The former senior rabbi of a historic Reform synagogue in Baltimore has been expelled by the movement’s rabbinical association two months after being fired by the board for over unspecified allegations of the movement’s ethical code,
Rabbi Steven Fink was fired in October after the members of Temple Oheb Shalom, a large, 165-year-old community, voted overwhelmingly to oust him. Two days before the vote, the leader of the Reform movement, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, told the synagogue that if they did not vote to fire Fink, the synagogue could be expelled from the Reform movement.
Now, the movement’s Central Conference of American Rabbis has expelled Fink for disregarding the terms of his initial suspension from that body, which was first handed down in August. Contrary to those terms, Fink has refused to undergo the CCAR’s approved counseling plan, and has continued to lead private prayer services and speak publicly about the investigation into him. His expulsion from the CCAR means that no Reform synagogue can hire him now.
“It’s a miscarriage of justice,” Fink said of the expulsion. “The whole thing is a farce, and I’m completely innocent, as I’ve said many times.”
The expulsion was first reported December 26 by the Baltimore Jewish Times.
Oheb Shalom is a large congregation in the heavily Jewish Pikesville section of Baltimore. Its iconic midcentury building was meant to appear like a cross between the stone tablets bearing the Ten Commandments and a jet turbine, according to a book about Baltimore architecture, and its multiple sanctuaries can house more than 1,500 worshippers at a time. Fink was only the fifth senior rabbi to serve the congregation since 1863.
In mid-April the synagogue’s leadership received an allegation from a congregant that Fink had placed his hand on her thigh in the course of her asking him for a college recommendation when she was 17, in 2007, according to documents shared with the Forward. The synagogue’s board had already received multiple allegations of inappropriate behavior by Fink from congregants, according to synagogue spokesperson Amy Rotenberg, and had started investigating them.
“People recognized a possible pattern, and the pattern was concerning,” Rotenberg said in October.
The CCAR is the Reform movement’s professional guild for rabbis. Reform synagogues can only hire rabbinic staff who are members of the CCAR, which sets expectations for its membership through its code of ethics.
After Oheb Shalom reported the various complaints to the CCAR in May, it put him on paid leave. After completing its investigation in August, the CCAR voted to suspend Fink from the organization. Suspensions generate a t’shuvah, or repentance, plan that comes with the possibility of reinstatement to the CCAR and, possibly, a return to pastoral work.
Fink says that besides not being allowed to perform any pastoral duties, the terms of his suspension also required that he consult a CCAR-approved psychiatrist and attend sessions with a CCAR-approved therapist, and allow members of the CCAR’s Ethics Committee to review records from those sessions. Fink also said that he would be required to pay for those sessions. The CCAR declined to comment on Fink’s individual case.
“I don’t want people, strangers, delving into my personal records,” Fink said. “That violates my civil rights.”
Fink has been holding Friday prayer services and Saturday morning Torah study sessions in his home since his firing. One attendee, a former Oheb Shalom member named Marc Horowitz, estimated that between 10 and 22 people attend the weekly Friday night services. Horowitz says he left Oheb Shalom over the synagogue’s treatment of Fink.
“They needed, and still need, a spiritual home,” Fink said. “It would be wrong of me to deny these people the comfort of prayer.”
In October, Oheb Shalom voted to fire him.
“I’m a victim of sexual McCarthyism,” Fink told a local Fox affiliate at the time.
Fink is still in mediation with Oheb Shalom. His lawyer, Andrew Graham, told the Forward in October that they are seeking a full payout of his last contract. Oheb Shalom declined to comment on Fink’s expulsion from the CCAR.
“His ‘for cause’ termination was proper and by the book,” the synagogue said in an emailed statement to the Forward. “The congregation is moving forward now to a new and brighter future.”
Fink says that he is planning on setting up a GoFundMe page to help pay for his legal expenses in the next several days, since he currently is not drawing a regular salary. He said he is not currently considering legal action against the CCAR.
“What they’ve done is so un-Jewish, so un-American,” he said.