In recent months, three major arms of the Reform Movement have conducted independent investigations into reports of sexual harassment, abuse, and misconduct going back as far as 50 years. In November 2021, the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR), the Reform seminary, released a report of its investigation into allegations of misconduct conducted by Morgan Lewis. The Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) released a report of its ethics system conducted by Alcalaw, a women-founded and led, trauma-informed law firm, in December 2021. In February 2022, the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) released its report conducted by Debevoise & Plimpton into sexual harassment, abuse, and misconduct at URJ workplaces, summer camps, youth programs, and other URJ programs. We commend the victims and witnesses who stepped forward to share their stories with the investigators and admire their courage and bravery.
The combined content of these reports is deeply disturbing. In too many cases, our internal ethics systems failed to protect victims, perpetrators were not held accountable, and our institutions failed to live up to our values. Nonetheless, we applaud the transparency with which each of these organizations released the full reports, apologized to victims, and acknowledged the need for teshuvah. These reports are appropriately victim-centered, infused with Jewish values and teachings, and provide recommendations to help prevent such misconduct from happening in the future. Much remains to be done to improve our ethics systems, change institutional culture, assure accountability, and reassert Reform Jewish values fully within our institutions. WRJ calls upon the leaders of the Reform Movement to continue to address matters of sexual impropriety in a forthright and transparent manner, strengthen ethics policies and procedures, and assure compliance and implementation with these policies.
We note with particular concern the number of reported incidents that have taken place in Reform congregations, which are not governed by these three institutions. This means that congregations are often the locus of sexual misconduct, yet they will not be covered by the strengthened policies and systems that HUC-JIR, CCAR, and URJ have pledged to put into place in the coming months as a result of these investigations. While the URJ report offers recommendations related to congregations, which the URJ has committed to implementing, congregational leaders themselves must step up to address these challenges.
As leaders of our congregations, we are responsible for what takes place within our orbit. We must assure that our children, youth, vulnerable members, volunteers, staff, clergy, and anyone who steps foot in our congregations or participates in our programs are protected and treated properly. By educating ourselves to be informed advocates and empowered changemakers, we can help shape and preserve safer environments in our synagogues. We must not abdicate our responsibility to provide a spiritual home where every person is safe, valued, heard, and treated with integrity and respect.
WRJ and WRJ members can play a critical role in assuring that our local congregations have appropriate policies and enforcement mechanisms in place to address such behavior if it occurs in our synagogues. To that end, as a first step, we call on every WRJ affiliate and WRJ member associated with a congregation to:
- Connect with their congregation’s leadership to find out whether or not their congregation has an ethics code or policy;
- Advocate for and work with their congregation’s board and leadership to review existing ethics policies to determine if they conform to best practices and are being implemented properly; or
- In the absence of such policies, work with congregational leaders in a timely manner to develop and implement an ethics policy, utilizing URJ resources such as the “Guide to Creating a Congregational Ethics Code” and sample congregational policies, which are available upon request.
WRJ will work with the URJ and other arms of the Reform Movement to educate our members and provide assistance in developing proper policies and procedures. Only by working together with a shared commitment to changing our communal culture can we ensure that the egregious behaviors that have taken place in the past never happen again.