Abuse by Rabbis, Revisited

This season, the Orthodox Union and the Reform Central Conference of American Rabbis were doing a lot of public hand-wringing over inappropriate rabbinical conduct. The OU case involves Rabbi Baruch Lanner, who resigned from his position at the New Jersey arm of the organization’s youth program after being accused of sexual, physical and psychological abuse of teenagers. Six months later, in December, Sheldon Zimmerman, one of the Reform movement’s most prominent rabbis, resigned from the presidency of Hebrew Union College after the Central Conference of American Rabbis’ seven-member ethics committee found him guilty of sexual misconduct, He has been suspended from the CCAR for two years. A special commission, appointed by the OU after The New York Jewish Week broke the story of Lanner’s abusive behavior, issued a report in December documenting what it called ‘”compelling evidence” of sexual misconduct over a period of many years. The Commission also faulted the organization’s leadership for turning a blind eye to Lanner’s abuses. It cited some members of OU’s leadership for “profound errors of judgment in their handling of Lanner throughout his career.” Numerous reports by teens and their parents had been dismissed as groundless.

As for Zimmerman, the Reform movement’s ethics committee did not make public any details about his misconduct. The HUC said only that his ethics violations involved “personal relationships” that had occurred prior to 1996.

How have Jewish leaders responded to these traumatic events?

“Rabbi Zimmerman acted with great dignity in this case and accepted responsibility for his actions, and we’re grateful to him for the manner in which he’s responded. Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of Reform’s Union of American Hebrew Congregations, told Beliefnet News Services.

Grateful? This is not the first time that the Reform movement has been disgraced by the behavior of some of its rabbis. In 1992, Rabbi Robert Kirschner, who had been sexually involved with congregants, was forced to resign his pulpit. The New York Jewish Week reported in December 2000. But he was retained in a positione of responsibility as an administrator at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles, where he remains to this day.

Statements like Rabbi Yoffie’s do not answer the question: What about the victims? And what about the women with whom other rabbis may have behaved inappropriately, who will now surely come forward in the aftermath of the Zimmerman story?

“We don’t have to scurry around to find ways to respond,” said Rabbi Paul Menitoff, executive vice president of CCAR. “The mechanism is already in place, in the form of the ethics committee.”

As for the Orthodox Union, in December its departing president. Dr. Mandell I. Ganchrow, told the New York Times that the OU had an obligation to assure the Jewish community “that we’ve learned our lesson from this.” Yet it took additional pressure from angry parents before the OU finally forced the resignation of Rabbi Raphael Butler who, according to the special commission report, was one of several who long knew about but ignored Lanner’s abuse of teenage girls.

A female rabbi who asked not to be identified said that while she preferred not to know the details of Zimmerman’s sexual transgressions, she trusted that the ethics committee had done due process. However, she said, the “old boys network” had not. “And that’s the frustrating thing to me,” she said. “I’ve been criticized by my colleagues for supporting the complaimant. They say that I am being disloyal. As a woman, it’s a little degrading.”