A rabbinic investigation into charges of sexual harassment against a prominent colleague seems to have sparked its own controversy.
The Jewish Week has learned that a committee from the Rabbinical Council of America, the largest organization of Orthodox rabbis in the country, has shared the findings of an eight-month investigation with the accused, Rabbi Mordechai Tendler, a well-known spiritual leader in the Monsey community, to allow him to prepare a defense.
It is alleged that the rabbi then contacted at least one of the women named in the report and sought to intimidate her, a charge denied by the rabbi’s attorney, Arnold Kriss.
Also under dispute is whether the women who spoke to the investigator knew that their names would be shared with the rabbi.
The nature of the
charges and the stature of the rabbi and his family in Orthodox circles make this a particularly difficult and delicate case.
The rabbi’s father, Rabbi Moshe Tendler, is a rosh yeshiva at Yeshiva University and the spiritual leader of another Monsey synagogue. His grandfather, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, with whom he studied, was one of the leading poskim (religious decisors) of the 20th century.
Rabbi Mordechai Tendler, spiritual leader of Kehillat New Hempstead and a charismatic figure who has been an outspoken advocate on behalf of freeing agunot (women in chained marriages), is accused of taking advantage of women who have come to him with personal matters, such as troubled marriages.
Among the charges: He would seek to have relations with women in return for helping to expedite their divorce.
Rabbi Tendler, who is married and has eight children, has chosen not to respond publicly, but has strongly denied all charges through his attorney. His supporters insist he is an outstanding spiritual leader who is now paying the price for agreeing to counsel hundreds of people, including women who are emotionally and psychologically unstable.
Another complicating factor in the case is that while the RCA recently approved of a task force to deal with rabbinic sexual improprieties, the Tendler investigation is being conducted under the old rules. In the new system, time limits will be imposed on probes, and those serving on the committee will undergo training in how to deal with cases of sexual abuse.
“They are trying to do the right thing, but they are floundering,” one rabbi, who asked to remain anonymous, said of the RCA committee. “They were hoping the investigator’s report would be more definitive one way or the other, but the nature of it is primarily ‘he said, she said,’ and now they are looking for more evidence.”
Someone who has seen the report said it is not definitive, “but there is a lot of smoke,” and it indicates that at the very least a number of “serious mistakes in judgment were made” by Rabbi Tendler.
The report, based in part on telephone interviews with up to nine women and an in-person interview with Rabbi Tendler, has been in the hands of the Vaad Hakavod [ethics] committee of the rabbinic group for two months. The committee is led by Rabbi Hershel Billet, a former president of the RCA, and comprised of several rabbis and at least one lay person, a female attorney. They are charged with determining whether or not Rabbi Tendler should be barred from the organization.
The committee includes Rabbi Gedaliah Schwartz, who heads the Bet Din of America, but since he lives in Chicago and only visits New York several days a month, the process has gone slowly. It is believed the committee is also planning to add a mental health professional.
A meeting of the committee is planned for later this month. Meanwhile, efforts are continuing to find “evidence that allegedly is out there,” according to one source.
Several sources said a tape recording exists of a conversation between Rabbi Tendler and one of the women that indicates an intimate relationship.
A cleaning woman originally from Jamaica told The Jewish Week that she worked for a woman in Monsey who admitted to her that she had an intimate relationship with the rabbi.
“I heard the tapes of what he did and what he wanted to do to her sexually, and how he loved her and wants to see her,” the cleaning woman said.
Other women interviewed said they were unwilling to be named for fear of retribution, noting that several of the complainants have been ostracized or have chosen to move out of the community.
The Jewish Week first learned of the allegations against Rabbi Tendler in November 2003 when several women attending a Jewish Week forum on rabbinic sex abuse voiced their charges privately, following the program.
The newspaper, while tracking the case through interviews with dozens of rabbis, women and others knowledgeable about the situation, chose not to report on it as the RCA investigation moved forward. But the newspaper changed its views after the story became public through an article in the Forward this fall and the RCA report was released to Rabbi Tendler through his attorney.
Rabbi Tendler, who describes himself as a maverick because of his forceful and sometimes liberal views in regards to women’s issues, has been praised by some Orthodox feminists. He is also admired by many in his community for his numerous acts of chesed, or personal kindness, such as offering charity to those in need and helping families enroll their children in yeshivas.
He has long offered spiritual and pastoral counseling, and many have taken his offer.
Batye Seigel, 53, told The Jewish Week this week that the rabbi propositioned her about 12 years ago after she came to him for help as her spiritual counselor because she was destitute and alone raising five young children.
Seigel said she first “sensed something weird” when the rabbi would lock the door of his study at home while meeting with her. She recalled that when the two were alone in the synagogue one day, he asked her to come with him to the basement.
“I don’t remember his exact words, but something to the effect that he wanted to mess around,” said Seigel, a clinical and medical aesthetician.
She said that such verbal episodes continued over a period of months while she was trying to get her religious divorce, and she would “keep him at bay” by saying she couldn’t even think about a relationship until after she received her get.
When the divorce papers were finally signed, Seigel said she ran out of the house where the proceedings took place. Rabbi Tendler called after her, she said, and Seigel told him, in no uncertain terms, to leave her alone.
“That was the last I heard from him,” Seigel said, adding that she is not afraid of the rabbi but she knows that other women are. She said she is angry that “this man is in a position of power, and I wonder how many more women have to come forward before he is stopped?”
Seigel said that after 15 years of living “a genuine and authentic life of Yiddishkeit” as an adult, she gave it up, primarily because of her disillusionment with Rabbi Tendler.
Jillian Sinclair, 42, of Monsey, said that when she was going through the initial stages of divorce a couple of years ago, she went to see Rabbi Tendler to discuss her situation. But Sinclair (her maiden name), a counselor who specializes in sexual abuse, said she was uncomfortable with the rabbi’s behavior.
“He would try to probe into intimacy issues that I felt were inappropriate, especially for a rabbi,” she said in an interview. “And he was fixated on whether I was having an affair, which I wasn’t, and telling me that if I was, it was none of my husband’s business, that it’s just between me and God. I found that very odd.”
Sinclair said the rabbi offered to study philosophy with her privately in his study, and in counseling her and her husband separately, used information they confided in him to drive them apart rather than help them reunite.
Now divorced, Sinclair said that in the last year she has met with and tried to offer support to other women in the community who have accused the rabbi of sexual harassment.
“He helps so many people,” she said, “but for every woman he has helped, I think there’s another he’s abused.”
Rabbi Tendler reportedly reached a settlement several years ago with a woman who claimed he initiated an affair with her while he was counseling her about her marriage problems.
“At the very least he seems to have acted in ways inappropriate for a rabbi,” said one source, “meeting alone with women at odd hours, etc. But should he just be reprimanded, or actually expelled from the RCA? The case isn’t closed.”