The Rabbinical Assembly (RA) announced in April 2021 that it is undertaking a process to review and update its Code of Conduct, as well as the procedures by which the Code is enforced. To support the effort, the RA received a substantial grant from Safety Respect Equity (SRE) Network. SRE is a network of Jewish organizations and funders working to address sexual harassment and gender discrimination and dedicated to creating safe, respectful, and equitable workplaces and communal spaces. “Given the diversity and ever-changing nature of our rabbinate and our society, our ethics code and procedures need to be reviewed and updated regularly,” says Rabbi Stewart Vogel, the RA’s President. “This review will assess our current practices to ensure they are in line with best practices, so that we can continue to hold ourselves to the highest ethical standards and ensure a responsible mechanism for addressing abuse.”
Updating the Code and Va’ad HaKavod processes, and hearing from members about their understanding and experiences with both, are part of the RA’s long-term goal to promote a culture where safety and respect are cornerstones of all environments in which rabbis and communities interact. To assist, the RA has engaged Sacred Spaces, a national organization based in the United States that partners with Jewish institutions to prevent and respond to sexual abuse and other abuses of power.
“We are grateful for the opportunity to partner with the Rabbinical Assembly, as they take this critical step in assessing and updating their Code of Conduct and Va’ad HaKavod practices and policies,” says Shira Berkovits, president and CEO of Sacred Spaces.
This effort will happen in phases. Sacred Spaces plans to:
- Conduct a review and audit of the current system;
- Provide opportunities to receive input from members and others who have direct experience with the Va’ad HaKavod process;
- Issue a report with recommended changes;
- Guide the process of updating the Code; and
- Provide support and training for RA members in understanding the revised Code of Conduct and to the Va’ad Hakavod in implementing the revised policies and procedures.
“We are excited about the possibilities for this process to improve not just the work of the Va’ad HaKavod,” says Rabbi Sheryl Katzman, who is the lead staff person on the project, “but the ability of the RA to help rabbis and the communities we serve to strengthen competencies in ethics and boundary maintenance while also leading to an enhanced capability of the Va’ad HaKavod and better attention to the needs of victims.”
"We want to make it clear to our members and our movement that we are committed to doing the work and investing the time for this challenging and necessary process," says Rabbi Daniel Pressman, Chair of the Va'ad HaKavod. "We believe that a renewed Code of Conduct and procedures will clarify the RA's standards for our rabbis, bringing them in line with contemporary understandings and approaches. Our Jewish values and our people's expectations for rabbinic behavior have always informed the Va'ad's work, and we look forward to the results of this project."
And says Rabbi Abbi Sharofsky, co-chair of the RA Gender & Power Committee, “Our goal is to implement the best practices of the Jewish community and of all faith communities, making Jewish communities safe for all.”
The Rabbinical Assembly Code of Professional Conduct and the accompanying procedures of the Va’ad HaKavod are a vital support of the honor and ethics of the rabbinate, and a protector of victims, who can be individuals, organizations, and congregations. The Code as it stands was approved by the RA’s Executive Council in 2004, with some revisions in 2011. The internal Protocol Document, which details the procedures of the Va’ad, was last revisited in 2015. In the intervening time, rabbis, alongside our society, have learned a great deal about issues such as sexual harassment and professional boundaries. They have also become more aware of the profound impact that rabbinic misbehavior can have on victims, the image of rabbis, and the Jewish community at large.
In recognition of these changes, the RA in 2019 appointed a Gender and Power Committee (originally called the #MeToo Task force) to study issues related to sexual harassment, sexual assault, and gender inequity in the Rabbinical Assembly. In the course of its work, those on the Va’ad believe they have experienced some of the limitations and omissions of the current Code. These are not only boundary issues, but also other offenses where the Code has not provided clarity. To cite just one obvious example, the Code was written before social media became such a large force with the attendant possibilities for abuse.
When the Va’ad resolved to begin a more formal process of evaluating and refining the Code, the Gender and Power Committee offered valuable insights, questions and suggestions. It was quickly determined that updating the Code is a big project that would work best with expert consultation. As a result of this work, a task force made up of members of the Gender and Power Committee and the Va’ad HaKavod have come together to lead this work. The task force selected Sacred Spaces following a thorough search which included a Request for Proposals and interviews with the most qualified organizations.
The Rabbinical Assembly, and Sacred Spaces, believe the work of creating safe and respectful institutions is a Jewish imperative at the core of living a life informed by Jewish values.