Conservative Movement Faces Allegations of Sexual Abuse

Rabbi Steven Wernick, CEO of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. (Photo courtesy of USCJ)

In the current awakening about sexual misconduct in the workplace, the Conservative movement is much like everyone else — processing the almost daily revelations while also not immune to the reach of the #MeToo movement, as one of their own has been swept up in allegations of sexual abuse involving minors.

Last week, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism launched an anonymous phone line and email inbox in response to allegations that a longtime employee had inappropriately touched a youth member in the 1980s. According to Rabbi Steven Wernick, CEO of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the phone line has yielded more allegations against the former employee, whose contract work with the organization has been suspended.

Of the 11 Washington-area Conservative congregations contacted for this story, only two were willing to go on the record. But those that did said the allegations haven’t garnered much discussion among congregants or leadership, which are more focused on the way the public conversation surrounding assault and harassment has shifted more broadly.

“We’re primarily concerned about the professionals [at the synagogue] and to be here pastorally for people who may be experiencing [sexual harassment] in other places,” said Rabbi Lauren Holtzblatt of Adas Israel Congregation. “As with the rest of the country, this does feel like a moment of reckoning, and we’re holding space for people to have multiple reactions to what they see in the public sphere. Many people feel shocked at the amount of people who have been in the public eye. But many, including myself, also know that sexual harassment has been around for a long time.”

Holtzblatt said the congregation’s leadership hadn’t discussed the USCJ allegations or the hotline with its members, focusing instead on ensuring there are channels for any congregational staff to report problems. But she said the synagogue was in complete support of the statement the USCJ released last week.

Rabbi Lauren Holtzblatt of Adas Israel Congregation. (Photo courtesy of Adas Israel Congregation)

“Jewish tradition prohibits physical or sexual abuse and teaches that kvod habriyit, the dignity of each person, is to be honored and maintained and that onaat dvarim, verbal, and by extension other nonphysical abuse, is strictly forbidden and cannot be tolerated at any level,” the statement read.

The first accusations against the USCJ employee came from a post on Facebook by a former United Synagogue Youth teen leader, according to Wernick. The public post did not identify the alleged abuser, but the organization was able to ascertain his identity from conversations in a private Facebook group.

Wernick said they’ve spoken with the man but wouldn’t characterize the conversations, adding that up until that point the USCJ hadn’t received any complaints about the employee. The allegations are subject to an ongoing investigation, which Wernick expects to take another three to four weeks at least. He said that the primary objective of the organization’s response is to be proactive and seek out any further information through the hotlines.

“We’re not a prosecutorial organization, so the burden of proof isn’t the same, and we haven’t heard of any experiences that would require reporting to the authorities,” Wernick said, adding that the organization checks the phone and email lines daily for any new information. “The phone line hasn’t been ringing off the hook, but at the same time, people want to talk, which is a good thing. That’s all part of what we’re seeing in the larger world. People have been walking around with these things for a long time.”

John Bender, executive director at Beth El Congregation in Pikesville, said the issues of sexual harassment and abuse hadn’t been widely discussed at the synagogue, but that, like organizations everywhere, the staff is exploring how it can improve its own policies.

Every few years, Bender said, the Conservative synagogue appoints a task force to review its personnel policies generally. In January, there will be added focus on sexual misconduct policy because of everything that’s come to light. Bender couldn’t say how that focus will manifest itself, as the review is yet to take place but that staff will be consulting a congregant who has a legal expertise in the area when making any changes.

“As a synagogue, we look at this issue and the ethics of it from a Jewish perspective. We’re thinking about our values in a synagogue setting being influenced by Torah,” Bender said. “And we owe it to ourselves to be constantly working toward improving. Reflecting on practices and ensuring that we have a safe and caring community. This is what our tradition demands of us.”

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  1. Thank you for sharing this article. I have recently learned that our leaders were “unaware” of what was described as “underground” point system being played by our USYers. I suggest that the USY arm of USCJ and the USCJ needs to become better informed of this “game” and then use it as a teaching opportunity for our teens and youth. There is indeed an underground “point system” known to USYers that involves peer pressure and keeping track of how many people you can “hook up” with and how many points each hook up is depending upon rank of member (member, chapter board member, chapter president, regional board member and regional president, international board member, international president and yes, there is a category for staff members). I understand that the term “hook up” means kissing or making out. To deny that a “point system” exists is irresponsible.

    This is concerning on so many levels, I don’t even know where to start. Yes, we want to encourage our children to enjoy getting together with each other at chapter events, regional weekends and international conferences. Being teens, they are going to be interested in normal teen things (how many of us can remember back to “spin the bottle” or whatever back in the day), and we can use these experiences to showcase what it means to be “objectifying” the act of “hooking up” and how Judaism teaches us to respect ourselves and others as we are created in the image of Hashem, echoing Rabbi Holtzblatt’s comments. What is considered ok? Do we expect our children to be “shomer nogia” and if not, then what is appropriate. There should be a zero tolerance of any type of sexual misconduct taught to our youth on every level, and I call upon our leadership to define what is appropriate and that which is not.

    The USCJ and USY Executive Directors and Regional Staff Members should prepare guidelines for the USY advisors so that when we hear of any conduct that is against our policies that there is a clear definition and consequence for how it should be addressed. There is an immediate opportunity for this to take place as there will be hundreds of USYers coming together in Chicago at the end of this month for the USY International Convention.

    I hope that we can bring the light to this sensitive topic and prevent our community from becoming victims or hurting others.

    Shabbat Shalom,
    A USY alumnae (’84) and current USY parent (2008 – present)


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