At a meeting packed with his supporters at his Rockland County synagogue, Rabbi Mordechai Tendler emphatically denied all of the charges that resulted in his being expelled from the Rabbinical Council of America the previous week.
Some who attended the meeting Sunday night said Rabbi Tendler was applauded enthusiastically and given standing ovations after he, his father, Rabbi Moshe Tendler, and uncle, Rabbi David Feinstein of Jerusalem, spoke.The gathering was billed as a public meeting to address the community’s concerns, but critics of Rabbi Tendler, including former members of his congregation who resigned over concerns about the sexual improprieties that he is alleged to have committed, were barred by security guards from entering the Kehillah New Hempstead synagogue.
The RCA, a professional association of some 1,000 Modern and Centrist Orthodox rabbis, had never expelled a member over sexual ethics violations. The move came after a 15-month investigation into allegations leveled by several women who said they had been sexually harassed by Rabbi Tendler or had been involved in sexual affairs with the rabbi.
Rabbi Tendler is married and the father of eight children.
His father, a renowned expert on biomedical ethics and Jewish law, is a rosh yeshiva at Yeshiva University’s rabbinical school. Rabbi Mordechai Tendler is a grandson of the late Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, who is regarded as the 20th century’s leading arbiter of Orthodox Jewish law.Rabbi Tendler took written questions from the audience and “in all fairness, a lot of them were tough,” according to Arnold Engel, who attended the meeting and described it as a “stacked deck” in support of the rabbi.
In his answers Rabbi Tendler “didn’t admit to anything, he said it’s all a lie, and that he is being picked on because he has made unpopular decisions” in his rabbinic rulings, said Engel.
One questioner asked Rabbi Tendler whether he had arrived at an out-of-court settlement with a woman who alleged they had an affair.
“He denied it, said he never did,” Engel said.But according to an Orthodox rabbi in the area who said he has firsthand knowledge, Rabbi Tendler paid the woman close to $100,000 in the summer of 2003 in an out-of-court settlement. (Others have said the sum was significant but not that high.)
Rabbi Tendler’s wife, Michelle, who has been his most ardent supporter, made reference to the settlement in a letter she wrote to a former member of the community.
Through Hank Sheinkopf, the political consultant who is serving as a spokesman for the Tendlers, Michelle Tendler declined to be interviewed, as did the rabbi.
Sheinkopf said that he has no knowledge relating to a settlement. The attorney who represented the woman in the settlement said he wasn’t allowed to confirm anything about it and had no further comment.
Those close to the saga say that another chapter is about to unfold: One source said physical evidence that at least one extramarital affair with a congregant took place will be released in the weeks to come.
But those at the meeting Sunday night were standing by their rabbi. According to Elaine Silverberg, a synagogue member, Rabbi David Feinstein issued a psak, or religious decision, “that the RCA ruling is null and void and has to be totally ignored,” she said.
Daniel Schwartz, who is counsel to Rabbi Tendler’s synagogue and a member, told The Jewish Week on Wednesday that the board will “continue to deliberate on this matter” and hopes the rabbi will be “vindicated.”
The decision has had repercussions, though, beyond the synagogue walls over the past week. Yeshiva University canceled the weekly seminar that Rabbi Mordechai Tendler had been offering to rabbinical students since 1987, explaining in a statement that the school “accepts the jurisdiction of the RCA on this matter.”
And the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, which long regarded Rabbi Tendler as an ally in advocacy efforts on behalf of women chained to dead marriages by estranged husbands, has taken down from its Web site a prayer for agunot that he penned.
It was not an easy decision for JOFA, said its president, Carol Kaufman Newman. Many JOFA board members thought the prayer should remain on the site, but Newman decided it should come down. Articles by Rabbi Tendler remain on the site, she said, while a prayer for agunot written by someone else will soon be posted.
“We’re leaving his articles up because he has something relevant to say and if we can, through his articles, free some agunot, we should leave them up,” she said. “But a prayer? For that there’s a higher standard. Prayers should be written by people with pure hearts, and now we can’t look at this man’s heart as pure if he has caused suffering to women.”
Many of Rabbi Tendler’s congregants remain enthusiastic supporters, though only Silverberg would speak with a reporter.
“Rabbi Tendler is known as a tzaddik,” or righteous person, she said. “He helps those unfortunate souls that other rabbis would stay away from. He gives everyone a sense of belonging. Many people in Monsey believe that because Rabbi Tendler has so much compassion for others, he has become vulnerable to some of them.”
“The shul expressed overwhelming support of the rabbi and decided to weather the storm,” Silverberg added, noting that members will “pursue the vindication of the rabbi.”
Some witnesses said that at least 10 former congregants were barred by the synagogue’s president and security guards from entering the building.
“They had security guards at the entrance, at least one wearing a uniform,” said Engel.
One former member, Richard Marinelli, said he cleared his attendance in advance but once at the synagogue he was informed by the congregation’s president that he was not welcome at the meeting.
The president, Eric Lafazan, did not respond to several phone messages left at his home and office seeking comment on the overall situation as well as this particular incident.Marinelli, whose son and brother were also prevented from attending the meeting, said he had planned to ask “a number of questions” and had been assured he would be allowed to do so.
In an interview this week, Sheinkopf said that barring people from the meeting “was the congregation’s decision and had nothing to do with anything the Tendler family or its representatives are involved with.”