Sex abuse allegations hit home for Conservative movement

Amid 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 of 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 group member in the 1980s. The phone line has yielded more allegations against the former employee, whose contract work with the organization has been suspended, according to Rabbi Steven Wernick, CEO of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.

The USCJ has not identified the accused man.

Of the 11 Washington-area Conservative congregations contacted for this article, only two were willing to go on the record. But those that did comment said the allegations haven’t garnered much discussion among congregants or leadership, who are more focused on the way the public conversation surrounding assault and harassment has shifted since accusations in October against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein sparked the #MeToo movement that has brought down powerful men in media and other fields.

“We’re primarily concerned about the professionals [at the synagogue] and to be here pastorally for people who may be experiencing this in other places,” said Rabbi Lauren Holtzblatt of Adas Israel Congregation, referring to sexual harassment. “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 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 in part.

The initial accusations against the USCJ employee surfaced in 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 said it learned the name of the accused former employee through someone who participated in conversations in a private Facebook group.

Wernick said USCJ investigators have spoken with the man accused, but wouldn’t characterize the conversations, adding that until that point the USCJ hadn’t received any complaints about the man. The allegations, all of which are past the statute of limitations for any crime, if one took place, emanated from the Northeast, Wernick said. He said he expects the investigation to take at least another three to four weeks, and that the primary objective of the organization’s response is to be proactive and solicit more information through the through the phone hotline and email address that it set up.

“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 hotline and email inbox 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 where 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 has yet to take place, but he said that the staff will consult a congregant who has a legal expertise in the area before 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 towards improving. Reflecting on practices and ensuring that we have a safe and caring community. This is what our tradition demands of us.”

jforetek@midatlanticmedia.com

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