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#MeToo accusations reach Jersey Shore congregation
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#MeToo accusations reach Jersey Shore congregation

Temple Beth Miriam named in harassment suit

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

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Frances Langer, administrator at Temple Beth Miriam in Elberon, has sued the Reform congregation, its rabbi, three members of the synagogue’s executive committee, and a member of the board of trustees — whom she says served as her direct supervisor — for sexual harassment and discrimination.

Langer, who started working at Beth Miriam in January 2016, first as assistant administrator and later as administrator, claims that the synagogue had a “permissive and encouraging environment” for harassment and discrimination.

In the lawsuit, filed in Monmouth Civil Court in April, Langer charges that after making a large donation to the synagogue, Peter Grayson, a member of the board and a volunteer, was put in a supervisory role. Over the course of several months Grayson made a variety of lewd, suggestive, and intimidating comments; touched her inappropriately; and spied on her via the synagogue’s security cameras, she alleges.

Langer also claims that, despite her repeated complaints to the synagogue management about Grayson’s behavior, no action was taken. Rather, Langer alleges, he was encouraged and assisted by other defendants named in the suit, including executive committee members Harry Silverman, Mark Cohen, and Michael Gross, and Rabbi Cy Stanway. An additional 20 unidentified individuals were included in the suit as “John Does.”

According to the complaint, Langer was told by members of the synagogue management that Grayson was “just socially awkward” and probably “didn’t even realize what he said.” Langer claims she was also told that “Grayson, and his monetary contributions to the temple, were good for the temple and that she would just have to learn to work with him.”

In response to a query from NJJN, William H. Healey of Kluger Healey LLC, the Tinton Falls law firm representing the defendants, wrote in an email that “[A]ll allegations are denied and the matter is being defended.” He declined to comment further.

Among the alleged incidents Langer outlined in the complaint:

Grayson called her a “shoe-in to be [his] mistress”; he noticed a bruise on her thigh, touched it, and said, “It’s a bite mark … I didn’t know you liked it like that”; after telling Grayson she had gotten poison ivy on her arm from working on temple grounds, he said his “brain was going crazy thinking about all the fun [they] could have rolling around in the bushes and getting poison ivy together”; another time he told her, “I don’t like to seduce, I like quickies … I don’t like to have to repeat myself, I don’t like to seduce”; yet another time he asked Langer to accompany him to the basement for help in locating the Wi-Fi signal, and when they were alone he said, “Don’t I wish I had a ladder … you’re wearing a dress today and it would be a perfect day for you to climb up a ladder.”

Langer alleges that she suffered severe emotional distress as a result of Grayson’s actions. She is seeking compensatory damages and back pay.

The parties are currently in the discovery stage, and according to Langer’s attorney, Justin Kolbenschlag of Greenbaum, Rowe, Smith & Davis LLP in Iselin, depositions will follow and, eventually, a trial date will be set, possibly for a year from now.

The Jewish community has been struggling with the ramifications of the #MeToo movement. An increasing number of female rabbis are speaking out about working in environments rife with sexual harassment on the parts of colleagues, administrators, and congregants.

In a Washington Post article from December, Guila Benchimol, an academic expert on sexual abuse and victimization in the Jewish community, suggested the most effective way to address sexual harassment in synagogues is through lawsuits, and a handful of synagogues have been sued for harassment in recent years.

There does not appear to have been a policy in place regarding sexual harassment at Temple Beth Miriam at the time of the alleged incidents, but two communal leaders are looking to change practices at Jewish
institutions.

Through their #GamAni initiative (Hebrew translation of #MeToo), founders Naomi Eisenberger of Millburn, founding executive director of The Good People fund; and Martin Kaminer, trustee of the Kaminer Foundation, have partnered with Fran Kepler on providing sexual harassment training to Jewish institutions and to create a cadre of trainers.
Kepler is a well-known expert who designed the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s new employee training focused on harassment prevention.

Seth Marnin, a consultant for non-profits on harassment cases, commented in a recent article in NJJN (“Federation leading charge to address #MeToo workplace concerns,” June 20) that synagogues are among those Jewish institutions that have been “skittish” when it comes to addressing this issue.

Prominent Jewish leaders have fallen from grace as a result of sexual harassment allegations in the last year. In recent weeks Steven M. Cohen, a respected sociologist in the American-Jewish community, was forced to apologize after multiple women accused him of sexually inappropriate behavior and harassment over a period of years, and he subsequently resigned from several professional posts. Leonard Robinson, the former executive director of NJY Camps, was forced to resign after a slew of troubling accusations from former staff members.

The allegations against both men came to light from exclusive reports in NJJN and its sister publication, The New York Jewish Week.

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