Making Our Spaces Safer and Sacred

by Rabbi Audrey Pollack, December 1, 2021

Dear Solel,

I shared a longer version of this important message at Shabbat services during parashat Vayishlach, in the context of the story of the rape of Dinah. For those that missed it, I share an excerpt here:

What happens when the stories of the minority in a community or those who are marginalized are not told. What happens when those voices and their cries and prayers are silenced?

Early last month, a report was published by our Reform seminary, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR), the result of a wide-ranging investigation of misconduct by faculty of the Reform Movement’s seminary. It has been reported widely by the Jewish and secular press, including the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, the Forward, the Times of Israel, and the Washington Post. The report found credible evidence of sexual misconduct, as well as harassment, discrimination, and bullying based on gender, sexual orientation, race and disability over the past five decades. The investigation was conducted by an outside investigative law firm, Morgan Lewis.

This investigation was undertaken in response to some events last Spring. As a result, the three major institutions of our movement each hired law firms to investigate sexual misconduct, harassment, gender discrimination and a culture which created an unsafe environment for many. The institutions are the seminary I attended, Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR); the organization of Reform rabbis, the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR); and the umbrella organization of congregations, the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ). The Women’s Rabbinic Network has taken a significant role in advocating for these investigations.

The report from HUC-JIR is the first of the three reports. This report is the result of months of interviews with students and graduates, faculty and staff across all programs, who came forward to speak to investigators about their traumatic experiences.

While I am saddened by the breadth of incidents detailed in the report, having been an HUC student in the earlier classes of female students, I am not surprised. I remain proud to be a rabbi ordained by HUC-JIR, because it represents the movement that I love, Reform Judaism, and it was there that I was prepared for the rabbinic work that I now do, which brings me immense joy and satisfaction. I loved my learning there, and had many wonderful teachers and classmates, although there are other aspects of my experiences there and within the movement that have been very challenging. I am proud to be a leader in the Reform movement, which has been at the forefront of equity, respect and inclusion since the early days of our history. It is clear, however that it is now time for our Jewish institutions to reckon with the darker aspects of our history and call for transparency and teshuvah across all levels of organized Jewish life.

I am especially grateful to the work of the Women’s Rabbinic Network, an organization of which I am proud to be a long-time member, and past executive board member, for their advocacy in bringing these findings to light. This year marks 50 years of Women Rabbis, and the 50th Anniversary of the Ordination of the first female rabbi, Rabbi Sally J. Priesand. Some of you attended the online Jubilee Kickoff last spring, and there will be more events in celebration this coming Spring. There is much to celebrate in the pioneering work of the first generations of female rabbis and the decades of accomplishments and progress for women clergy and for our larger Jewish community. After 50 years, I am heartened that it is finally time for these stories to be listened to, and for the cries and prayers not to be silenced.

I also know that it has taken a great deal of courage for many to come forward and speak these truths, reliving the trauma of pervasive and persistent experiences of sexual harassment and abuse, in an old-boys network in which the perpetrators were protected, and those who reported experienced retaliatory behavior. So, I also honour those who chose not to make a report at this time.

This is a first step in changing the sexism, homophobia, racism, and ableism that exists not only in our own Reform institutions but in many other Jewish institutions throughout the world. While this report is specific to HUC-JIR, we know these allegations are not isolated to any one Jewish institution or movement. By releasing these findings publicly our Reform movement has helped set a standard for other legacy organizations within and outside of the Jewish world. As Elana Wien, director of the Safety Equity and Respect Network said, the broader Jewish community should be cautioned against focusing too much on the Reform movement. Instead, other Jewish institutions should “take the report as a prompt to examine their own problems.”

We should all recognize that this first step must lead to many more steps. There is so much more work to be done to take proactive steps to build cultures of safety, respect and equity in our Jewish community. I am truly hopeful that bringing these findings to light will create safer, healthier institutions in the future that are aligned with our Jewish values towards making our spaces safer and sacred.


Rabbi Audrey S. Pollack

Filed under: Rabbi's Message

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