December 13, 2018

Audacious Hospitality: What shuls can do after rabbi’s misconduct

Recent coverage about sexual misconduct among rabbis, specifically the Eric Siroka case, questions how well the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) balanced its responsibility toward unsuspecting communities with its loyalty to the accused rabbi. A follow-up article discussed the need to tighten disciplinary measures, and a letter from Rabbi Steve Fox, the CCAR’s chief executive, praised the bravery of women who came forward and encouraged others to follow suit.

I identify with the women in this case, having had my own experience with a rabbi’s inappropriate attention in the 1990s. Thankfully, being married, I’d kept my distance from the rabbi. But if I’d been in another situation, as many women are, or in a different kind of marriage — well, things could have gone differently.

I understand why the spotlight is on CCAR in the Siroka case. What surprises me is that no one seems to be talking about the role of the synagogues here. If CCAR is working to improve protocol in such cases, shouldn’t congregations be doing the same?

I remember that at my synagogue, when allegations from various women surfaced and the whole house of cards came tumbling down, the board scrambled to protect the institution first, the rabbi second — and the women only a distant third. Indeed, in subtle and not-so-subtle ways, the board marginalized those who had come forward. I wasn’t one of them, and in that environment, I wasn’t about to be. My husband and I left the synagogue (we’re now members of a wonderful congregation elsewhere).

In the Siroka case, it seems highly likely that there were key people at his various pulpits who knew of his conduct, at least after the fact, dating back 15 years. Why do the women seem to have been left alone to pick up the pieces? Where was the institutional support and follow-up, for example, for the young woman who had aspired to the rabbinate, but became completely alienated from Judaism because of her interactions with this rabbi? 

And how can women be expected to bear the burden of going public when they may well be discredited or accused of having exercised bad judgment? Things have improved since the ’90s, but even in the Siroka case, there are those wanting to characterize his behavior as marital infidelity rather than a predatory abuse of power. What this implies is that the women have no basis for feeling the institution or the community has failed them.

My previous congregation certainly failed me. When it hired a new permanent senior rabbi, he was quoted in the local Jewish press as saying he felt it made sense that the women had left — that they should seek therapy and get on with their lives. A high-ranking board member said he didn’t believe anyone was having angst over the experience anymore, and that the original congregants who had come forward were no longer affiliated there. The rabbi and board member seemed proud that their community had healed so well.

In other words, the institution’s indifference and even hostility toward these inconvenient women, causing them to flee, was spun as something they’d chosen for themselves. And — how touching — the new rabbi could understand and empathize with their “decision.”

Irked by these institutional sighs of relief masquerading as community healing and compassion, I called the new rabbi to explain why I’d found his remarks offensive. But he was condescending and unkind, apparently not noticing that his nonpastoral reaction to me was nearly as inappropriate as the original injury.

I now realize the congregation could have significantly righted the ship if it had simply issued an explicit invitation to all the women who had been this rabbi’s prey to stay.

That’s right, stay. We should have gotten a clear message of inclusion from the board, remaining clergy and staff. Something like: “This appalling ethical breach happened on our watch. We feel terrible about it, and want to make it up to you. You’re an integral part of our healing as we move forward, even if you choose to stay silent. Please remain a member, and don’t pay synagogue fees until you feel better about this place — no rush. Meanwhile, we’re here for you.” It wouldn’t have cost officials anything, save a commitment not to blame the victims.

I’ve recently returned from the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) Biennial conference in Orlando, Fla., where one important theme was “audacious hospitality.” What would the Jewish world look like if, in cases of a rabbi’s sexual misconduct, synagogue communities practiced audacious hospitality toward the victims of the breach?

Let’s end the pernicious convention of ostracizing the women in such unfortunate cases. If our governing bodies haven’t done enough in these situations, or if they haven’t moved fast enough, surely our congregations have an obligation to do right by the women in the meantime. 

Lisa Braver Moss is a novelist and the co-author, most recently, of “Celebrating Brit Shalom” (Notim Press, 2015), the first book for Jewish families opting out of circumcision. She is working to ensure that audacious hospitality is extended to these families.