As Temple Oheb Shalom’s board reaffirms a recent Central Conference of American Rabbis decision to suspend Rabbi Steven M. Fink, the rabbi has come forward to refute the allegations levied against him of sexual impropriety and ethics violations.
Fink maintains his innocence and said he is planning to challenge CCAR’s and Oheb’s processes and findings that rendered him suspended from the CCAR and under a contract termination with the synagogue. Meanwhile, a disgruntled group of Oheb congregants gathered recently in support of Fink.
“This entire procedure is completely unfair. I’ve had no due process. The complainants have been anonymous. I don’t know who they are, so it’s impossible for me to defend myself,” Fink said in a recent phone call with the JT. “The Central Conference of American Rabbis ethics committee took [complainants’] statements verbatim, they did not check for their veracity. Did not check for the credibility of the complainants. So, anyone could have said anything about me.”
“There are some complaints, in fact the vast majority of them, I don’t know anything about,” he added. “As far as I’m concerned, they’re all made up.”
Meanwhile, Fink’s wife, Sally Fink, said that on Sept. 4 she was put on a month-to-month leave with pay from her position as Oheb’s director of lifelong learning, which Oheb spokeswoman Amy Rotenberg confirmed.
Sally Fink said she has been with the program for 19 years and has served as director for 16. The decision was characterized as a way to improve “staff cohesiveness,” she said, and came as she was preparing to contact students for the upcoming fall session, which starts Sept. 23.
“I’m incredibly disappointed,” she said. “My families are going to be so sad that I’m not going to be there to greet them on the first day of religious school. I average 100 people a week on a Sunday morning. It’s really upsetting.”
Rotenberg said “a cooling-off period is needed because the Finks have threatened litigation,” and that the decision was meant to allow “cooler heads to prevail.”
On Sept. 5, Oheb president Mina Wender sent a follow-up letter to congregants reaffirming CCAR’s investigation, its findings and decision to suspend Fink. Wender noted that the decision will not affect Fink’s pension and that the 67-year-old will be able to appear in person and offer a written response at an upcoming board meeting as to why he should not be terminated. But Wender added she was “disappointed” that Fink is not acknowledging responsibility and is attacking the CCAR, “the highly esteemed rabbinic organization to which he has for years belonged and to whose ethical standards he signed on to since the day he was ordained a rabbi.”
However, a contingent of congregants supporting Fink, including former congregant Stephen Miller, believe both the CCAR and Oheb processes for investigating the alleged claims and for suspending Fink are flawed, robbing the rabbi of due process.
Miller said he resigned from the executive committee, board and the congregation on the day Rabbi Fink’s suspension was announced because of what he saw as lack of due process for the rabbi that resulted in “wholly unfair character assassination.”
I hope the congregation can be able to take a deep breath and pause so that they can experience the joy of the holiday, which they are entitled to. — Amy Rotenberg, Temple Oheb Shalom spokeswoman
He said a group of about 80 congregants met at the end of August with Rabbi Fink and his lawyer in support of the rabbi and to hear his side of the story.
“The congregation is badly fractured because the leadership has lost the confidence of a broad swath of the congregation,” Miller said. “There’s a sense that Rabbi Fink was denied due process because the CCAR would not give Rabbi Fink the names of the complainants so he had no way to defend himself.”
In addition, Miller said the board voted on the rabbi’s suspension without giving him the chance to speak.
Miller said he would like to see an Oheb settlement with Fink, which would remove the threat of litigation from the synagogue and help the congregation move forward, perhaps including a return to the merger talks with Har Sinai.
Fink’s lawyer, Andrew Jay Graham, co-founder of Kramon & Graham, said Fink has been “defamed.”
“His professional life has been destroyed. And he’s being threatened with termination of his contract,” Graham said. “If a satisfactory resolution can’t be reached, we will be filing suit and we will have these issues resolved in front of a judge and jury.”
Although Graham said he didn’t want to discuss the details of the position he would take in court, he said Fink would expect Oheb to honor his contract and its financial and other terms, including compensation for damage to his career and emotional suffering on the part of the rabbi and his wife.
Fink could undergo the CCAR’s process for reinstatement, in which a suspended rabbi must acknowledge responsibility for harm done to victims and express remorse directly to those who have been harmed.
In a June 8 blog post, CCAR’s chief executive Steven A. Fox wrote that the rabbinical body’s “system of teshuvah, rehabilitation and counseling is designed for a rabbi’s possible return to health and wholeness, and we hope to rabbinic service.”
Fox said the CCAR has no power to “defrock” a rabbi and suspended or expelled rabbis “can independently hang out a shingle and seek rabbinic employment.”
“For that reason, we prefer to suspend rabbis rather than expel them, because while suspended they remain accountable to our ethics code. If, however, a rabbi refuses to cooperate or resigns rather than follow the ethics process, that rabbi is expelled and the expulsion will be announced. Lastly, even after a rabbi completes a rehabilitation process, notice of Censure, Suspension and Expulsion is given to a prospective employer.”
For Sally Fink, she just wants the whole situation resolved.
“I’ve worked side by side with him for 42 years,” she said. “I know the kind of man he is and I’m just very sad. Very sad.”
And as Rosh Hashanah approaches, Rotenberg said she hopes the congregation can take a breather and immerse themselves in the High Holidays.
“I hope the congregation can be able to take a deep breath and pause so that they can experience the joy of the holiday, which they are entitled to,” Rotenberg said. “Some joy and some reflection in their lives, which isn’t about this.”
See related story “Oheb Shalom Terminating Rabbi Fink’s Contract.”