Cantor in sexual assault scandals should not lead Yom Kippur services – J.
It is deeply concerning to learn that the cantor in question was going to lead Yom Kippur services at a Beverly Hills synagogue. It’s also a vivid reminder of the need for major Jewish organizations to establish standards and institute uniform procedures to keep sexual predators and harassers from being legitimized in the community. Nathan Lam, a controversial cantor, is featured in advertisements for High Holiday services offered by the Temple of the Arts in Beverly Hills.
The Forward last year reported that a female rabbi and cantor who was once Lam’s student accused him of “sexual misconduct,” and described his actions toward her as “predatory.” The Stephen S. Wise Temple in Los Angeles, where Lam had been employed as cantor, announced in December 2020 that its investigation found he had “engaged in an inappropriate sexual relationship” and violated the ethics codes for both Reform and Conservative cantors.
Wise Temple also said it had “received reports and complaints about other potentially inappropriate relationships,” including “unwanted advances and dating of congregants,” according to the Forward.
The Academy for Jewish Religion California, where Lam had led the cantorial program since 2001, conducted its own “extensive and very thorough investigation” concerning Lam’s behavior. As a result, the Forward reported, the AJRCA told the complainant “that it would have fired Lam had he not retired” and that after Lam stepped down, “the school barred him from reemployment.” Lam “left those posts [at Wise Temple and the AJRCA] under pressure” as a result of the sexual misconduct allegations. He “stepped down shortly before the [AJRCA’s] probe was completed.”
The problem is that the Nathan Lam scandal is only the tip of a larger #MeToo iceberg within the American Jewish community.
Reform Judaism’s rabbinical school, Hebrew Union College, recently issued a report documenting sexual harassment and assaults by at least six of its leaders and professors. Similar investigations are being conducted by two other Reform institutions, as well as the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.
Investigations are necessary and important. What penalties or other consequences will those in leadership positions impose on their colleagues who knew of the abuse but chose to remain silent?
Consider the fact that Jewish film festivals are now hosting “American Birthright,” by director Becky Tahel, an exploration of Jewish marriage patterns. Steven M. Cohen, an admitted, but not repentant, sexual abuser, is one of those who will be seen in the film discussing Jewish identity and continuity.RELATED: Nathan Lam, Celebrity L.A. Cantor, finds a soft landing following sexual misconduct allegations
Cohen has never publicly accounted for his actions. He has never fully and unconditionally apologized to his victims, both those who made it public and those who didn't. He has never made any tangible amends or paid them restitution. He has sought repeatedly reentry into Jewish communal spaces. In the absence of such tangible acts, Cohen’s inclusion in “American Birthright,” or any other public recognition or role, is an offense not only to his victims but also to necessary standards of accountability and nontolerance of sexual abuse in Jewish communal spaces. (For detailed suggestions on the steps that should be required for such reentry, see tinyurl.com/ycy9tk25.)
Change must start at the top. Dianne Lob was the third woman to be elected as the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations' Chair in 2020. This umbrella organization covers more than 50 American Jewish organizations. Lob, who helped to break one of the most important glass ceilings in the American Jewish community should have been the first to help the community address sexual harassment and abuse in Jewish professional lives.
My colleagues and I in the Committee on Ethics in Jewish Leadership organized a petition by 250 Jewish scholars, rabbis, and community activists urging the Conference of Presidents to “bar from its activities any Jewish organizational representative who has committed sexual harassment or assault.”
Lob responded: “I am pleased to learn from current Conference of Presidents leadership that the Conference has a longstanding, robust policy against sexual harassment. We will remain attentive to this serious issue.”
This response ignored the Conference of Presidents' ban on abusers attending its meetings. Lob did not respond to our appeal. The Conference has not taken even the smallest step since we suggested it. It has been more than two years.
The Conference of Presidents should ban any Jewish organization representative who has been accused of sexual harassment or assault. This would be a significant and needed leadership example.
Individuals who have been convicted of sexual misconduct should not lead Yom Kippur services or be allowed to attend Conference of Presidents meetings. We should all have learned that from the #MeToo movement.