ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 140

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Cleveland-area rabbi sentenced to prison for soliciting underage sex

Stephen Weiss, formerly senior clergy at a Conservative synagogue, given six months; prominent rabbi William Lebeau draws criticism for acting as character witness

Rabbi Stephen Weiss in a 2020 video. (Screen capture: Youtube, Used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)
Rabbi Stephen Weiss in a 2020 video. (Screen capture: Youtube, Used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

JTA – A Cleveland-area rabbi was sentenced to six months in prison on Monday for soliciting underage sex, capping a sad and shocking saga for the area’s Jewish community.

Among those who testified on Stephen Weiss’ behalf in a bid for leniency was a prominent rabbi in the Conservative movement.

Weiss, formerly senior rabbi at B’nai Jeshurun Congregation in Pepper Pike, was sentenced for the crimes of attempted unlawful sexual conduct with a minor and possessing criminal tools. He had been arrested and charged after a sting operation last April and pleaded guilty to the two felony charges in January. Weiss, 61, will be required to register as a sex offender for 25 years.

Appearing as a character witness for Weiss at his sentencing hearing was Rabbi William Lebeau, a former dean of the rabbinical school and former vice chancellor at the Jewish Theological Seminary. Lebeau currently serves as a senior consultant for rabbinic and institutional leadership with the Rabbinical Assembly, the professional association for Conservative rabbis.

“I first met Rabbi Weiss when he was a rabbinical student and I’ve maintained a close relationship with him to this day. I’ve come from New York City this morning because I wanted to share with you in court my experiences with Rabbi Weiss over the more than three decades that I’ve known him,” Lebeau said as he opened a three-minute statement on Weiss’ behalf, according to a recording of the hearing.

In the rest of the statement, he described “the Rabbi Weiss that I know” as “beloved by his classmates and respected by his teachers,” “especially admired for his qualities of kindness and sensitivity,” “his inspirational teaching of children and adults” and his support for congregants experiencing trouble.

Lebeau noted that Weiss felt remorse and had sought professional help in the wake of his arrest.

“Significantly, over more than 30 years as a rabbi there was nothing close to a grievance about his rabbinic service or his personal conduct,” Lebeau said. “There was nothing that would have predicted this aberrant moment in his life. I respectfully ask you your honor to consider the case of Rabbi Weiss in the context of the life of devotion to his family and to his community that he lived in prior to this tragic event.”

Rabbi William Lebeau (right) provides a character witness testimony on behalf of Rabbi Stephen Weiss (left) at Weiss’ sentencing hearing for crimes of soliciting underage sex, Cleveland, Ohio, February 27, 2023. (Screenshot via JTA. Used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

Weiss had already pleaded guilty to the crimes; Lebeau and Weiss’ daughter appeared as character witnesses as part of his attorney’s effort to secure a more lenient sentence. Weiss’ legal team had argued that his 2022 solicitation of an undercover police officer posing as an underaged boy was an aberration in Weiss’s three decades of rabbinical activities. His lawyer also cited a 2018 brain injury as a relevant factor in his behavior.

Some in the community questioned the decision of Lebeau, a widely admired mentor in the Conservative movement, to testify on Weiss’ behalf.

“I have a great deal of respect for Rabbi Lebeau. He’s a very important person in the movement,” Rabbi Noah Bickart, an endowed professor of Jewish studies at John Carroll University in Cleveland, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. Bickart had been a student at JTS when Lebeau was its dean.

But, Bickart said, “Choosing to support and defend Rabbi Weiss here, as opposed to the community that was victimized or potentially victimized, was the wrong decision to make.”

In an email to JTA, Lebeau said, “I chose to make a personal statement referring to the Stephen Weiss I have known for 35 years and the qualities that defined him, as I said in the courtroom, ‘prior to this tragic event.’”

Screen capture from video of Rabbi Noah Bickart, an endowed professor of Jewish studies at John Carroll University in Cleveland. (Youtube. Used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law, January 2023.)

The Rabbinical Assembly, with which Lebeau is currently associated, had harshly condemned Weiss’ alleged behavior upon his initial arrest in April 2022 and suspended his membership, making him ineligible to apply for jobs or participate in other activities.

“These deeply disturbing accusations betray the sacred trust our communities put in their clergy and must be fully and immediately investigated and dealt with appropriately,” the group said in a joint statement with the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism at the time.

The Rabbinical Assembly began publicizing a list of suspended and expelled rabbis in 2021, amid a widespread reckoning over whether Jewish organizations had inappropriately obscured misconduct by rabbis and other leaders.

“Rabbi Lebeau’s testimony was not on behalf of the Rabbinical Assembly,” a Rabbinical Assembly spokesperson said in a statement this week, which noted that the group is now in the process of expelling Weiss permanently. “And his testimony did not seek to justify nor excuse the behavior for which Steven Weiss was convicted.”

Lebeau had previously defended a different rabbi accused of inappropriate behavior towards children. In 2014, according to the Forward, he had supported a rabbi in Savannah, Georgia, who had given a lesson to a class of 9-year-olds about child sex trafficking filled with explicit language, alarming many parents.

Back then, Lebeau told the Forward the accused rabbi was “one of the kindest, most sensitive, caring people among all the students I met,” and expressed particular concern about the damage the incident could do to the rabbi’s reputation, saying, “This is a man’s life and a man’s reputation.” No crime was ever alleged to have taken place with the rabbi in Savannah.

Bickart said he was unfamiliar with the Savannah case but had a theory about why Lebeau spoke on behalf of the rabbis in both cases.

“I think Rabbi Lebeau honestly just wants to defend rabbis,” he said. “My sense is that Rabbi Lebeau is probably the go-to person to be a character witness for anybody.”

Still, Bickart said, he found the choice to testify on Weiss’ behalf meaningful.

“As somebody who’s a parent of a boy precisely the same age as the fictitious victim in this case, it’s hard for me to see an important rabbinic mentor seemingly take more seriously the concerns of a convicted sex offender than of the community,” Bickart said.

Prosecutors for Ohio’s task force on internet crimes against children disputed the arguments of Lebeau and Weiss’ attorney that Weiss’ conduct was a brief irregularity, saying that he had shown evidence of premeditated action. Weiss had previously sent explicit messages to an undercover officer posing as an underaged boy in 2020, and waited for hours in order to separate his target from his parents in 2022, when he was arrested.

B’nai Jeshurun, where Weiss had served since 2001, suspended the rabbi immediately upon his arrest in 2022, and he resigned days later. The congregation had determined in its own investigation that Weiss had not engaged in any illegal or illicit activity at the congregation itself. After Weiss’ sentencing was announced, the congregation’s president and senior rabbi emailed congregants to offer counseling services.

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