After the Fall

I’m quite familiar with the coercion of silence. In 1991, I became the first tenure-track woman faculty member on Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religions (HUC’s) Cincinnati campus. When, nine years later, I was told I would not be reappointed, I was also advised not to upset students by telling them about the misogynistic process I had just endured. When I accepted a 2004 settlement in my lawsuit against HUC for wrongful dismissal based on gender bias, I refused to accept a provision that would have prevented me from speaking or writing about my experiences. When, however, I did write about those experiences in a 2019 essay, fear of legal blowback on the part of the publishers meant that I could not name the key actors, now implicated in both the HUC and CCAR reports, in my dismissal. In fact, the editors of AJS Perspectives had to push hard against legal advice that my story should be “anonymized” – and only published in a form that neither identified me as the author, nor HUC as the institution about which I was writing.

The scope of the silencing that has defined too many people’s experience of sexual- and gender-related mistreatment within the Reform movement is only now beginning to emerge into clearer view This week’s release of the “Ethics Investigation Report,” conducted by the Debevoise & Plimpton law firm, detailing  “sexual harassment, abuse and misconduct” that took place in the context of workplaces, summer camps, and youth programming  associated with the Union of Reform Judaism [URJ], completes the trifecta of law-firm reports commissioned by the North American Jewish Reform movement’s three main organizational arms.  In studying this new report together with the earlier investigations of misconduct and failed processes at HUC — the movement’s graduate school for training rabbis and other Jewish professionals –  and the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) – the professional association for Reform rabbis, I have experienced  a mix of validation and surprise. 

The details of the URJ report and the Morgan Lewis law firm’s report on “past sexual harassment, gender bias, and other forms of inequitable treatment” at HUC were sadly not that shocking to me. My surprise derived not so much from the reports’ details, but from finally seeing these institutions begin to reckon with the reality of their often destructive past and the painful and abusive experiences that have marked the journey of too many within the Reform movement. 

With the approaching celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of Sally Priesand’s ordination as the first American woman rabbi, it is particularly important to come to terms with what the HUC report reveals about the realities of the path to female leadership within the late-twentieth- and early-twenty-first-century American Reform movement. How are we to square patterns of subordination, harassment, and abuse revealed in the Morgan Lewis Report with the Reform Movement’s both professed and very real commitment to women’s leadership? What should we expect going forward from these reckonings which, even as they make public previously hidden misconduct on the part of some, continue to cover over the misdeeds of many others? Finally, how will the movement act to reverse its long and effective pattern, revealed in these reports,  of silencing victims and their experiences?  

While my understanding of this silencing is personal, it’s also professional. As a historian of women in American Reform Judaism, I long ago identified a now century-plus-old pattern of a movement that consistently combined its strong rhetoric of female equality with a reality of subordination and exclusion. This tension has become particularly pointed in recent decades, with Reform leaders assiduously celebrating their movement’s historic and future commitment to women, while failing to acknowledge what they already knew about women’s negative experiences in the years since Sally Priesand’s ordination in 1972.

This history suggests why the HUC report’s release is so momentous. Although it offers only a partial reflection of the damage inflicted over the last 50 years, its ballast — provided by the testimony of 170 witnesses, the clear patterns of harassment it describes, and its detailed allegations against specific individuals — signals a seismic shift in whether and how these stories are told.

But we are still far from rewriting the narrative of Reform Judaism. Now is the time to consider what it will take to transform a culture of silence and complicity into one of integrity, equality, and belonging.

As the director of the Jewish Communal Leadership Program at the University of Michigan, I encourage my students to understand the dynamics of both stasis and possibility in American Jewish life so that they can become agents of change themselves. Here are a few things they, and we, should consider: 

Accountability. Only two of the six men named in the HUC report are still alive. Their behavior was already publicly known, had already led to their resignations, and was not primarily centered at HUC. The most disturbing revelations in the report focused on four men who spent their whole careers at HUC and are now deceased. (It is notable and impressive that the URJ report includes credible allegations against two widely revered Reform camp directors, one of whom is still alive). Will there truly be no accountability for those HUC lay and professional leaders, still alive, who engaged in similar behavior or who knew about these transgressions, but did nothing to stop them? 

Documentation. What will be done to preserve or collect the testimonies and primary materials undergirding these reports? All those who spoke to the law firm investigators were promised anonymity. How will the American Jewish Archives on HUC’s Cincinnati campus fill in the gaps in the current archival collection to enable a more expansive, if sometimes painful, history? Will HUC, the CCAR, and the URJ void existing non-disclosure agreements and locate and preserve the records from past disputes and complaints? 

Reconciliation. Even as I write this, on February 17, 2022, I am receiving multiple emails announcing “HUC-JIR’s Day of Giving!” with invitations to “INVEST IN A DYNAMIC JEWISH FUTURE.” While I can’t promise to renew my donations to HUC, I can hope that, one day, I will be able to receive emails from the school, bearing the subject line “Providing Healing and Meaningful Jewish Spaces,” without cringing. The teshuvah (repentance) process to which leaders of all three institutions have committed themselves requires more than acting like everything is fine now. It requires meaningful engagement with victims of past misconduct. 

HUC has suggested that it will explore “the possibility of reaffirming ordination” for those who object to having been ordained by one of the two HUC presidents implicated as sexual predators. But how, otherwise, will the school reach out to those who have been harmed? Will it be able to provide a “healing and meaningful Jewish space” for them?  Will it invite and incorporate their voices, insights, and experiences to re-ground itself as an institution that takes responsibility for its past and present? 

The law firm investigations are important first steps, but only first steps.  I applaud HUC for throwing down a gauntlet for itself in a manner that other academic and non-academic institutions would do well to emulate. But a report alone is not enough to change long-engrained culture and norms. Will this moment of reckoning pave the way for a movement that will refuse to stifle those seeking to lead from the margins, whether as women, LGBTQ people, people of color, or simply those who do not match some rigid template of what makes a rabbi? 

The irony here is that American Reform Judaism has indeed been home to some of the most important advances for women in Judaism. I am left wondering if my next historical survey will be able to tell the story of how Hebrew Union College and other movement leaders truly embraced that legacy and, finally, erased the long-standing tension between the rhetoric and reality of women’s inclusion and leadership in Reform Judaism. 

Karla Goldman is the Sol Drachler Professor of Social Work and Professor of Judaic Studies at the University of Michigan where she directs the Jewish Communal Leadership Program. After leaving HUC-JIR in Cincinnati, where she taught from 1991-2000, she served as Historian in Residence at the Jewish Women’s Archive until 2008.  Sheis the author of Beyond the Synagogue Gallery: Finding a Place for Women in American Judaism (Harvard, 2000).