Members of Rodef Shalom seek answers regarding rabbi’s removal
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Synagogue controversyFrustrated congregants

Members of Rodef Shalom seek answers regarding rabbi’s removal

With only sparse details revealed, many congregants are feeling disenfranchised. Rodef Shalom's board of trustees hopes to open up the conversation — to the extent possible.

The bima in Rodef Shalom Congregation's sanctuary (Photo provided by Rodef Shalom)
The bima in Rodef Shalom Congregation's sanctuary (Photo provided by Rodef Shalom)

Scores of Rodef Shalom Congregation members are bewildered by its board of trustees’ recent announcement that the contract of Rabbi Aaron Bisno would not be renewed.

Those congregants say they are dismayed by the board’s lack of transparency. They still don’t know what Bisno is accused of doing, nor do they know the process involved that led the board to conclude that a beloved spiritual leader could no longer serve his congregation.

They feel disenfranchised, and they want answers.

Bisno, senior rabbi of Rodef Shalom since 2004, was placed on administrative leave late last year by the board. The congregation was first informed of that leave in a Nov. 30 email that said Bisno had taken a leave of absence “to have some time away from work.” In that email, the board asked congregants not to contact the rabbi.

Rabbi Aaron Bisno (File photo)
In a Feb. 11 email to congregants, the board provided more details, writing that “personnel allegations” and “workplace culture concerns” had been brought forth relative to Bisno. Details of the allegations, including the names of those who made the claims, were not shared to “protect the employees’ confidentiality,” consistent with Rodef Shalom’s personnel policies.

The congregation engaged a firm outside Pittsburgh to “conduct an independent, thorough, and objective investigation,” the Feb. 11 email continued. That firm interviewed current and former employees, as well as Bisno. While the board declined to share details of the investigation for “legal reasons,” it confirmed that the investigation “did not identify any illegal actions.”

Then, in a March 7 email, the board told the congregation that Bisno’s contract would not be renewed, and that Bisno’s lawyers said the rabbi planned to sue the congregation’s board of trustees and individual trustees for defamation.

Many congregants are frustrated with the way the board has handled the situation.

“We represent a group of congregants who are deeply concerned by the actions taken by the Board with respect to placing Rabbi Bisno on leave of absence and ultimately non-renewal of his rabbinic contract,” Rodef Shalom members Frederick Frank, Larry Gumberg and Jim Rudolph wrote in an email to the Chronicle. “He has served the congregation with excellence and dedication for 18 years and has earned the great admiration of both the congregation and the larger Pittsburgh community. The Board is taking these actions unilaterally without consulting the congregation. Our focus at this time is to help our congregation to heal.”

While Frank, Gumberg and Rudolph declined to elaborate about the nature of the group they represent, or any plan of action, they did confirm that “close to 100 congregants” comprised the group.

In a Feb. 18 letter, longtime Rodef Shalom member Len Asimow asked the board about its process of investigating and disciplining Bisno, and the nature of the accusations against the rabbi. The letter was sent to the entire board and a number of non-board members. The Chronicle obtained a copy.

“I understand that the Board has been placed in a delicate situation and discretion is called for,” Asimow’s letter said. “A respected and beloved rabbi is suddenly on a leave of absence under mysterious circumstances, and the Board needs to weigh the need for confidentiality on the one hand with the natural desire of congregants for explanations on the other. I grant this is a difficult balancing act, but I sense that excessive secrecy and carefully contrived murkiness, all under the shield of sensitivity, legality, and ‘best practices’ have won out over simple candor. The result is the two letters to congregants, dated Nov. 30 and Feb. 11 respectively, which to my mind smack of aloofness, paternalism, and condescension.”

Asimow went on to inquire why the Nov. 30 email was written in a way that implied Bisno had chosen to take a leave of absence; why the congregation was not told from the beginning that Bisno was the subject of “personnel allegations” and “workplace culture concerns”; and what personnel practices were followed in the process of putting Bisno on leave pending the investigation.

The Asimow letter also asked if there was an attempt at mediation before Bisno was placed on administrative leave, and if the nature of the allegations “truly warrant the serious reputational and career damage inflicted on the rabbi by your actions?”

Asimow said he did not receive a response from the board.

“It’s hard to envision what [Bisno] could have done that ignited all of this,” said Asimow, who has been a member of Rodef Shalom for almost 20 years. “My wife is close to Rabbi Bisno and appreciates all he’s done for the congregation.”

Many of the “non-board congregants” who saw Asimow’s letter “seem to be in sympathy,” he added. “My impression is that there is a lot of discontent.”

Rodef Shalom’s board is well aware of that discontent.

Matthew Falcone (Photo by Toby Tabachnick)
In a March 14 written statement to the Chronicle, Matthew Falcone, Rodef Shalom’s board president, acknowledged that “[t]he situation concerning Rabbi Bisno has been, and is, painful and difficult for the Rodef Shalom family. The Board’s decision to place Rabbi Bisno on administrative leave was made with careful consideration and with sadness. No one wants to be in the position we are now in.

“It is the responsibility of the Rodef Shalom Board to act in the best interest of the congregation,” Falcone continued. “That includes our members, and it includes our employees. We are confident that our decisions concerning Rabbi Bisno are, in fact, in the congregation’s best interest.”

Falcone wrote that over the next few weeks, the board would be “reaching out to the congregation and creating a variety of opportunities for conversation about Rodef Shalom’s rabbinic leadership. These new opportunities will build on the series of communications we have shared with the membership of the congregation; the most recent of which was sent just last week. Although it is challenging to communicate with the threat of a defamation lawsuit over our heads, we are committed to doing everything we can to make sure the members of Rodef Shalom understand the totality of the circumstances that led to the Board’s decision.”

The conversations are intended to “provide an opportunity to listen to the congregation, answer questions when we can and talk about next steps,” Falcone told the Chronicle by phone.

Jeffrey Spitz Cohan, another longtime member of Rodef Shalom, was among those who sent letters to the board asking for better communication. He said he received a “meaningful response” to his letter from Falcone and that he was persuaded from that response that the board “understands the problem.”

The board, Spitz Cohan said, created a problem of an “enormous magnitude for the congregation without bringing the congregation along and getting buy-in.”

The challenge for the board going forward, Spitz Cohan said, is “threading the needle, meaning finding a way to protect the identities of the complainants while simultaneously communicating to the congregation the extent of the rabbi’s alleged infraction.”

Spitz Cohan said he is “sure the board is well-intended,” and that he is confident that “they’re going to make this right. This is the type of issue that can be very disrupting for a congregation and cause a loss of members if not handled well.”

Bisno declined to comment for this story. But on Feb. 18, he posted the following on Facebook: “By way of explanation, Leviticus 10:3 will have to suffice for now, w more to come:

Moses then explained to Aaron, ‘This is what the LORD meant in saying: “Among those who approach, I will be proved holy; in the people’s sight, I will be honored.”’ And — v’yadome Aharon — (for now) Aaron remained silent.” PJC

Toby Tabachnick can be reached at ttabachnick@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

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