As Reform Jews investigate themselves, a reckoning over sexual abuse grows

Multiple investigations, which will look at both historic and more recent instances of sex abuse, signal a desire for a new level of ethical accountability on sexual misconduct and gender discrimination.

People arrive for a prayer vigil at Central Synagogue, Tuesday, Oct. 30, 2018, in New York. The vigil was held for the victims of the shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

(RNS) — After a prominent Manhattan synagogue made public the results of an investigation into the “sexually predatory” behavior of one of its former rabbis last spring, the Reform movement took the unprecedented step of hiring expert law firms to investigate three of its main institutions.

The law firm Debevoise & Plimpton will probe the Union for Reform Judaism, which is the congregational arm of the movement. The other two are the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the Reform movement’s rabbinic organization, and Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, its seminary.

The investigations, which will look at both historic and recent instances of sex abuse, signal a desire for a new level of ethical accountability on sexual misconduct and gender discrimination in the largest U.S. Jewish denomination, with some 850 affiliating congregations.

The push may also signal a broader cultural change among the largest  Jewish denominations. In August, the Conservative movement, the second-largest Jewish religious group, announced it was initiating an investigation into reports of sexual abuse of teenage boys at programs run by its affiliated organization, United Synagogue Youth.

“This is very unique in terms of the number of investigations and in terms of how forthcoming they are in encouraging folks to participate with the investigation and having communications around it with the wider community,” said Elana Wien, executive director of SRE Network, which stands for Safety, Respect, Equity, a group that advocates for gender equity in Jewish institutions.

Last week, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, issued a letter imploring anyone who has experienced sexual misconduct in its institutions to contact Debevoise & Plimpton by Nov. 15.

“The URJ views this work as an ongoing ethical imperative for the entire movement and is committed to rigorous abuse prevention training for camps and programs, supporting congregational ethics codes, and maintaining ongoing avenues for reporting concerns or allegations,” Jacobs told Religion News Service in an email.

Momentum for these investigations can be traced to the #MeToo movement, which began with widespread media coverage of sexual harassment in Hollywood in 2017, followed by the corporate and political realm.

Multiple Christian denominations — most recently the Southern Baptist Convention — have also initiated sex abuse probes. What’s common to these religious groups is the realization that when allegations of sex abuse arise, institutions need to be public and transparent about how they deal with them. Calling on third-party independent investigators is one way of doing that.

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The impetus for the Reform movement investigations arose from accusations made in April against Rabbi Sheldon Zimmerman, who served at Central Synagogue from 1972 to 1985.

Investigators found Zimmerman had engaged in inappropriate sexual misconduct with three women, one of whom was a minor.

But Zimmerman, who is 79 and now retired, is no ordinary rabbi. He was described as a giant of the Reform movement and during his career led the Central Conference of American Rabbis and Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.

Both institutions knew about Zimmerman’s sexual misconduct, and the CCAR sanctioned him back in 2000, but the extent of his misdeeds was not publicly revealed until this year when Central Synagogue issued its report.

“The movements can no longer hide behind dealing with this privately,” said Guila Benchimol, a criminologist who specializes in sex crimes and is an adviser to the SRE Network. “This is a push to say, you have to be transparent about it. People want to know that you live by the values you preach. The only way to do that is to show you’re responsive and intervening in these cases.”

Jacobs promised that “key findings” from the investigation will be made public and that the URJ will act on the recommendations from investigators while protecting the privacy and confidentiality of those who come forward.

Mary Beth Hogan, a partner with Debevoise & Plimpton hired by the URJ, said in an email that it has full access to information and witnesses. She said the firm will make recommendations on prevention efforts as well.

Orthodox Jewish groups, which represent the smallest share of U.S. Jews, about 9%, have been less active on sexual abuse issues. One reason is that the Orthodox world is far less centralized than the Reform and Conservative movements, said Asher Lovy, executive director of ZA’AKAH, a group that advocates for survivors of child sexual abuse among Orthodox Jews. 

In that community, Lovy said, “there’s still a debate about whether sexual abuse should be reported to the police. Some believe in order to report sexual abuse to the police you first have to procure the permission of a rabbi.”

Lovy said some Orthodox organizations have begun educating rabbis and lay leaders and have instituted new policies but are not inclined to investigate themselves proactively.

For Reform Jews, who will mark the 50th anniversary of women in the rabbinate this June, the issue is more urgent.

Though there’s a growing number of women rabbis, Rabbi Mary Zamore, director of the Women’s Rabbinic Network, an organization of female-identified rabbis in the Reform movement, said women are still dealing with issues of equity and respect.

“Part of our lived experience is bias, sexual harassment, misogyny,” Zamore said. “Within our community are rabbis who have experienced all of that.”

Repentance, or in Hebrew “t’shuva,” said Zamore, “starts with taking a deep look at what’s happened within our communities and organizations and being honest about it through reporting, then through reexamining those current processes and codes.”

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