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Steven Bayar

A failure of rabbinic leadership

Can you walk into a Burger King wearing a kippah if you only need to go to the bathroom? This was a question posed to us as rabbinical students in a class on practical rabbinics. The answer is no.

Why? Because of the Jewish concept of “Ma’arat Ayin,” or in English, “what appears to the eye.” The optic of a kippah going into a non-kosher restaurant can raise questions that are not productive.

As rabbis in training, we were taught that we are responsible for the “greater good,” to be aware that what we do has repercussions above and beyond the here and now. “You must always be aware of how your actions will appear to the greater community — and you must weigh the potential good with the potential damage,” we were taught.

What is the optic then, when one of the most respected leaders of the Conservative movement testifies on behalf of (rabbi) Stephen Weiss, an individual who pled guilty to two felony counts — attempted unlawful sexual conduct with a minor and possessing criminal tools?

When a statement from the Rabbinical Assembly attempts to distance itself from the testimony by asserting that it was “not on behalf of the Rabbinical Assembly,” what is the optic?

That statement is ripe with the cognitive dissonance of the impact of everyone’s actions, the testimony as well as the state of distance. If, as the RA has always cautioned — a rabbi is always a rabbi, even when they don’t want to be — then shouldn’t a leader always lead?

A leader does not have the luxury of speaking in a public forum as a private citizen. A leader does not get to speak on behalf of a convicted pedophile without the ripple effect of the damage that causes to numerous survivors.

One may argue, compassion for a convict is a necessity. One may also argue that a true leader may look to find the good in even the vilest of people. But a compassionate, thoughtful leader — and organization — should understand the damage done to the victim/survivors of child predators.

At a time when the Conservative movement should be reeling from lawsuits and reports of systemic abuse in its member organizations, a pillar of the community chose to defend a friend and colleague who is “admired for his qualities of kindness and sensitivity,“ “his inspirational teaching of children and adults” and his support for congregants experiencing trouble — according to JTA.

Is that what the leadership of our movement stands for in 2023? Have we not learned that it is our job to speak for those who had no choice in what was done to them? Who are we as a movement anymore?

In an op ed* from 2014, in response to similar support of orthodox leaders for a convicted sex offender, my daughters — one a former child abuse and sex crimes prosecutor and one a licensed social worker — emphatically called to task leaders who wrote in defense of a convicted pedophile.

“They argue (the offender’s) worth to the community as an educator and leader should mitigate his punishment. In making their case, they forget that the victims are more than just victims. They are children,” my daughters wrote in the op ed.

And nine years later, we don’t seem to have progressed very much. That is cognitive dissonance at its best.

I am ashamed that a respected and venerated leader of the Conservative movement has forgotten that our first priority should be the safety of the defenseless — the widow, the orphan and the children. And my rabbinical association has chosen to abrogate responsibility of aggressively pursuing predators by passively supporting his testimony.

You cannot take off your kippah when you testify to that.

*https://jewishstandard.timesofisrael.com/taking-care-of-the-victims/

About the Author
Rabbi Steven Bayar recently served as Interim Rabbi at Congregation Agudas Achim in San Antonio, TX. Ordained by the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, he is Rabbi Emeritus of Congregation B’nai Israel in Millburn, NJ, where he served the pulpit for 30 years, and teaches at the Golda Och Academy in West Orange, NJ. He is a member of the Rabbinical Assembly and Rabbis Without Borders, and has trained as a hospice chaplain, a Wise Aging facilitator, and a trainer for safe and respectful Jewish work spaces. He’s the co-author of “Teens & Trust: Building Bridges in Jewish Education,” “Rachel & Misha,” and “You Shall Teach Them Diligently to Your Children: Transmitting Jewish Values from Generation to Generation.”
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