In the wake of a series of high-profile scandals involving prominent Jewish leaders and organizations, some 400 prominent American Jewish clergy, academics and others have signed a statement calling for Jewish institutions to commit to “core principals of ethical behavior anchored” in Jewish and American values.
With the “Declaration on Ethics in Jewish Leadership,” Rafael Medoff, a Washington-area Holocaust scholar who initiated the statement, said he hopes to “start a conversation in the American Jewish community” about transparency, democracy and “moral accountability.”
The statement is posted online on a website of a group that Medoff founded to promote its goals.
What the recent scandals have in common is Jewish leaders “taking advantage of their power for personal gain,” Medoff said.
Neither the statement nor Medoff pointed to individuals. But the arrest of Washington Rabbi Barry Freundel hit close to home. In 2015, Freundel was sentenced to 6 ½ years in prison for voyeurism. In New York, the board of Riverdale Jewish Center decided to keep Rabbi Jonathan Rosenblatt in place after a New York Times exposé last year on the rabbi’s habit of having sauna chats with naked boys caused an uproar.
New York was also the site of two recent financial scandals. In 2014, William Rapfogel was sent to prison for pocketing more than $1 million in kickbacks at the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty, where he was CEO. FEGS, one of the largest social service agencies in the United States and a beneficiary of UJA-Federation of New York, shut its doors in 2015 after unexpectedly losing $19.4 million.
“We’re trying to shine a light on problems,” Medoff said.
One problem, according to Medoff, is a lack of democracy in Jewish organizations, particularly the largest ones. The declaration calls for competitive contests for leadership and term limits for top officers.
“With regard to positions that are not subject to elections, the size of an individual’s donations should not be the decisive factor in determining his or her selection,” it reads.
“There hasn’t been a multi-candidate race for the chairman of the Conference of Presidents [of Major Jewish Organizations] for decades,” Medoff said, referring to the umbrella organization created as a central Jewish address for the U.S. government. “What we’re saying is that members of organizations should choose their leaders.”
The statement also attacks unethical behavior among Jewish leaders, which it says “has reached crisis levels.”
That includes “people who have engaged in sexual misconduct and people who knew about it and remained silent,” Medoff said.
He said he is particularly concerned about “enablers. In many of the situations where an abuser was caught, there were people who knew about the abuse but didn’t speak out.”
The statement also calls out heads of “Jewish institutions and organizations” for receiving “excessive financial remuneration.”
“Some Jewish leaders are taking exorbitant salaries,” Medoff said. “Even if it’s not possible to come up with a formula of how much a Jewish leader should earn, we’re trying to encourage” an environment of “modesty and moderation.”
The response of the heads of Jewish organizations ADL, AJC and the Conference of Presidents “has been positive,” he said.
Rabbi Stuart Weinblatt of Congregation B’nai Tzedek in Potomac was among the Washington-area signers of the statement, which had been circulating privately until last week. “As clergy, we cringe when we hear about other Jewish clergy. It boils down to an abuse of power and abuse of trust,” he said. “The statement is an attempt to recapture that trust.”
He said he signed the statement because “it is important for rabbis and other Jewish leaders to make clear what kind of behavior is acceptable. It should be obvious, but it’s not obvious.”
Rabbi Sid Schwarz, rabbi emeritus of Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation in Bethesda, said he signed the statement because clergy who betray people’s trust not only hurt the victims, but also “color people’s view of the faith. It’s hard enough to pull people into the tent.”
He said the call for modesty in salaries and democracy in Jewish institutions is well-founded. “These are good operating principles for the entire nonprofit sector,” Schwarz said.
“I’d like to see it signed by every rabbi in every denomination,” said Rabbi Leila Gal Berner of Kol Ami, The Northern Virginia Reconstructionist Community. “Leadership has to be out there stating the ethical concerns.”
She signed the declaration because “I’ve been dismayed by what’s been happening in our rabbinic world with leaders who have gone astray.”
One such leader is Marc Gafney, the rabbi-turned-practitioner of world spirituality, who has been accused of sexually assaulting women. “In the Jewish world we did a good job of putting a ban on him,” she said.
But Gaffney’s reemergence as a “visionary philosopher, author, and social innovator,” as his website describes him, has Berner worried.
Going on the record against unethical behavior is necessary, she said, “to make it clear we’re not going to tolerate it in our institutions.”