Temple Oheb Shalom’s board of directors voted unanimously on Aug. 22 to begin termination proceedings against the congregation’s spiritual leader of 19 years, Rabbi Steven M. Fink, due to allegations of sexual misconduct and ethical violations.
In response, Rabbi Fink said he is innocent of all charges and will fight measures to remove him from the pulpit.
Amy Rotenberg, spokesperson for the Pikesville temple, said the termination process could take weeks. “We intend to follow the process as set forth in the rabbi’s contract and the bylaws,” she said.
The vote by the board came in the wake of a Aug. 20 vote by the Central Conference of American Rabbis’ ethics committee to suspend Rabbi Fink from the rabbinate due to the alleged violations. The CCAR is the Reform movement’s national rabbinic leadership organization, to which Rabbi Fink belonged for three decades.
The CCAR’s vote concluded that organization’s months-long investigation into Rabbi Fink’s alleged sexual misconduct. The investigation was initiated in May following the report of “an improper incident of a sexual nature that may have occurred a number of years ago involving Rabbi Fink and a then teenager, who was a minor at the time,” according to a letter sent in May to congregants by the board of Oheb Shalom.
A native of Montclair, N.J., Rabbi Fink, 67, has been suspended with pay from Oheb Shalom since the alleged incident came to light.
Rabbi Fink told Jmore on Aug. 31 that he is completely innocent of all of the allegations and will appeal the CCAR and temple board decisions.
“I am an innocent man, and I sleep at night the sleep of the innocent,” he said, noting that he met with 70 of his supporters at a congregant’s residence on Aug. 29 to plan a counter response. “I’ve agreed to start speaking out and fighting back.”
A defiant Rabbi Fink said he was previously constrained by the CCAR’s bylaws and procedures from speaking about the case, “but I no longer want to be restrained. This whole process has been defamatory and I’ve not had due process. It’s been an egregious miscarriage of justice.”
Rabbi Fink said that all of the accusations against him have been made by anonymous individuals and he has not been afforded opportunities to defend himself or to interview witnesses.
Rabbi Fink said he plans to eventually speak to the temple’s board of trustees, “which is ignorant of what’s been really going on.” He attributed the origins of the entire matter to an internal staffing dispute. “It’s a simple as that,” he said.
Rabbi Fink said the allegations against him “have taken a toll on my life. It’s been horrible, the most difficult and stressful time of my life. But I’ve also had a tremendous amount of support from families and friends in the community.”
He said he plans to send out a press release to the media next week, outlining his future plans to fight the recent votes against him. “There are a number of Temple Oheb Shalom leaders who need to ask for teshuvah [repentance] this Yom Kippur,” Rabbi Fink said.
In an Aug. 19 email to the congregation, Oheb Shalom President Mina Wender wrote that the CCAR investigation considered “multiple claims of inappropriate conduct” and included “interviews with over 20 witnesses, some in person and some by telephone, including individuals supportive of Rabbi Fink; review of written submissions, including submissions by Rabbi Fink and by Temple Oheb Shalom; an interview with Rabbi Fink in the presence of his legal counsel; and review of relevant documents.”
Ken Davidson, Oheb Shalom’s executive director, referred media inquiries to Rotenberg and a statement issued Aug. 23 by Oheb Shalom’s board of directors.
“Temple Oheb Shalom takes very seriously the allegations of misconduct and ethical violations
against Rabbi Fink and the Central Conference of American Rabbis’ (`CCAR’) findings and
suspension of Rabbi Fink from their rabbinic body,” read the statement. “… After extensive discussion, and in the best interest of the congregation, the Board unanimously voted by resolution to immediately begin termination proceedings against Rabbi Fink “for cause.’ Rabbi Fink’s contract and our Temple bylaws have procedural requirements relating to any termination that are also being addressed and will take some time to resolve.”
The board’s statement went on to say, “From the beginning of this difficult matter, the Board and its Executive Committee have worked diligently to maintain a safe and sacred environment for our spiritual community, to protect the privacy and interests of all parties involved, to stay neutral as we awaited the conclusion of the investigative processes, and to always to consider what is in the best interest of the congregation. While there are several more steps ahead for our congregation, we are confident that we will emerge with a new beginning and a new vision with the help of our dedicated clergy, professional team and devoted congregants.”
In a letter to congregants regarding the temple board’s decision, Wender noted that the congregation’s past presidents unanimously endorsed the board’s decision to begin the termination process. She also noted that the CCAR investigated “complaints” about and “multiple violations” allegedly committed by Rabbi Fink.
“The Board has notified Rabbi Fink in writing of the ‘for cause’ circumstances, and under his employment agreement Rabbi Fink has the right to challenge the ‘for cause’ determinations before the Board in writing and in person,” Wender wrote. “His contract and our Temple bylaws have other procedural requirements relating to any termination that are also being addressed and will take some time to resolve.”
She concluded, “While several more steps remain for our congregation, we are confident that we will emerge with a new beginning and a new vision with the help of all our members … We ask you to remain patient, respect the process and respect each other.”
Last September, Oheb Shalom, which was founded in 1853 and is located at 7310 Park Heights Ave., and Har Sinai Congregation in Owings Mills announced plans to explore merging. But Rabbi Linda Joseph, Har Sinai’s spiritual leader, recently wrote in her temple’s newsletter that the congregation would “cease exploration of a merger” with Oheb Shalom.
Interim Rabbi Marc L. Disick and Assistant Rabbi Sarah R. Marion, along with Rabbi Emeritus Donald R. Berlin, are currently leading services and pastoral care at Oheb Shalom.
One congregant, who requested anonymity, said the temple of approximately 625 families is deeply divided about the Rabbi Fink matter and at a crossroads.
“There’s a lot of pain here, and no one is taking pleasure with this,” she said. “There’s an undercurrent because this situation is still going on. These events did not occur in a vacuum. There’s a history and pattern here [in the rabbi’s behavior], and a lack of personal responsibility. … We’re either going to come together and be stronger for it, or I don’t know what will happen to us.
“The future here is uncertain. There needs to be a lot of change for it to be great,” she said. “Some people are willing to make change, and some are not and are very angry. Some of that anger is directed toward young females in the congregation. Hopefully, there will be a healing and we can all move on.”
Another congregant, who also asked to be anonymous, said she supported the board’s decision to start termination proceedings.
“The CCAR has extremely high ethical standards and I have the utmost confidence in their investigation,” the congregant said. “It is important to stress that there were multiple complaints … So although the entire situation is extremely disheartening for our community, I am not surprised or disappointed by the outcome.”
This story will continue to be updated as information becomes available.