Sexual abuse and misogynistic culture hurt rabbinical school students

Sexual harassers ran the rabbinical school of the reform movement for more than three decades, according to an explosive new report commissioned by the school.

Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk, president and then chancellor of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion from 1971 to 1996, and his successor, Rabbi Sheldon Zimmerman, who served until 2000, harassed and assaulted women at the seminary, according to the report. While the allegations that led to Zimmerman’s suspension in 2000 had come to light earlier this year, Gottschalk had never been mentioned in public indictments before.

In addition to running the institution and teaching the students, the men were also responsible for ordaining generations of Reform rabbis.

Gottschalk and Zimmerman are among six prominent former seminary employees to be named in the report, the result of an independent investigation into the school’s past handling of the sexual abuse allegations. The investigation is one of three launched simultaneously on the institutions of the reform movement, years after the #MeToo social account system became more comprehensive.

Over the course of the investigation, researchers hired by the Morgan Lewis law firm spoke with 170 past and present faculty, staff and students of the seminar who responded to an open call to participate. The conversations revealed that while conditions at the seminary have improved in recent years, for decades a “good-boy mentality” existed on all four school campuses in the United States, and Israel harmed generations of rabbis and reform professionals.

Rabbi Michael Cook teaches a class at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati in 2016 (credit: JANINE SPANG VIA JTA)

Many of the women interviewed described facing critical comments about their weight, appearance, pregnancies, and presence in a rabbinical school that ordained its first wife in 1972, under Gottschalk. Both students and teachers recalled discrimination against queer students. Other interviewees said they felt official reports of harassment would not lead to accountability.

“The pain that many witnesses have harbored based on their experience at HUC, some for decades, was palpable,” the report says. “Many witnesses burst into tears, while others commented on the years they have spent in therapy.”

The seminar will take the findings seriously and act on them, according to Sue Neuman Hochberg, chair of the board of governors. The administration has agreed to draft a plan for the board’s review by Dec. 14, a spokesperson said.

“Numerous members of the HUC-JIR community described lasting harm from conduct that is antithetical to the core values ​​of this institution and simply unacceptable,” Hochberg said in a statement. She added: “We respect their courage and willingness to share painful memories, and we are committed to honoring what we hear from them.”

Because they heard so many accusations – about discrimination based on gender, race and LGBTQ + status; Sexual harassment; and intimidation – Investigators were unable to verify all of them, according to the report. Instead, they targeted a small number of men against whom “repeated and credible accusations” were made.

Of the six men named in the report, four are dead. They are Gottschalk; Rabbi Michael Cook, a New Testament scholar whose death in April sparked accusations on social media that became a trigger for the investigation, according to the report; Stephen Passamaneck, a professor of rabbinical literature who retired in 2013 and whose misdeeds, the report says, included filling his HUC computer with pornography; and Bonia Shur, a liturgy teacher in Cincinnati who was widely known for having forcibly touched students.

The two who are alive, Zimmerman and Steven Cohen, a prominent sociologist who resigned in 2018 after an investigation found him guilty of sexual misconduct, have previously been the subject of public accusations.

The researchers looked at what actions, if any, had been taken when students reported misbehavior in the past. In some cases, they found no evidence of formal complaints, suggesting that students may have chosen not to record their concerns. In others, as with Passamaneck, they found that people who were repeatedly disciplined for inappropriate behavior were still allowed to teach courses.

Among the allegations that investigators routinely heard was that Gottschalk was widely understood as a “womanizer” who routinely pressured HUC students to come to his apartment, where he proposed propositions, or worse. One former student recalled Gottschalk placing his hand on his penis, and another told investigators that he had pinned her against a wall and forcefully kissed her.

Until this summer, Gottschalk’s behavior was the subject only of a whispered network of rabbis who recounted uncomfortable and inappropriate experiences with him. Then in June, Mary Zamore, leader of the Women’s Rabbinical Network, a group of reformist rabbis who pushed for accountability around sexual abuse, named him during a presentation at a conference on repairing moral injuries.

Zamore recalled that she had only been in her rabbinical training for a few weeks, studying at the HUC campus in Jerusalem, when a classmate told her that Gottschalk had pushed her twice for a date. “By rejecting him, he feared for his academic standing and his future in the rabbinate,” Zamore recalled in his presentation at the conference.

This behavior turned out not to be a singular case, but a pattern that was revealed through private conversations between the students.

“Other students warned me not to go to his office and to avoid being alone with him, whether in a hallway or in an elevator,” Zamore said.

Six years passed and the day of Zamore’s ordination arrived. The ceremony required Gottschalk to place his hand on his head. She was afraid of being touched by him and felt it was a “parody” that the classmates who had been bullied by him had to be ordered in this way. What should have been a sacred moment was instead a “torturous” experience, he said.

At least one student was ordered privately to prevent Gottschalk from laying hands on him, according to the report.

With many of his alumni in the rabbinate today, Gottschalk left behind a legacy of moral damage, a type of trauma that can stem from the betrayal of a trusted authority, Zamore said.

“Survivors have shared their ambivalence about becoming a rabbi after a rabbi hurt them,” Zamore said in his presentation. “Many of her narratives include outrage at being ordered by her stalker.”

The investigation report urges the seminary to hold an optional “reordering ceremony or something similar” for rabbis who felt their ordination had been tainted. He recommends a number of other changes, including the establishment of new systems to review allegations and explore the possibility of revoking the ordination of rabbis who have committed abuses. It also encourages the school to participate in a “teshuvah or repentance” process.

Zamore had expressed optimism amid the launch of the reform movement investigations that a “reckoning” was underway. After reading the report, the Women’s Rabbinical Network said the investigation was reassuring because it was comprehensive and transparent.

The next step, the group said in a statement, was to implement the report’s recommendations and others aimed at preventing future abuses from occurring and not being addressed.

“By engaging a respected external investigative body and conducting a serious and comprehensive investigation into sexual misconduct and discrimination in the past and present, HUC-JIR has acted with integrity and helped set a standard for other organizations. inherited inside and outside the Jewish world, ”said the group’s statement. “The repair work is lengthy and this investigation, with its long and detailed report and recommendation, is a remarkable and important step in that ongoing process.”

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