Navigating the Fallout From Sexual Harassment Claims in Synagogues
When Cantor Penny Myers resigned her long-time position at Temple Beth Zion, a large Reform synagogue in Buffalo, N.Y., in December, she said her decision stemmed not only from suffering four tumultuous years of sexual harassment, hostility and inappropriate behavior by the synagogue’s former rabbi; she also cited the way the congregation’s lay leadership “ignored and mishandled” her claims.
The Central Conference of American Rabbis, the Reform rabbinic organization, censured Rabbi Jonathan Freirich in March 2020 in part as a response to an ethical complaint Myers had filed in December 2019. She had noted five specific allegations of verbal harassment; they included his describing her as the “beautiful blond cantor” from the bimah and referring to “Fifty Shades of Cantor,” alluding to a well-known erotic romance novel and movie, after she returned from a 20th-anniversary overnight celebration with her husband in October 2018.
Ultimately, the synagogue’s board decided to end Freirich’s contract six months early. But when Myers attempted to reintegrate into the synagogue after a three-month paid leave of absence to deal with the emotional fallout of the situation, she says, the congregation’s leadership was unresponsive. “Even now,” a year later, she says, “the people in power just want me to get over it.”
Some 350 miles south, in Blue Bell, Pa., Rabbi Danielle Parmenter, who is in charge of congregational learning at Tiferet Bet Israel, is also planning to leave her congregation, effective July 1, at the conclusion of her contract. Although her story differs in many ways from Myers’, at its heart are also allegations of sexual harassment.
Parmenter contends that a comment in November 2019 by the Conservative synagogue’s volunteer co-solicitor crossed the line into sexual harassment. In a phone call to discuss whether she was allowed to officiate at an interfaith wedding and the need to clarify that issue in her next contract, Parmenter alleges that the attorney, a member of the congregation, opened the conversation, saying: “Oh, hi Danielle. I’ll never forget your name because I lost my virginity to a girl named Danielle—and boy was she hot!”
Shaken, she mentioned what had happened to the congregation’s senior rabbi, Eric Woodward, who reported the incident to the synagogue’s lay leadership. Two other employees and a congregant subsequently came forward with harassment complaints against the same co-solicitor. For several months, Woodward unsuccessfully urged the board to remove the co-solicitor from his officer position. Instead, last August, the board president informed the membership by email that the rabbi and the congregation had “parted ways,” without specifying a reason. All the parties involved have declined to comment on the reason for Woodward’s departure.
Although Tiferet Bet Israel offered to extend Parmenter’s contract, she declined, she contends, because her role was downgraded so that she would no longer be a member of the leadership team. For that reason, she says, she has decided to leave the suburban Philadelphia synagogue she has served since 2016. The congregation’s leadership says it disagrees with Parmenter’s characterization of the position.
‘It’s still taboo to speak out and up about this. What I did is beyond risky.’ Women who are the main ‘challah winners’ in their families don’t have the luxury and the curse of going public. — Penny Myers
Almost four years after the #MeToo movement catapulted into existence in late 2017, these cases raise troubling questions about the continuing harassment of clergy, how synagogues are dealing with alleged cases of harassment and the fallout for those who speak out as well as for the congregations themselves. Both the Buffalo and Blue Bell congregations are now roiled by division and dissension, charges of secrecy and lack of transparency, member resignations and internal splits over how public to make claims and how to deal with alleged perpetrators and alleged victims.
In both these cases, the cantor and rabbis who sought to bring the allegations to light have suffered consequences—engendering fear in others who watch their colleagues’ jobs unravel and their mental health suffer.
Many female rabbis and cantors acknowledge privately that they have experienced harassment on the job, but few have come forward publicly. “It’s still taboo to speak out and up about this. What I did is beyond risky,” says Myers, a Hadassah life member who credits a Hadassah Magazine story in the July/August 2019 issue for giving her the courage to speak up. That feature, “When Rabbis Say #MeToo,” ran as part of a special issue focused on “#MeToo and the Jewish World.”
She notes that women who are the main “challah winners” in their families don’t have “the luxury and the curse” of going public as she did. Myers’ husband is a physician; Parmenter’s is vice president of an aerospace company. Both women felt financially stable enough to leave their positions.
The intricate dynamics of synagogue and clergy relationships create pitfalls that make it difficult for victims to come forward. Without a human resources professional in most synagogues, comprehensive policies around complaints and consistent procedures that include confidentiality are often lacking, says Rabbi Rebecca Sirbu, director of engagement at Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America, who says she was sexually harassed when she was in rabbinical school.
‘Because of what some male clergy and lay leaders have done to me, I’ve had a sexual harassment clause in my own contract for over two decades.’ — Neshama Carlebach
In addition, “rabbis often worry about personal relationships both between them and their congregants and between the congregants themselves,” says Sirbu, a founding member of the Safety Respect Equity Network, which aims to create standards for Jewish groups and is funding an array of projects to provide training and education about gender-based discrimination. “How do you report a case of harassment without putting all these relationships at risk? It is a very precarious position for a rabbi or cantor to be in.”
Beyond the stress that allegations can place on communal relationships, the difficulty in discerning what constitutes harassment looms large. Rabbi Mary Zamore, executive director of the Reform movement’s Women’s Rabbinic Network, which has brought a program called Clergy: Safe Employees and Employers to 11 seminary campuses of all denominations across the country, distinguishes between harassment and microaggression. Harassment is defined by federal law and includes a prohibition against retaliation; it is strengthened in some states, such as New York. She describes microaggression as “a more fluid, colloquial term, usually referring to small disrespectful behaviors directed toward an individual or group based on their protected identity. While inappropriate, demeaning, and can be deeply felt by the victim, microaggressions are not usually addressed by federal, state or city laws, but rather by community/workplace standards and policies.”
Emotional or verbal harassment can be elusive and hard to prove, says Rabbi Cheryl Peretz, associate dean of the Conservative movement’s Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies in Los Angeles, who has trained students to distinguish between microaggression and physical harassment. “The line between microaggression and non-physical harassment is even harder to distinguish,” Peretz explains. “For example, if someone comments on looks, that can be microaggression—simply inappropriate—or it can be perceived as harassment if the person whose looks are commented on hears it as a sexual reference and feels unsafe. In many states, the laws of harassment say that the victim has to have told the other person they are uncomfortable.”
“Harassment is a form of trying to demonstrate power over someone else,” Peretz adds. “That is true whether the abuse is verbal or physical.” From the standpoint of Jewish tradition, Peretz says, “there is no difference. But culturally we’re not there yet.”
Singer Neshama Carlebach is not a rabbi or cantor, but she has struggled with the legacy of her father, famed composer, singer and spiritual leader Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, that includes multiple allegations of sexual impropriety. From her vantage point as a performer in many synagogue communities, she writes in an email to Hadassah Magazine, “I’ve witnessed and been harmed by systemic issues of abuse which are often minimized by communities who don’t want to offend the offenders or their donor base. Because of what some male clergy and lay leaders have done to me, I’ve had a sexual harassment clause in my own contract for over two decades.” The clause says that if harassment occurs, she has the right to be paid immediately and will suffer no penalties for not performing.
Sometimes, she adds, potential clients resist including the clause, claiming “it would never happen” in their community. “But I know it does. It did to me. And it does happen to many of my sisters who are clergy. And all too often, it is covered up. The woman is blamed, silenced or told, ‘That’s just the way he is.’ ”
For Penny Myers, the cantor from Buffalo who had served for 14 years in her role, the trouble began in 2016 during the weekend Freirich was interviewing for the position of rabbi at the historic 750-unit congregation. It was then, from the bimah, that he called her the “beautiful blond cantor.” Myers’ complaint in December 2019, added to an earlier complaint filed by a Temple Beth Zion family in June 2019 alleging that the rabbi had solicited inappropriate meetings with 12-year-old girls outside the synagogue, prompted a CCAR investigation and subsequent censure by the Reform rabbinic body.
The Temple Beth Zion board decided in August 2020 to end the rabbi’s contract early but waited two months to inform the congregation, doing so just before The Buffalo News published a story about the situation on October 26, 2020. No reason for the early termination was provided in the email to the congregation. The board subsequently hired Sharon Sobel to serve as interim senior rabbi, a move that Myers contends implied a demotion in her own role, as she had previously been ranked equally as co-clergy with Freirich. After weeks of no response to emails and texts about how best to return, she submitted her resignation on December 3, 2020. She says she is considering filing a complaint with the New York State Division of Human Rights.
David Goldberg, president of the synagogue, said he could not comment on any specifics but said of Myers’ resignation: “TBZ is grateful for her years of service to our congregation and for her leadership, especially over the past High Holiday season. We wish her well in whatever the future holds for her.”
Freirich responded to Hadassah Magazine’s queries about Myers’ complaint saying he “apologized for inappropriate comments and takes responsibility for them. My punishment is serious, and I accepted it. I am working on what the CCAR and Temple Beth Zion set as my path to repentance and reconciliation.”
For her part, Myers is seeking new opportunities and recently began a virtual musical Kabbalat Shabbat service with a colleague. Their first service on January 8 reached over 1,700 viewers. Myers is also planning to launch a website—ClergyLifeline.org—in late spring for rabbis, cantors and Jewish educators across the country who have been “abused and discriminated against by laity,” she says. She plans to offer toolkits and resources, including names of mental health agencies, counselors and attorneys to help clergy in crisis deal with their lay leadership. “Many synagogue leaders,” according to Myers, “are voted in by congregants and choose to exercise autonomy to run the synagogue without any specific or meaningful oversight by their respective movements.”
‘This is about more than sexual harassment. It’s about a synagogue being a safe space where everybody feels a part of a holy community.’ — Danielle Parmenter
Danielle Parmenter, the rabbi in suburban Philadelphia, says that Myers’ experience, which she learned from Hadassah Magazine’s reporting, was “eye-opening” and partly inspired her to speak out about her own situation at the congregation of approximately 300 member units.
“Because the co-solicitor was in a position of power, talking to me about my contract, that’s the harassment and the boundary that he crossed,” she says. “Because everything happened in the shadows, it has caused darkness, secrets, lies and deception. This is about more than sexual harassment. It’s about a synagogue being a safe space where everybody feels a part of a holy community.”
“Previously, I would laugh off these sexual comments, but it undermines the Torah I have to offer,” adds Parmenter, noting that she had received extensive training in recognizing and preventing sexual harassment as a student at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. “There has to be a shift. We are all complicit in accepting this culture.” Woodward, the congregation’s former senior rabbi, is an exception, she says. “He is a true feminist.”
After Woodward reported Parmenter’s alleged incident to the co-presidents and the executive committee, Jonathan Samel, then the co-solicitor on the synagogue’s board, conducted an internal investigation of the claims against the other solicitor.
Following Woodward’s departure last August, the synagogue hired an outside attorney to further investigate Parmenter’s claim as well as those of two other employees and one member, Brandi Lerner, who by that time had also come forward with allegations that the co-solicitor had behaved inappropriately toward her. The outside attorney “thoroughly investigated” the matters and “no sexual harassment was found” to have occurred, according to Samel, who declined to release the report. The other solicitor no longer sits on the synagogue’s board.
Woodward had, in the meantime, filed an official complaint with the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, according to Rabbi Jacob Blumenthal, executive director of the USCJ and the Rabbinical Assembly, who said he could not comment on the specific contents of the complaint. He added that USCJ had been in the process of mediating a dispute between Woodward and the synagogue when they were “notified that a private resolution had been reached and the mediation was terminated…. The congregation has promised a full and transparent investigation of the underlying accusations which were made, but to my knowledge has not as yet publicly released the results.”
In an email to Hadassah Magazine, Samel emphasizes that Tiferet Bet Israel’s employee manual uses the definition of harassment encoded by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the federal agency that enforces laws against discrimination. The synagogue has a written non-discrimination and anti-harassment policy, which includes a procedure for reporting an incident, Samel writes, adding: “Any complaints of sexual harassment at TBI have been and will always be taken very seriously.”
On February 3, a few months after the outside counsel concluded its investigation, Tiferet Bet Israel co-president Rebecca Cornacoff sent an email to the congregation acknowledging that allegations of sexual harassment had been made and that an independent investigation had been completed. She stressed that “due to the sensitive nature of these matters” it is standard practice “to not share any specific details regarding the allegations themselves or the findings of the investigator.” She added that updated policies and procedures are to be implemented “in the very near future” with the goal of preventing “such concerns from arising again.”
Most clergy contracts have clauses that require disputes to be resolved by mediation or arbitration, considered a “best practice” in the nonprofit world that would rule out lawsuits, says Abby Kelman, a St. Louis attorney who specializes in clergy employment contracts. At best, she notes, a synagogue will bring in outside legal counsel, but often the issues are handled by an attorney who is a member. If a resolution is reached, the rabbi or cantor will often have to agree to a non-disclosure clause, although in her practice, she “pushes hard against them.”
In general, Kelman says, there’s a reluctance to bring charges by most clergy who encounter harassment. “In my experience, they just leave or are fired,” she says. “It’s a small Jewish world and this is not corporate USA. Even if the harassee is right, the question is, ‘Do you want to be right or have a career?’ You can’t necessarily have both.”
Strong feelings about transparency and the proper actions to take have split communities that are dealing with sexual harassment allegations. Email communications to Hadassah Magazine from officials at Temple Beth Zion and Tiferet Bet Israel reflect the leadership’s reluctance at both synagogues to comment in detail on their respective situations.
Samel, Tiferet Bet Israel’s current sole solicitor, says that in “confidential personnel matters, it is totally inappropriate for the synagogue to discuss the details publicly.”
But Lerner, a former board member of the Blue Bell congregation—and the congregant who alleged harassment against the former co-solicitor—disagrees. At a congregants’ meeting held over Zoom on January 18 that was not sanctioned by the board, Lerner, who has resigned from the board, made her complaints public, marking the first time some members had heard anything about any of the allegations.
Back in Buffalo, David Goldberg, the president of Temple Beth Zion, tells Hadassah Magazine that the synagogue leadership “did not, and would not, ignore allegations of inappropriate workplace behavior. Our senior lay leadership confronted the rabbi about his behavior immediately. We believed that he acted inappropriately but not in a malicious or predatory manner, and that he understood what he had done wrong.”
He also says that “the board has had a fine line to walk between respecting the privacy of our employees, following the recommendations of the CCAR and communicating transparently with our congregation. At times, each of those fundamental commitments were at odds with each other.”
Anna Marie Richmond, an attorney and chair of Temple Beth Zion’s ritual committee, says: “There is something between complete secrecy and full disclosure that would’ve given the congregation the sense of what was going on.” The board, she suggests, could have informed the congregation that an ethical complaint had been lodged against the rabbi; that it had been investigated and determined to have been founded; that the nature of the allegation and findings were confidential but that the rabbi and board had agreed to part ways, therefore the board was asking the congregation to approve a modification of the rabbi’s contract. Instead, the congregation was asked to approve a shortening of the rabbi’s contract without any explanation for the reason for the modification. After Myers’ resignation, she says, “people on both sides are losing faith in their board and synagogue.”
In fact, a longtime Temple Beth Zion member, Guy Sadkin, sent a letter of resignation to the synagogue last month, the day after his son’s bar mitzvah. “The Temple has willfully chosen to take an extended break from any semblance of legal, moral, and ethical values. It is a shell of its former great self,” he writes in his letter. “There is simply no excuse for how the Temple blamed, shamed, and shunned Cantor Myers, the victim, and how it protected Rabbi Freirich, the perpetrator.”
Sadkin, who operates a private mental health practice in Buffalo, grew up at the synagogue, as did his wife. They both became b’nei mitzvah and were married there. “I have no regrets leaving at this point. None,” he tells Hadassah Magazine in a phone conversation. “The situation has soured us on organized religion. People look up to religious institutions for guidance, right from wrong, yet look what’s going on.”
He says they would have left months ago once Myers was no longer there to tutor his son or preside over his bar mitzvah, but his son “wanted to have his bar mitzvah at TBZ like his religious school friends.”
Part of the board’s confusion in Buffalo over how to proceed may have stemmed from the CCAR’s censure itself. The censure, according to the CCAR website, means that the violation of the group’s Code of Ethics is more serious that a reprimand but not sufficient to require suspension. A censure “without publication,” as was issued in the case of Freirich, discouraged the synagogue leadership from going public with the situation.
According to Rabbi Hara Person, CCAR’s chief executive, the CCAR Code of Ethics is a system of rabbinic accountability, not a legal code or a human resources protocol. “CCAR is not the employer, but if necessary, we will not allow the rabbi to work as rabbi.” Expelling a rabbi is not the preferred course of action, she says, because “then we have no ability to limit what he does. If a rabbi is censured or suspended, we are able to place conditions and limitations on what he can do.”
Person distinguishes between secrecy and confidentiality “out of respect for the privacy and safety of the parties involved, witnesses, victims and potential victims.”
Cantor Joanna Dulkin, vice president of administration for the Conservative movement’s Cantors Assembly, where Myers is a member and holds leadership positions, says that “until we live through a full generation of congregations with women’s clergy leadership, we’re still wandering in the wilderness.”
Dulkin, the cantor at Adath Jeshurun Congregation in Minnetonka, Minn., says her own experiences have been limited to micro-aggressions, but she is a frequent confidante of female colleagues who have experienced moderate to severe harassment, which she says is interwoven with issues of gender equity and women’s leadership. Rabbinic and cantorial organizations have some power, she states, because they supply candidates to the congregations and can freeze placement if there are ethics violations.
“We all agree that #MeToo is a problem. That doesn’t mean it’s solved,” says Dulkin, noting that in her own Twin Cities Jewish community, female professionals are working together to create a community-wide set of standards for workplace safety, equity and respect, complete with policies and trainings. “It means we’ve started the conversation. That’s a big thing. But the work is not done.”
Rahel Musleah leads “NamaStay at Home,” virtual tours of Jewish India and other cultural events (explorejewishindia.com).