Amid abuse reports, Conservatives issue new guidelines on harassment

JTA/January 21, 2004
By Joe Berkofsky

New York -- Moving to combat reported sexual harassment and abuse in Conservative synagogues, the movement's congregational body is issuing a new set of guidelines to deal with the problem.

The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism unveiled the non-binding guidelines on its Web site last week in response to what Rabbi Jerome Epstein, the organization's executive vice president, said were a series of reports of "abusive behavior" by clergy and synagogue staff.

"It wasn't widespread, but over the past 17 months I've heard of 15 to 16 cases," Epstein told JTA. "Some of it may have bordered on sexual" harassment, he added, and some cases "were hushed up."

"The more this is out in the open, the better the chances will be of diminishing it," he said.

In proposing the guidelines, the association of more than 800 Conservative synagogues in North America joins several congregational and rabbinic bodies in the other major denominations that have issues similar standards over the past decade.

The move also comes more than a year after the culmination of one of the most highly publicized sex-abuse cases to hit the Jewish community, that of Orthodox youth leader Rabbi Baruch Lanner.

In fact, some of the new guidelines reflect efforts to grapple with fallout from the Lanner case.

Lanner, 54, of Fair Lawn, N.J., a regional director of the National Conference of Synagogue Youth, was sentenced to seven years in prison in October 2002 for sexually abusing teenage girls and women and physically abusing boys and girls as a principal of a New Jersey yeshiva.

The case drew fire in part because a report by an investigative commission of the youth group's parent organization, the Orthodox Union, criticized O.U. leaders for failing to intervene even though they knew of the abuse allegations for several years.

Other instances have surfaced involving sexual misconduct and inappropriate behavior by Jewish clergy:

"An Orthodox chaplain, Rabbi Israel Kestenbaum, 55, of Highland Park, N.J., was caught in an undercover sting and pleaded guilty last August to charges of trying to arrange a sexual tryst with someone he met over the Internet who he thought was a 13-year-old girl.

"Reform Rabbi Sheldon Zimmerman, 58, resigned as president of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Manhattan in December 2000 after HUC said he had carried on "personal relationships" with members of his congregation while serving as a pulpit rabbi.

"Cantor Howard Nevison, 61, of a prominent New York City Reform synagogue, Temple Emanu-el, was accused of molesting a young nephew and remains on trial.

"Cantor Robert Shapiro, 69, of the Reform Temple Beth Am in Randolph, Mass., was charged with raping and molesting a mentally challenged woman.

"A Conservative rabbi, Sidney Goldenberg, 58, of Petaluma, Calif., pleaded no contest in February 1997 to charges of sexually molesting a Bat Mitzvah student.

Other charges against Jewish clergy have surfaced as well, including one incident that Epstein said helped spark the latest United Synagogue move.

Rabbi Richard Marcovitz, 66, of Oklahoma City, pleaded guilty last March to groping two women and two girls at the Solomon Schechter Academy at his Emanuel Synagogue. He was sentenced to 20 years in jail.

However serious, reports of such cases have remained limited and haven't approached the proportions of the Catholic Church's clergy abuse scandals, which have generated hundreds of charges nationally and sparked multimillion-dollar lawsuits by victims.

Since the church scandals surfaced, Epstein said he has worried that the Jewish community "had taken a self-righteous position that at least it's not us."

United Synagogue's new standards not only take aim at inappropriate sexual acts, but also cover a range of behavior that went unchallenged decades ago.

The rules are meant to govern relations between congregants and rabbis, cantors, educators, synagogue professionals and lay leaders.

Behavior such as "leering, catcalls or touching;" "insulting or obscene comments or gestures," and the display of sexually suggestive pictures all would be banned.

The policy also bans the telling of sexual jokes, negative stereotyping and the use of epithets or slurs, as well as hostility directed against a person based on race, religion, color, disability, national origin, marital status or sexual orientation.

The rules also are meant to help rabbis and other clergy avoid situations where they could be open to charges of harassment or abuse. For example, rabbis and others are cautioned to conduct some business that once remained private in public places, never to meet alone with a child or teenager and never to touch them.

"We're concerned about false accusations," said Rabbi Moshe Adelman, who chairs the United Synagogue commission on congregational standards, which helped draft the new guidelines.

The rabbis hope synagogues eventually will adapt the new standards in some form.

"Most synagogues have a clean slate," Adelman said. "My feeling is this ought to be read, studied and adapted so that we can protect" synagogue staff and congregants.

Other groups have proposed or enacted similar rules on sexual conduct in recent years.

The Lanner commission called for Orthodox groups to enact new policies on reporting and dealing with abuse allegations, following charges that NCSY officials turned a blind eye to at least four reports of abuse by Lanner.

In the report's wake, the NCSY enacted broad guidelines against abusive behavior. And last May, the Rabbinical Council of America, an Orthodox rabbinical group, condemned "sexual, physical and emotional violence, abuse or impropriety," and urged the adoption of its own new policies.

The O.U.'s executive vice president, Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, said the RCA is still working on such rules in tandem with the O.U. and that they could be adopted at the RCA's annual meeting in May. Weinreb also lauded the Conservative guidelines and said the O.U. would "follow suit" for itself in the near future.

"I'm sure we will be studying the Conservative movement's document. This is not something that discriminates by ideology," he said.

Aftershocks from the Lanner scandal that reverberated throughout the modern Orthodox world sparked earlier organizational crackdowns. Torah U'mesorah, The National Society for Hebrew Day Schools, adopted an abuse policy in 2002.

Liberal groups issued similar policies much earlier. The Union for Reform Judaism, the movement's congregational arm, approved rules against harassment and offensive conduct a decade ago, while the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association introduced a policy on "breach of trust" in sexual and financial dealings in 1996.

Rabbi Joel Meyers, executive vice president of the Conservative movement's Rabbinical Association, lauded the United Synagogue policy and said an R.A. ethics committee was drafting a similar policy.

Meyers said the group had resisted issuing such a statement for some time, but was bowing to increasing pressure to follow other Jewish groups.

The hesitation came, Meyers said, because R.A. members should be familiar with proper conduct as governed by Jewish law and texts.

"Our code of ethics is the Shulchan Aruch," a compendium of Jewish law, he said.

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