After the Fall: (Re)Telling the Story of Reform Judaism

I knew this culture and its silencing all too well.

June 3, 2022 marks the fiftieth anniversary of Sally Priesand’s ordination, as the first American woman rabbi. This signal achievement took place at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC) in Cincinnati, and leaders of the Jewish Reform movement often point to this milestone as shorthand for the creative, boundary-breaking push for gender equality championed by the movement.

A much different and less flattering story about gender is told by the three reports recently released by the three major arms of the Reform movement—HUC, its graduate school for training rabbis and other Jewish professionals; the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR), the professional association for Reform rabbis; and the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ), the umbrella organization for Reform congregations. The HUC investigation, conducted by the Morgan Lewis law firm and released in late 2021, probed allegations of “past sexual harassment, gender bias, and other forms of inequitable treatment.” The findings depict the seminary as offering up a toxic brew of sexual discrimination, subordination, harassment, and abuse that is hard to square with the school’s professed commitment and very real contributions to women’s leadership. The other reports likewise portray a movement that, despite trumpeting its commitment to gender equality, rarely provided safe spaces for women and girls in its schools, camps, or synagogues.

The ballast of these accounts—in the HUC case provided by testimony from 170 witnesses describing clear patterns of harassment and detailed allegations against specific individuals—presages a seismic shift in public discourse and in whether and how these stories are told. So what should we expect now from the Reform movement as we mark the momentous anniversary of Rabbi Priesand’s ordination?

As a historian of women in American Judaism, I naturally have a lot of skin in this game. But I am also someone whose life and career were capsized by some of the men named in the HUC report. Here, it seems important to note that my experience was not a direct effect of sexual harassment, the narrative emphasized most strongly in these reports. My story, by no means unique, challenges us to consider the price paid by all women and other marginalized folks in environments where, as at HUC, gender-based harassment and bullying were tolerated and overlooked for decades. All of us who are part of this story—whether as victims, perpetrators, bystanders, or interested observers—now need to make sense of and move beyond the Reform movement’s failure to execute the promise to women built into its very brand.

For almost fifty years now, Reform leaders have asserted their commitment to women’s leadership even as many were aware of (and others were perpetrators of!) the misconduct that has now become public knowledge. To the extent that I was surprised by the reports, it was in finally seeing a public reckoning with abuses that have marked too many within the Reform movement. Given the coercive institutional silence that prevailed around these realities, I had never really expected them to see the light of day.

The misdeeds of the only named subjects in the HUC report who are still alive, were already publicly known (and helped lead to the call for deeper investigation). Former HUC president Sheldon Zimmerman was compelled to resign in the wake of a 2000 ethics investigation regarding past “inappropriate” sexual relationships, that most presumed had been both adult and consensual. Last April, however, New York’s Central Synagogue, where Zimmerman had served as rabbi in the 1970s and 1980s, released troubling results of their own investigation of Zimmerman’s “sexually predatory behavior” when he was in that pulpit. According to that inquiry, Zimmerman groomed multiple women, including one minor, by deploying Martin Buber’s descriptions of the I/Thou relationship between human and God to invite them into physical intimacy. Sociologist and former HUC professor Steve M. Cohen, meanwhile, resigned in summer 2018 after allegations, from eight different women, of sexual harassment and other inappropriate behavior in professional settings over many decades were published in the New York Jewish Week.

While these stories raised consternation, both Zimmerman and Cohen were employed by HUC for a relatively short time, and neither appeared to have targeted mainly HUC students. It is the newly public information in the report, describing an often brutally sexist campus culture and “credible allegations of misconduct” against four men who worked at HUC for decades, that has proven the most explosive. These accounts, not previously public, shatter any notion that harassment, if it happened, was isolated, and that sexual relationships, if they occurred, were basically mutual, consensual, and equitable.

The 2021 report, describing behavior starting in the early 1970s, offers surprisingly graphic details about what some female students at HUC have experienced. It cites seven witnesses who allege that the late Alfred Gottschalk, president of the school between 1971 and 1996—best known until now for ordaining Sally Priesand—regularly propositioned first-year students on the Jerusalem campus. Some former students described actual physical assaults. The report also names three other long-time faculty members, two who worked at the Cincinnati school and one from the LA campus.

One repeatedly humiliated and undermined the young women in his classes while also openly displaying pornography on his computer and—wildly—carrying a gun to school. Another faculty member is described as conducting a long-term sexual affair, mainly in his office, which ended not because he was married, but because he started dating a different student. This same faculty member also used his power to offer or withhold academic opportunities and advancement. Beyond these specific cases, scores of witnesses described a culture that favored men, while often demeaning and silencing women.

I knew this culture and its silencing all too well.

In 1991, I became the first tenure-track woman faculty member on the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion Cincinnati campus. When, nine years later, I was told I would not be reappointed, I was also advised not to upset students or undermine my chances at future employment by sharing details of 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 in my dismissal, now implicated in both the HUC and CCAR reports. 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.

My understanding of this silencing is both personal and professional. As a historian of women in Reform Judaism, I have studied Reform’s very real commitment to women’s advancement within Judaism together with its century-long pattern of combining strong rhetoric on female equality with a reality of subordination and exclusion. I’ve long hoped to be able to add to that story a chronicle of the reckonings we are seeing now.

But the place these reckonings will take in that longer historical narrative is yet to be determined. As a March 2022 letter co-signed by five hundred current and former URJ employees clarified, “sexual harassment, abuse and misconduct are heinous and vile reflections of unequal systems of power in institutions and organizational life.” Indeed, the stomach-turning instances of sexual targeting shared in these reports suggest a culture that, in overlooking decades of such behavior, sanctioned a general lack of safety for women and all those potentially who did not match the cultural norm of being a male, white, straight, cisgender guitar player.

Even with these reports now out in the open, it is still challenging to name names and write openly about these topics, but it seems important to try. Sections of both the HUC and CCAR reports focus on faculty member Michael Cook, whose relationships with students included both sexual encounters and a sort of academic gate-keeping that felt sexualized to the multiple students affected. Cook also happened to have chaired the Committee on Faculty that produced the report that led to my non-reappointment.

In the depositions gathered for my 2004 lawsuit against HUC, multiple witnesses commented that Cook did not seem to like me. When asked for evidence of this, all of them mentioned, among other things, that he didn’t like the way I dressed. (Each time this came up, HUC’s lawyer would ask, “Was there something wrong with the way she dressed?” In each case, the respondent answered “No.”). The headline-grabbing allegations against Michael Cook focus on his sexually inflected interactions with students and subordinates whom he appeared to find attractive. Less frequently addressed by the reports, but perhaps as important, was his impact on women like me who were not to his taste. His successful campaign to prevent my reappointment was the logical consequence of vesting power in someone who assessed women, to some degree, on the basis of how attractive and accommodating they were to him.

As chair of the Committee on Faculty, Cook found himself in a position to determine my fate at HUC. Ultimately, the lawsuit discovery process and depositions allowed me to see how hard Cook worked to spin the data about me in a negative direction. The expert witness hired to go through the case’s voluminous documentation concluded that “Professor Goldman was clearly treated differently than other candidates … it appears that different standards were applied during that process, and data and information about Professor Goldman were reported in a distorted fashion by which favorable information was omitted and negative information was exaggerated to Professor Goldman’s disadvantage …. Professor Goldman’s evaluation process [was] subject to abuse by increasing the opportunities for bias—bias which thoroughly contaminated the process and made a fair evaluation impossible.”

Few who have read HUC’s recent report will question whether it is conceivable that Michael Cook would have allowed his personal responses to women to influence his professional conduct. The question we should be asking here is how someone with this level of overt bias could be granted so much power over the fate of a junior faculty member, who also happened to have been the first woman member of the faculty. Other faculty and administrators also participated in creating and forwarding his report (although the majority of the senior faculty voting on the case were denied access to the outside letters and student evaluations). When, at the Board of Governors level, Rabbi Sally Priesand questioned how the “Karla Goldman’’ described in this document could differ so radically from the teacher and scholar she had encountered, she and the rest of the board were assured by the provost that the review process had been “impeccable.”

With the law-firm led reckonings now in the public domain, will it be possible to challenge these inherited systems? Much of what happens now depends upon the movement and school’s response to this critical moment of chesbon nefesh (accounting of the soul), remembering, as we must, that most of the information now made public had been known by those in authority for many decades. Will it be possible to write and live a new narrative of Reform Judaism? What will it take to transform a culture of silence and complicity into one of integrity, equality, and belonging?

Here are the questions, directed toward documenting the past and redeeming the future, that I would ask Reform leaders—and all of us—to consider:

ACCOUNTABILITY. Only two of the six men named in the HUC report are still alive. Their behavior was already publicly known, 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 lay and professional leaders, still alive, who engaged in or abetted abusive 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? 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, narrative of Reform movement institutions? Will HUC, the CCAR, and the URJ void existing non-disclosure agreements and locate and preserve the records from past disputes and complaints? Will they commit the resources necessary to accomplish the challenging goal of gathering these stories in a fashion that recognizes and honors the vulnerability of those who dare to share their experience?

RECONCILIATION. The teshuvah (repentance) process to which leaders of all three institutions have committed themselves requires humility, transparency, and accountability. Authentic accountability is challenging for institutions dependent upon fundraising for their survival. The 50th anniversary of Sally Priesand’s ordination offers a case in point. Can the movement celebrate the depth and significance of this milestone while also acknowledging the failure of institutional leaders to honor the motivations and efforts of the many women who trusted Reform seminaries, camps, and synagogues to nurture their Jewish identities, leadership, and scholarship?

Teshuvah requires meaningful, substantive 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. Beyond this, will we see HUC reaching out to those who have been harmed? Will it invite and include their voices, insights, teaching, and experiences in the effort to re-ground itself as an institution that takes responsibility for its past and present?

The law firm investigations are important first steps, but they are only first steps.

I applaud the Reform movement for conducting and publicizing these investigations. HUC, the CCAR, and the URJ have thrown down a gauntlet for themselves and others in a manner that other institutions would do well to emulate. But reports by themselves are not enough to change long-ingrained culture and norms. Will they move the inflection point toward the repair for which many have waited and hoped? Can 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, as I have often written, been home to some of the most important advances for women in Judaism. I am left wondering if my next historical survey of women in Reform Judaism will be able to tell the story of how the movement truly embraced that legacy and, finally, erased the long-standing tension between the rhetoric and the reality of women’s inclusion and leadership.

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. She is the author of Beyond the Synagogue Gallery: Finding a Place for Women in American Judaism.