Sexual Harassment and Misconduct at Hebrew Union College: The Facts

Decades of sexual assault issues and sexual harassment on campus have come to light in a recent 37-page report commissioned by Cincinnati's Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC). The report determines that for over thirty years, figures in positions of power harassed and assaulted women at the Reform movement's rabbinical school. While trusted with ordaining generations of rabbis at seminary, those named in public allegations now join the broader #MeToo movement. An investigation is ongoing. Read on for the full details.

Hebrew Union College

Hebrew Union College-Jewish Insitute of Religion (HUC) is a four-campus international institution of Jewish higher education. It serves as a seminary for Reform Judaism. The school formed over 140 years ago as an opportunity for men and women to pursue participation in their faith. Unlike more traditional and orthodox forms of Judaism, Reform Judaism does not separate men and women in worship and services. This means the church engourages both men and women to sit together, perform prayers, and study to become religious leaders. HUC specializes in educating the Reform Movement's rabbis, cantors, educators, graduate scholars of all faiths, and nonprofit management professionals. The Cincinnati campus specifically offers enrichment resources such as:

  • The Klau Library - the second largest Jewish library in the world
  • The Skirball Museum
  • The B'nai B'rith Klutznick Museum art collection
  • The Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives

While classroom learning and augmented internship opportunities have drawn students of the Jewish faith to learn on campus, recent sexual harassment and abuse allegations have brought to light "an ingrained culture of favoritism and politics." Additional allegations of LGBTQ+ discrimination, racial discrimination, and bullying have resulted in a thorough review of campus conduct.

The Report

The 37-page report on the sexual harassment accusations was released in early November on HUC-JIR's website. Philadelphia law firm Morgan Lewis produced the report independently over the course of five months. This report occurred due to a commission by a special committee of the board of governors for Hebrew Union College of Cincinnati in light of several accusations posted to social media. The death of philosophy professor Dr. Michael Cook ignited accusations of sexual misconduct, gender bias, and abuse of power by the administration. The report names six faculty members (four currently deceased) guilty of sexual violence. After interviewing 170 past and present faculty, staff, and students from the seminary, the report concluded that faculty members exhibited behavior such as:

  • Forcible kissing or sexual touching
  • "Off-color" jokes
  • Alleged romantic and sexual relationships with students
  • Comments about "breasts and penis size"
  • Comments about their weight, appearances, pregnancies
  • Favoritism
  • Disrespect
  • Rampant gender discrimination

Most students confirmed that they did not feel comfortable reporting the sexual harassment to faculty or administration due to fears of retaliation. The allegations were reviewed against the school's handbook. Investigators determined them to be in direct violation of the school's policies.

The Victims

While the alleged abuse occurred over a period of thirty years, the experiences are still quite fresh and impactful to those involved. Students note fewer female faculty members at the Cinncinati campus compared to other HUC branches. During interviews with students and victims of harassment and assault, the following themes were "discovered" by investigators:

  • Abuse of power by select members of administration and faculty, and fear of retaliation by the victims or potential reporters of the abuse
  • Enabling misconduct by administration and teachers due to lack of discipline
  • Rampant favoritism towards male students
  • "Academic gatekeeping" by select members of the administration and faculty
  • Unprofessional and disrespectful "tone at the top" by select members of the Board of Governors
  • Inconsistencies in campus cultures
  • Guilt across the student body while feeling as if they did not do enough to stop the abuse
  • Lack of education and awareness of HUC's campus policies against sexual harassment

Interviewees noted instances of inappropriate commentary. One former student remembered an interaction with a professor when he commented "a sermon should be like a woman's skirt: long enough to cover the subject, but short enough to keep it interesting" during her first class at HUC. The Cincinnati campus was specifically identified as "the center of the 'old boys' club' mentality at HUC-JIR." These complaints spanned as far back as 1970-- making a 37-page case for further action. It is additionally important to note that both male and female interviewees reported experiencing gender discrimination and bias.

The Alleged Abusers

Six faculty members were identified as contributing heavily to a culture of rampant sexual harassment. Four are currently deceased. Though the report found that most complaints were left unreported, some instructors recognized for their inappropriate behavior were left to teach without consequence.

Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk

Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk's name is at the top of the list of reports and campus rumors. Female rabbis and students acknowledged him as a "womanizer" who regularly persuaded female students to join him at his apartment. Once in his private residence, he would proposition them or proceed to sexually assault them. One former student informed interviewers that Gottschalk once "placed her hand on his penis." Another student shared a similar story, stating that the rabbi had "pinned her against a wall and forcibly kissed her." Mary Zamore, leader of the Women's Rabbinic Network, called out Gottschalk during a presentation this summer. Her own personal experience with Gottschalk prompted her to speak out while attending the conference about "repairing moral injury." Zamore shared that she had only just begun her training when a classmate confided in her regarding Gottschalk's conduct. "Refusing him, she feared for her academic position and future in the rabbinate," Zamore shared in her conference presentation. She noted that this behavior occurred in a repeated pattern. Female students learned, "not to enter his office alone." Though he was reported, disciplinary action was not taken by the college.

Rabbi Sheldon Zimmerman

Rabbi Sheldon Zimmerman, president and then chancellor of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, served the college until 2000. During his tenure from 1997-2000, reports show that he harassed and assaulted women at the seminary. The administration suspended Zimmerman in 2000, thereby ending his tenure at the college.

Rabbi Michael Cook

The death of philosophy professor Dr. Michael Cook sparked the initial reports on social media.  The New Testament scholar died in April 2021, sparking allegations on Facebook. These allegations eventually led to the initial investigation into Hebrew Union College.

Stephen Passamaneck

Stephen Passamaneck, a professor of rabbinic literature, was found to have stored pornography on his school computer. Passamaneck retired in 2013.

Bonia Shur

Bonia Shur, former composer and director of liturgical arts and music at the Cincinnati campus of HUC, is listed as allegedly touching and forcibly kissing female students. Interviewees note comments of a sexual nature toward students and a general abuse of power that was widely known amongst the student body. Shur died in 2012. The former composer worked at Cincinnati's campus from 1974 to 2003.

Steven Cohen

Steven Cohen resigned in 2013 after an investigation found him guilty of sexual misconduct. In addition to HUC, Cohen resigned from his place as director of the Berman Jewish Policy Archive-- an affiliate of Stanford University. Within the investigative report, recorded misconduct included:

  • Inappropriate touching and grabbing
  • Sexual propositions and advances
  • Inappropriate sexual remarks

Cohen did not deny the allegations. He released a statement in 2018 apologizing for his actions.

Board Recommendations

The investigation report prepared by the law firm urges the seminary board to hold an optional "reordination ceremony, or something similar" for rabbis who felt that their ordination had been tainted. The report recommends additional changes, including establishing clear policies for reviewing allegations. It also recommends revoking the ordination of rabbis found to have committed any kind of abuse. It also recommends "teshuva, or repentance" for those involved.

Resources for Victims of Sexual Harassment

The school has confirmed they will be pursuing a plan of action by December 14th. Sue Neuman Hochberg, Board of Governors Chair, released the following statement on behalf of the board: "By engaging a respected third-party investigative body and undertaking a serious and wide-ranging investigation into sexual misconduct and discrimination past and present, HUC-JIR has acted with integrity and has helped set a standard for other legacy organizations within and outside of the Jewish world. The work of repair is long and this investigation, with its lengthy and detailed report and recommendation, is a notable and important step in that ongoing process." If you are a victim of sexual harassment, there are trained professionals available to help. Call the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-4673 to connect with a counselor today.