Reform movement staff call for ‘urgent action’ on sexual harassment report

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Arno Rosenfeld, The Forward

This story was originally published on March 18 by the Forward. Sign up here to get the latest stories from the Forward delivered to you each morning.

More than 500 current and former employees of the Union for Reform Judaism have signed a letter criticizing its response to a February report detailing a history of sexual harassment at summer camps and other institutions run by the organization.

“We await–with high expectations and limited patience–a concrete plan and public timeline for institutional review and reform,” said the letter, a copy of which was obtained by the Forward Friday.

Union for Reform Judaism

It was signed by a number of current staff members, including Lizzie Stein, interim director of the organization’s flagship social justice program for teenagers, Joy Friedman, organizing director at the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, and Logan Zinman Gerber, who leads teen organizing work for the RAC.

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Scores of former employees and Reform rabbis who have previously worked for the movement also signed the letter, including Daniel Zemel, who leads Temple Micah in Washington, D.C., Peter Berg, head of The Temple in Atlanta, and Mary Zamore, head of the Women’s Rabbinic Network.

“We know that the signers speak from a position of love and concern, and we are grateful for this outreach,” Rick Jacobs, president of the URJ, said in a statement. “They are among our partners in this critical work, and we look forward to following up with them very soon.”

The letter comes on the heels of a report commissioned by the URJ and released last month that found the organization had enabled the sexual abuse of children by clergy and summer camp employees, and that through the mid-1990s had maintained a practice of hiring rabbis who had been sanctioned elsewhere for sexual misconduct.

Union for Reform Judaism report

The report was the last of the three similar investigations across Reform movement institutions and it identified 17 incidents sexual misconduct by adults against minors, 16 incidents between minors and 39 between adults.

Jacobs and board chair Jennifer Brodkey Kaufman said in a joint statement at the time that they were “committed to creating environments that better protect the safety and well-being of everyone in our community.”

But the letter, which was addressed to Jacobs and Kaufman, pointed to disappointment with how the organization has responded to the report, which was released February 17.

It included three demands: that the URJ create a “concrete plan” for reform and meet public, quarterly benchmarks; that the URJ “state unequivocally their belief in survivors’ and reporters’ testimonies”; and that the URJ release all former employees from non-disclosure agreements and end its practice of requiring employees to sign such documents in order to receive severance.

(This reporter worked for the URJ from 2019-2020 and signed a non-disclosure agreement.)

“The movement taught us to speak truth to power, and we find ourselves in the uncomfortable situation where the Movement is the power,” the letter states. “The buck stops with us.”

The letter asks for a response from the URJ by Passover, which begins on April 15.