are saying the lack of transparency on the part of the CCAR toward Durham’s Judea Reform Congregation shows that the list is not enough. The CCAR needs to tell congregations about any sexual complaints they receive against their rabbis, she said.
The executive committee of Judea Reform Congregation learned in early April that the CCAR had been keeping them in the dark when they received a complaint against Rabbi Larry Bach. The complaint came from someone who was not a member of the synagogue and was “sexual in nature,” according to Valerie Johnson, the synagogue’s lawyer. The Durham Sun, which first reported the story, also reported that the complaint was “sexual in nature.”
The committee met with Bach to discuss the complaint. He then revealed that the CCAR had already censured him for it in March. Bach also disclosed that the CCAR had given him a reprimand in 2014 — when Bach was the senior rabbi at a synagogue in Texas — for an offense that has been described by Johnson, the lawyer, and the CCAR as “similar” to the most recent complaint. The CCAR had not disclosed either the reprimand or the censure to Judea Reform.
“As you can imagine, they [the members of the executive committee] were shocked that there’d been some action they didn’t know about,” Johnson told the Forward.
According to the CCAR’s rules, it isn’t obligated to tell a congregation when it “reprimands” a rabbi. It does notify prospective employers about “censures” in its rabbis’ employment records. But since Bach was a sitting rabbi at Judea Reform when he was censured, the CCAR did not notify the congregation.
In a statement shared with the Forward, the CCAR’s president, Rabbi Steve Fox, defended the CCAR’s decision not to diclose the 2014 reprimand, which he said was issued in response to a “self-reported minor infraction of the CCAR Code of Ethics.”
“There were no allegations or evidence of ‘predatory behavior’ or ‘potentially dangerous behavior’ or of congregants made ‘vulnerable’ as a result of his conduct,” Fox wrote about the reprimand. “In accordance with the section of the Code governing reprimands, this adjudication was not made public.”
The Forward asked Fox to confirm that the second complaint was sexual in nature, as Johnson said, but Fox declined to disclose the nature of either Bach’s 2014 infraction or the complaint against Bach from 2018.
Fox did say the CCAR had reopened its censure investigation after receiving “new information” after handing down the censure in March.
The Reform movement is Judaism’s largest, with nearly 750,000 congregants in 2013, according to the Pew Research Center. The CCAR has a membership of over 2,000 rabbis, according to its website.
The Judea Reform case is not the first time the CCAR has found that rabbis accused of sexual misconduct have continued to work as rabbis because not everyone knew about the allegations.
In November, 2015, the Forward reported that a Reform rabbi, Eric Siroka, had been quietly expelled from the CCAR in spring of that year for “sexual misconduct.” The report stated that Siroka was still offering rabbinic and tutoring services to people who did not know about his ouster, and that some rabbis and congregants were calling on the CCAR to be more transparent.
At a March 2017 convention, the CCAR resolved to publish the names of rabbis it has expelled. Before the list was published, the Forward reported in June 2017 that another expelled Reform rabbi, Ron Kaplan, was working as a tutor at a Reform synagogue in New Jersey. Steve Fox told the Forward that Kaplan was expelled after having been suspended for violations of “sexual boundaries” and “financial mismanagement.”
CCAR subsequently published the list of expelled rabbis over the summer. It includes the names of 12 rabbis expelled for violations of CCAR’s ethics standards, and the specific sections of the standards that the rabbis violated. According to the list, ten of those rabbis violated standards related to sexual misconduct.
The CCAR and its defenders say it has good reason to err on the side of confidentiality when responding to sexual complaints.
“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,” Rabbi Aaron Panken, the former president of Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion, told the Forward in 2015. Panken was a former member of CCAR’s ethics committee. He died in a plane crash on May 5, at 53.
The Rabbinical Council of America, an Orthodox rabbinical association, does things differently, however. It reports all allegations of sexual impropriety to the rabbi’s synagogue, according to the RCA’s executive director, Rabbi Mark Dratch.
“If there are allegations against the rabbis, we will not make a recommendation unless the congregation to whom we are referring knows the history,” Dratch said.
The chair of the ethics committee for the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly did not immediately respond to an emailed request for comment.
The Committee on Ethics in Jewish Leadership issued a scathing press release laying the blame for Bach’s impropriety partly at the feet of the CCAR.
“The CCAR’s silence constitutes a colossal moral and professional failure,” the statement read. The Committee’s leadership includes Shulamit Magnus; the New York lawyer Thane Rosenbaum; the Dartmouth College professor Susannah Heschel; and Rafael Medoff, the director of the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies.
“When it comes to violations of sexual nature, it’s not appropriate anymore for us to police ourselves,” said Rabbi Yohanna Kinberg. Kinberg, an ordained Reconstructionist rabbi, is the leader of a Reform congregation in a Seattle suburb. Kinberg was a vocal critic of the CCAR’s decision not to widely publicize Rabbi Siroka’s ouster in 2015.
In his statement, Fox said, “The CCAR is constantly reviewing and updating the Code, and we welcome feedback from congregations and individuals about how we can best ensure that our communities remain sacred and safe.”
Bach came to Judea Reform in July 2015, after having been the senior rabbi of a synagogue in El Paso for 17 years. A 2015 editorial in the El Paso Times about his move to North Carolina called him “a strong moral force.”
“One of the things I appreciate about him as my rabbi is that he walks the walk,” a former president of Bach’s El Paso synagogue told the Times. “He lives in a way that is very consistent with what he preaches.”
Bach did not respond to a request for comment.
Steve Simon, Judea Reform’s president, informed the synagogue of Bach’s resignation in an email dated April 24. The letter mentioned Bach’s earlier reprimand, which Simon said was due to “a similar transgression” to the complaint brought to the synagogue board. The letter did not explicitly say that either complaint was sexual in nature.
“We understand that this is shocking news,” Simon wrote. “Rabbi Bach is much loved by our Congregation and, during his tenure, many of the areas that define us as a Congregation – such as inclusivity, music, and social action – have flourished.”
In a letter to the synagogue, Bach asked for the community’s forgiveness. He also admitted to not following the terms of his prior reprimand or disclosing the censure.
“I instead engaged in a course of conduct that showed both poor judgment and bad decision making,” he wrote. “I now understand that my deceit broke the trust of my Congregation.”
Magnus said that the incident underscores the need for a universal policy in Jewish organizations about how to address allegations of sexual misconduct.
“There was nothing in this man’s record to alert a congregation that was hiring him that he already had a record of complaints,” Magnus said of Bach. She added that the incident could make the CCAR vulnerable to lawsuits from synagogues and congregants who think the association should have disclosed their rabbis previous misconduct.
“It’s kind of mind boggling that they missed this one,” she said.
This story "Reform Group Kept Complaints Against Rabbi Secret" was written by Ari Feldman.