Can Rabbinic Ethics Committees Police Their Own?
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'A Crushing Injustice'

Can Rabbinic Ethics Committees Police Their Own?

Recent cases test rabbinic ethics panels in the age of #MeToo.

Hannah Dreyfus is a staff writer at the New York Jewish Week. She covers abuses of power in non-profit and religious settings. She heads up the Investigative Journalism Fund, an initiative to fill a gap in investigative and enterprise reporting. Reach her at hannah@jewishweek.org

Shoshanna Schechter, Rabbi Jeremy Sher and Sarah Ruth Hoffman. Their ordeals with ethics committees in the Conservative, Reconstructing Judaism and Reform movements left them reeling. JW Photo Illustration
Shoshanna Schechter, Rabbi Jeremy Sher and Sarah Ruth Hoffman. Their ordeals with ethics committees in the Conservative, Reconstructing Judaism and Reform movements left them reeling. JW Photo Illustration

Last month, a member of a large rabbinical association was terminated following an investigation into alleged non-consensual sexual activity with another adult rabbi.

Yet, the alleged victim’s tortuous process of pursuing a complaint with a rabbinic ethics committee suggests the difficulties such panels face in policing their own in these turbulent times.

In fact, Rabbi Jeremy Sher’s experience with the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association’s ethics committee echoes that of a woman congregant in North Carolina alleging sexual impropriety at the hands of her Reform rabbi.

And a third recent case, this one involving a get (Jewish divorce) in the Conservative movement, adds another layer of complexity to the picture; a Jewish Theological Seminary doctoral candidate was chastised for even bringing her case to the movement’s authorities in the first place, and told that her husband’s rabbinic career — and possibly her child support payments — could be endangered if she pressed her allegations.

Her husband was eventually deemed not to be a get-refuser — after a prominent RA official suggested in June that her ex-husband’s “recalcitrance” might soon qualify him as such.

But the movement’s initial response to her pleading suggests that the lessons of the #MeToo movement have perhaps been slow to stick.

Taken together, the three cases, joined together by their seemingly baffling twists and turns and the ethics committees’ questionable judgment calls, suggest that “victims are feeling more empowered to come forward,” said Rabbi David Teutsch, an organizational consultant who has worked with Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist congregations to recover from instances of rabbinic power abuse. Rabbi Teutsch says his caseload has soared in the last year.

And the cases raise questions about whether rabbinic ethics committees — staffed by rabbis who lack professional training in conducting investigations — are equipped to handle these kinds of cases.

“Rabbis are good at many things — that does not mean they have the technical skills to do an investigation,” said Fran Sepler, the architect of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s (EEOC) new employee training focused on harassment prevention, and a seasoned expert in workplace investigations.

A ‘Baffling’ Determination

In the Reconstructionist case, Rabbi David Dunn Bauer, a former administrator at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College (RRC) in Philadelphia, was terminated from his position and suspended from the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association (RRA) for one year, according to Rabbi Elyse Wechterman, executive director of the RRA, after an ethics committee probe into allegations that he forcibly kissed and groped Rabbi Sher in April 2018. Rabbi Sher alleges that the incident took place in San Francisco during a car ride on the way back to Rabbi Bauer’s hotel after the two met at a seder for Jews celebrating alternative lifestyles earlier that evening. At the time, Rabbi Bauer was director of recruitment, admissions and student life at the RRC.

In a statement to The Jewish Week, Rabbi Bauer denied the allegations made by Rabbi Sher, a professional chaplain based in Oakland, Calif. “Consent was sought and obtained,” he said. “Any insinuation to the contrary is false.” Rabbi Sher also pursued a permanent restraining order against Rabbi Bauer in a California court, which was denied.

The RRA and RRC hired a law firm to investigate the case after Rabbi Sher appealed an original determination made by the RRA’s ethics committee in May of 2018.

We believe that we (the Ethics Committee) actually do not need to ascertain exactly what happened … in order to determine how to proceed.

The original determination, penned by RRA ethics committee vice chair Rabbi David E. S. Stein, deemed that “little would be gained” by a formal investigation into the matter. “We believe that we (the Ethics Committee) actually do not need to ascertain exactly what happened … in order to determine how to proceed,” Rabbi Stein wrote. Rabbi Stein wrote additionally that Rabbi Bauer’s alleged assault took place “with the tacit consent of the Complainant (Rabbi Sher),” a claim Rabbi Sher denies. In the ruling, Rabbi Stein wrote the “Complainant [Sher] did not clearly express unwillingness or seek to stop the activity.”

The committee initially recommended Rabbi Bauer “reflect” upon the contributing factors that led to this “unhappy outcome,” learn from the experience and keep the “risk of unwanted sexual activity with other individuals to a minimum in the meantime.”

Seth Marnin, a consultant for nonprofit and corporate organizations on harassment cases and former vice president for civil rights at the Anti-Defamation League, said, “This determination has all the trappings of victim-blaming,” and described the document as “baffling.” (Marnin reviewed the relevant documents in the case before providing comment.)

“To minimize the experience of a complainant to such an extent,” Marnin continued, “is to fail utterly as an ethics governing body.”

Rabbi Wechterman of the RRA stressed that the executive committee later rejected the initial determination and ‘did our best to do a better job.’

Rabbi Wechterman of the RRA stressed that the executive committee later “rejected” the initial determination and “did our best to do a better job” the second time around. She added that the case involving Rabbi Bauer is the “first complaint involving sexual ethics” that she has seen since joining the RRA in 2015.

Rabbi Sher says what transpired over the seven-month-long process left him deeply disturbed. In his 138-page appeal to the RRA’s initial determination in his case, he found himself spelling out the definition of “consent” for leaders of the Reconstructionist movement.

“It was bizarre,” Rabbi Sher told The Jewish Week, describing the experience of drafting his appeal as “disembodied.”

“There I was, a progressive, MIT- and Harvard-trained rabbi, explaining to a board of supposedly other ‘progressive’ rabbis that ‘no means no,’ and that ‘some initial hesitation’ does not mean yes,” he said. “In 2018.”

Rabbi Wechterman pledged the Reconstructionist movement’s commitment to “doing better.” She said the RRA has “recognized the need to update our procedures” and is planning to convene in April to “do just that.”

A ‘Crushing’ Sense of Injustice

For Sarah Ruth Hoffman, the relationship that she claims turned sexually and emotionally manipulative began in December 2016 when Rabbi Larry Bach, the former senior rabbi at Judea Reform Congregation in Durham, N.C., messaged her on OKCupid seeking “friendship.” (Hoffman’s case was partially chronicled in The Forward, though Hoffman opted to go by a pseudonym at the time.)

Sarah Ruth Hoffman. Courtesy

In February 2018, Hoffman filed a complaint against Rabbi Bach with the ethics committee of the Reform movement’s Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR). The CCAR committee initially chose not to investigate the case — instead choosing to “censure” Rabbi Bach without informing his then-employer, Judea Reform, of the complaint. The committee later reopened the case and appointed a “fact-gathering team” after Hoffman submitted additional allegations that Rabbi Bach emotionally manipulated her into having sex by leveraging his position as a rabbi.

Rabbi Bach did not respond to requests for comment. However, according to his response to Hoffman’s initial complaint, he said the relationship was “enthusiastically consensual.”

Rabbi Steven A. Fox, chief executive of the CCAR, told The Jewish Week in a statement that, “In this case, we did investigate and we adjudicated according to the Code of Ethics.” He added that the CCAR Code of Ethics and its “processes” are “an ecclesiastical system, not a legal or HR [human resources] system.”

The CCAR Code of Ethics is ‘an ecclesiastical system, not a legal or HR [human resources] system.’

In May, Rabbi Bach resigned from Judea Reform after Hoffman informed the synagogue board of her complaints. The CCAR ethics committee completed its investigation in August with Rabbi Bach’s suspension from the rabbinical association for sexual impropriety. (The length of time of the suspension is not specified.) According to Rabbi Fox, Rabbi Bach’s “former congregation was notified immediately after the expiration of the rabbi’s appeal window” — 30 days following an adjudication.

Hoffman believes that the Reform leadership “mishandled” the case because the committee initially decided not to investigate, failed to inform Rabbi Bach’s employer of the initial complaint back in February 2018, and eventually appointed investigators not trained to work with victims of alleged sexual abuse or to conduct investigations. (The “fact-gathering team” appointed to investigate the case consisted of a pulpit rabbi, a fundraising professional and a community layperson.)

The result, Hoffman said, has taken a tremendous toll on her emotional and psychological well-being. She described contemplating suicide several times over the course of last year.

I felt like I simply could not live in a world where this man was allowed to remain at the pulpit.

“I felt like I simply could not live in a world where this man was allowed to remain at the pulpit,” she said; Rabbi Bach maintained his position as senior rabbi for several months after his censure. “The fear — the sense of injustice — was crushing,” said Hoffman.

‘Abandoned’ by her Movement

Shoshanna Schechter, a doctoral student at JTS and director of Jewish campus life at a college near Richmond, Va., brought a case before the ethics committee (or “Va’ad Hakavod”) of the Rabbinical Assembly (RA), the Conservative movement’s leading rabbinic body, last September. Schechter claims that her ex-husband — a Conservative pulpit rabbi with a congregation in Long Island and a member in good standing of the RA — purposefully delayed her request of a get for a year, engaged in domestic abuse and defamed her on Facebook.

Shoshanna Schechter. Courtesy.

Through his lawyer, Schechter’s ex-husband — who is not being named for privacy reasons — “categorically denies” all of the charges. “At no time did I ever refuse to give a get,” he wrote to The Jewish Week in a statement. The ex-husband, through his lawyer, maintains that it is customary to wait until the divorce is final before requesting and obtaining a get. Since the final divorce decree was not issued until December 2018, he contends there was no delay in him providing a get.

Schechter first reached out to members of the RA for help in June 2018.

At that time, Rabbi Bill Lebeau, a senior consultant for the RA and former dean of the JTS rabbinical school, responding in an email to Schechter, wrote that her ex-husband was demonstrating “recalcitrance” and that Schechter should turn to the Va’ad HaKavod “when he [Schechter’s ex] has clearly demonstrated that he is a Get refuser.” Rabbi Lebeau also assured Schechter of his “availability” at any time but seemingly stopped responding to Schechter’s emails.

Rabbi Lebeau did not respond to requests for comment.

Schechter said she initially withheld filing a complaint with the ethics committee after Rabbi Harold J. Berman, chair of the Va’ad Hakavod, advised that doing so could compromise her husband’s position and, in so doing, imperil her child support assistance.

“He [Rabbi Berman] told me I would be ruining my husband’s life,” Schechter said. “I was being too aggressive; I was putting my children’s best interests on the line.”

He told me I would be ruining my husband’s life. I was being too aggressive; I was putting my children’s best interests on the line.

Schechter said she was informed in a Jan. 3 phone call with two members of the ethics committee that her allegations of get refusal and domestic abuse against her ex-husband were “unfounded.” The committee representatives would not tell her how they arrived at this conclusion and said no disciplinary action would be taken against her ex-husband at this time. While her ex-husband was found culpable of defaming Schechter on Facebook, the committee members said the offense would not result in any form of public repudiation or loss of rabbinic status.

Through a lawyer, Schechter’s ex-husband has informed The Jewish Week that he plans to appeal the ethics committee’s determination concerning the Facebook post.

Rabbi Berman told The Jewish Week via email that the committee only comments on cases when an RA member is expelled or poses a threat to public safety. He declined to comment on this case specifically but said the committee “takes its time.”

Nevertheless, two weeks ago JTS opted to cancel an event this month in which Schechter’s ex was scheduled to speak about a book he recently published. In an email correspondence with Schechter on Jan. 8, Marc Gary, the seminary’s CEO, informed her that the event had been “canceled” after Schechter brought concerns about her ex-husband’s conduct to the attention of JTS leadership.

Gary confirmed this account with The Jewish Week.

When Schechter was unable to procure a get through the Conservative religious court last year, she said, she turned to rabbis outside the Conservative movement for help.

Schechter’s ex-husband completed and delivered a get through an Orthodox court in November.

Members of the RA ‘expressed sympathy’ but failed to take action on her behalf.

“I was abandoned by the movement that used to be my home,” said Schechter, who said members of the RA “expressed sympathy” for her situation but failed to take action on her behalf.

Time To ‘Skill Up’

Fran Sepler, the workplace investigations expert who recently conducted trainings for members of the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) — the Reform movement’s rabbinic association — says that rabbis, who are generally used to counseling congregants and providing an empathetic ear, cannot be expected to understand the “complex and technical” nature of investigating a complaint.

Rabbis judging other rabbis presents the immediate problem of affinity bias — the unconscious tendency to judge those most similar to oneself more favorably.

Further, she says, “rabbis judging other rabbis” presents the immediate problem of affinity bias — the unconscious tendency to judge those most similar to oneself more favorably.

“Cognitive biases are not insurmountable, but require significant training to overcome,” Sepler said. “They must be controlled for as an investigator.”

Rabbi Teutsch, who was speaking as an expert and was not privy to details of the cases cited in this story, added, “Frequently, the consideration for a rabbi takes precedence over consideration for the other affected party or congregation.

“Part of the challenge for all the movements is how do you balance serious concern for survivors of harassment while also being aware that whatever you do will affect the rabbi’s career forever.”

And, while certain denominations have been making “steady progress,” he said, providing proper support to complainants continues to be lacking across denominations. “We — all of us — have not yet developed a fully adequate means of providing the pastoral support that accusers need.”

In all three cases, ethics committees tasked with upholding the integrity of their member rabbis appear to have struggled at a time when outcomes will be judged with increased scrutiny, noted Sepler.

For rabbis, she said, “It’s time to skill up.”

Editor’s Note: This story has been clarified and updated to reflect additional responses brought to the attention of The Jewish Week in connection with the case brought by Shoshanna Schechter following the publication of this story. 

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