The fast-moving #MeToo-related story of what is being termed “pervasive” sexual harassment against female rabbis gathered momentum this week on several fronts, from the courtroom to the classroom and beyond.

Rabbi Cheryl Peretz, associate dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies in California, which is associated with the Conservative movement, said she plans to start classes next month for women rabbinical students in how to deal with sexual harassment.

And in an email she said she has now “had requests from female colleagues in the field and from spouses of colleagues to offer [sexual harassment] training for them as well. I remain committed at the moment to getting with our students and then considering where to go next,” Rabbi Peretz said.

Meanwhile, a woman rabbi who was told by her lawyer she could not sue her boss for sexual harassment because of a legal doctrine known as a ministerial exception [or exemption] plans to meet with a new lawyer next week who said he would consider challenging that doctrine on her behalf.

Women rabbis face ‘pervasive’ harassment in their workplace, a Jewish Week report found. Pictured here, Women Of The Wall members attempt to pray at the Western Wall. JTA

The new lawyer, Barry Black of the Manhattan firm of Nelson Madden Black, is the religion law columnist for the New York Law Journal and was a practicing cantor for 30 years. He has counseled and represented both religious institutions and ministers on clergy-related issues.

Black told The Jewish Week he believes “sexual harassment should not be a protected right” and that he would argue that point in seeking to circumvent the ministerial exception.

“Sexual harassment should not be a protected right.”

The rabbi’s original lawyer had told her that the exception, which was affirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2012, bars rabbis, cantors, teachers and administrators from pursuing wrongful claims against their employers for discrimination, termination or sexual harassment.

Last week’s Jewish Week story about sexual abuse of female rabbis was widely disseminated through social media. One reader suggested that it should be “mailed to every member of every synagogue throughout the country (or at least emailed to each so that every institution can forward it on to their members).”

Rabbi Yael Ridberg of La Jolla, Calif., wrote in an email that “there is much to learn about the normalization of micro-aggressions that happen to women when we are in the rabbinate — not just the overt harassment but the constant stream of comments that are passed off as ‘just how men are’ or just how that particular congregant is.” (Rabbi Ridberg formerly was spiritual leader at West End Synagogue, a Reconstructionist congregation on the Upper West Side.)

The rabbi continued, “I stopped wearing suits with skirts because of the sheer number of comments about not sitting cross legged on the bima — lest the upper thigh show — and instead opted for pant suits all the time, or very long dresses.”“For years I was called kiddo by several highly regarded male members of the synagogue where I worked [and] I received often more comments from men and women about how I looked than what I said or how I led a particular service,” Rabbi Ridberg wrote. “When going through chemotherapy for breast cancer, a female congregant let me know that the hat I was wearing to hide my bald head was ‘not a great color for me’”

“To normalize such behavior as simply ‘what men do,’ we effectively accept that this kind of treatment of women — whether in the rabbinate or elsewhere — is just the way things are, or will always be.”

Rabbi Ridberg said she was pleased to learn that the Ziegler School would be teaching its female students about sexual harassment, but asked, “Where is the mandatory class for male students, for men in brotherhoods and men’s clubs in synagogues, for youth groups and college students that teach about how wrong the objectification of women is, how demeaning and potentially demoralizing it is.

“To normalize such behavior as simply ‘what men do,’ we effectively accept that this kind of treatment of women — whether in the rabbinate or elsewhere — is just the way things are, or will always be.”

Rabbi Deborah Waxman, president of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Philadelphia, wrote in an email that her school “has had a required mini-course on boundaries for all rabbinical students since the early 1990s. … We train our students on how not to violate boundaries and also work with them about how to handle it when laypeople are violating their boundaries.”

At a Yeshiva Maharat graduation ceremony to ordain female “maharats.” Courtesy

Students are taught using the Reconstruction movement’s Code of Ethics and “A Guide to Jewish Practice” by Rabbi David Teutsch, a former president of the college.

“One might have thought at a certain point that the feminist movement would have solved the problem, but if anything there is more objectification of women on college campuses now than there was 20 years ago.”

“We tell male rabbis it is their job to educate and to make it [sexual harassment of female rabbis] stop right away,” Rabbi Teutsch told The Jewish Week. “We do role playing in class, and one of the things I tell our female rabbinical students is that it is very helpful for them to find a male leader in the congregation who will stand up and make a point of pushing for clarification of proper conduct at the board level and in the congregation.

“Everyone in our society needs education around these issues. One might have thought at a certain point that the feminist movement would have solved the problem, but if anything there is more objectification of women on college campuses now than there was 20 years ago. The need to educate adults on this subject is unending.”

Rabbi Teutsch added that he does “not know of a single female rabbi who has not had to deal with this in some fashion or other — it is that widespread across all the movements. And that should not really surprise us because the same is true of other Jewish communal professionals. When I train mid-career female professionals, everyone I asked has had a negative experience either by a professional or a volunteer — and in many cases both. We have a problem that is pervasive in the Jewish community, just as it is everywhere else in life. It is a mistake to think it is better or worse in the Jewish community. But it is so contrary to our values that we have a primary obligation to retrain, admonish and punish.”

He hastened to add that “not all forms of harassment are equally bad. …. Making a lewd joke is not as bad as grabbing someone. We have to get rid of all forms of harassment before our community gets to where it wants to be.”