In what may be an unprecedented move, the Rabbinical Council of America has expelled Mordechai Tendler, a prominent rabbi from the Monsey, N.Y., area, for “conduct inappropriate for an Orthodox rabbi” and refusing to cooperate with the group’s inquiry.
In a two-sentence decision announced last Friday afternoon, the 1,000-member professional organization of Orthodox rabbis ousted Rabbi Tendler after an investigation for sexual misconduct that took some of the twists and turns one would expect of a prime-time legal drama.
The group had been investigating Rabbi Tendler for 15 months. The allegations go back years, and range from charges that he sexually pursued women who came to him for counseling to others that he initiated full-fledged affairs with them.
The brief statement said that “after months of careful deliberation,” the RCA concluded that Rabbi Tendler “has refused to cooperate with the Vaad [the ethics committee] in its investigation and has refused to appear at a hearing” and has “engaged in conduct inappropriate for an Orthodox rabbi.”
It added that “there will be no further comment from any official of the RCA on this matter.”
Rabbi Tendler declined to be interviewed, as did his wife, Michelle, a realtor with whom he has eight children. But a spokesman, political consultant Hank Sheinkopf, described the RCA probe as “reminiscent of the Salem witch trials” and asserted that “the charges are baseless.”
Sheinkopf said the RCA finding “does not substantiate any misconduct. He was not given a right to confront his accusers. Therefore he acted appropriately because this was not a fair proceeding.”
None of the RCA leaders interviewed recalled any member being expelled for sexual impropriety. One member was expelled some years ago over issues dealing with finances and kosher supervision.
Rabbi Tendler is the son of Rabbi Moshe Tendler, a renowned expert in biomedical ethics and a rosh yeshiva at Yeshiva University. The younger Rabbi Tendler is also a grandson of the late Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, widely regarded as the 20th century’s leading interpreter of Jewish law in America.
Sources close to the investigation said the panel charged with looking into the charges was painstaking in its efforts to be fair. Rabbi Heshie Billet, a former RCA president who chaired the committee, is known to be close to the Tendler family. While some criticized the long process, officials said they wanted to have as much information as possible.
The RCA hired a Texas-based firm specializing in such cases, but the investigation took many months and some were disappointed that only Rabbi Tendler was interviewed in person, while his accusers were spoken to on the telephone. The report, given to the RCA some weeks ago, was said to side with the women complainants.
Ironically perhaps, the charismatic Rabbi Tendler has been known as an advocate for women who are chained to marriages by husbands who refuse to grant them a religious divorce, which only men can initiate according to an Orthodox reading of Jewish law.
Nine women reportedly had come forward saying Rabbi Tendler’s sexual advances and harassment had victimized them, and seven were interviewed during the RCA’s investigation.
The Jewish Week first learned of the allegations against Rabbi Tendler in November 2003, when several women attending a newspaper-sponsored forum on rabbinic sex abuse voiced their charges privately.
One of Rabbi Tendler’s victims, Batye Siegel, welcomed the RCA’s decision, but said that more should be done.
“I’m glad that there’s a little justice in this world,” said Siegel, who claims Rabbi Tendler sexually pursued her over many months about a dozen years ago, when she was his congregant, had five young children and was newly separated from her now ex-husband.
“I left the derech [the religious path] because this had such a profound negative impact on me,” said Siegel. “It made me lose my faith.”
She said the RCA decision does not affect his standing as the rabbi of his synagogue, and called for him to be removed from his “position of power” to prevent anyone else being “victimized by him.” Siegel added that she did not think the RCA move would “stop his aberrant behavior” toward women “but at least they’ll be forewarned.”
The impact of the expulsion on Rabbi Tendler’s professional standing, beyond no longer having membership in the RCA, remains to be seen.
While Orthodox synagogues are not required to hire rabbis who are members of the denominations’ allied rabbinical groups, being barred from the RCA will make it difficult for him to find work as a congregational rabbi elsewhere, some officials said.
In Rabbi Tendler’s community, the impact of his expulsion was felt immediately.
Sources close to the synagogue, Kehillat New Hempstead, which is near Monsey in Rockland County, said that other rabbis who had been teaching adult education classes there immediately began boycotting the congregation as a result of the RCA decision.
The synagogue is said to be divided between loyalists and critics, and has lost some families since the charges against the rabbi became known. Sources there said the congregation may not be able to formally fire Rabbi Tendler, who they said has a lifetime contract and whose family donated much of the money used to build the synagogue.
Calls to Kehillat New Hempstead President Eric Lafazan were not returned.
Even Sheinkopf, the rabbi’s spokesman, acknowledged that “the ruling is of concern to his synagogue.”
However, he said, “Rabbi Tendler is meeting with members of the community to reassure them, and has found that many of his supporters are said to be outraged about the unfairness of the process.”
Some locals said that Rabbi Tendler may leave the community with his family and start anew in Israel.
Michelle Tendler distributed a letter to their congregants this week on her husband’s behalf, asking for their support. In the letter she describes the RCA decision as “despicable.”
She noted at the outset that for the past several years the synagogue, the rabbi and his family have “been under attack by evil individuals with vendettas against [the rabbi] as well as the muckraking press. Now more than ever,” she wrote, the rabbi “needs your support.”
She went on to describe the charges against her husband as being “patently false” and the RCA’s decision as “a miscarriage of justice.” She then listed what she described as the facts of the case and offered to share with anyone who wished “the voluminous documentary evidence vindicating our Rav.” She concluded, “I ask that you stand with us and that we all stand together.”
Sources in New Hempstead said the congregation is planning to hold a public meeting Sunday night. Rabbi Tendler is expected to attend.
What is clear at this stage is that one of the leading rabbinic advocates for agunot, the women forced to stay in marriages to husbands who refuse to grant them a religious divorce, has possibly compromised his ability to work on their behalf.
Yet “the judgment of errancy against Rabbi Tendler does not wipe out all the good that he has done for women,” said Blu Greenberg, founder of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance and a longtime friend of the Tendler family.
“I feel simultaneously a sense of sadness and tragedy” about the rabbi’s downfall, “but also a sense of justice and hopefulness,” she said.
“The sadness is that this is Rabbi Tendler who carries a great name and legacy and has used his knowledge and authority to do so much good for other women facing the dread of iggun [being chained to a dead marriage]. Whenever such a person in our universe falls, particularly a friend of many years, it is painful.
“On the other hand,” Greenberg said, “ we feel great sympathy for the victims, who not only suffered past abuses but also had to face the ordeal once more in the public eye, going up against a figure revered in their communities.
“Today we know how lasting the scars of such violations are, and we must give credit to these particular women for the courage to come forward,” said Greenberg. Despite the contention of Rabbi Tendler’s supporters that the RCA’s process was unjust, Greenberg said that in this case, the system worked.
“Rabbi Tendler was judged by an honorable and respected jury of his peers,” she said. “No matter where their collegiality or personal sympathies lay, the committee members judged on the facts, and I value this ethical and just process.”