Jun 27, 2005
AN OPEN LETTER TO THE JEWISH COMMUNITY FROM THE RABBINICAL COUNCIL OF AMERICA
20 Sivan 5765
Over the past weeks and months a few Jewish media outlets have presented a one-sided version of the facts concerning the expulsion of Rabbi Mordecai Tendler from the ranks of the RCA. The RCA has considered a variety of responses to this situation. As part of this response, the RCA secured an agreement from the Jewish Press to provide a full page in the paper to present, in open letter format, an RCA account of the Vaad Hakavod process leading to that expulsion. Unfortunately the paper would not print the letter without significant changes to it; changes that, in the interests of fairness, the officers of the RCA are not willing to accept. Therefore such a letter will not appear in the Jewish Press. The exact text of the open letter is as follows:
In recent months, the Rabbinical Council of America's (RCA) investigation and deliberations on the allegations of misconduct raised against our colleague, Rabbi Mordecai Tendler, have been the subject of much misinformation and inaccuracies throughout the Jewish community.
We remain loath to publicly address the methods employed in the investigation of Rabbi Tendler and his subsequent expulsion from the RCA. However, in light of the proliferation of these inaccurate and one-sided reports, and especially the recent steps taken by Rabbi Tendler in a Jerusalem Bet Din and elsewhere, that have served to confuse many in the Jewish community, the RCA now feels it would be both professionally irresponsible and morally remiss not to correct the public perception of the allegations and investigation that informed our decision.
Allegations Against Rabbi Tendler
Over a year ago, the RCA was formally presented with complaints from various individuals alleging misconduct by Rabbi Tendler. Faced with these accusations, the RCA's executive body immediately appointed an internal ethics committee, a "Vaad Hakavod," to investigate these allegations and to provide Rabbi Tendler an opportunity to respond before undertaking any definitive action. Despite the refusal of Rabbi Tendler to participate in the proceedings, certain of the individuals’ allegations were determined to be credible. On March 15th, 2005, the RCA Executive Committee decided unanimously to expel Rabbi Tendler from the RCA.
Rabbi Mordecai Tendler’s removal from the RCA has been both personally and professionally painful for all involved – the Jewish community at large, Rabbi Tendler, his family and loved ones, and the membership of the RCA. It is only with extreme regret and trepidation that we are called upon to investigate any of our members in response to any complaints of misconduct. How much more so when they involve allegations against an individual admired by many as a scholar, educator and community leader. Accordingly, those of us involved in the investigative proceedings deeply desired to find Rabbi Tendler innocent of the misconduct charges leveled against him, and we sought to provide him with every opportunity to present his response to these complaints. Sadly for all parties, Rabbi Tendler refused to attend the hearings of the Vaad Hakavod or to confront his accusers.
Ultimately, the findings supported certain charges of misconduct. As such, the RCA was compelled to come to our painful judgment, as the Jewish community would expect us to, and not stand idly by.
The RCA as an Independent Organization
There are a loud and select few who have publicly challenged and criticized the legitimacy of the Vaad Hakavod, which was appointed to investigate this matter, and the procedural means used to conduct the hearings. The RCA is a professional organization that is governed by a constitution, which was composed and ratified by its membership in 1935. All of our activities, throughout our 70-year history of Rabbinic leadership, are governed by our constitution. As such, this governing charter provides that any charges brought against an RCA member shall be investigated by our internal ethics committee – a Vaad Hakavod. Well-known and respected rabbinic leaders from throughout the world, many not even members of the RCA, have emphatically stated that our membership may be governed in the manner of other private organizations. As with all other professional organizations and societies, the RCA is permitted to establish its own criteria for its membership, legislate rules of member conduct, investigate in a manner of its choosing possible violations of its rules, and suspend or expel those members it deems in breach of those rules. The constitution of the RCA strictly follows the Halacha and respects all local and national laws.
The Investigatory Process
The Vaad Hakavod was duly convened in March 2004. It consisted of five leading rabbis from diverse backgrounds – Chairman Rabbi Hershel Billet, Rabbi Gedalia Dov Schwartz (Av Bet Din of the Beth Din of America and the Beth Din of the Chicago Rabbinical Council,) Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, Rabbi Kenneth Auman, and Rabbi Basil Herring. At each step of the way, the Vaad examined what the halacha required, and acted accordingly. We also appointed four lay professionals to review the allegations and advise the Vaad during its investigation.
To deal with this highly sensitive matter, and as an initial step in the investigation, the Vaad hired an independent, non-partisan and respected professional investigator with experience in cases such as this.
The 75-page long, final report and findings determined that the allegations made by a number of complainants were credible, despite the denials raised by Rabbi Tendler.
Upon the advice of our legal counsel, we sent Rabbi Tendler the complete report to apprise him of the details of the allegations, findings, and conclusions and to enable him to prepare his response for consideration by the Vaad. We wanted to afford him every opportunity to obtain the necessary information and evidence to defend himself.
To our dismay, Rabbi Tendler responded within days in writing, saying that he did “not think it necessary to meet in person.” Instead he insisted that we rely upon his written denial of the allegations, together with various written submissions that accompanied his letter.
In December 2004, the Vaad sent Rabbi Tendler a letter informing him of the intention to proceed with a formal hearing and with a full opportunity for him to cross-examine and confront witnesses, except, as the halacha provides, for those who might be intimidated by his presence. Rabbi Tendler, through his wife, responded in writing that “to reiterate, we are not going to participate in any hearings. Period.” Some weeks later we received a formal letter from Rabbi Tendler’s attorney stating, “Rabbi Tendler will not participate in any hearing.” Upon receipt of this letter, the Vaad concluded that in the absence of Rabbi Tendler's participation we would not be able to hold a formal hearing.
Even then, the Vaad did not wish to rely exclusively on the external investigation. Thus it proceeded to have certain key accusers and witnesses interviewed by a Vaad member and by counsel to the Vaad, to assess their credibility and report to the Vaad.
The statements and allegations of those interviewed were found to be credible. The witnesses' statements conformed with the details contained in the investigator’s report. Overall, we were convinced of the truthfulness of the witnesses' statements. We did not find Rabbi Tendler’s written submission to be sufficient to rebut what had been told to our investigators and interviewers.
A Painful Decision
The Vaad sat for one final meeting. Only after somber and careful review of the facts and the history of the investigation, our distinguished rabbis unanimously recommended to the Executive Committee of the RCA the expulsion of Rabbi Tendler. The Executive Committee then met and reviewed the findings of the Vaad Hakavod committee, and voted unanimously that Rabbi Tendler’s membership in the RCA should be revoked because he refused to cooperate with the Vaad in its investigation, refused to appear at a hearing, and had engaged in conduct inappropriate for an Orthodox rabbi (which is the precise language of the RCA’s Constitution.) To minimize any embarrassment to him and his family, and to the complaining witnesses, we purposely did not describe our findings in detail, and we will not do so here.
Despite numerous calls from journalists and requests for an explanation from the officers of Rabbi Tendler’s synagogue and other communal leaders, the RCA declined public comment. This was consistent with the policy of the Vaad throughout its deliberation that it would make no public statements on the investigation.
Bet Din and RCA
Subsequent to our actions, a regional Bet Din in Jerusalem issued an injunction regarding the RCA’s expulsion of Rabbi Tendler. This Bet Din stated that the RCA was enjoined from undertaking any actions that would damage “serarato u-misrato” (his rabbinic authority and position.) In this regard it should be noted that the RCA has not and did not seek or attempt to cause injury to Rabbi Tendler in any way beyond removing him from its membership. The matter of Rabbi Tendler's employment remains entirely up to the members of his congregation. More recently the RCA and certain individuals received a summons from a regional Jerusalem Bet Din to respond to allegations made by Rabbi Tendler. The RCA takes this matter very seriously, and will reply appropriately in full accordance with both the letter and the spirit of halacha.
Responsibility and Leadership
Throughout this entire difficult process, we have taken concrete steps to assure accuracy and fairness to Rabbi Tendler. We repeatedly offered him an opportunity to personally confront his accusers and to testify directly before the Vaad Hakavod. Each time, Rabbi Tendler declined the opportunity. The record shows that we acted in complete accordance with halacha, both in process and outcome.
Leadership is not determined by those who must make the easy choices – it’s the difficult decisions that should be commended and applauded. Presented with this difficult dilemma, the RCA took deliberate action and remains completely confident that despite the misgivings of a loud and outspoken few, our entire rabbinic leadership is not mistaken. We believe that Rabbi Tendler was given every opportunity to defend himself. Most importantly, we believe that our action was necessary.
This painful decision was made with heavy hearts, but also knowing that these allegations needed to be addressed. In recent years, we have learned from the experience of others that we cannot ignore allegations against members of the rabbinate.
We hope that we have here provided some measure of understanding of our process and decision to the members of the Jewish community, and we further hope that any future discussions of the RCA's decision concerning Rabbi Tendler will be carried out with the proper dignity and seriousness that it deserves, and will not result in any further Chillul Hashem.