Rabbi, synagogue sued over seduction scandal

Woman who claims cleric pressured her into a sexual relationship wants $1.3M in compensation

Toronto Star/August 29, 2007

A woman claiming she was coerced into a sexual relationship by a rabbi is suing the rabbi and a prominent Toronto synagogue for $1.3 million.

Richmond Hill resident Yona Nadler, 52, is suing Rabbi Tobias Gabriel and the Beth Tzedec Synagogue for breach of fiduciary duty and the pain and suffering she claims the relationship caused her and her marriage.

The lawsuit highlights an issue that has pushed some religious institutions into writing codes of conduct that govern relationships between clergy and members of their congregations.

Nadler's position is the rabbi abused the trust of a deeply religious woman, according to her lawyer Simona Jellinek.

Gabriel responded to a Toronto Star request for an interview by calling the allegations "groundless" and refusing further comment. His lawyer, Alf Kwinter, stressed none of the allegations have been proven in court. "He's going to vigorously defend this lawsuit," he added.

Kwinter described Gabriel's 13 years of service at the synagogue as "outstanding" and "exemplary." Beth Tzedec's website describes Gabriel as happily married.

The incident rocked the congregation Monday when a letter was sent to the synagogue's 6,000 members, three days after the Toronto Star made repeated requests to Beth Tzedec authorities for comment.

"Unfortunately, there is little doubt that the impropriety occurred," wrote Shep Gangbar, president of the Beth Tzedec Congregation, who called the situation "distressing."

While the synagogue "strongly affirms that such actions are improper and wrong," it is not legally liable for the actions of Gabriel, the letter states. "Beth Tzedec has never condoned or tolerated such behaviour and will never do so."

Beth Tzedec is prepared to provide financial compensation to Nadler, the synagogue's lawyer, Michael Royce, said yesterday.

Gabriel, who was hired as a cantor by Beth Tzedec, has accepted an agreement with the synagogue that will see him resign at the end of the year, Kwinter said. He will be paid until then, he added.

Gabriel, who is not the synagogue's chief rabbi, has been suspended and will no longer work at Beth Tzedec, Royce said.

This week, representatives of the New York-based Rabbinical Association, of which Gabriel was a member when the incidents are said to have occurred, will come to the synagogue to investigate the claims. The group runs the cantor classes Gabriel taught in the synagogue.

Beth Tzedec, in the affluent Forest Hill neighbourhood, practises the Conservative stream of Judaism. One of the country's largest synagogues, it was recently the site of Ed Mirvish's funeral.

In July 2006, Nadler was the only female in Gabriel's class for student cantors at the Bathurst St. synagogue when Gabriel became "friendly and flirtatious," according to a statement of claim filed by Nadler and her husband, Samuel, at Ontario's Superior Court last month.

Gabriel kissed Nadler in his office at the end of the course after she gave him "a small token of appreciation," the statement alleges. She "fled" the office "confused and shaken," the statement adds.

Gabriel then called her repeatedly while she vacationed in Israel, the statement alleges. It claims he "pressured" her into seeing him when she returned.

When they met, "Rabbi Gabriel began to kiss Yona and told her that he will take responsibility and that it would not be wrong to be intimate with him," the statement claims. He told Nadler "it is acceptable that she love two men," it alleges. The claim also alleges the relationship progressed to sexual intercourse.

"Did he use violence and rape her? No, he did not," Jellinek said. Nadler's husband, who learned of the relationship last September, is claiming $100,000 for the damage it caused to his marriage.

The claim alleges the synagogue knew that Gabriel "had previously engaged in sexual relations with another married woman who was attending the Beth Tzedec Synagogue while she was grieving the loss of one of her parents."

The statement of claim says Nadler relied on Gabriel as "an authority figure to give advice to her, to guide her and to protect her from harm."

"Gabriel knew or ought to have known that Yona would follow his instructions without resistance," it says. "Gabriel knew or ought to have known that he had Yona's absolute trust in all regards and that she would obey Gabriel's instructions and follow his advice in all matters."

Nadler refused to comment when contacted by the Star. Her husband, Samuel, said: "There's been incredible grief and publicity would only cause more."

The experience continues to cause Nadler "physical and mental stress," including "inability to trust others ... suicidal behaviour ... sexual dysfunction ... (and) marital discord and breakdown," the statement of claim says. It calls the alleged incident a "sexual assault."

The synagogue does not have a written policy governing conduct between employees and members of the congregation. But the New York-based Rabbinical Association strictly forbids sexual relationships, Royce said.

Kwinter accused Beth Tzedec of convicting Gabriel although none of the allegations have been proven.

"We're not talking about young children. ... Nothing here is alleged to be illegal," Kwinter said. "The allegations are being made against adults."

Rabbi Michal Shekel, executive director of the Toronto Board of Rabbis, would not comment on the case but noted that adultery contravenes one of the Ten Commandments.

More modern concerns about the power a cleric may have over a member of the congregation, particularly one seeking counselling, has resulted in different branches of Judaism – Reform, Conservative and Orthodox – writing codes of conduct, Shekel said.

In the United States, windows are being added to rabbis' offices when old synagogues are redesigned. It allows for privacy while ensuring that others can witness the meeting, Shekel added.

In a teacher-student relationship, concerns are similar to those in universities, where a teacher has power over whether a student makes the grade, Shekel said.

In the Anglican church, it used to be common for a young cleric to fall in love with, or marry, a parishioner, said Archdeacon Peter Fenty, executive assistant to the Anglican Bishop of Toronto.

But recent reforms, including a "Sexual Misconduct Policy" for staff and volunteers adopted by the General Synod in 2005, resulted in the Toronto diocese banning romantic relationships between a cleric and a parishioner, Fenty said.

When that happens, the parishioner is asked to seek another parish. It avoids embroiling the parish into conflict that may arise if the relationship breaks down, and preserves the integrity of the pastoral relationship, Fenty added.

"When are you the person's priest and when are you the person's lover? It is in the interest of the cleric, the parishioner and the church community that there be clarity," Fenty said.

Rabbi Reuven Tradburks, president of the Toronto-based Council of Orthodox Rabbis, said his Judaic movement prohibits any man or woman being alone together in a room unless they're married or closely related.

Single rabbis are permitted to date and marry members of their congregations but sex is the reserve of married couples, Tradburks added.

People who go to rabbis for wisdom and guidance have a right to expect high ethical and moral standards from representatives of the Torah, Tradburks said.

"People will say, `Well, if a rabbi can behave that way, who needs the whole religion; it must not be worth much if he can act like that,'" he said.

"I'm a person like anyone else and I have my failings, but that's an expectation people have a right to make: a rabbi should do things differently," he added.

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