Table of Contents:
- Sexual harassment lawsuit filed against East Bay rabbi, temple (08/09/1996)
- How a synagogue heals itself (10/26/1996)
- Ex-rabbi of E. Bay synagogue sues over termination (11/07/1996)
- Rabbi's lawsuit against synagogue dismissed (08/09/1997)
- Ex-inmate sets up program to help Jews at Folsom
- "The Wedding Ministries"… CLERGY
- Current activities: Board of Rabbis of Northern California
- Religion Link
How a synagogue heals itself
"I think the greatest comfort you can give to congregants is to once again allow them to live their lives with some sense of order," Rabbi Mark Schiftan said.
Schiftan served as interim senior rabbi at San Francisco's Congregation Emanu-El for 1-1/2 years, after Rabbi Robert Kirschner resigned amid allegations of sexual improprieties in early 1992.
"We made it very clear to the congregation that one person or one rabbi cannot bring about the collapse of a congregation...I was very proud of the spirit of the congregation," Schiftan said.
Today, the temple's leaders said, remnants from the past psychological shock rarely crop up -- due in part to how the congregation handled the trauma at the time.
"I just don't believe anyone is having angst over this anymore," said Paul Matzger, who is the temple's immediate past president and was the vice president when Kirschner left.
Yet Rabbi Stephen Pearce, who became Kirschner's permanent replacement in mid-1993, said the incident will always remain in the back of the temple's institutional memory.
"It is a legacy," he said.
Schiftan, who left San Francisco to become leader of San Jose's Temple Emanu-El in mid-1994, offered a similar assessment. He compared a congregation facing such trauma to a family dealing with a loss such as death. Neither will ever completely recover.
"That loss is never truly over. No matter how complete the healing, the scar always remains," he said.
Kirschner quit on New Year's Day 1992 after three congregants and an Emanu-El employee alleged he had engaged in sexual misconduct. With the widespread media coverage that followed, a dozen women -- not all of them congregants -- eventually came forward with similar stories.
He denied the accusations at the time. But Kirschner, in response to a recent Jewish Telegraphic Agency request for an interview, has issued his first public apology for "sexual relations outside my marriage" during his 11 years at one of Northern California's largest synagogues.
At the time, the allegations plunged the temple's 1,600 families into turmoil. Their reactions ranged from shock, sorrow and outrage to embarrassment, disbelief and a sense of betrayal.
"It hit like a thunderbolt," Matzger said.
Before knowing whether the allegations were true or false, Schiftan said, Emanu-El took a number of immediate steps to deal with the emotional trauma.
The Reform synagogue held two congregational meetings of up to 200 members each and offered individual counseling to victims, congregants and employees.
Soon after, Emanu-El drafted its first sexual harassment policy.
But Schiftan maintained that continuing the spiritual life -- Shabbat services, holiday celebrations, weddings, b'nai mitzvah and programming -- was the most important element of all during those "very long and often lonely days."
As far as the alleged victims, Matzger said the original three congregants who came forward are no longer members of Emanu-El. Matzger said he doesn't know whether any others remain.
Pearce, who said he never saw a list of alleged victims, said it would have made sense for these women to leave. "Let them heal and get some therapy and start fresh," he said. "They should get on with their lives."
While Emanu-El has had the advantage of time -- nearly five years -- to heal and reflect, another Bay Area congregation has been dealing with a fresher wound.
San Leandro's Temple Beth Sholom fired its longtime rabbi in May, amid allegations of financial wrongdoing. A month later, a congregant who was also a part-time employee filed a lawsuit alleging sexual harassment.
Rabbi Ira Book has denied both charges. Book filed his own lawsuit against the East Bay synagogue last month, alleging breach of contract, slander and libel.
Regardless of the outcome of either lawsuit, synagogue leaders acknowledged that congregants have suffered a shock.
Like Schiftan, Cantor Linda Hirschhorn said preserving the cycle of services and rituals has kept the congregation functioning as it heals.
"We're just right at the beginning. It's most important for community life to continue, for no one to feel cheated," said Hirschhorn, the Conservative synagogue's sole spiritual leader until a new rabbi is hired.
Shortly after Book was placed on administrative leave in March, Hirschhorn said, a significant event occurred.
The congregation held an already scheduled service to honor volunteers. The event helped congregants realize they were the ones who would sustain the 240-household synagogue, regardless of its leadership.
"The main concern was: Can we survive and continue?" Hirschhorn said. "We discovered we could."
Marvin Zinn, Beth Sholom's board president, agreed, saying he learned that "everyone is expendable."
At the same time, he credited Hirschhorn for helping the congregation forge ahead.
"She's done a magnificent job," Zinn said. "She's held it together."
Like Emanu-El, Beth Sholom offered psychological counseling. But no one at Beth Sholom showed an interest, Zinn said.
While the passage of time has eased the trauma of a sex scandal in the case of Emanu-El, some there still question whether the matter could have been handled better.
Emanu-El's Matzger criticized the response of the Reform movement at the time of the Kirschner controversy, particularly by its rabbinic association known as the Central Conference of American Rabbis.
"What I found out early on: The CCAR was of no help, except to suggest an appropriate severance package," he said. "We were kind of on our own."
But Matzger doesn't regret Emanu-El's response to the situation. He continues to defend Kirschner's exit package, which has been cited as $230,000 in severance pay, accrued pension and equity from a jointly owned home. Kirschner's wife and four children didn't need to suffer any more than they already had, Matzger said.
"What are you going to do? Put him on the welfare rolls? We are a Jewish institution," Matzger said.
Today, Kirschner is suspended from the Central Conference of American Rabbis until at least the year 2000. He works as program director at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles, which has strong ties to the Reform movement.
Since his resignation, Kirschner has returned to Emanu-El only once. In February, he responded to a family request and officiated at the funeral service of Rhoda Goldman, who was board president when Kirschner left.
Despite the potential reactions, Pearce approved of Kirschner's appearance in that instance. "It was a family funeral," he said. "They had the right to ask for that rabbi."
A few people made angry phone calls to Pearce, but "more than that, people said it's great he could be here and get on with his life."
Kirschner did not mention the scandal from the bimah that day.
Though his brief return to Emanu-El might appear monumental, Matzger even envisions a time when Kirschner could come back as a visiting rabbi before the entire congregation in a "spirit of reconciliation."
Such a scenario would mark the "final healing," Matzger said, because it would show that everyone had made peace with the past.
"Under the right circumstances and given sufficient time, it was and still is my...hope that Bob Kirschner can return to Emanu-El" as a guest speaker, Matzger said.
Those "right circumstances," he added, include an acknowledgment of wrongdoing directly to Emanu-El, and evidence of his spiritual and emotional recovery.
Matzger doesn't view this scenario as impossible.
"I don't think he's a fallen man for all time."
Book was terminated in May 1996 amid allegations of misconduct.
He had served Beth Sholom for 18 years.
He and his wife, Sharon, filed the lawsuit in September 1996 against Temple Beth Sholom in San Leandro and 19 congregants, mostly board members.
The suit's claims included breach of contract, slander, libel, infliction of emotional distress and invasion of privacy.
His lawsuit denied allegations made by congregants that the rabbi "improperly used monies from the Discretionary Fund" and "engaged in improper relations with a female member of Temple Beth Sholom."
The suit, filed in Alameda County Superior Court, officially ended a month ago.
"The case has been resolved and it's dismissed," Philip Ross, an attorney for the synagogue, said last week.
He would not release any further information, explaining that the details were confidential.
"There is an agreement by the parties to really not discuss this with the media," he said.
Book's attorneys, Lee Archer and Mark Coon, did not return phone calls.
A related lawsuit filed against Book and the synagogue in June 1996 is still active, though it has not gone to trial yet. The plaintiff, a former congregant and part-time employee, accuses Book of sexual harassment and other misconduct.
Ex-inmate sets up program to help Jews at Folsom
Jewish Weekly - December 1, 2000
Many Jewish inmates in California's state prisons hide their Jewish identity out of fear of neo-Nazis, according to a Jewish chaplain.
Despite some opportunities for Jewish identity at Folsom State Prison near Sacramento, said Rabbi Ira Book, only between 15 and 20 Jews incarcerated there openly practice Judaism -- or even admit to being Jews.
Book estimates that between 60 and 100 Jews are incarcerated there.
"Some just don't much about their Jewish heritage," he said, "but a large number are afraid to admit to it -- it's a justified fear."
In a recent letter to Barney Ugarte, a member of Congregation Beth Sholom in San Francisco, a Folsom inmate wrote of the obstacles one must hurdle "to maintain and nourish our Jewish faith...in this environment."
As a former Folsom inmate, Ugarte understands completely.
"Along with the isolation there's a very large neo-Nazi presence there," said Ugarte, who was released on parole in July after serving 22 months for conspiracy to counterfeit, a nonviolent, white-collar crime. Describing a backlash that includes rape, intimidation, threats and violent attacks, he said, "Imagine men with enormous swastikas tattooed on their bellies. You have to be very careful about identifying as a Jew."
While in Folsom, Ugarte chose to be one of the practicing Jews. Although targeted at times by anti-Semites, he explained, "Judaism is at the core of my being."
And in the months since he chanted the Hebrew prayer said upon one's release from prison, Ugarte said his thoughts have remained focused on the Jewish prisoners.
Troubled by both the stifling effects of the neo-Nazi presence and prisoners' isolation from the outside world, Ugarte decided to take action. His recently formed Jewish Life Inmate Prison Project will target those Jews sentenced to life in Folsom by providing them with an essential Jewish lifeline outside the prison bars.
"Some of these guys' families are far away or have given up on them completely; they have no outside Jewish contact," said Ugarte. "One guy has done almost 30 years behind the wall and may never get out. The need for people like him to get some connection is critical." Under the auspices of two Beth Sholom programs -- the Keshet and Va'ad Zedek -- inmates will receive several items and services. They include membership at the Conservative synagogue; a monthly newsletter; regular correspondence; visits by congregants; ritual materials; a care package with pre-approved foods like cereal, coffee and instant soup, or clothes such as long underwear and tennis shoes; and special prayer services and/or celebrations during certain Jewish holidays. "The difference between having outside contact and not having outside contact is like the difference between night and day," said Ugarte, who has already found five interested inmates and hopes to encourage more.
"If they do eventually get out of prison, they'll be affiliated with a synagogue," he said, "and maybe we can help them with the transition. Getting out is a scary experience. One guy has been behind bars for so long that he's never even used a microwave."
Ugarte and Beth Sholom participants are currently raising the $2,000 necessary to bring the program into fruition. Their first major fund-raising event, a benefit concert of jazz, folk and opera music, will take place at 7:30 p.m. Thursday in the Friedman Center at Congregation Beth Sholom, 1301 Clement St. A donation of $10 is requested.
Ugarte does not fear that the program's recognition will put the inmates in any extra danger of neo-Nazis since those who choose to participate are already openly practicing Jews.
"If anything," he said, "it will give them a little bit of dignity," describing his prison garb of worn, improperly fitted brown boots, three shirts, two pairs of pants and a very thin jacket for winter weather, which can drop down to a "freezing 20 degrees." Book, who will assist the project from the prison end, said Ugarte's goal is "wonderful." Such assistance will play a critical role in aiding the prisoners' recovery and perhaps undoing some of the taboos placed on Jews in prison. "Any contact that says you are important to us, that we want to support you in terms of your health, recovery and -- if paroled -- your re-entrance into the stream is a vital linkage," he said. "We're seeing a type of outreach here that hasn't before been expressed by the Jewish community."
Ugarte emphasized that he isn't doing anything above or beyond the call of duty for a Jew. It is, of course, a mitzvah, "to care for someone who is in prison," he said. But, in a lot of ways, it's just a matter of common sense.
"Judaism provides for every Jew a chance to return to God and a chance to return to yourself," said Ugarte. "We're helping to give these inmates a vehicle to repent and return to God. Every Jew deserves the opportunity and the right to do that."
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