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Insurrection at Temple Beth Miriam
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Insurrection at Temple Beth Miriam

Sexual harassment lawsuit tests membership of Elberon congregation

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

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In December, after more than 20 years of service, Bob Kellert quit the executive board of his synagogue in disgust. He was the kind of guy who came in to check the ceilings of the synagogue during a heavy rainfall; who, over the years, ran games at the Purim carnival and participated in the Purim spiel; ran an annual raffle; even organized the annual Passover seder.

But in light of the executive board’s handling of sexual harassment allegations against board member Peter Grayson, along with what Kellert calls a general “lack of leadership from all directions,” he’s out. Grayson is one of many named defendants, including three executive board members, the rabbi, and 20 unnamed individuals in a subsequent lawsuit filed by temple administrator Frances Langer.

“They seemed to be more interested in protecting Peter Grayson than the synagogue,” Kellert said in a phone interview. “There was no moral leadership being shown.” 

Kellert’s not alone in his outrage. A splinter group of about 20 members calling themselves “Concerned Congregants” has been meeting privately to discuss the board’s handling of the allegations and the subsequent lawsuit, and what they claim was a lack of responsiveness to congregants. On Jan. 29, they sent a letter to the board and the rabbi demanding, among other things, Grayson’s immediate resignation.

“I fear for the future of Temple Beth Miriam,” Kellert said of the Reform congregation located in Monmouth County. “If the current trend continues, it’s a downward spiral.”

The lawsuit, filed in April 2018, alleges that over a period of many months, Grayson, a board member and temple donor who was Langer’s supervisor, engaged in groping, lewd comments, spying via synagogue camera, and inappropriate touching.

Langer’s suit claims that the synagogue had a “permissive and encouraging environment” for harassment and discrimination, and that in spite of her repeated complaints to Temple Beth Miriam’s management, including executive board members and the rabbi, nothing was done. In fact, according to the complaint, Grayson was encouraged and assisted by the other named and unnamed defendants, including executive committee members Harry Silverman, Mark Cohen, and Michael Gross, and Rabbi Cy Stanway.

Langer filed the lawsuit after approaching the board, asking them for “an apology” and Grayson’s removal from his supervisory role, according to her father, Leonard Berkeley. He said the board did nothing.

The thought that “her allegations would go away if they ignored it — in the age of #MeToo, that’s a bad idea,” said Kellert.

The board and the rabbi have denied the allegations, a position they continue to take through their attorney, William Healey, of the Tinton Falls law firm Kluger Healey LLC. 

NJJN reported on the allegations (“#MeToo accusations reach Jersey Shore congregation,” Aug. 9) last year. Langer began working at Temple Beth Miriam in January 2016, and she remains employed as the temple’s administrator.

The fracturing of the congregation was visible at the annual meeting held Dec. 6, 2018, to which embattled board members brought an attorney and a police officer was present. Kellert estimated that 60 people were in attendance, about six times the usual amount. During the meeting, the attorney reportedly threatened that anyone out of order would be removed, which Kellert and Berkeley, a longtime member and former executive board member, said had a “chilling” effect. They also said any questions regarding the lawsuit were stonewalled or not answered.

“Concerned Congregants” was born in the aftermath of the heated gathering. They met at Kellert’s home mid-January and then composed the letter that would be e-mailed to the board and the rabbi on Jan. 29, with the subject line: “Save Temple Beth Miriam.” It specifically requests that Grayson be removed from the board of trustees “immediately,” and that “his future at Temple Beth Miriam” be discussed. It also calls for the adoption of a policy explaining “how sexual harassment will be addressed moving forward,” and that a “special meeting” be held to address all the concerns raised in the letter. In addition to the case at hand, the letter brought up other synagogue leadership issues on subjects such as transparency, communications, decision-making, and conflicts of interest. 

The conduct of the board and its representatives at the December meeting was called an “insult” to the congregation in the letter: “The behavior of the attorney present was condescending and disrespectful toward those present. The presence of a police officer, called in by the attorney and the Executive Committee, was patronizing and only heightened the adversarial climate.”

“Concerned Congregants” expressed that board members deflected concerns raised by congregants. “The general sentiment was one of the board being separate from and uncommunicative with the congregation.”

It was signed by 15 members of “Concerned Congregants,” who requested  a response to the letter within 10 days of receipt, or by Feb. 8.

Some of those who attended the “Concerned Congregants” meeting did not sign the letter because they felt it did not go far enough. Berkeley was among those who abstained. “We thought the letter was too mild in only calling for Grayson to be gone,” he wrote to NJJN in an email. He would like to see Grayson, the rabbi, and the named defendants on the executive board forced to resign. 

Others who didn’t sign expressed concern in emails to the group, shared with NJJN, about retaliation against children in religious school or with regard to upcoming b’nei mitzvah dates.

Synagogue president Barry Edison responded on Feb. 8 via email to the Concerned Congregants group. (Edison did not return NJJN’s requests for comment.) After complimenting the group for their work on behalf of the congregation, he wrote, “because the Board’s primary obligation and fiduciary duty is to protect the Temple, sharing privileged or other confidential information relating to the defense of the lawsuit — with you or anyone else — would be irresponsible, violate that fiduciary duty and not be in the Temple’s best interests.”

Edison’s email continued, “Although I am sure this is not the response you were hoping for, it is the most prudent and responsible course of action under these difficult and unusual circumstances.” He did not respond to any of the letter’s specific requests.

Berkeley called Edison’s email a “non-answer answer.” Kellert described it as “lame.”

Another meeting of “Concerned Congregants” was scheduled for the evening of Feb. 12.

Temple Beth Miriam is the oldest synagogue on the Jersey Shore. Founded in 1888, it now has about 180 member families, down from over 400 less than 10 years ago. It is facing some of the same challenges other synagogues are confronting, such as declining membership, an aging population, and diminishing enrollment in the religious school.

“When you walk into some synagogues, there’s a feeling, a pulse, a liveliness, with happy people greeting you at the door,” said Kellert. He worries that no longer describes Temple Beth Miriam, where he thinks “a general malaise” has set in. “There doesn’t seem to be a pulse anymore,” he said.

As the world reckons with the #MeToo movement, the Jewish community is coming to terms with revelations that synagogue personnel and lay leaders aren’t immune to sexual indiscretions. Women rabbis have documented behavior they have had to endure from colleagues and congregants. Prominent rabbis have been forced to resign amid sexual harassment allegations, and some synagogues have begun to mandate sexual harassment-prevention training to professional staff and lay leaders.

Experts recommend synagogues have sexual harassment prevention policies in place, and when allegations are made, important next steps include investigating the allegations fully, documenting everything, and figuring out a resolution.

“It’s rare for someone to report sexual harassment, so it needs to be taken very seriously,” said Vivian Lewis, senior human resources director at the United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism (USCJ), the movement’s umbrella organization. In eight years on the job, she has received 11 calls from synagogues dealing with sexual harassment allegations, three of those coming after the start of the #MeToo movement in 2017, she told NJJN.

USCJ offers sample sexual harassment policies for synagogues. Additionally, with the assistance of an attorney, Lewis and USCJ will help synagogues through the process, from starting the investigation and interviewing any witnesses to following leads, documenting findings, making a final assessment, and bringing the investigation to a close.

If a synagogue finds evidence that allegations are true, she said, “Action must be taken, including separating the alleged harasser from the congregation.” Lewis added that she has seen synagogues remove the accused from the membership. “We need to have guidelines that say if you step over that line, you cannot be a member or a leader here.”

Doing nothing can have severe consequences. “You just cannot brush it aside when someone comes forward with allegations,” she said. “Not doing anything can lead to filing a lawsuit.”

At the time of the incident at Temple Beth Miriam, the synagogue had no sexual harassment policy in place, according to Kellert, nor had anyone attended sexual harassment prevention training programs. But that does not mean the temple is out of step with the Reform movement, the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ).

At the 2017 biennial, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, URJ president, addressed the issue of sexual harassment, promising two things: that the URJ would make training available to all affiliated congregations, and that it would draft a movement-wide ethics code “over the next few months.” The code has not yet been introduced, though the URJ has made its own policy on sexual harassment available to Reform congregations. It has also begun offering sexual harassment prevention training.

“The Reform Movement provides congregations with expertise, resources, guidance, and extensive trainings — based on the comprehensive ethics codes of the Reform Movement’s professional organizations — to ensure that the leadership at all congregations are educated about preventing sexual harassment and committed to making sure everyone is safe,” said Amy Asin, URJ vice president, Strengthening Congregations, in a statement to NJJN.

She pointed out that a three-part course on creating a safe congregational space was offered to all congregations in the summer of 2018, run by Dr. Fran Sepler, who pioneered sexual harassment prevention and training at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Over 100 congregations participated.

But responsibility to employ URJ’s training and resources ultimately lies with each synagogue. “Of course, each congregation affiliated with the Reform Movement is an individual entity, and some congregations have worked to develop and establish their own ethics codes,” said Asin. Temple Beth Miriam does not seem to have done so.

As the lawsuit, now in depositions, moves forward, the congregation will have to manage the fallout.

Kellert thinks the board’s handling of the allegations is a drain on membership; even people who are not part of “Concerned Congregants” are upset, he said.

“It’s not an open rebellion, but there’s an undercurrent,” he said. “Membership has been dropping. I think people will start voting with their feet.”

jginsberg@njjewishnews.com

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