S.F. accusations raise awareness

Jewish Bulletin of Northern California/November 1, 1996
By Natalie Weinstein

When one of the most powerful rabbis in Northern California was accused of sexual improprieties five years ago, at least one of his colleagues swore off closed-door meetings or unnecessary physical contact with women.

"It temporarily threw a tremendous scare into me," said Rabbi Alan Lew of San Francisco's Congregation Beth Sholom. "For two years, I didn't hug anybody and I left my door open."

Lew eventually returned to his normal patterns but hasn't forgotten the chilling effect those accusations had on Bay Area rabbis.

Today, rabbis and other Jewish community leaders across the region agree that the consciousness surrounding rabbinic sexual misconduct is as high as it's ever been.

"It seems that people are more aware of the problem and more willing to come forward and ask for help," said Anita Friedman, executive director of the S.F.-based Jewish Family and Children's Services.

"One of the most encouraging signs is that organizations, including synagogues, are having discussions about it when they're not in crisis."

Despite that increased awareness, not all Bay Area congregations have sexual harassment policies in their employee handbooks. Some rabbis assert that synagogues, as centers of Jewish values, don't need such policies. Others maintain that synagogues should, at the very least, draft written guidelines.

The case that many consider the watershed in the issue is that of Rabbi Robert Kirschner.

Accused of sexual misconduct by four women in late 1991, Kirschner resigned from San Francisco's Congregation Emanu-El on New Year's Day 1992. A dozen women eventually came forward with similar accusations. Earlier this year, Kirschner made his first public apology for "sexual relations outside my marriage."

Locally, the Kirschner case "started more conversations and increased awareness" of the issue, Friedman said.

Rabbi Andrew Straus of Burlingame's Peninsula Temple Sholom said the case brought the issue of rabbinic sexual misconduct to the public, though rabbis were already aware of the problem through other incidents across the country.

"I think it was something that brought the issue to the forefront for congregants," he said. "I think it made people aware that rabbis are human."

Despite his own reaction to the Kirschner case, Lew said he considered the incident such an aberration that it didn't help people to better understand the dynamics of more typical cases of sexual misconduct.

"To present that as an example of a problem in the community is misleading," he said.

One of the points that hasn't been addressed, Lew added, is that rabbis turn down advances from congregants many, many times more often than rabbis make propositions.

"The rabbi is much more often the prey," he said. "It's happened to every rabbi I've ever spoken to about it...If a rabbi succumbs to such a thing, he's got a problem, he's betrayed his trust. But to portray the rabbi as predator is wrong -- it's not realistic."

Lew's congregation is among those in the Bay Area without a specific sexual harassment or misconduct policy in its employee handbook -- though one is included in Beth Sholom's insurance policy.

But Lew said his Conservative congregation takes the issue so seriously that it could handle any accusation, even without a specific employee policy.

"It is so obviously a given that rabbis shouldn't be involved with congregants," said Lew, who also is president of the Board of Rabbis of Northern California. "It seems like it never needs to be stated. This behavior violates Jewish law...The policy is our Torah."

Rabbi Yisrael Rice, who heads Chabad of Marin, said his congregation doesn't have a specific policy except for the one in its insurance policy. For Orthodox Jews, he said, such a policy is unnecessary.

Halachah, or Jewish law, already forbids even seemingly innocent touching that could conceivably lead to adultery. Unrelated men and women cannot hug, give pecks on the cheek, or even be alone in the same room under many circumstances.

"I don't mean to say that Orthodox rabbis are stronger. There are simply more hoops to go through," Rice said.

Rabbi Patricia Karlin-Neumann, interim regional director of the Reform movement's Union of American Hebrew Congregations, disagrees with those who say no written policies are necessary.

Without such policies, she noted, someone who has been harassed doesn't necessarily know where to turn.

"I say we're not as good as our values want us to be," she said.

Rabbi Lavey Derby of Tiburon's Conservative Congregation Kol Shofar agrees.

"Torah is our policy," he said. "But there's no reason it can't be made concrete to hand out to employees."

Rabbi Stephen Pearce, who became permanent replacement for Kirschner at Congregation Emanu-El, said his synagogue now has a four-page sexual harassment policy.

"We're serious about not allowing these things to happen," he said.

But Pearce advises that synagogues move far beyond simply enacting policies to prevent problems. His suggestions:

  • Congregations should periodically offer workshops on the issue to employees.
  • Local Jewish communities should create groups that enable rabbis to meet monthly, perhaps with a therapist on hand, to discuss the demands of their jobs.
  • Synagogue leaders should regularly sit down with their rabbis and sincerely ask: "How are you doing?"

"This is a stressful position with a great deal of pressure," Pearce said. "Rabbis feel beleaguered...Congregants have no idea."

Officially, the East Bay Council of Rabbis and the Board of Rabbis of Northern California haven't gotten involved in disciplining rabbis accused of sexual misconduct.

Rabbi Roberto Graetz, chairman of the East Bay council, said his group doesn't formally deal with the issue.

"I think we deal with these things within our movements," he said. "But every time an incident is reported, it is the informal topic of conversation."

In theory, Lew said, any member of the Board of Rabbis of Northern California who clearly violated rabbinic ethics would be kicked off.

But that has never happened, even in Kirschner's case. He resigned from his position at Emanu-El before the board could have taken action, Lew said.

Still, it has been active behind the scenes -- mediating in the Kirschner case, for example.

Lew recalled two occasions when the board has investigated accusations of sexual misconduct. In one case, he said, the woman's accusations were "unprovable and not all that serious." In the other, the two sides gave "wildly conflicting accounts of events" that also were unprovable.

"Just because something doesn't appear in the press doesn't mean nothing happens," Lew said.

While not denying the problem of rabbinic sexual misconduct, several rabbis said one message they also want to emphasize is its rarity.

"The problem is real within the rabbinate," said Rabbi Martin Weiner of San Francisco's Reform Congregation Sherith Israel. "However, I would still emphasize that it's a very small number of rabbis who have abused the rabbinic role...in this way. And I hope people would keep this in mind."

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