5 Things To Do When Developing Your Congregational Code of Ethics

It’s hard to overstate the importance of maintaining the highest ethical standards in our sacred work together. In light of this reality, the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) joined our Movement partners – the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR), American Conference of Cantors (ACC) and National Association for Temple Administration (NATA) – and adopted a formal ethics code in 2017.

The URJ Ethics Code applies to URJ volunteers, most notably North American Board members. However, for lack of jurisdiction, it doesn’t apply to conduct inside a URJ member congregation.

Yet we know our synagogues are challenged by unethical conduct. In fact, the URJ Knowledge Network regularly receives inquiries from congregations about ethical issues that have surfaced in their community. And when individuals engage in inappropriate or unethical conduct, they both harm others and damage the community itself.

To maintain the synagogue as a sacred space and a spiritual home for all who enter its doors, everyone in the community – members, lay leaders, clergy and professional staff – must act according to Reform Jewish values. Towards this end, the URJ strongly encourages congregations to develop and implement a code of ethics that all understand they must adhere to if they wish to participate in the community. To support our congregations in this effort, a URJ task force developed resources for congregations wanting to develop their own code of ethics.

Such a code demonstrates that the entire community aspires to act according to the highest ethical standards, gives your congregation an opportunity to examine its values, and preserves and reinforces the integrity of the synagogue as a sacred – and safe – institution for all. It also informs members of acceptable standards of individual behavior and provides clear guidelines to help them determine if their actions and synagogue decision-making are, indeed, ethical.

As leaders of their spiritual communities, rabbis are uniquely positioned to make creating a synagogue ethics code a congregational priority. Doing so alongside their temple presidents, rabbis can also model sacred partnership, which itself is a foundational element of a healthy and ethical synagogue culture.

Here are five specific actions to consider as your congregation develops and implements a code of ethics:

1. Obtain leaders’ buy-in.

Lay and professional leaders should clearly articulate and endorse the need for an ethics code and support its development and implementation. When possible, temple leadership should establish a dedicated team or task force – representative of the congregation’s composition – to construct the ethics code, engage key stakeholders, and report regularly on the process and progress-to-date.

Once it’s been developed, synagogue leaders should inform and educate the entire community about the code in a way that reflects the congregation’s culture. Ultimately, the board should ratify the final document – with an understanding that it’s a “living document” that, based on experience, periodically will need to be reviewed and revised.

2. Determine the breadth of the code.

Consider whether the code of ethics will apply only to lay leader volunteers and professional staff or to every member of the synagogue community and whether certain provisions need apply only to partners with financial responsibilities.

Complaints of ethics violations against individuals who are members of a Reform Movement professional organization – CCAR, ACC, or NATA – should be referred to the specific organization’s ethics committee.

3. Select values to highlight.

The foundation of your code of ethics should rest on a set of well-articulated Jewish values. To determine which values your congregation wants to highlight, you may wish to reference your existing values statement and/or conduct an evaluation with lay and professionals stakeholders to determine your community’s top values. Whenever possible, ground the supporting values in Jewish texts.

4. State desired behaviors.

Your ethics code should go beyond describing unethical conduct and include desired behaviors as well. For example, regarding financial management, you may note an unethical behavior that is prohibited such as, “Misappropriation of synagogue funds for unauthorized use.” A corresponding desired behavior might be “Scrupulously and transparently handle synagogue assets.”  In addition, be sure your code of ethics complies with local, state/provincial, and federal legal statutes.

5. Position the code as a brit or covenant.

Framing the congregational code of ethics as a brit, or covenant, will remind those to whom it applies of their responsibility to maintain a sacred relationship with their synagogue community. You might consider including the ethics code in new member membership packets and post it on the synagogue’s website. Lastly, your congregation is encouraged to sign this brit with the URJ to demonstrate your commitment to ensuring respectful and safe congregations and communities.

To learn more about developing a code of ethics, visit the Congregational Ethics Codes group, or search the #CongregationalEthics topic tag in The Tent. Here you can access a detailed resource for creating your own code of ethics, view a sample template of an ethics code, and collaborate with other congregations engaged in this endeavor.

Dr. Steve Weitz is a past president and current trustee at Temple Beth-El in Hillsborough, NJ. He is a URJ vice chair and chair of the URJ Ethics Council.  He serves on the Oversight Committee and the North American Board of Trustees of the Union for Reform Judaism. He is also a member of the CCAR Ethics Process Review Committee.


Confidentiality in the Ethics Process

What is confidentiality in the CCAR ethics process, and how does it differ from other settings, such as pastoral counseling? Recently, several people—rabbis, participants in ethics cases, members of congregations—have asked questions about the nature of confidentiality in the CCAR ethics process. In particular, several asked whether the names of complainants, victims or witnesses are ever made public. The short answer is no: CCAR does not disclose publicly the names of complainants, victims or witnesses.

Confidentiality is often assumed to be a blanket non-disclosure.  But in different settings, confidentiality means different things.  For example, in a pastoral counseling setting, confidentiality goes to the heart of the congregant’s expectation of privacy between the congregant and the rabbi (or minister).  In fact, that privacy even is recognized in the law as a “priest-penitent privilege” that prevents disclosure of those conversations except in special circumstances.   

The goal of the CCAR process is to help rabbis and communities achieve their aspirational values that reflect the very best of the rabbinate and the community, including sacred and safe communities with rabbis who live up to their highest moral values. Confidentiality in the ethics process is designed to achieve these goals and allow an ethics committee to do its work in a way that is fair, protective, and safe. (As I have written about in other settings, the CCAR ethics process is an ecclesiastical process, not analogous to a legal trial court.)

The CCAR ethics process is one in which the CCAR determines if a rabbi has violated the Code of Ethics.  Someone (an individual or a congregation) begins the process by filing a complaint with the CCAR against a rabbi. Then, the rabbi responds to the complaint, and the process moves forward.  At this point, the process is confidential out of respect for the privacy and reputation of everyone connected to it—parties, witnesses, victims, and potential victims. But it is not secret. 

There’s an important difference.  “Secret” means that nothing is shared and everything is out of the public eye. By contrast, a “confidential” process is one in which information gathered during the process is not broadly disseminated except to others involved in the process so that the Ethics Committee can do its work to determine if a rabbi violated the Code of Ethics. 

To achieve our goals, the CCAR does not publicly identify victims, witnesses or complainants at any stage in the process.  We continue to respect their request for privacy throughout the process and even after it is concluded.

However, adjudications of Code violations that lead to public censure, suspension or expulsion of a rabbi are not kept confidential. In fact, these actions are publicly disclosed on the CCAR website.  

The Code explicitly dictates what information must be disclosed and to whom.  To begin the process, “complaints must be written and include the names of all parties involved.”  (VI.B.1.) The complaint is shared with the rabbi.  Thus, the names of the parties—the complainant and the rabbi—are disclosed to one another and to the Ethics Committee from the outset of a complaint.

While the CCAR Ethics process is ongoing, we ask that everyone connected to it honor the confidentiality of the process.  Confidentiality better assures that the parties and witnesses will provide information and the victims feel they have a safe place to share their experiences.

Yet asking someone, such as a complainant or victim or rabbi, to respect the confidentiality of the process certainly does not mean that people, especially victims, should not talk with their immediate family or close friends about what they have experienced, and it does not prevent anyone from seeking spiritual, emotional, or professional support.  We know that can be of importance to a person’s health and healing.

When it comes to complainants, witnesses, and victims, we may also need to protect them from fear of retaliation or humiliation in some instances.  As written by one of the leaders in the field of clergy misconduct,  “shooting the messenger is a common response to the revelation of unethical conduct.” (Is Nothing Sacred, Marie Fortune) This concern is another reason why we do not disclose publicly the names of the complainants, victims or witnesses.

The CCAR process continues to evolve and improve over time with the input of many people, including those of the rabbis, complainants, and victims themselves.  We especially are proud that lay leaders have joined with rabbis in the ethics process:  on the Ethics Committee which receives complaints and adjudicates; on Fact Gathering Teams, which gather information from complainants, rabbis, and witnesses; on the Ethics Board of Appeals, which hears appeals from an adjudication; and on the Ethics Process Review Committee, which proposes changes to the Code of Ethics.

CCAR members aspire to exhibit the very best of the rabbinic tradition.  The Ethics Code and process reflect those aspirations.

Rabbi Steven A. Fox is the Chief Executive of the Central Conference of American Rabbis.

General CCAR

What is Unique About the CCAR Ethics Code

The CCAR Code of Ethics is an “ecclesiastical” system, based on religious principles and our lived experience and shared expectations as rabbis.  The Code has among its goals maintaining safe and sacred communities served by rabbis who live up to the highest moral values.  When a rabbi fails to do so, the Code provides a process to address the needs of the community, any possible victims, the rabbi’s family, and the broader Jewish community.  The system of T’shuvah, Rehabilitation and Counseling is designed for a rabbi’s possible return to health and wholeness, and we hope to rabbinic service.

As conversations take hold in the national media of how companies are responding to allegations of misbehavior, it’s important to take a step back and recognize the way our obligations align and differ from those of other environments. The Human Resources/legal (HR) system is designed to moderate the employer/employee relationship.  Civil law sets out the substance of the law and the procedures that must be followed.   To protect the employer and employee, that system is aimed at a different set of issues: It addresses the rights of an employee to certain protections and processes when employers take action to discipline employees. Rabbis and congregations are in direct contract with one another, and the congregation makes HR/legal decisions like any other employer. CCAR is not the employer of Rabbis.  CCAR is an association of member Rabbis, whose members have agreed to the Code of Ethics and the processes under it.

The HR/ legal system is normally limited by the specific charge brought against an individual.  It is a system that is rooted in law, facts, circumstances, and, importantly, the ability to prove or deflect the proof of wrongdoing.  In that system, an individual can use all procedures and techniques allowed by the law, even to bar evidence that may prove wrongdoing.

The CCAR Ethics system, on the other hand, is rooted in the Code of Ethics to which all rabbis agree to abide and to which we hold one another accountable, even when there is no legal violation.  Unlike some HR/legal processes, we take into consideration all information that the Ethics Committee learns from all possible sources.  We are not limited by the admissibility of evidence in law.  Further, the rabbi cannot limit the outcome of a case by trying to manipulate the evidence as can occur in the civil law.   Also, we are not limited to the “four corners of the complaint” (i.e. only that which is alleged to have happened). We look at the issues and behavior.  For example, if a complaint comes in that alleges that a rabbi created a hostile work environment due to an anger management issue, and in the course of that it is discovered that there was also sexual misconduct, the CCAR can proceed to investigate and adjudicate the discovered issues.

Our system allows us determine whether an individual remains fit for the rabbinate and capable of serving a congregation or organization or individuals.

The Code of Ethics goes to personal failings, personal boundaries that guide relationships, and ways in which we regulate prudent human behavior.  What follows are two examples, one dealing with sexual boundaries, and one with money.

This first example, a sexual boundary violation under the Code of Ethics has a wide breadth, and can include anything from inappropriate language to a consensual extramarital affair to sexual abuse (some of which fall outside of a HR/legal system). Let’s look at the issue of “consent”.  Let’s say, hypothetically, there is a male/female relationship.  In most legal and HR cases, if an individual consents to a relationship, the allegations made by the victim of harassment will usually end.  In that system, the showing of consent can absolve the purported perpetrator.   However, in our system, consent does not end charges of sexual boundary violation by a rabbi.  Thus, for example, even in a “consensual” relationship, if either party is married, it will be a violation of the Code of Ethics by the rabbi.  We look at many issues of the dynamic of a relationship between a rabbi and a lay person, including abuse of power, real and symbolic authority, and other behaviors which, even if they are “legally” consensual, might still exploit the vulnerability of a victim or compromise the moral integrity of a rabbi.

The second example is financial.  In a legal system, when there are allegations of financial mismanagement or a diversion of funds, evidence must rise to the level of proof of the actual diversion.  In our system, the Code of Ethics provides that even an “appearance” of financial misconduct can constitute a violation.  This goes to the issues of imprudence.  We seek to protect the integrity of the rabbinate, or a rabbi’s discretionary fund, and even the intent of the donor.  This applies even if there is no legal diversion.

The CCAR Ethics Code is a complaint driven system—someone must bring a complaint against a rabbi to start the process.  The Ethics Committee first determines if there is sufficient evidence to adjudicate immediately.  For example, in a situation where a rabbi acknowledges the truth of the allegations and admits his/her violation of the Code of Ethic, the Ethics Committee can adjudicate. Or, if the Committee has questions, it can look further. If there is not sufficient information to adjudicate, the Ethics Committee appoints a Fact Gathering Team who will meet with the complainant, rabbi, and other potential witnesses such as congregational leaders, spouses, congregants, and others.  Once sufficient information is obtained to adjudicate, the Fact Gathering Team refers the matter back to the Ethics Committee for adjudication.  If the rabbi is found in violation of the Code, the rabbi then has thirty days to appeal.   Notice of the adjudication of a Censure, Suspension or Expulsion is sent to the rabbi, the victim, and the rabbi’s congregation or organizational supervisor.

Unlike an HR setting, the CCAR does not have the power to remove a rabbi from his or her rabbinic position.  If a rabbi appears to be a “serious danger to others”, the Ethics Committee will notify the rabbi’s supervisor or congregational President and “urge that the rabbi be removed from rabbinic function prior to the investigation.”

Only after adjudication can the CCAR place restrictions on a rabbi prohibiting him/her from functioning as a rabbi in the community.  Again, here we have a limitation also.  The CCAR does not have the power to defrock a rabbi.  If the rabbi resigns from the CCAR (leading to an expulsion) the rabbi can independently hang out a shingle and seek rabbinic employment. For that reason, we prefer to suspend rabbis rather than expel them, because while suspended they remain accountable to our ethics code. If, however, a Rabbi refuses to cooperate or resigns rather than follow the Ethics process, that Rabbi is expelled and the expulsion will be announced.   Lastly, even after a rabbi completes a rehabilitation process, notice of Censure, Suspension and Expulsion is given to a prospective employer.

Importantly, lay leaders join with rabbis on the CCAR ethics committees:  the Ethics Committee (which receives complaints and adjudicates), the Ethics Appeals Board (which hears appeals from an adjudication) and the Ethics Process Review Committee (which proposes changes to the Ethics Code).  Lay leaders also are on the fact gathering teams that investigate complaints.

As we deal with any painful issue of rabbinic misconduct,  it is important to distinguish between what the CCAR Code of Ethics is and what it cannot be. Clearly, the Code of Ethics is not a legal document written by a group of lawyers trying to protect employees and the employer, whose relationships ends when an employee is terminated or leaves. Rather, the Code of Ethics is a system of rabbinic accountability to which we, as rabbis and members of the CCAR, have voluntarily agreed to live by in order to uphold the highest ideals of Jewish ethics. In this task we will continue to persevere.

Rabbi Steven A. Fox is the Chief Executive of the Central Conference of American Rabbis.