Sarah Ruth Hoffman

Petition the Reform Movement to Stop Sexual Abuse Cover-Ups

History & Significance

Reform Judaism in the United States can be divided into two principal organizations: the rabbinical arm (CCAR) and the congregational arm (URJ). Founded in 1889, the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) is the world’s oldest and largest rabbinical organization.

Long history of sexual misconduct mishandling. CCAR has a long and unsettling history of mishandling of sexual misconduct cases. Most recently, a Texas rabbi was secretly Reprimanded and then moved to a North Carolina congregation where he re-offended within 36 months and was then secretly Censured. The allegations against him included rape, sexual abuse, and physical, spiritual, and psychological abuse of multiple people. Earlier, in 2015, a Seattle rabbi was expelled but his congregation was left uninformed.

Inadequate procedures to protect communities. In addition to outright cover-ups and lack of timely warning, the CCAR has come under fire for their “unheard of” ethics committee procedures. When a victim reports a rabbi for sexual misconduct, the next steps are decided upon by a committee of other rabbis. If an investigation is deemed warranted, a three-person “fact-gathering-team” of untrained rabbis and laity get to determine what happened. Regardless, the rabbi in question receives a copy of the written complaint and is able to respond to it. The process may result in an adjudication without any investigation or “fact-gathering-team” at all, which occurred in two of three known adjudications for the aforementioned Texas rabbi, both resulting in secret slaps on the wrist for the rabbi despite severe, life-altering consequences for his victim(s).

No justice. If the rabbi is Censured or Suspended, he may utilize a “Teshuvah Rehabilitation and Counseling Team (TRaC Team)” consisting of other rabbis. It is unknown how many rabbis actually utilize this resource or how effective it is at preventing recidivism. Note that victims are never given any form of free support. The rabbi is offered free counseling while the victim drowns in trauma therapy bills. Tikkun olam? I think not.

No closure for victims. If Censured without Publication, he may remain in the pulpit with no deadline or impetus to utilize his TRaC team or to rehabilitate at all. If Suspended, the rabbi may return to the pulpit, but the standards for this are unclear and victims’ questions remain unanswered. In their written communication with me, CCAR has stated that my rapist-abuser would not be able to come out of Suspension without an apology to me. They said that I would hear from them (CCAR) about such an apology if it were ever offered. They were unable to answer my questions, including, “What if I don’t accept his apology? Does my rapist-abuser still get to return to the pulpit then?” This question should sound ridiculous because it is; my abuser re-entering the pulpit should not even be a consideration, and any reasonable person would say that he should be Expelled. Victims must live day-to-day knowing that they may receive an e-mail from CCAR saying that their rapist-abuser wants to “apologize” to them so that he can re-enter the pulpit, and also knowing that their rapist or abuser could re-enter a major Reform pulpit if the CCAR deems it so by some unknown, mysterious standards. This is a reality that I live every single day.What is worse than an abuser re-entering the pulpit? Re-entering the pulpit with the backing and support of their major rabbinical organization despite the victim’s pleading for this not to happen.

Rabbis are not Expelled. In their e-mail and telephone correspondence with me, I was told that CCAR does not Expel rabbis for sexual misconduct. Their view is that Suspension allows them to have more control over the rabbi in question. How could this be so when rabbis such as the aforementioned Texas rabbi were not put off by a Reprimand and prior forced resignation? CCAR also implied in their written correspondence that the only reason they ever did outright Expel a rabbi was because he was in prison and unable to function (not because he murdered his wife?):

“CCAR avoids expulsion, except in cases where the rabbi refuses to cooperate with the EC or when the rabbi is otherwise unable to practice (prison).”
–Rabbi Andi Berlin, CCAR Ethics Chair, Tue 8/21/2018

This lack of regard for the value of human life should not be surprising given that the CCAR’s ethics committee originally named themselves the “well-oiled zipper committee.” Enough said.

Bottom line. We must completely reform the Reform ethics process to reflect the professed values of the Reform movement, especially the sacred value of justice. I believe the only way that this can happen is to literally embarrass them into doing it, as they seem not to care about sanctity and safety as much as they care about their own image. Journalistic efforts and this petition can help with this.

Many self-professed “Reform Jews” are wholly unaware of these issues. My hope is that this petition will raise awareness so that they can hold their rabbinate to higher standards.

For all Jews, not just Reform, this issue is of great consequence considering the size and political power of Reform Judaism, and the sheer number of fellow Jews and people of Jewish descent affected. This may not be your movement, but these are your brethren.

For non-Jews, this is your world too. By holding religious organizations to a higher standard, you are standing with victims of sexual misconduct and taking a stand for justice and conscience, goodness and light.

Sign the petition here:

Demands of the Petition

We ask that the CCAR reform their ethics process to include the following improvements:

(1a) Abolish the unqualified “fact-gathering-team” and bring in actual, trained investigators. Investigators should be intimately familiar with the multi-layered nature of trauma and trauma recovery and how this affects the reporting process.

(1b) Replace the current ethics process with a process that is up to current best practices standards, including in-person interviews by unbiased, trained investigators, and NOT providing the rabbi in question with written allegations to dream up manipulative responses to.

(2) Immediately alert congregation leadership when a rabbi is reported for sexual misconduct.

(3) As soon as allegations are found to be plausible, notify all other Jewish organizations that the rabbi is affiliated with (e.g., JStreet, Rabbis without Borders, Institute for Jewish Spirituality).

(4) Place limitations on permitted activities for rabbis that are currently under investigation. A rabbi should not be able to attend a 5-night spiritual retreat that mixes clergy and laity when he has had two sexual misconduct adjudications and is under investigation for his third.

(5) Hire an external agency with no ties to your organization to publicize the following as cumulative and annual statistics:

(a) How many rabbis were reported for sexual misconduct, in total and as a percentage of CCAR’s qualified membership.
(b) How many rabbis formally investigated (“fact-gathering-team”), in total and as a percentage of those reported.
(c) How many rabbis were adjudicated, in total and as a percentage of those reported.
(d) How many adjudications of each outcome (e.g., Reprimand, Censure, Suspend, Expel), in total and as a percentage of those reported.
(e) How many rabbis utilized the TRaC team, by adjudication category, in total and as a percentage of those in each category.
(f) How many rabbis successfully utilized the TRaC team or other means to come out of Censure or Suspension.
(g) How many and what proportion of Suspended rabbis came out of Suspension? And went back to work?
(h) How many and what proportion of Suspended rabbis who went back to work re-offended?
(i) How many and what proportion of previously adjudicated rabbis were reported again to have re-offended? On average, how quickly do they re-offend?
(j) How many victims contacted CCAR in total? How many went through with the reporting process?
(k) How long did the adjudication processes take, stratified by outcome? Provide the minimum, maximum, mean, median, and mode, in weekly units.
(l) Publicize these statistics on the CCAR website so that they are easy to access, in newsletters, and present them at the CCAR annual and URJ biennial conferences.

(6) Give actual victim-survivors a seat at your table. Include them as leaders in your organizational decisions and ethics process, as they are “experts by necessity.” Respect their hard-won expertise.

(7) Take full accountability for prior cover-ups, including financial restoration for victims/complainants with no nondisclosure agreements or other limitations.

(8) Create a victim-fund to help support victims of even first-time offenders, to pay for their therapy. It is a known fact that predators are attracted to careers as clergy and your organization should build this reality into your annual budget.

(9) Abolish the TRaC team and bring in licensed psychologists with expertise in Narcissism, Sociopathy, Psychopathy, Antisocial Personality Disorder, and in rehabilitating sex offenders. Or…

(10) Better yet, do not be in the business of “rehabilitating” sexual predators and actually Expel them.

(11) Make a genuine public apology for prior wrongdoing, including making light of sexual misconduct in the ethics committee’s original name, and for prior cover-ups, laxity in creating consequences for perpetrators, incompetence, negligence, abuse of power, narcissism, and chronic denial and minimization and other forms of enabling. This apology should only come after or alongside strong actions that show real change (teshuvah).

(12) Make sexual misconduct and sexual misconduct annual summaries a regular part of your annual meeting, as a plenary session that is attended by all, optimally at the beginning or end of a keynote speaker session. Consider giving victims speaking opportunities and offering workshops on this topic and how rabbis can avoid becoming perpetrators or enablers, and how they can be supportive of victims-survivors who disclose.

There will be perpetrators and there will be victims. The only question is: what are you going to do about it?  Cover it up, remain in denial, and continue to enable it? Or facilitate the very justice that your movement professes to care about so deeply, and preserve the sanctity and safety of the pulpit?

Sign the petition here:

Personal Connection

In 2014, CCAR secretly Reprimanded my abuser for sexual misconduct and facilitated his move to a new community where he abused me. In 2018, despite his continued misconduct, CCAR secretly Censured him and did not immediately tell his congregation of his prior reprimand or current investigation. In 2018, he was finally Suspended, but the door remains open for him to return to the pulpit. The 6 month long adjudicatory process was extremely traumatic because the ethics committee consisted of other rabbis, and the investigators were not investigators but two rabbis and a random lay person who had no knowledge regarding sexual violence or trauma. Despite serious rape allegations, the CCAR filed a claim with their insurance company for an “extramarital affair” which of course was not covered. CCAR’s CEO Rabbi Steven A. Fox refused to take any responsibility for my rape and abuse, and I have had no help or support with therapy bills nor have I received any other form of reparation for the abuse that they enabled. My story can be found here.

Sign the petition here:

About the Author
The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not represent the views of any organization that she is affiliated with. Sarah Ruth Hoffman was a doctoral student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill when an older male rabbi (now suspended by his rabbinical association) groomed, raped, and abused her. She has since completed the PhD and converted to Orthodox Judaism. She continues to write as part of her healing, and she often writes what she would have found comforting and useful to read during her lengthy exodus from the ongoing sexual violence that was inextricably linked to roles and scripts in Jewish institutions. She hopes that this blog will help the public to understand the dynamics of clergy sexual abuse, whether the victims are adults, or children. Much of what is written can apply to non-clergy relationships as well. If any one person is helped by any of what is written, then the purpose of this blog has been fulfilled.
Related Topics
Related Posts