After #MeToo, hostile workplace complaints prompt synagogues to investigate rabbis

Chicago Sinai Congregation and at least two other synagogues have recently put their rabbis on leave while they investigate allegations of abuse of power.

Chicago Sinai Congregation in Chicago. Image courtesy of Google Maps

(RNS) — Last month, Rabbi Seth Limmer returned to his pulpit at the Chicago Sinai Congregation after a four-month leave of absence. The reunion was a muted one. Limmer had taken a break while an independent investigative firm fielded complaints that in his eight years as senior rabbi he had fostered a workplace culture that was discriminatory and disrespectful.

In a letter to the congregation, which includes members of the billionaire Pritzker family, Chicago Sinai’s board of trustees noted that the investigators found no criminal conduct, moral turpitude or sexual misconduct but reported that “there were times when the Rabbi’s actions did not live up to our highest values.”

It recommended Limmer return so he could address “healing and repair.”

Chicago Sinai is one of at least three prominent synagogues that have conducted similar investigations representing a new level of ethical accountability for rabbis in the wake of a #MeToo wave in the Reform movement, the largest Jewish group in the United States. Last month, the Union for Reform Judaism released a major investigation of sexual misconduct over the last 50 years. That report followed two other sex abuse investigations of the movement’s rabbinical association and seminary.

RELATED: Reform movement publishes extensive report on sexual misconduct in its youth programs

These reports appear to have spurred a new level of awareness of workplace misconduct more generally.

At Shir Tikvah, a Reform congregation in Minneapolis, consultants revealed after a monthslong investigation that the rabbi, Michael Adam Latz, had “long-standing, significant issues with his interactions with staff.” No details were given except to say that there were “no allegations of sexual misconduct or financial impropriety.”

Soon after the report was released, Latz resigned, saying, “It is time for me to enter the next chapter of my rabbinic career.”

At Pittsburgh’s Rodef Shalom Congregation, Senior Rabbi Aaron Bisno is on paid administrative leave while the synagogue investigates allegations “brought forth relative to Rabbi Bisno and employees communicated workplace culture concerns,” according to a letter the board of the venerable, 166-year-old Reform congregation sent on Feb. 11.

Rabbi Mary Zamore, director of the Women’s Rabbinic Network, a Reform movement organization, said there’s no evidence yet of a surge of hostile synagogue workplaces or rabbis behaving badly. Rather, she said, “My sense is people have greater comfort coming forward to express complaints.”

The #MeToo movement, she said, “paved the way for people to speak out when they’ve been mistreated.”

Elana Wien, executive director of SRE Network (SRE stands for Safety, Respect, Equity), a group that advocates for gender equity in Jewish institutions, agreed that more synagogues are demanding accountability when leaders behave badly.

“We just had a synagogue asking for resources in this area,” Wien said. “They were saying they had clarity around what amounts to sexual harassment and gender based discrimination, but were seeking more tools and resources around how to create a respectful workplace culture.”

New organizations are also sprouting up to help synagogues deal with the phenomenon. Ta’amod: Stand Up offers workplace training through a Jewish lens, as well as materials and referrals to support congregations wanting to create “psychologically safe workplaces.” Another group, Sacred Spaces, works to prevent abuse in Jewish institutions.

Under federal law, a hostile workplace is one with discriminatory and unwelcome conduct directed at an individual or a group because of his, her or their protected status, be it race, age, sexual orientation, gender, disability, religion or marital status, explained Fran Sepler, a human resources consultant who has long focused on respectful workplaces.

On top of federal laws, the Reform movement’s Central Conference of American Rabbis has its own code of ethics. Regarding workplaces, the document says, “we recognize that practices such as bullying or harassing, intimidation, and overly aggressive behavior toward another person destroy our moral integrity and are inappropriate.”

Limmer, who serves on the CCAR’s board as its vice president of leadership, took over as senior rabbi at Chicago Sinai in 2014 after its previous rabbi, Michael Sternfield, was charged with trespassing and identity deception at an Indiana casino. Sternfield acknowledged a gambling addiction.

Rabbi Seth Limmer. Photo via Chicago Sinai Congregation

Rabbi Seth Limmer. Photo via CCAR

Limmer’s tenure has been marked by high turnover among the synagogue’s staff, some of whom resigned or were dismissed. While it is not uncommon for a new rabbi to bring in new employees, the mass exodus struck many as troubling.

Dee Dee Dukes was among those who left. After working 21 years as an administrative assistant to the rabbis at Chicago Sinai, Limmer cut her hours in half and made it difficult for her to continue, she said.

“I didn’t feel comfortable and valued working with him,” said Dukes, who is not Jewish. “His language toward me was insulting, demeaning and disrespectful.” 

Limmer did not respond to requests for comment.

This past June, board President Alison Tothy announced an “independent, third-party complaint review team” and provided congregants a special email to EquitAbility Consulting, the firm hired to undertake the investigation.

“Chicago Sinai is committed to creating a safe space, serving as a true House of Prayer for all people, and promoting an inclusive and respectful environment among our staff, congregation, and community,” Tothy wrote to the congregation.

Three months later, Tothy announced Limmer would take a paid leave while the investigation took its course. On Jan. 21, the synagogue announced his return, saying it had hired a consultant “to work with staff, clergy, and lay leadership to help us better live our values of inclusiveness and caring.”

Limmer has little over a year to make things right. His contract is up in 2023.

RELATED: A shortage of Conservative rabbis has Jews reexamining the pulpit role


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