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Former rabbinical students complain to Conservative movement about sexism at seminary

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Several former rabbinical students sent a letter to the Conservative movement earlier this month demanding an investigation into what they described as a culture of sexism and sexual harassment at the Ziegler School of Rabbinical Studies and calling for a change in leadership at the Los Angeles-based seminary.

The letter to the ethics committee of the Rabbinical Assembly did not refer to any member of the Ziegler faculty or administration by name, according to a draft viewed by the Forward. A source familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity said that the committee — known as the Va’ad HaKavod, Hebrew for honorable council — responded that it was unable to address such a general complaint about an institution.

A draft of the letter viewed by the Forward included more than two pages of bullet-pointed examples of staff at the seminary, called the Ziegler School of Rabbinical Studies, enforcing a double-standard against women, tolerating or contributing to homophobia and transphobia in the program, and dismissing student concerns that the environment had become toxic.

As a result, the letter states, “women, trans men and non-binary individuals are not succeeding at becoming rabbis under Ziegler’s tutelage on par with cisgender men.”

“We believe that members of the administration have misused their power and been insufficiently reflective regarding the departures by women and others who leave the program,” the letter continues. “While the examples listed do not include unequivocally illegal violations, we believe that the clear pattern of misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, shaming and double standards — consistent over two decades — is sufficient to raise concern on the Va’ad’s part.”

The Va’ad has the authority to suspend or expel rabbis from the Conservative movement, and in 2021 it began publishing the names of censured rabbis on its website. But it has never undertaken an investigation into an institution like Ziegler.

The letter was signed by 13 former rabbinical students and community members of its parent institution, American Jewish University, at the time the Forward viewed the draft. A Rabbinical Assembly spokesperson said it was received April 10.

It is the latest challenge facing Ziegler, which was founded in 1996 and has produced some of Conservative Judaism’s foremost thinkers, but recently slashed tuition in response to declining enrollment.

The Conservative movement overall has struggled with shrinking synagogue membership for at least a decade amid periodic complaints of impropriety in the rabbinate.

Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, dean of the Ziegler School, did not respond to a phone message on Monday.

Though it is unclear who organized the letter, the first signatory on the draft viewed by the Forward was Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg, who was ordained by Ziegler in 2008 and now is scholar-in-residence at the National Council for Jewish Women. Ruttenberg also spearheaded a 2021 open letter signed by 500 rabbis contesting Steven M. Cohen’s efforts to return to public life after allegations of sexual assault and sexual harassment cost him his job at Hebrew Union College, a Reform seminary based in Cincinnati.

Ruttenberg said Monday she was unavailable for an interview.

The letter said its impetus was the recent departure of “yet another” female rabbinical student from the program, but did not name her. Sources who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they feared professional repercussions said the student left after filing a Title IX sexual harassment complaint against a fellow student who was later expelled.

The letter calls for Ziegler to hire a “well-trained” Title IX officer to handle such complaints.

It also complains about the school’s handling of a stalking allegation. “The administration treated it as a disagreement between two equal parties, and failed to protect her even after the other student threatened to kill her or burn down her apartment,” the letter states, adding that the administration allowed the student who made these threats to stay in the program.

The post Former rabbinical students complain to Conservative movement about sexism at seminary appeared first on The Forward.