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.
“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.”