Important Message on Ethical Accountability

April 30, 2021Jennifer Brodkey Kaufman and Rabbi Rick Jacobs

April 30, 2021

To Our Community:

In recent weeks, there have been several public reports of leaders in our Reform Jewish Movement who have engaged in abuse, misconduct, and sexual assault. The pain endured by the victims is heartbreaking. We hope the reports of these brave victims will empower others who have suffered in silence to come forward so that there can be both accountability and healing. We commit without hesitation that the Union for Reform Judaism (the URJ) will address all reports of misconduct appropriately and transparently, centering the survivors as we move forward.

At the heart of our Reform Movement is our deep commitment to shaping a more just and compassionate world. That holy work must begin with each of us and the sacred communities we love and lead. In Judaism, living ethically responsible lives means regularly taking an account of our spiritual and moral health, a practice called in Hebrew cheshbon hanefesh. We at the URJ have been and continue to be deeply committed to the sanctity of ethical accountability.

The URJ has worked for many years to confront unacceptable behavior and create internal structures to prevent misconduct and foster safe and equitable environments. We enacted an Ethics Council and developed URJ Ethics Codes which guide the conduct of our staff and lay leaders. We have revised and continue to update employment policies, practices, and procedures, and provide ongoing training for our staff on topics such as workplace guidelines, and diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Every staff member is required to participate in annual Anti-Harassment and Discrimination training. We have partnered with the Baltimore Child Abuse Center to collaborate in preparing and providing our staff training for abuse prevention. Understanding that we need to continue our work in these areas to align with our values on an ongoing basis, we hired Melissa Johnson in July 2020 as our General Counsel and Vice President for People and Culture. Missy brings a background as an employment lawyer, clinical psychologist, and human resources professional with over 20 years of experience helping organizations combat abuse, discrimination, and harassment, and build values-based cultures of respect, equity, and safety.

In order to move forward and fulfill our commitments, the URJ has engaged Debevoise & Plimpton, a nationally-regarded firm that has conducted independent investigations and restorative processes in recent years for a number of leading organizations, schools and universities. Mary Beth Hogan, an expert in this area and co-chair of Debevoise’s Litigation Department, will lead the investigation. Ms. Hogan and her team have over 40 years of experience investigating sexual abuse, assault and workplace discrimination. Her mandate is to be comprehensive and impartial, without influence or interference from URJ staff or lay leaders.

The success of their work depends on the willingness of individuals who have experienced misconduct to come forward to share their stories. If you, or anyone you know, have information to share, please contact Ms. Hogan at URJInvestigation@debevoise.com. As experts in this field, Ms. Hogan and her team will make every effort to protect the privacy and confidentiality of information shared.

As the independent investigation moves forward, Debevoise will present the findings to the URJ leadership. Our initial task will be to listen and the URJ will act on the recommendations, no matter how painful. We will update our community with appropriate transparency.

While the URJ is conducting its investigation, our partners at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and the CCAR have launched their own investigations of inappropriate behavior under their auspices.

Additionally, the URJ has and will continue to create resources to increase the safety and ethical accountability of our autonomous congregations, through efforts such as guiding them to adopt their own rigorous ethics codes covering staff who are not affiliated with a professional association, as well as congregants and board members. In addition, we strongly encourage our congregations to uphold the highest ethical values of our tradition by having their professionals join their respective professional organizations. Those organizations, with their own ethics codes that include reporting misconduct to the organizations, play an important role in the community’s safety.

Nothing is more important than the protection and well-being of our communities. The safety of every person in our community is our sacred moral responsibility. It is, and always will be, our highest priority.

Our Jewish tradition is unyielding in holding all of us responsible to create safe environments in which a culture of justice and safety prevails. The prophet Isaiah reminds us of what it will take to heal our community: “Zion will be redeemed through justice” (Isaiah 1:27). In this time of moral reckoning, our community can be redeemed only by the unflinching pursuit of justice. When sacred trust has been violated, it will take an entire community to restore it. For too long our community has been unwilling to face the hardest truths, but we will turn away no more.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs
URJ President

Jennifer Brodkey Kaufman
Chair, URJ North American Board of Trustees

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