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Friday, October 18, 1996 | return to: news & features


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Rabbi Robert Kirschner apologizes

by DEBRA NUSSBAUM COHEN, and NATALIE WEINSTEIN

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Nearly five years after Rabbi Robert Kirschner left the pulpit of San Francisco's Congregation Emanu-El, he has for the first time publicly apologized for sexual improprieties that led to his resignation.

"I hereby acknowledge, with sorrow and profound regret, that I engaged in sexual relations outside of my marriage," Kirschner said in a recent statement to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

The statement included quotes from a letter he wrote in October 1995 to the Central Conference of American Rabbis' executive board. However, releasing the information to the JTA marked the first time his apology has been made public.

Kirschner referred in that letter to his conduct as "morally and ethically indefensible," adding that "I ask the forgiveness of anyone who was hurt by my actions, and of my rabbinic colleagues, whose standards I breached."

But according to several of the women who accused Kirschner of sexual misconduct, some of whom were Emanu-El congregrants, the rabbi has never directly apologized to them.

In addition, "there are still people who feel an apology should have come to the congregation," said Stephen Pearce, Emanu-El's senior rabbi who replaced Kirschner.

The public apology may mark a turning point for both Kirschner and Emanu-El, even though Kirschner's story illustrates what critics charge are deep flaws in the way congregations and the religious movements generally deal with accusations of rabbinic sexual misconduct.

"The fact that he has been able to admit it is very significant, not only in the eyes of people but in God's eyes," Pearce said.

Because Kirschner resigned, Pearce said, synagogue leaders saw no reason to investigate the women's charges of sexual misconduct. "Since there was no definitive judgment of guilt other than the statement of the women who came forward, there were those who felt he had been wronged."

Calling Kirschner "a brilliant rabbi, but a fallen rabbi," Pearce said the statement creates a sense of closure for the congregation.

"There were doubts in people's minds. They now know there was misconduct and regret," Pearce said. "What more is there to say after this?...Everyone involved should now be getting on with their lives."

Stuart Aronoff, Emanu-El board president, similarly called the apology "a step in the right direction."

Kirschner was once a rising star in the Reform movement. While still in his 30s, he became the religious leader of one of the two largest synagogues in Northern California and the youngest rabbi ever to head such a sizable Reform congregation.

He was destined for a major leadership role in the Reform movement. Some say he would have been on the short list of candidates to succeed Rabbi Alexander Schindler as president of the movement's Union of American Hebrew Congregations.

But after serving Emanu-El for 11 years, Kirschner suddenly resigned from his pulpit on New Year's Day 1992 amid accusations from three congregants and a temple employee that he had sexually exploited or harassed them.

Eight other women later came forward to the temple board to complain about the rabbi's conduct, including members of his congregation and two students from the Graduate Theological Seminary in Berkeley. According to parties involved, at least three of the accusers later reached financial settlements with the temple's insurance company.

The rabbi left the 1,600-household congregation with a package that included a year's pay, his accrued pension, and the equity from his share of the family home jointly owned with the temple. According to a source close to the congregation's board, the total figure came to about $230,000.

It took nearly four years after charges against Kirschner first surfaced until the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the Reform movement's rabbinical association, suspended him from its ranks.

As a result, he cannot receive CCAR benefits, such as the use of its placement services or pension fund, until at least the year 2000. The suspension does not affect his rabbinic ordination but basically precludes any Reform congregation from hiring him as its rabbi.

He is required to get counseling from a psychotherapist and from a senior rabbinic mentor, according to Rabbi Jeffrey Stiffman, then-chairman of the CCAR ethics committee. Kirschner's suspension will be lifted in the year 2000 only upon the recommendations of his therapist and rabbinic mentor.

The CCAR's executive committee, which acts on recommendations from the ethics committee, did not stipulate what Kirschner must do to illustrate his repentance.

But according to Kirschner's written statement to JTA, the rabbinical association has appointed a committee of three rabbis to "approve and supervise" his rehabilitation process.

Though he has not returned to the pulpit, Kirschner is now program director at the prestigious, new Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles, which has strong ties to the Reform movement.

Kirschner has refused to discuss any of the charges leveled against him with the Jewish Telegraphic Agency or with the Jewish Bulletin of Northern California. After initially refusing several phone interviews, he agreed to respond to a written list of questions from JTA.

But then he demurred, and through his attorneys, Kirschner provided JTA with the statement in which he admits engaging in extramarital relationships during his years at Emanu-El and violating the CCAR's Rabbinic Code of Ethics.

In the statement, Kirschner also said: "In June 1994, I acknowledged in writing to the Ethics Committee of the Central Conference of American Rabbis that I had failed to abide by the provision of its Ethics Code relating to sexual misconduct. `For this failure,' I wrote, `I express my contrition to those whom I wronged and to the CCAR, whose standards I breached.'"

In the statement to JTA, Kirschner said that as part of his "process of rehabilitation" he has indicated his "willingness to apologize personally to anyone to whom my conduct as a congregational rabbi was hurtful or offensive."

He has never apologized to Gemma Elftman.

Elftman, who weighs less than 100 pounds and has been battling anorexia nervosa for years, now lives in Hawaii. She moved there after dropping out of U.C. Berkeley, which she attended during her relationship with Kirschner.

Their 18-month sexual relationship began in early 1990 after the rabbi approached her at a reception for new members and offered to drive her home, according to a 48-page document she submitted in connection with her complaint againt the rabbi and the temple.

Now in her early 30s, Elftman no longer has a connection to the Jewish community.

Lisa Sherman also has left the community.

Sherman was a newlywed and new to Emanu-El, she said, when Kirschner approached her in the late 1980s.

After pursuing her "ardently" for nearly four years, Sherman said, Kirschner kissed her against her will in February 1991, shortly after her father's death. She rejected him, she said, but Kirschner continued to pursue her for months.

Today, the 41-year-old woman has no connection to Judaism and has divorced her husband of that time. She has returned to Greek Orthodoxy, the religion she was raised in, and had her son baptized into that faith.

The extent of Kirschner's actions began to surface in November 1991 at a party. Sherman said she was talking with three other women from Emanu-El when one expressed doubt about Kirschner, describing him as "shady."

"Though she didn't know it, she was talking to three other victims," Sherman said.

According to Sherman, the four of them jointly hired an attorney and wrote statements that were presented to Emanu-El's board in December 1991. The women threatened legal action if Kirschner was not immediately removed from his job.

Kirschner resigned from his pulpit on Jan. 1, 1992.

A letter from the temple president informed congregants of Kirschner's resignation "with regret" in language that spoke warmly of his contribution to the synagogue and made no reference to the circumstances of his departure.

In Kirschner's own letter of resignation, sent to the temple's members, he cited personal reasons for stepping down and did not acknowledge any misconduct.

But in the next few months, another eight women came forward and told temple leaders that they had been sexually harassed or abused by Kirschner, said a member of the Emanu-El's executive board. That board member agreed to be quoted only anonymously because of the pain the congregation had suffered over the matter.

The CCAR did not get involved in the case until later. The association said it would not investigate the matter until someone filed an official complaint with its ethics committee.

When a formal charge was made, CCAR's Stiffman wrote back to the complainant declining to investigate Kirschner's conduct, according to a copy of the letter obtained by JTA. As long as allegations about Kirschner were being worked out through lawsuits, he wrote, the CCAR's ethics committee could not get involved in the case.

But the CCAR did try fruitlessly to find Kirschner a job shortly after he left Emanu-El.

Rabbi Arnold Sher, the CCAR's placement director, defended the decision and said a new position would have enabled Kirschner to get "psychological help."

This year, Kirschner was hired as program director of the newly built Skirball Cultural Center. It is a position he assumed after holding a research fellowship at the Skirball Museum, the center's predecessor, which was then part of the Reform movement's seminary in Los Angeles.

The fellowship was funded entirely by Kirschner's supporters from the leadership of Emanu-El, according to Rabbi Uri Herscher, president and chief executive officer of the Skirball Cultural Center, which has strong ties to the seminary but is legally independent.

Herscher said he believes that Kirschner has repented and that the rabbi's record has been made clear to the staff of the cultural center. He said every staff member expressed confidence in Kirschner.

But sources at the Skirball, who asked not to be named, say no such presentation was made to the center's dozens of volunteers, nearly all of whom are women.

Still, there are those who believe that Kirschner has made the necessary amends.

Rabbi Lee Bycel, dean of the Reform seminary in Los Angeles known as the Hebrew Union College, said Kirschner "has done more repenting and more work and more dealing with this than anyone I've ever known in my life."

"In my own conversations with him, I saw a man who had recognized what he had done, was well aware of what these actions meant and had addressed them psychotherapeutically," said Bycel, who in 1993 offered a seminary teaching job to Kirschner, which he turned down after a small uproar from HUC alumni.

"He was reflecting on it in what I felt was a very Jewish manner, in examining what he had done wrong, seeking to understand why and trying in every way to make teshuvah, that is, restoring the wholeness of his own life."

Debra Nussbaum Cohen is a Jewish Telegraphic Agency reporter. Natalie Weinstein is a Jewish Bulletin reporter.


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