Sexual Harassment in the Synagogue

A Case Study and Recommendations

Churches, synagogues, mosques, and other religious institutions are often poorly equipped to deal with sexual harassment. While the Catholic Church’s predatory priests have received the most media coverage, many religious groups harbor sexual offenders who may be clergy or lay members. Another member of my synagogue sexually harassed me at my house of worship for fourteen years. I repeatedly complained about his abuse but discovered that the synagogue leaders had little interest in monitoring my harasser or punishing him for assault and battery.

On July 9, 2004, I was at my Michigan synagogue unpacking boxes of books and clothes for my Sisterhood’s rummage sale. Suddenly, a man I will refer to as Saul came behind me and pinched me near my right breast.

I felt numb and frozen. My father was dying of cancer, and now Saul, who had sexually harassed many students at the college where both of us taught, had chosen me for abuse. I was fifty-five years old, I was married, and I had never flirted with Saul.

A month earlier, I had become the new president of Sisterhood. Saul was married to my vice president, Linda. His harassment put me in a very difficult position.

After I finished my rummage sale work, I went home and sent an e-mail to the synagogue’s male rabbi and president, both of whom were my age or older. I told them about the assault and asked them to never put me on a committee or project with Saul. Mike, the president, replied immediately and said that he knew about Saul’s bad reputation and would not ask me to work closely with Saul. I appreciated this response. But the rabbi never answered my message or offered help. His callous disregard shocked me.

I called Saul’s office at our university and left a firm message that I never wanted him to touch me again. I assumed that he would leave me alone. But I was wrong.

My father died six weeks later. I traveled to Arizona for the funeral and for shiva. When I returned to Michigan, I went to the synagogue that Saturday morning for worship services and to say Kaddish, the memorial prayer, for my father. After the service, I was discussing Sisterhood issues with Linda when Saul came behind me and thrust his pelvis into my rear end, almost knocking me over. Then he quickly moved away.

Linda kept talking as if nothing had happened. Her nonchalance about her husband’s deviant behavior also shocked me. This event left me very traumatized.

I resumed teaching my English and women’s studies courses. I talked to Gwen, the head of the women’s studies program, about my problems with Saul. She told me that he used to teach in her department, but she received so many complaints from students about his sexual harassment that she took away his classes. Gwen also said that if he approached me again, I should create a commotion.

In January, 2005, I was alone at the synagogue unpacking boxes for another Sisterhood rummage sale. Saul entered the room and came closer and closer to me. I was frightened because he is much taller and huskier than I am. Following Gwen’s advice, I shouted at him, “Leave me alone! Keep your hands off me! Go away!” Finally, he left the building. I felt relieved.

After each rummage sale was over, Saul would come to the social hall of the synagogue to help box up leftover items. Wherever I went in the large room, he would follow me. He seemed obsessed with being close to me, even though his wife Linda was also in the room. His stalking made me very nervous. I had many nightmares about Saul’s assaults.

I decided to discuss my anxiety with a psychologist. She diagnosed me with post-traumatic stress disorder. We worked on relaxation techniques and options for taking action.

In February, 2005, I talked to Linda about her husband’s harassment of me and told her that I had also recently seen and heard Saul talking for thirty minutes to a woman student over his cell phone in the library of our university. Linda explained that Saul has obsessive-compulsive disorder and that he often refused to take his medication. She said that he had told her about his harassment of me. She also revealed that he had promised her to stop repeatedly phoning students, which had often gotten him into trouble at the university. Apparently, Saul disregarded his wife’s pleas.

Five months later, my husband and I were at a party in Gobles, Michigan, to celebrate a bar mitzvah. Saul and Linda were also at this event. Even though I had repeatedly asked him to leave me alone, Saul stalked me like an evil shadow. He even sneaked up to sit right behind me. I moved constantly to keep him at a distance. I did not want to make a scene at my friends’ celebration.

On many other occasions, Saul followed me around at synagogue events. Because I usually saw him coming, I was able to avoid egregious assaults; however, this was due to my vigilance, not to any behavioral change on his part. I found it very stressful to constantly have to monitor Saul.

In the fall of 2005, several women active at the synagogue told me that Saul had verbally or physically harassed them and had also harassed their daughters. I realized that he targeted many Jewish women for abuse. So in November, I talked with the new synagogue president. “Arlen, Saul has sexually harassed me several times at the synagogue and at Jewish events outside of the building. Some synagogue members have experienced the same problem with him. I’m tired of his bullying. We need a sexual harassment policy to protect me and other women.”

Arlen looked worried and replied, “Coming up with a sexual harassment policy would be time-consuming and very complex.”

I knew that Arlen worked full-time, but I felt that dealing with sexual abuse was worth the effort. However, the mostly male executive officers of the synagogue voted down the idea a month later.

In January of 2006, I came to a meeting of the executive officers to discuss sexual harassment. I brought copies of scholarly research done by James E. Gruber, who argues that companies with a clear, well publicized, and well enforced sexual harassment policy have fewer incidences of harassment than firms without such measures. I also brought a document produced by the United Synagogues of Conservative Judaism that bans employees from harassing people at synagogues and cites passages from the Bible and Jewish legal writings in support. Unfortunately, this document does not cover harassment initiated by synagogue members. I informed my synagogue leaders about the assaults on other women members and about Saul’s continued harassment of me. I asked the officers to develop a sexual harassment policy for our congregation. They politely listened to me but did absolutely nothing.

During morning worship services for Board Shabbat in the spring of 2006, Saul ambushed me and again thrust his pelvis into my buttocks. I was deeply embarrassed, hurt, and angry. I felt like a hunted animal. I wanted the harassment to end.

After services, I talked to my husband about what to do. We decided that I had to make the assaults more public by complaining again to the whole leadership of the synagogue. After sunset, I went to the computer and composed an e-mail to synagogue executives and trustees demanding that they 1) establish a sexual harassment policy and 2) take action to keep me safe. A few days later, Judy, one of the trustees, phoned me and set up a meeting for March 30, 2006. The synagogue president, the rabbi, and all of the trustees were present. When I told them what had happened, one of the trustees said that Saul had also harassed her daughter when she was a teenager. This helped everyone there to believe me and to take my request seriously. The president sent Saul a letter asking him to respond to my charges and to stay away from me. Saul and his lawyer wrote a nasty reply asserting that I was making up the sexual harassment because I was emotionally imbalanced. In fact, Saul and Linda had met with the rabbi to inform him “that we felt that Janet had a serious emotional and psychological problem.” However, the letter did promise that Saul would keep his distance.

Note that in our society, men who are sexual predators often claim that women who confront them are crazy and untrustworthy. However, women have a right to privacy and a right to respectful treatment, and claiming these rights testifies to women’s sanity. Also, women rarely make false accusations of sexual harassment in the United States. Research demonstrated that only five to ten percent of public charges about sexual harassment are invalid.

In April, 2006, I also talked to administrators at the Office of Institutional Equity at my university because I was worried that Saul would come to my classes or my faculty office and assault me again. They told me that they were deeply concerned because many students, staff, and faculty members at the college had filed very similar complaints with the OIE against the same man. The administrators asked Carol, a woman officer of the campus police, to investigate. She and I met with the county prosecutor, and he opened up a criminal case against Saul for three counts of assault and battery. I found this meeting upsetting because the prosecutor seemed very bored with my case. From the prosecutor’s perspective, only rape, hospitalization, and murder were serious issues.

Carol tried to find more witnesses who had the same problem that I did with Saul. But all of the former students whom he had harassed had left Michigan, and they did not want to return to testify. I learned that the legal system will not pay for witnesses to travel to appear in court. Also, I could not find synagogue people who had actually seen the harassment during Board Shabbat. As a result, the county prosecutor decided not to take the matter to court but did arrange a plea bargain and “a suspended sentence.” The prosecutor told me that I could ask for money from Saul as part of the settlement. However, I told the prosecutor that I did not want my tormentor’s money: I simply requested that Saul take his medication and keep his distance.

In August of 2006, Saul pleaded guilty to one count of assault against me and promised to stop harassing me and other people for a year. If he cooperated, the guilty verdict would be erased from his record.

Because of the resulting one-year Personal Protection Order, Saul stopped coming to the synagogue for twelve months. Also, our university used my case to force him into early retirement because of his consistent pattern of repeated sexual harassment of faculty, staff, and students over many decades. I’m proud that I helped to save other women from a predator.

The negligent leaders of my synagogue kept procrastinating and did not develop a sexual harassment policy. The rabbi repeatedly stated in 2006 and 2007 that he did not want any sexual harassment policy. I disregarded the rabbi’s remarks because he had a conflict of interest. Through my position as an elected member of the Synagogue Board, I kept advocating for an official document about abuse. Three years after Saul’s initial assault against me and after many e-mails and meetings with synagogue officers, my synagogue finally formulated a sexual harassment policy in 2007. However, the policy was very vague and covered only abuse by paid employees of the synagogue, not the member-on-member harassment that I had experienced.

I set up another meeting with synagogue leaders to complain about problems with the new policy. I argued, “Look, our small synagogue has only ten paid employees, but hundreds of people attend services and other events here. We have many unpaid volunteers working in our building. It is much more likely that a synagogue member or guest will assault another person. We need a strict policy that punishes sexual harassment with expulsion from the congregation. Here are model procedures developed by other synagogues in the United States that have such member-on-member policies to censure abusers.”

But the synagogue leaders replied, “This is not our responsibility. We consider your difficulties with Saul to be your personal problem, not a congregational issue.” This apathy hurt and outraged me.

When the one-year PPO expired in 2008, Saul rejoined my synagogue. He stalked me and kept trying to sit as close to me as possible during worship services, which terrified me. I felt very threatened and traumatized when he came near me because I feared injury and because his behavior was so perverse and sadistic.

Saul spread rumors that I am delusional and have misperceived him. But I have accurately represented what has transpired. Until he abused me repeatedly, I had never publicly accused anyone of sexual harassment. Saul also told many people that he “has changed,” but I have seen no evidence of any transformation. It is easy for a man to claim that he is different, but, in fact, many harassers have obsessions or personality disorders that cause them to repeatedly abuse other individuals. This holds true for Saul.

In 2011, I hired a lawyer who negotiated a permanent restraining order demanding that Saul stay away from me. Despite this order which he signed, Saul continued to try to sit near me at the synagogue and to get close to me. For example, he purposely came through a small doorway at the same time that I did, nearly causing a collision.

Also, I remained concerned because Saul was a threat to other members of the synagogue, especially women. He often made sexual comments to women, committed sexual assaults, and tried to look down the blouses of teenagers. I spoke to synagogue members who told me that he repeatedly harassed them and their daughters. Other women in the synagogue told me that Saul was still harassing them. But unlike me, the other women did not want to make their experiences public knowledge.

In 2015, I met again with the executive officers of my synagogue to discuss Saul’s continued harassment of me. Now the president, vice president, and other officers were women, in part due to my efforts to persuade synagogue leaders to give leadership positions to women. I hoped that the new officers would help me more than their male predecessors had done. These women leaders admitted that Saul had made inappropriate comments to them and to their daughters. However, they had not seen Saul’s physical harassment of me, so they had trouble believing my account. Because Saul was a tenured sociology professor, people thought that he was too sophisticated to bash women. Also, the women leaders claimed that Saul’s many court cases for sexual harassment of students at the local university had nothing to do with what went on at the synagogue. Finally, they decided to ask Saul to sit on another side of the sanctuary from where I sat.

But Saul often violated this new seating policy. On one occasion, he moved in the middle of a worship service to sit two seats away from me. Synagogue leaders who were present did not notice this and did not punish Saul for any infractions of their policy. He has never shown any remorse or apologized to me for his stalking, assaults, and battery. In 2018, Saul and Linda left Michigan to move to a retirement home in Virginia, where their son and his family live. For the first time in fourteen years, I felt safe going to my synagogue.

I complained about Saul’s sexual harassment and my synagogue’s leaders’ refusal to intervene to the national Jewish organizations Women’s League for Conservative Judaism and the United Synagogues of Conservative Judaism. Women’s League’s regional and national leaders expressed concern but said that they could not help me due to their organization’s agreement with the USCJ. When I complained to the USCJ leaders, they ignored my pleas and forwarded my e-mails to the do-nothing officers of my own synagogue, who treated me as though I were the problem instead of my abuser.

I’m very disappointed by the hands-off approach of both Women’s League and the USCJ to sexual harassment. Both organizations need ombudswomen to handle complaints about synagogues’ inaction during ongoing abuse. Also, both organizations need policies that cover member-on-member harassment. The current hands-off policies of Women’s League and the USCJ do not fit the prevalence of sexual abuse in the twenty-first century and the trauma that targets of harassment suffer.

To maintain positive connections among worshippers, religious organizations often emphasize prompt forgiveness of offenses. This clemency is constructive when the offense is simple rudeness or accidental contact. However, when the problem is intentional sexual harassment and/or assault, prompt forgiveness is not the best response. Many sexual predators obsessively want power and repeatedly harass their victims. These offenders need firm rules, psychological counseling, and strong sanctions to discourage serial molestation.

In general, houses of worship need to become places where people can feel safe. All religious institutions and organizations should provide clear and stringent sexual harassment policies that cover different types of abuse, regardless of who commits the assaults, the employment status of the individuals, and the genders of the people involved. I feel strongly that serial harassers should be expelled from churches, synagogues, mosques, etc. Also, any clergy who ignore complaints about abuse should lose their jobs. In addition, we need to impeach negligent officers of congregations who turn their backs on harassed individuals.

Our legal system must become more sensitive to all types of sexual harassment, whether it is online, verbal, or physical. If abuse has lasted for years, a one-year restraining order seems inadequate. Courts need the flexibility to issue multi-year or permanent restraining orders and to insist on severe penalties if assailants stalk or touch those who have asked for privacy and respect. Prosecutors and law enforcement personnel need to take more interest in curbing sexual harassment. Having units with special training in dealing with harassment would help districts. Also, because criminal defendants have the right to see anyone testifying against them face-to-face, courts require funds to cover the travel expenses of witnesses.

Workplaces, schools, religious organizations, Scout troops, sports teams, and other groups need to educate people about sexual harassment and to punish abusers. I also recommend that all schools and colleges teach self-defense skills, especially to girls and women, who frequently get targeted by assailants.

Sweeping harassment under the rug will not prevent more assaults or heal traumatized individuals. Sexual harassment at a house of worship is not a “personal problem.” Such abuse is a crisis for the whole community, and everyone must address this concern.

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