Ethics Process Part III: The T’shuvah Process


Rabbi Andi Berlin, Ethics Committee Chair
Rabbi Ana Bonnheim, Ethics Committee Vice-Chair

As CCAR members continue our ongoing study of the Code of Ethics, we write this three-part series on the Ethics Committee Process to continue to illuminate the work of the Ethics Committee. The CCAR will also offer ethics webinars this coming year.

Ethics Process Part III: The T’shuvah Process

In the last two newsletters, we reviewed what happens when the EC receives a complaint (dismissal, adjudication, or gathering of more information to make a decision between the two), and how the EC makes adjudication decisions. The two columns can now be found on the CCAR website (Part I, Part II).

As we explained, our adjudicatory decision is based on the intervention the rabbi needs in order to be safe and sacred. The amount of intervention needed will drive the level of adjudication.

1. Notification

The first step after the EC votes on an adjudication (an adjudication refers to a complaint that has not been dismissed, but rather, resulted in a Reprimand, Censure, or Suspension) is to inform the rabbi and parties to the complaint. The case-manager (a member of the EC who ushers a given case through the process) composes two types of letters. The first letter is sent to the rabbi. It is a detailed description of the level of adjudication, the conditions applied, and a robust explanation of why the EC voted as it did. The second letter is less detailed and shorter. It notifies the parties to the complaint of the adjudication and the sections of the Code violated.

We care deeply about those victimized by fellow members. The chair of the EC always inquires after victims’ and complainants’ access to support. However, our Code is an agreement CCAR members have made to each other. As you may recall from previous blogs and newsletter articles, it is not an HR process or a title IX response. The CCAR is not our employer (unless you happen to work for the CCAR). Rather, the ethics process is a system we, the members of the conference, have designed as an agreement between us as colleagues in order to maintain a safe and sacred rabbinate. This is the reason for two different letters. We do not share with others the details of how the rabbi’s t’shuvah is progressing. We communicate with those in the community when they or we are concerned the conditions of an adjudication are being breached or when there is fear of retribution to those who filed the complaint and/or assisted with information gathering.

If the adjudication is publishable (Censure with publication or Suspension) the rabbi’s name is posted on the CCAR website and notification of the adjudication is included in the CCAR newsletter.

2. Conditions

Our goal is to facilitate the rabbi’s readmission into the conference or the lifting of the adjudication. We are able to do this when the rabbi can demonstrate they are able to act with the safety of the community in mind, and able to lead a sacred rabbinate.

Conditions of adjudication refer to rabbinic work and requirements for t’shuvah.

A. Rabbinic Work

Using the information that has been gathered, the EC determines in what situations a rabbi is safe and sacred. Restrictions around rabbinic work could range from none to total abstention. Most Reprimands are absent work restrictions, with some exceptions. Most Suspensions require total abstention, with some exceptions. Censures will fall somewhere in between these two.

B. Psychological Evaluations

Using the same information that has been gathered for an adjudication, the EC determines if a psychological evaluation is necessary. Suspensions require a psychological evaluation. Reprimands do not. Again, Censures are somewhere between these two. When violations are significant, psychological evaluations are impetrative to the work the rabbi does with the TRaC team (see below) and in therapy. Often, without this insight, it is impossible for the EC to understand what growth the rabbi needs to be safe and sacred.

Psychologists experienced with clergy and well versed in the relevant violations conduct evaluations. The evaluations are very similar to the type that are used by Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion during the admissions process. The rabbi receives a more detailed explanation of the evaluation in the letter that notified them of the adjudication. The rabbi also receives a copy of the evaluation.

C. Therapy

Suspended rabbis are required to undergo an appropriate course of therapy with a therapist chosen by the rabbi and approved by the EC. Most often, so are Censured rabbis. Reprimanded rabbis may have a therapy requirement depending on the situation.

3. Appeal

In cases of dismissal, complainants have the right to appeal the decision to the EC.

In cases of adjudication, rabbis have the right to appeal to the Board of Appeals. The EC details these rights to the rabbi in the letter notifying them of the adjudication.

4. T’shuvah Rehabilitation and Counseling Teams (TRaC Teams)

In cases of Suspension and Censure, rabbis also work with a TRaC team. A TRaC team is made up either three rabbis or two rabbis and one psychologist or therapist. TRaC teams serve as witnesses to the rabbi’s t’shuvah process. In cases of Reprimand, the rabbi may be assigned a TRaC team or a mentor.

Rabbis meet with their TRaC teams in person each month. Often, the most difficult part of the t’shuvah process involves coming to terms with the significance of a Code violation. It is hard for all of us to realize how much harm our behavior may have caused another person. Many of us get defensive; blaming others for our behavior, belittling the significance of it, or in rare cases, continuing to deny it. A TRaC team holds up a mirror to reflect for the rabbi both the seriousness of the violation and the amount of harm it has caused. The most rewarding part of our work, and the most significant growth we see, is when a rabbi is able to look in that mirror and recognize their own reflection. While it is a painful realization, this is the gateway to true t’shuvah.

Until this happens, rabbis may struggle with the conditions accompanying a particular adjudication. This can lead to violations of their Reprimand, Censure, or Suspension or to continuous Code violations. While technically, this makes the rabbi eligible for an increase in adjudication, having a TRaC team in place provides a more compassionate and effective means of responding to violations. The TRaC team can use the violation as an opportunity for learning and growth. Rarely, the ongoing violations are so egregious, the unwillingness to work honestly with the TRaC team so pervasive, or continued violations of the Code so serious, the TRaC team has no choice but to recommend an increase in adjudication. This only happens after significant time and work have gone into trying to help the rabbi become safe and sacred again.

TRaC teams also serve as coaches for the rabbi. They are good sounding boards for dilemmas and questions. If a rabbi is desirous of an exception to the conditions of their adjudication, they can ask the TRaC team to recommend such an exception to the case-manager. Most often, the case-manager can grant the exception or not, though sometimes it requires a vote of the entire EC.

After each meeting with the rabbi, the chair of the TRaC team sends an update to the case-manger that is shared with the EC.

5. Timing

At the beginning of t’shuvah, rabbis rightfully want to know how long the process will take. Unfortunately, we are not able to provide an answer. The rabbi drives the timing of the process by how much growth they make in therapy, the way in which they abide by the conditions of the adjudication, their continued adherence to the Code, their respect for the complainant’s and victim’s privacy, their cooperation with their TRaC team, their acceptance of the seriousness of the violation, and their demonstration of their ability to return to a safe and sacred rabbinate.

Most rabbis are able to return to such a rabbinate. The EC is eager to see this happen and celebrates each rabbi’s successful return. However, our Code recognizes that there are cases in which, while t’shuvah is possible, a return to the active rabbinate is not. The EC does not know this will be the case until the t’shuvah process is underway. While it is rare, when this happens, the EC clarifies this for the rabbi so they have realistic expectations for their career.

6. Readmission/Lifting Adjudication

The Code enumerates the steps a rabbi must go through before t’shuvah is considered complete. These include the “unequivocal acknowledgment of responsibility for harm done to victim(s), the congregation or institution and the honor of the rabbinate, with specific violations and actions acknowledged; an acceptable expression of remorse to those who have been harmed; resolve never to repeat any offense of this nature; [and] the making of restitution which may include expenses incurred by the victim(s) and/or other appropriate actions as mandated by the EC.” – Section VI.E.2.e.4.a-c

When the TRaC team believes the rabbi can return to leading a safe and sacred rabbinate, they recommend this to the case-manager and write a summary for the EC. Depending on the severity of the Code violation and the outcome of the first psychiatric evaluation (if one was required at the outset of the t’shuvah process), the rabbi may need to be evaluated again. This helps the EC better understand the growth the rabbi has made in the t’shuvah process and determine their fitness for a full return to the rabbinate.

After the EC reviews the summaries and updates from the TRaC team, the rabbi’s writings, the psychological evaluation (when applicable), and the rabbi’s compliance with the conditions of the adjudication, the EC votes on whether or not to accept the TRaC team’s recommendation.

When a rabbi’s adjudication is lifted or when a rabbi is readmitted, written and verbal notification is sent to the rabbi and their employer (when applicable). The TRaC team and rabbi often share a ritual to commemorate the work the rabbi has done. If the adjudication was published, the rabbi’s name is removed from the website and the rabbi can choose whether nor not to include notification in the newsletter.


The members of the EC know that to err is human, that every rabbi has struggled with our own yetzer hara and has made decisions we regret later. We are also aware that each member of the CCAR wants our communities and the individuals we serve to be able to trust that by virtue of our membership in the CCAR, we can be trusted with sacred tasks and with the spiritual lives of those we serve. The EC has been tasked with protecting the safety of those we serve, upholding the sacredness of the rabbinate, and responding compassionately to rabbis who have strayed. We remain ever aware of this task. While it may feel heavy on our shoulders, it is worth the burden when we witness a rabbi’s successful completion of t’shuvah. None of us are defined by our mistakes. We are defined by how we handle them. So, too, is the rabbinate.

We pray our ethics work brings supports our colleagues and honor to the CCAR. We cannot do this work alone, though. Next newsletter, we will share how you can participate in the ethics process and help protect the rabbinate. With this sacred partnership, may we all go from strength to strength.