Pressure builds at JTS over #MeToo allegations

Pressure builds at JTS over #MeToo allegations

Petition demands JTS take more action on Title IX complaint. Wikimedia Commons
Petition demands JTS take more action on Title IX complaint. Wikimedia Commons

Alumni, students, and faculty are calling on Conservative Judaism’s flagship seminary to take action in the case of a current graduate student who was accused of sexually assaulting two women prior to his matriculation at the seminary.

A petition, signed by 50 people associated with the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS), calls on the school to “reevaluate” its relationship with the student “in order to ensure that its students, faculty, and staff are protected on campus from known predators.”

The petition stems from a complex Title IX case first reported in NJJN in July. The report detailed complaints against the JTS student.

The school responded that since the alleged incidents occurred before the accused was a student, they fell outside the institution’s Title IX policy and therefore it had no responsibility to investigate the matter.

The NJJN report found that prior to the student’s matriculation at JTS, the Jewish Plays Project, a nonprofit theatrical production company, severed its ties with the student after receiving complaints that he had sexually harassed and assaulted more than one woman in the theater world. (NJJN is not naming the student; the paper is not aware of any charges having been brought against him.)

The petition, submitted to JTS on Sept. 16 by members of the Committee on Ethics in Jewish Leadership — an independent body that considers itself a communal watchdog and whistleblower — called upon the seminary to investigate the matter further.

“Even if the Seminary is not required, legally, to take further steps because the alleged perpetrator was not a [JTS] student at the time, we believe the spirit and not just the letter of legalities must carry weight,” the petition reads. “The more so in an institution of Jewish learning, in which the highest ethical values must not only be studied but practiced.”

The petition references guidelines laid out by the Safety, Respect,
Equity Coalition — a group formed to prevent sexual abuse, harassment, and gender discrimination at Jewish institutions. It called on the current JTS administration to “reevaluate their relationships to affiliated individuals who have been found to have engaged in discrimination, harassment, or assault.”

The petition also asserts that if the student failed to disclose information about his termination from The Jewish Plays Project in his application for admission to JTS, it would constitute “additional grounds for the Seminary to investigate and take appropriate action.”

JTS’ application process includes a question asking students to disclose if they have ever been terminated from employment or resigned under pressure from an employer. JTS declined to comment on whether the school has an obligation to investigate the accuracy of responses to this question.

Responding to the petition in a Sept. 26 email, the seminary’s chancellor, Arnold Eisen, wrote that “the JTS administration and trustees take very seriously both our legal and our ethical responsibilities to provide a campus environment that is safe, respectful, and welcoming.”

“I want to assure you that I am personally committed to this standard,” Eisen wrote. “While constraints of confidentiality limit my ability to respond in detail to your petition, and I cannot comment on the internal JTS review regarding the matter you raised, please be assured that we looked into it carefully in a thorough, fair, and appropriate manner.”

Alumni of JTS said the school’s response left much wanting.

Sheridan Gayer, a 2004 graduate of JTS’ joint undergraduate program with Columbia University and a 2005 graduate of JTS’ William Davidson School for Jewish Education, said the school’s actions “err on the side of not protecting students.”

“The primary goal of an institution is to feel challenged, but not by harassment and assault,” said Gayer, 38. “The Jewish community does not need more leaders with that history.”

Shulamit Magnus, one of the four members of the Jewish ethics committee that penned the petition, wrote in a statement that “the pendulum must swing resolutely to protection of victims and to the prevention of new victims.”

“JTS is a major institution in American Jewish life … It should go without saying that its standards in this regard are the most rigorous and stringent,” wrote Magnus, a professor of history and Jewish studies at Oberlin College.

Neither the student nor the student’s spokesperson responded to requests for comment. n

Hannah Dreyfus is a staff writer for The New York Jewish Week, NJJN’s sister publication.

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