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Sexual harassment allegations shake Beit Emanuel



Beit Emanuel, one of the country’s largest and oldest Progressive synagogues, is reeling after its former rabbi was expelled over sexual harassment allegations.

Israeli-born Rabbi Sa’ar Shaked, noted for his progressive ideas and often controversial views, has found himself at the centre of a storm following allegations by an employee of the shul and others.

Shaked is no longer a member of the South African Association of Progressive Rabbis (SAAPR) after the organisation ratified his expulsion in February.

“Sa’ar Shaked had been charged with violating Ethics Code Section V [Sexual Boundaries],” read a notice on the SAAPR website. “He was temporarily suspended pending an ethics enquiry during which time he resigned from the SAAPR. The ethics panel concluded its process, and recommended his expulsion, which was ratified by SAAPR members in February 2024. He’s no longer a member of the SAAPR.”

The rabbi resigned from the shul in July last year after a string of unrelated complaints and grievances against him around alleged inappropriate behaviour.

Shaked denies any claims of sexual harassment, but conceded he entered into emotional attachment with congregants.

“Rabbi Shaked’s conduct has shaken our community,” said Paul Davis, the chairperson of Beit Emanuel. “After a long process, we believe we’ve dealt with the matter appropriately, severing all ties with the rabbi and approving the South African Union of Progressive Judaism [SAUPJ] and its rabbinic association expelling him as a rabbi.” Davis said the congregation had also updated its policy of transparency relating to the ethical conduct of rabbis and staff.

The saga dates back to 2014 involving another victim, a congregant who remained silent until recently. The latest victim, whose identity remains confidential, alleges not only sexual harassment since 2021 but has criticised the shul’s inadequate handling of her original complaint. This sentiment is echoed by two other individuals who have come forward with similar allegations. It led to the formation of a support group to address what it says is a culture of silence surrounding such issues. Some high-ranking members of the congregation have also left the shul in the wake of the shul’s response.

In a letter to the Beit Emanuel congregation, members of the support group wrote, “Over the past year of different people pleading with shul’s leadership to act with kindness and integrity regarding this issue, three additional complaints have emerged from the broader interfaith community who, like us, trusted him because he’s a rabbi and because there had never been any public notice to be cautious with him.”

Beit Emanuel’s leadership asserts that it has adhered to protocols in addressing the allegations. In a statement to its congregation on 20 March, it acknowledged that the complainant “endured nearly two years of grooming, harassment, and a problematic transgression of sexual boundaries by the rabbi”, adding, “as a religious community that vests a great deal of power and trust in a rabbi, this transgression is deeply upsetting”.

The shul admitted that its response may not have been as clear-cut and immediate as it should have been, which caused the complainant to feel like she had to struggle through various hoops and obstacles to receive support.

“There was every intention to assist, and even though what was done was perceived to be inadequate, Beit Emanuel didn’t wish the complainant to feel unprotected or unsupported.”

However, the controversy continues to grow as the victim seeks legal recourse.

Wendy Hendler, the co-director of Koleinu SA, a support organisation for victims of abuse, emphasised the seriousness of sexual harassment at shuls, schools, and communal organisations, noting the profound and lasting damage it can cause. Koleinu SA has developed Shulsafe, a comprehensive sexual-abuse policy for shuls. The policy, to be implemented in Johannesburg and Cape Town shuls, includes training, physical safety measures, staff screening, conduct codes, parent patrols, a safety committee, and protocols for handling abuse cases.

“Without protocols, and even with the best of intentions, shuls often fail [to deal with such cases], leaving victims feeling unheard and unsupported,” Hendler said.

She urged shuls to take all necessary steps, including legal action, to support victims and maintain safety standards.

Rozanne Sack, the co-director of Koleinu SA, said adherence to protocols protected the shul leadership from potential claims and demonstrated commitment to accountability.

Said Davis, “Beit Emanuel has a formal sexual harassment policy, with an independent ethics committee to adjudicate future complaints, though we hope such a thing should never happen again and will do everything in our power to protect all those within our community, be they members or staff.”

Meanwhile Shaked, a father of four, is now divorced and has recently trained as a sangoma. He described himself as living “in an authentic space” outside of Johannesburg “recovering and healing”.

Silent since his expulsion in February, Shaked released a statement on 19 March to “set the record straight” about the “many misconceptions and misinterpretations” against him.

In it, he said, “I confirm that I engaged in an emotional relationship with a congregant from 2014 to 2015, which developed into a platonic friendship. Our relationship grew into one which extended to a friendship within our families. It breaks my heart today to read that the same was perceived with an eye of sexual harassment when I had neither made any sexual advances nor suggested that our relationship become physical.

“I further confirm that during 2022 to 2023, I was emotionally involved with a co-worker at Beit Emanuel. I want to reaffirm my stance, that I acknowledge and recognise an emotional connection, but strongly deny any suggestion of sexual intent.

“No sexual suggestion was made and no physical boundaries were crossed,” Shaked told the SA Jewish Report. “This shouldn’t be misinterpreted to negate the subjective experience the complainants underwent.

“Irrespective of the specific accusations, I fully understand the moral failing that these relationships represent. As a spiritual leader, I bear the responsibility of upholding boundaries and conducting myself with unwavering integrity. Regrettably, I fell short in this regard.”

He said he understood what he had done had a negative impact on others. “Mainly, I grieve for the impact it has had on my family.”

Shaked said he had started a company to facilitate life-cycle events, online courses in Judaism, and similar cultural work, not an interfaith congregation.

“Also, as per the sangoma training, I went there for the sake of my own healing. I didn’t claim, nor is it my intention to work as a practising traditional healer. I remain devoted to Jewish knowledge, culture, and way of life.”

Lisa Hack, the national chairperson of the SAUPJ said it and the SAAPR “deeply regretted” the situation.

SAAPR Chairperson Rabbi Emma Gottlieb said, “We take the ethical conduct of rabbis very seriously, and are greatly saddened by what has transpired.”

Said Hack, “After a deplorable incident of this nature, as a movement, we’re looking at opportunities to educate our rabbinic leaders, lay leaders, and synagogue staff, as well as community members to guard against future occurrences.”

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  1. Joe Shmo

    Apr 4, 2024 at 9:18 pm

    Sounds plausible

  2. Ray

    Apr 24, 2024 at 10:09 pm

    Nicola Miltz,

    I kindly request an explanation as to why this article was published in a newspaper, considering the individual in question has not been found guilty by the court. In legal proceedings, it is essential for the defendant to be proven guilty “beyond a reasonable doubt”, meaning the evidence must be overwhelmingly convincing. In this specific case, the defendant did not even appear in court.

    I am curious to know if a sexual harassment case was reported to the local police station by the victim, as there was no mention of any legal case in the article. It is crucial for newspapers to maintain credibility by accurately portraying facts in their articles. I am also perplexed as to the relevance of mentioning the defendant’s practice as a sangoma in this context.

    I would appreciate your insights on these matters. In Afrikaan: Die kool is die sous nie werd nie This is the value of your article.

  3. Ray

    Apr 24, 2024 at 10:21 pm

    As an ITJ student at Beit Emmanuel, I, a neurodivergent individual, was entrusted to the care of Rabbi Shaar by the very individuals who are now actively engaging in mistreatment towards me. Despite a complaint being brought forth and lingering for a full two years, no action was taken to address the issue. This undeniable negligence highlights the inability of the authorities to properly handle such important matters.

    I am currently facing discrimination from three women on the ITJ committee, making the process of conversion incredibly challenging for me. Any questions raised that do not conform to their liking result in being denied the opportunity to present in front of the Bet Dein. Attempting to hold them accountable for their actions and seek clarity is met with rejection and avoidance.

    It is distressing to witness that abuse is still prevalent within this community and place of worship. The mistreatment and marginalization I have faced are inexcusable and unacceptable. Such behavior should not be tolerated in any setting, especially within a place of spiritual guidance and support.

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