At what was described as an orderly meeting, the membership of Temple Oheb Shalom voted overwhelmingly on Oct. 21 to terminate Rabbi Steven Fink’s contract following accusations of sexual impropriety and the rabbi’s subsequent suspension from the Central Conference of American Rabbis.
The congregation voted 515 to 91 to ratify the temple board’s earlier unanimous decision to terminate the rabbi’s employment contract. Fink maintained his innocence throughout the process.
Oheb spokeswoman Amy Rotenberg said that 195 members attended the meeting, where more than a dozen spoke in favor of the board’s action and three people spoke in opposition. Two microphones were set up, one for people speaking in support and one for people speaking in opposition to the termination. Some who voted by proxy also attended.
The professional parliamentarian conducting the meeting “went back and forth between the pro and con microphones until there were no more people who desired to speak,” Rotenberg said. “After the last person spoke, the question was called.”
Synagogue president Mina Wender said in a letter to the congregation that the vote was “the first step toward the healing that our congregation needs and deserves, and we can now begin to put this painful matter behind us,” she wrote. “We will continue to be spiritually guided for the next year by [Interim Senior] Rabbi [Marc] Disick. And significantly, we have preserved the moral integrity of our beloved congregation by insisting that our spiritual leadership adhere to the high standards of ethical and personal behavior expected of Reform rabbis.”
The vote came after about six months of upheaval at the synagogue that began in early May with a letter from Wender that notified congregants that Fink had been suspended with pay after the temple learned of an allegation of sexual impropriety with a teen minor that occurred “a number of years ago.”
What followed was reporting to civil authorities and the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the Reform movement’s governing body, after which a lengthy CCAR investigation took place. Following that, Fink was suspended from the CCAR, barred from the synagogue and from direct contact with congregants and could no longer practice as a Reform rabbi.
A suspended rabbi may work toward reinstatement with the CCAR, which would include “unequivocal acknowledgment of responsibility for harm done to victim(s), the congregation or institution and the honor of the rabbinate,” according to the CCAR ethics code.
In a phone conversation with the JT on Oct. 23, the rabbi said the way the vote turned out was expected.
“What makes me sad is the leadership has destroyed the congregation,” Fink said. “It was a great congregation. It was our spiritual home. It was a warm, vibrant and very active place. A place of learning and prayer and of deep social commitment and that’s gone.”
In spite of the vote, Fink said he was feeling “great.”
“The sun came up this morning. It’s a beautiful day and Sally’s and my life will go on,” he said. “I’m just very concerned about the future of Oheb Shalom.”
Fink’s lawyer, Andrew Jay Graham, said that he and the Finks will try to resolve their civil claims by agreement, if possible, “in a positive way.”
“That certainly would be in the best interest of Oheb Shalom and I think it would also be in the best interest of the other prospective defendants,” Graham said. “But if we can’t reach a fair and reasonable agreement to satisfy Rabbi Fink’s and his wife’s claims, then we will definitely be filing suit, certainly before the end of the year.”
Rotenberg said Fink has threatened litigation against the temple as recently as Oct. 22.
“We are very comfortable with our legal position because we’ve been so careful every step along the way to follow all the rules, to treat everybody fairly,” Rotenberg said.
Union of Reform Judaism President Rabbi Rick Jacobs sent a letter to Wender two days before the vote reaffirming the CCAR’s decision and supporting Wender, the board’s decision and the congregation.
“You and your board have responded to a challenging situation with exactly the right approach — always keeping the best interests of the congregation front and center,” Jacobs wrote. “Oheb Shalom has been an important part of the URJ for over 150 years; we need to continue to work together to make sure that your future is as distinguished as your past. We hope and pray the congregation will follow the board’s impressive leadership and send a clear message that it will not accept anything other than a commitment to the highest ethical standards.”
Interim Senior Rabbi Marc L. Disick will continue to lead the congregation. He was hired in July following Fink’s initial suspension from the synagogue earlier this year.
Rotenberg said Disick has been embraced by members, who appreciate his “stabilizing force” during a difficult time, as well as the resilience and commitment of Rabbi Sarah R. Marion.
Even though there was opposition to Fink’s contract termination, which about 15 percent voted against, it has not caused a schism in the congregation, Rotenberg said.
“There is dissent. We have a small number of people who were opposed to the actions the congregation has taken. They’re a small group, but they had a loud voice,” Rotenberg said. “That does not present itself as a division or a destruction of the congregation, or even a civil war. The congregation has not been destroyed — it’s actually going forward. I think people are very happy to start the healing process to move this forward and to start focusing on the things that this congregation, with this wonderful tradition and history, is all about.”
Those who earlier resigned their membership from the congregation in protest of the actions taken against Fink were not able to vote to support him at the Oct. 21 meeting since they were no longer members.
Meanwhile, earlier talks about merging with the Reform Har Sinai congregation were suspended by Har Sinai in August. Recently, Har Sinai announced Rabbi Linda Joseph would not extend her contract next year, leaving the two Reform congregations looking for new leadership at the same time.
Rotenberg said Oheb Shalom will not start a rabbi search process for at least another year, and she said she has heard of no plans to resume merger talks, although the idea was generally viewed favorably by both congregations.
“I think many people at Temple Oheb Shalom thought the merger idea was a good idea and very worth exploring,” Rotenberg said. “Whether that makes sense now as they move into the next chapter remains to be seen.”
Fink is to receive the pension prescribed in his contract up to what has accrued to the date of his termination. His contact would have expired in 10 months.
“All of these issues are being reviewed by legal counsel,” Rotenberg said.
Rotenberg didn’t know of specifics regarding Fink’s wife Sally’s terms of employment — the head of lifelong learning was given leave with pay in September — but said she had “confidence that the temple will make decisions that are fair for her.”
At the Oct. 21 meeting, held to ratify the congregation’s board of trustees’ decision to terminate Fink’s contract, voting was monitored and tabulated by certified accountants. Oheb members voted both via proxy and in person.
“These past months have been difficult, stressful and divisive,” Wender wrote in her letter announcing the vote results. “We are grateful for the dedication of all who have deeply engaged on behalf of this congregation and who are invested in Temple Oheb Shalom’s future.”