Local congregations grapple with the ethical issues of the Reform movement


The Reform movement and its national institutions are going through a period of teshuvah, according to recently released reports and comments from its leaders.

In recent months, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, and the Union of Reform Judaism have all released independent reports examining past sexual misconduct of rabbis and employees, as well as gender bias and institutional.

Former employees of the three umbrella organizations have been named in the reports as having committed wrongdoing, including: Former HUC-JIR Director of Liturgical Arts and Music, Bonia Shur, in the HUC-JIR report by Morgan Lewis; Michael Cook, former professor at HUC-JIR, in the CCAR report conducted by Alcalaw; and Rabbi Jon Adland, who served as a unit leader at Camp Olin Sang Ruby, in the URJ report by Debevoise & Plimpton.

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Nationally, some in the reform movement believe the investigations should have been more thorough, while others believe the reports are good first steps towards change and healing.

Reform leaders in Pittsburgh also grappled with the implications of the reports and how to move forward.

“In all three cases, the reports are a giant leap forward and they should be credited for that,” said Temple Sinai Rabbi Daniel Fellman. “Have they gone far enough? This is a more difficult question to answer. In my mind, there is still much to discuss. We need more responsibility. »

Temple Emanuel of South Hills Chief Rabbi Aaron Meyer called the reports “heartbreaking” and “difficult to digest,” and said they exposed behavior contrary to Jewish values.

“At the same time, they’re long overdue,” Meyer said. “We know that each organization has sought the expertise of outside counsel to ensure not only independence, but also a carefully crafted process.”

Rabbi Howie Stein of B’Nai Israel of White Oak found the reports thorough and a substantial first step, but acknowledged that “in any endeavor like this, you’re not necessarily going to include everyone you might want. for various reasons. ”

Rabbi Jeremy Weisblatt of Temple Ohav Shalom in Allison Park has a different perspective.

Weisblatt came forward in a March 11 Chronicle article alleging that he was abused by a rabbi in an URJ congregation while enrolled at HUC-JIC.

While Weisblatt was not happy with the reports published by the URJ or the HUC-JIC, he said he was very proud of CCAR and its efforts.

Find a new song to sing
The liturgical melodies written by the Reform leaders named in the reports are a matter of concern for congregations.
Fellman said Temple Sinai responded as soon as the HUC-JIC report was made public.

“We immediately made the decision to remove the Bonia Shur melodies that we were using,” Fellman said. “We exchanged tunes. We haven’t specified if this is a permanent or temporary change, and to be honest, I don’t know if it will be permanent. I’m also aware of the fact that there are a number of artists, throughout history, who have this kind of track record which is quite significant, but I had to show that I take it seriously and the behavior doesn’t cannot be tolerated.”

Rabbi Barbara Symons said Temple David of Monroeville was trying to move away from the liturgy attributed to those named in the reports and was looking for alternatives.

“In fact, on March 19, as we celebrate 50 years of women in the rabbinate and 100 years since the first bat mitzvah, it will be the first time we will have a Kedusha composed by a woman. We were working on it anyway, but this is an example of perfect timing,” she said.

But changing tunes can be difficult for worshipers who may consider the music part of their traditional Reformed experience, Temple Emanuel’s Meyer said.

“I think human beings are capable of feeling complex and sometimes conflicting emotions, of liking a particular melody without liking the actions of the composer or the melody,” he said.

In some cases it is important to find appropriate and “soon to be loved” alternatives, but “in other cases these melodies can serve as teaching moments or object lessons for congregations in prayer or study” , he added.

Weisblatt said he’s had discussions with his North Hills congregation and, like Meyer, thinks it’s possible to use the melodies as a teaching moment.

“I started the discussion and I said, ‘Are we stopping the music? Are we using it to educate?'” he said. “The decision was made that we could use the melodies but we had to educate about that reality. And if it were to get to the point that the community, even with the education and our appreciation of the music, doesn’t want to use it, then we won’t. We don’t. haven’t reached that point.

A higher standard
The reports come at a time when many Reform congregations are re-examining how they deal with ethical dilemmas.

Michelle Markowitz, president of Temple Emanuel, said she participated in an URJ call with other congregation presidents to discuss creating a code of ethical conduct in URJ congregations.

Last fall, she assembled a team of congregants, congregational executive director Leslie Hoffman and Meyer, to help with this process.

“We’ve had several meetings at this point and are in the process of putting in place a code of ethics, as well as a process for those who feel the code of ethics has been implicated,” Markowitz said.

Fellman said congregations are wrestling with ethics in ways they never have before — which may mean establishing a congregational code of ethics and holding congregational leaders accountable. These practices were unthinkable a generation ago, he said.

“For me, personally, part of my challenge as a rabbi is to make sure that my congregation approaches these things in an effective, reasonable and responsible way so that we can be accountable for the actions of the past, but more so, turn the page and say we’re taking this seriously and showing that we’re committed to making things happen in a better way,” he said.

The Chronicle contacted Reform congregations Rodef Shalom Congregation and Congregation Emanu-El Israel for this story. Both declined to comment. PJC
David Rullo can be contacted at [email protected]

This is the second in a series written in response to reports of sexual misconduct recently released by the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, and the Union of Reform Judaism.


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