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Reports of sexual abuse in the Reform movement are shocking but not surprising
We all knew this was happening. I have my own stories from life in the Reform movement. Still, there may be hopeful signs of change.
Yesterday’s hot-off-the-presses report that there is rampant sexual abuse in the Reform Movement that has been covered up for decades should come as no surprise to anyone who has been paying attention. The #MeToo-inspired outing of former HUC professor Steven M. Cohen brought about testimonies of decades of abuse at HUC and across Reform institutions and communities. Cohen was hardly alone. Rabbi Sheldon Zimmerman was already grooming a teenage congregant in 1970, which the movement knew about and eventually suspended him for in 2000 without publicizing the reason (“Personal relationships” they called it at the time), though he continued to serve in multiple leadership roles for the next 17 years, including in Birthright, UJC, Jewish Renaissance and Renewal, and the Jewish Center in the Hamptons. The fact that sexual predators are all over the Reform movement is apparent to anyone who has dwelled within its institutions, especially those seeking leadership roles. Women rabbis, women cantors, and women rabbinical students, know these dynamics all too well – even those who choose to forget, ignore, or move on.
Nevertheless, as the first denominational report about sexual abuse coming out of any of the Jewish denominations, this deserves credit. The Orthodox, Conservative, and Reconstructionist movements have not done this, even though it is just as needed elsewhere. HUC gets credit for opening up, with what seems to be honesty and integrity, and employing an outside office to do the work. It’s very risky to show the ugly corners of one’s own house. Of course, they were under so much pressure from the flood of grass-roots stories that choosing not to do it may have been worse. Still, they did it. I hope others follow. Special credit to the women inside the movement who relentlessly pushed for this, especially as Rabbi Mary Zamore of the Women’s Rabbinic Network. They have my deepest respect.
I have been researching sexual abuse in the Jewish community for four years, interviewing dozens of victims/survivors as well as communal leaders and experts in the field. This report confirms many of my findings. Here are some key take-aways: