My heart is heavy this Shabbat Eve.
This week Morgan Lewis, a highly respected independent investigation firm, released its report of long-standing sexual harassment, abuse and discrimination at my Alma Mater, the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.
It is a devastating report that specifically names six individuals about whom reports of egregious misconduct were numerous and credible. The report was devastating to me.
When the report came out, Leo, our rabbinical student son, asked me, “What are you planning to say about this?”
“Nothing,” I replied. I cannot imagine I responded, what interest a group of retired Jews in Sanibel would have in this scandal.
Besides, all of this took place long after I graduated. When I was there, there was only one female student, Sally Priesand, who became the only female rabbi in the world. I didn’t know her but from all I could observe, everyone treated her with admiration and respect bordering on awe. At the ceremony when her class was ordained, all her male classmates rose in unison as her name was called in tribute to her achievement and in acknowledgment of the historic moment in Jewish history those of us present were witnessing.
Then I added in response to my son that three of the six individuals named had had significant positive impact that helped push me forward as a rabbinical student.
Leo immediately responded, “Who?” I told him.
All three are deceased now, but when I began HUC my Hebrew background was very rudimentary. Two of those named encouraged me, and I was very grateful.
The summer I met Vickie, when I was studying at the HUC School of Jewish Communal Service, the President of the College Institute invited me to stay in his family’s home for a month while they were in Israel.
Two years after I was ordained, Vickie and I and our infant son Leo spent a month on vacation in Jerusalem. While we were there, the same President called me to his apartment and asked me to consider leaving my congregation and joining the administration of the College-Institute as his Assistant. It was a heady offer for a young rabbi and certainly a fast trac opportunity to advancement in our movement.
Fortunately, I had the presence of mind, the honesty and the courage (and it took all of these) to tell him what in effect many of you have learned about me over the past four years, “I can’t administer my way out of a paper bag.” I told him I was moved by his offer, but that my dream had always been to be a congregational rabbi.
Whew! Now I think I really dodged a bullet.
For certain, I did not see any of the well-documented abuses of the ensuing years. Women were treated differently. Female faculty were blocked in their quest for tenure for reasons that had nothing to do with their scholarship, research or teaching ability. Faculty members harassed and propositioned female students. Gay and lesbian students faced discrimination. The President to whom I have referred was one of the perpetrators. In my day there were no openly gay students enrolled although it is clear now that they chose, wisely at the time, to remain in the closet.
But as a student, I saw nothing of this. It all happened, so to speak, after my time.
I share these sordid findings with you because it is all now in the public domain. I share it with you now because the institution that enabled me to become a rabbi almost half century ago and, is now enabling our son to do the same has been devastated by the fallout from these revelations.
For myself, the report is a shock and a disaster.
But for Leo and those who study with him it must question the very calling to which they aspire, and the whole thing has me in turmoil.
But I find guidance in this week’s Torah portion.
It begins as you heard with a miraculous dream in which Jacob encounters God. You remember last week that twice he cheated his brother Esau and was running away from home to escape his wrath.
In the dream of which I just read, though, he receives a promise of redemption and affirmation that he is the one to carry forward the Covenant God made with Abraham and Isaac. Despite the horrible things he did he can still fulfill his destiny.
But it will not be easy.
He has twenty hears ahead of him where he will suffer time and again for his misdeeds. His Uncle Laban will trick him as he tricked his father, by taking advantage of the darkness to substitute Leah for Rachel in his wedding tent in the dark of night.
He will describe the twenty years with Laban as a living hell in which Laban abused and mistreated him and during which, “scorching heat ravaged me by day and frost by night, and sleep fled from my eyes.” (Genesis 31:40)
But at the end of his time at what I have called “The Laban Reformatory,” Jacob will be ready to both atone for what he stole from Esau and take his place as Israel, one who struggles with God for the purpose of making a more just caring and compassionate society in the future.
So, it is with HUC. It will need to atone. It will need to do what it can, as Jacob did with Esau, to redress the grievances of the many who suffered discrimination and academic and sexual abuse. It will be a hard road ahead.
The Haftarah portion we will study tomorrow from Hosea holds out similar hope. Israel’s sins have been monstrous: idol worship, oppression of the poor and needy. You name it; they were guilty of it. God is all but ready to divorce them completely.
But, the prophet teaches, if they repent and atone for their sins and return to the ways of God and abandon the ways of idolatry and all it represents, Israel can once again fulfill its destiny as a beacon of God’s teachings to the world.
And so, for the sake of my son and those who study with him and those who will study after them, I pray HUC, as did Jacob will find a way to atone for its institutional sins and the sins of those who led it. I sense and I hope that HUC-JIR will embrace Hosea’s message, and after a meaningful process of Teshuvah, move forward into the future as a bastion of truth, learning, spirituality and the values of righteousness and justice that our Torah and prophets so eloquently teach.