In a letter emailed to a large group of supporters over the weekend, Rabbi Steven M. Fink, Temple Oheb Shalom’s spiritual leader for the past 19 years, called on members to vote against removing him from the pulpit at a special Oct. 21 congregational meeting.
“I can no longer sit back and allow what is left of my reputation to be destroyed,” Rabbi Fink wrote. “I am writing to you now, against the wishes of the Temple leadership, to urge you to attend this meeting and vote ‘NO.'”
On Aug. 22 and Sept. 26, the Pikesville temple’s board of trustees voted unanimously to begin termination proceedings against Rabbi Fink due to allegations of sexual misconduct and ethical violations. The vote came in the wake of an 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.)
The CCAR conducted a months-long investigation 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.
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.”
In an Oct. 3 letter to members about the upcoming congregational meeting, Wender wrote, “We the Board of Trustees and past-Presidents and Board Chairpersons, were addressed in person by Rabbi Fink and by some of the complainants. We reviewed the information and conclusions of the CCAR concerning Rabbi Fink’s failure to adhere to significant sections of their Code of Ethics and we found their conclusions compelling. …
“Violations of the CCAR Ethics Code are an express basis for termination of Rabbi Fink’s contract. Pragmatically, the CCAR Ethics Committee’s decision to suspend Rabbi Fink from the CCAR and bar him from fulfilling his responsibilities as a rabbi in any congregation affiliated with the Union of Reform Judaism makes his continued tenure untenable.”
Rabbi Fink, 67, has been suspended with pay from Oheb Shalom since the alleged incident came to light.
In his four-page letter emailed on Oct. 6, Rabbi Fink called the allegations against him “false and, even if true, would not amount to misconduct. The only allegation that could be remotely serious is utterly false. … My reputation has been unjustly and maliciously destroyed because of internal Temple politics.”
In the letter, Rabbi Fink contended that his opposition to extend the contract of Oheb Shalom’s assistant rabbi led to a quest by the temple’s executive committee to remove him as senior rabbi.
He wrote that the assistant rabbi’s supporters “solicited stories or rumors about me that they then passed on to the Ethics Committee of the Central Conference of American Rabbis … without making any attempt to verify their truth. Many of the complaints made about me to the Ethics Committee involve matters as simple as my style of interacting with people, which was known before the Board twice voted to extend my contract as senior rabbi.”
Rabbi Fink said the primary allegation — of an interaction between himself and a teenager during a 10-minute meeting in 2007 — is “utterly false.” He said the accuser was upset at the time that the rabbi declined to provide her with a college recommendation letter.
“This accuser is a close supporter of the assistant rabbi, and this allegation was never voiced
until after the recent dispute between the assistant rabbi and me,” Rabbi Fink wrote. “I interacted with this person frequently in the last few years, and there was no hint that would corroborate, in any way, the notion that an incident like the one alleged had ever occurred or that it continued to affect the accuser.”
Since the allegations became public, Rabbi Fink said he has been the victim of a “completely unfair process that has deprived me of any sort of due process or real ability to defend myself. The Executive Committee did not even ask me about what had happened before choosing to suspend me. The CCAR Ethics Committee denied me the opportunity to speak with witnesses, be present when the Committee spoke with witnesses, learn the identity of many witnesses, investigate facts, have an attorney present my case, or even see all the ‘evidence’ against me.”
At the same time, he charged that Oheb Shalom’s leadership has falsely maligned him to congregants and in the media, even during the High Holidays.
Before offering a “Frequently Asked Questions” section about the case, Rabbi Fink once again implored congregants to attend the Oct. 21 meeting and vote against the board’s decision to terminate him.
“You will vote in favor of helping me clear my name and in favor of Temple Oheb Shalom moving past this painful process,” he wrote.
In a statement issued on Oct. 8, Oheb Shalom countered, “Rabbi Fink’s letter of October 6 contains zero factual evidence to support his claim that a vast conspiracy is the motive for his suspension from the CCAR and the termination of his contract for cause. He seems to be attributing evil motives to dozens of people, both within Temple Oheb Shalom, and by others who are national rabbinic leaders of Reform Judaism. This is plainly false.
“The CCAR and Temple Oheb Shalom’s Board of Trustees considered facts and evidence, as well as Rabbi Fink’s own written and in-person testimony and determined unanimously that he violated multiple sections of the CCAR Ethics Code. This cannot be ignored or disregarded by Temple Oheb Shalom, and Rabbi Fink’s own contract acknowledges that.
“Rabbi Fink was treated fairly throughout a five-month process of investigation and decision. This was not a criminal or civil proceeding – it was a religious and ethics inquiry. Rabbi Fink has been fully paid throughout this lengthy process, and continues to be paid now. The Board of Trustees meticulously followed all the procedural requirements for the investigation and ultimate termination of Rabbi Fink, as set forth in the CCAR Code of Ethics, Rabbi Fink’s contract and the Temple Bylaws. Rabbi Fink had opportunity to meet with the Temple’s President prior to his suspension (which he declined), had multiple opportunities to present and be heard before the CCAR in writing and in person, which he did, and he also presented in writing and in person – with no time limit – before the Temple Board of Trustees on September 26. The confidentiality of all involved in the process, including Rabbi Fink, was respected throughout the process.”
Among Rabbi Fink’s supporters is Stephen Miller, who served on Oheb Shalom’s executive committee until the rabbi’s suspension.
“The president of Oheb Shalom is doing a major disservice to the congregation by doing everything she can to prevent the congregation from hearing from Rabbi Fink, said Miller. “Rabbi Fink was asked to send in a document five days before the recent board meeting, and the president then refused to send it to the board. Now, the president is preventing Rabbi Fink from sending his letter to the congregation or speaking at the upcoming congregational meeting. Nor is she willing to take questions from congregants at the meeting.
“The president is wrong in saying Rabbi Fink is claiming a ‘vast conspiracy.’ He makes no such claims. People can read the document as it circulates on social media and make their own judgments.”
Miller, who previously served as Oheb Shalom’s vice president of finance, was also critical of the CCAR process regarding Rabbi Fink. “I was involved in the CCAR process,” he said. “While the CCAR is well-intentioned, their capacity to destroy a rabbi’s reputation vastly exceeds their capacity to do a proper or fair investigation.”
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 outgoing spiritual leader, wrote in her temple’s August newsletter that the congregation would “cease exploration of a merger” with Oheb Shalom.
This story will continue to be updated as information becomes available.