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Bat Sheva Marcus resigns from seminary board in wake of harassment allegations

Affair has roiled the liberal US Modern Orthodox community

Bat Sheva Marcus. (Screenshot via YouTube)
Bat Sheva Marcus. (Screenshot via YouTube)

JTA — Bat Sheva Marcus, the prominent Orthodox sex therapist whose history of alleged abuse broke into public view this week, has resigned from the board of a Modern Orthodox seminary and will no longer host a sex-focused podcast with the seminary’s top rabbi.

The board chair and the rabbi announced the changes separately Thursday, three days after Marcus published an explosive essay detailing allegations of harassment that had been made against her.

The essay, and subsequent comments by two former executive directors of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance who said Marcus had harassed them when she was president of the pioneering group’s board, has roiled the liberal Modern Orthodox community, including the seminary, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah in Riverdale, New York.

“Today, the YCT Board of Directors accepted Dr. Bat Sheva Marcus’ resignation from the board. We acknowledge the pain that recent events have brought to many people in our community,” board chair Steven Laufer said in the statement.

“YCT continues to stand strongly in our efforts to create safe and equitable spaces for women and for all people,” Laufer added. “We, as an institution, are using this as an opportunity to revisit our policies and practices and to assure that we are operating under the most current and best practices.”

Rabbi Dov Linzer, YCT’s head rabbi, had emailed graduates of the 23-year-old seminary to caution them that they might not be satisfied with the board’s statement.

“I expect that the statement will not be as strong as some of you might have hoped for,” Linzer wrote, adding that he and Laufer “would like to meet with you to discuss this matter — to share with you our process and some aspects that you may not be aware of, and to hear from you all that you have been feeling and thinking.”

One meeting will take place next week, Linzer said, and another after that. He also said that the seminary was discontinuing his podcast with Marcus, which the pair had co-hosted since 2019.

“I will not be continuing my Joy of Text podcast with Bat Sheva Marcus,” Linzer wrote. “All of the recordings and source sheets have already been removed from our website.”

Among the YCT graduates who had been pressing for the school to distance itself from Marcus was Ben Greenberg, the husband of Sharon-Weiss Greenberg, one of the two former JOFA presidents who said Marcus had bullied and demeaned them.

Weiss-Greenberg declined to comment on the changes at YCT, pointing to her statement issued Wednesday that encouraged a focus on the board of JOFA, which she said had ignored her complaints about Marcus.

“It is my wish that the lack of proper procedure, process and attitude of the board of an allegedly feminist institution be scrutinized,” Weiss-Greenberg wrote. (From 2020 to 2021, Weiss-Greenberg worked on The Hub, an online events portal at My Jewish Learning, which like the Jewish Telegraphic Agency is part of 70 Faces Media.)

Meanwhile, JOFA’s current board chair, Pam Scheininger, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that she was largely unaware of Marcus’ alleged misbehavior while Marcus was board chair and that she has had almost no contact with Marcus — save a message upon the death of a family member — since August 2018, when Marcus was asked to leave JOFA in the aftermath of a third-party investigation into her behavior prompted by Weiss-Greenberg’s complaints.

The attorneys who headed up that investigation ultimately determined that Marcus’ behavior was inappropriate, but that it did not rise to the level of sexual abuse, she said. Still, she said, “We didn’t think that her continued involvement in the organization was consistent with our values.”

Marcus remained listed on the organization’s website as a past president “by agreement” but was no longer involved in its day-to-day operations, Scheininger said.

Scheininger offered further apologies to JOFA’s supporters and former employees. If people were afraid to come forward to her to discuss Marcus’ behavior, she said, “then I’m deeply sorry. We have to do better. We’ve put measures in place to do and be better.”

One concrete change the group announced this week was a decision no longer to seek non-disclosure agreements when employees depart. While those agreements, which require former employees not to criticize their old workplace, can be common, they have become increasingly controversial because of the critique that they can silence victims of abuse.

Weiss-Greenberg and her predecessor, Elana Sztokman, both said this week that they had not spoken out publicly about Marcus because they had signed NDAs. Sztokman said in a post on Substack that she had not warned Weiss-Greenberg about conditions at JOFA because of her agreement and that she regretted her decision.

Scheininger denied that there was any attempt to cover up or deflect from Marcus’ behavior during the years she was active with JOFA. Instead, she said, when Weiss-Greenberg had come forward, the people receiving her testimony simply had “a lack of recognition, or insufficient recognition, of how inappropriate conversations about sex and body are in the workplace.”

“In earlier years, I think that there was more tolerance for it,” she said. She believes JOFA has “completely changed the culture of our leadership and our workplace” in the years since it downplayed Weiss-Greenberg’s complaints, but admitted, “What I should have heard in that first conversation was what she was trying to tell me, which was that she was the subject of sexual harassment. … I should have heard her speak her truth at that point in time, and I didn’t.”

In the weeks leading up to the publication of Marcus’ essay, JOFA had already been in discussion with its members and with a network of Jewish organizations devoted to safety and respect about its use of non-disclosure agreements, Scheininger said. Recently, the network had demoted JOFA to “inactive member” status, while also implementing new requirements that members not use NDAs to silence former employees.

In addition, Scheininger said, JOFA had been receiving more feedback on social media about the harmfulness of NDAs. An earlier statement of hers about the Marcus allegations, which had noted that JOFA employs NDAs but does not “enforce” them, received blowback and inspired the group to rethink its policy.

While drafting a new statement, Scheininger said, a board member sent her the Tablet essay, which had just been published without their knowledge. JOFA contacted its employees that afternoon to release them from their NDAs — a move they undertook, she said, so that former staff could “be free to tell their story in response to this.”

People who have associated with the pioneering organization, which was founded in 1996 and was instrumental in the move toward greater inclusion for women leaders in Orthodox congregations, have raised questions this week about whether it is still needed in a landscape that it changed so indelibly.

When asked if she believed JOFA could survive this moment, Scheininger replied, “I certainly hope so.”

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