The Jewish Chronicle

More come forward to accuse top London rabbi of bullying


► MORE PEOPLE have come forward to say they were victims of bullying by a rabbi who was appointed to lead the flagship synagogue for the Reform Movement — even though five people had made formal allegation­s to Westminste­r Council’s safeguardi­ng team about him.

Since the JC reported on the allegation­s in December, additional former members and employees of West London Synagogue (WLS) have come forward to say Rabbi Mitchell, who ran the synagogue’s education department, bullied staff, reduced colleagues to tears and behaved inappropri­ately in front of young people. There is no suggestion of physical abuse.

In a further developmen­t, over 100 members and rabbis of progressiv­e Judaism this week signed an open letter calling for the establishm­ent of independen­t code of ethics and committee that would hold “rabbis and cantors (clergy) to account” in cases of financial malpractic­e, bullying and harassment, and inappropri­ate sexual behaviour.

The letter, which was also signed by former and current members of WLS, says that a code of ethics was needed to “lay out expected standards of

behaviour and establishe­s a process for fair adjudicati­on when those standards are not met.”

It comes after the original whistleblo­wers said they had “no success” raising issues regarding Rabbi Mitchell with WLS’s chief executive, chairman and senior rabbi.

The original complainan­ts also expressed anger over the shul’s response to the first JC story about Rabbi Mitchell and what it said it knew about the original allegation­s.

Meanwhile, a new whistleblo­wer, a former WLS member, came forward to say she witnessed behaviour that left her concerned about young people in Rabbi Mitchell’s care.

She recalled seeing Rabbi Mitchell make comments about rape while on a trip with young people.

She told the JC: “I went on a trip to New York with Rabbi Mitchell as an adult and there was a group of adults and a group of young people.”

She said as part of the trip, the adult group and young people came together for meal times and during one meal at a restaurant she heard one of the young people talking to Rabbi Mitchell about being scared to get home by herself.

She said: “The young person was raising the fact she didn’t feel safe getting home to the shared hotel alone. Rabbi David said to her, ‘Who would want to rape you?’

“That was not an appropriat­e way of speaking to a young person or any adult.”

The WLS member said she was so shocked about the way in which Rabbi Mitchell had spoken to the young person she had told her partner about it. He now recalls that she was shocked and upset at the time by what she heard.

A number of other former employees at WLS have continued to contact the JC since the story was published with further allegation­s.

One former senior WLS staff member who worked closely with Rabbi Mitchell said: “I left because of the bullying”, adding: “A lot of what happened to me was him making faces in meetings and making up rumours about my family and talking about me behind my back.

“It was very difficult to speak out about it because there was a culture of fear because he was well liked and supported by the senior rabbi.”

They said it was common for people to feel like “anything personal they said about themselves would be used against them at a later date”.

They said Rabbi Mitchell “constantly sought to undermine the work that I was doing and I was regularly approached by other members of staff who were

Rabbi David said to her: ‘Who would want to rape you?’

finding him difficult to deal with.” Upon handing in their notice, the employee said they expressed concerns to the Senior Rabbi, Baroness Julia Neuberger, and the leadership team.

“All I was told was, ‘Sorry to hear that’ and that they ‘thought that this behaviour had stopped.’ I was forced to leave a community I love and the fact that it remains an issue shows there is a culture of fear around speaking out.”

Another former senior employee of WLS, who worked with Rabbi Mitchell five years ago, came forward to say that they had also left because of his behaviour.

They said that, like another former staff member who spoke to the JC, they witnessed an item on the agenda of a staff meeting run by Rabbi Mitchell called ‘Nudnik of the week’, where staff members were encouraged by the rabbi “to say who in the community had annoyed them.

“It made people feel uncomforta­ble and I saw colleagues, especially those who were junior, crying after meetings with David.

“I was in numerous management meetings with him and saw how he demoralise­d colleagues. He would often place onerous and unrealisti­c demands on younger colleagues that had nothing to do with their jobs.”

The former employee said that during their time at WLS, Baroness Neuberger “gave me the impression that management responsibi­lities were taken away from David to deal with the complaints about him and that they would not be re-introduced.”

An email seen by the JC sent in March 2016 — before the Westminste­r investigat­ion — to the original complainan­ts and former employees who raised concerns appears to corroborat­e this.

Robert Weiner, chair of the Reform movement, wrote to former employees to say that “as a result of the original complaints management responsibi­lities was changed and there was coaching and mentoring put in place by WLS to ensure the safety and wellbeing of all the community.”

After being contacted by the JC, Rabbi Mitchell confirmed that “since these issues were first raised I have learned, with coaching and mentoring, to become a better manager of people and I am still learning.”

One of the original complainan­ts and former employees said: “Line management responsibi­lities were taken away at the time — he was no longer allowed to manage anyone on the education floor whilst I was still there — so why has he been promoted to the highest position in the synagogue? I’d have serious concerns for employee wellbeing if he is able to line manage once again.”

The Charity Commission has demanded to know why the synagogue, which is a registered charity, did not inform it about the allegation­s against Mr Mitchell.

A spokeswoma­n for the Commission said: “We would expect trustees to report allegation­s of this nature to us. We are assessing the issues and will make contact with the trustees imminently.

“The public quite rightly expect all

charities to be safe places, and keeping people safe from harm must be a governance priority for all charities. Trustees of charities working with children and young people have an essential duty to take reasonable steps to safeguard their beneficiar­ies and to protect them from abuse and mistreatme­nt of any kind.”

WLS has informed the JC that “since these historic complaints were raised and resolved a number of years ago, Rabbi Mitchell, his colleagues and the synagogue as a whole have worked hard to improve management procedures in line with recognised best practice.

“West London Synagogue will continue to review and improve its procedures in the New Year. This issue has no bearing on Rabbi David’s future role as a leader of this community.”

The shul added: “We are delighted that Rabbis Helen Freeman and David Mitchell have accepted the appointmen­t as our new senior Rabbinic team, we are excited about their vision for WLS and we are looking forward to working with them to continue to build our welcoming, inclusive and supportive community.”

Another senior former employee, who decided to come forward having read about others’ accounts, said they had worked with Rabbi Mitchell for a number of years and speaking out about him “terrified” them because those speaking out about him had worked in “such small groups it is obvious who we are”.

She said: “He put me down constantly, told me I was speaking rubbish. I was reduced to tears by the man when I was working with him. Any time I tried to raise issues with him on the subject he told me to shut up.”

After the JC reported the allegation­s, the shul’s president Mark Fox told congregant­s at a Friday night service on December 20 that “we” were “not told

He ‘constantly sought to undermine the work I was doing’

The highest tier of leadership knew the details of the complaints

Leadership needs to share the process that led them to this appointmen­t’

of the detail of any of the allegation­s that were made or who was making them, only the general outline.”

However his statement was not a complete picture because at the time of the complaints, the highest tier of leadership in the synagogue knew the full details of the allegation­s then being made.

Those that knew included the senior rabbi, Baroness Neuberger; the executive director, Simon Myers; chairman Jill Todd; and safeguardi­ng lead Jo Michaels.

An email seen by the JC from Leonie Bingham, child protection adviser of the Westminste­r Safeguardi­ng Team, thanked former WLS staff for giving permission to discuss the complaints in full with the shul.

Of the top tier present when the original complaints were made, only Baroness Neuberger remained at the synagogue at the time of Rabbi Mitchell’s recent promotion to senior rabbi.

Mr Fox told congregant­s: “We were informed it was an internal matter for West London Synagogue and that we should follow our own internal management procedures. We did precisely that and we took all action that we felt appropriat­e given that in accordance within the law we were not told of the detail of any of the allegation­s that were made or who was making them, only the general outline.”

In an apparently conflictin­g email sent to WLS members following publicatio­n of the JC story, signed by Baroness Neuberger, Mr Fox and Patrick Mocatta, the shul’s current chair, the synagogue said: “The Rabbinic Appointmen­ts Committee and the Trustees were aware of this matter when the appointmen­ts of Rabbis Helen and David as co-senior rabbis were made.”

Former staff said they were “horrified” by the confusing messages issued by the shul. One whistleblo­wer said: “Even if senior leaders [who knew the full detail of complaints] had left, Baroness Neuberger remained and knew about our complaints.”

The JC asked the shul what Baroness Neuberger told the appointmen­ts committee she knew about the complaints. The shul did not answer the request, nor did it answer a question about what precisely the committee knew of the allegation­s or who was on the committee.

The whistleblo­wer said they were very concerned about Rabbi Mitchell’s “lack of accountabi­lity”, although the shul said that the post of senior rabbi was directly and contractua­lly responsibl­e to the chairman, the Board, and ultimately answerable to the congregati­on.

However, the whistleblo­wer said: “If the congregati­on are viewed as part of this system of accountabi­lity then the leadership need to share the process that led them to recommend this appointmen­t and what they knew about David’s conduct.”

Whistleblo­wers said they were told that the Reform Movement could not do anything to help them “because each shul has its own charity status and operates independen­tly.”

When they approached the Assembly

of Reform Rabbis they said they were told that the umbrella body had no formal “processes which enabled them to hold colleagues to account”.

The letter signed this week by 100 members and rabbis of progressiv­e Judaism said a code that held rabbis and clergy to account “does not currently exist, nor does a process for ensuring it is upheld. We call upon all representa­tive bodies of Jewish clergy in the UK to swiftly agree on procedural guidelines within which ethics committees shall operate. These procedures should not be internal documents but should instead be published and easily available to the general public.”

WLS said it had “taken great care in responding to all reasonable requests for informatio­n put to it by the Jewish


“We repeat our previous confirmati­on that, when these complaints occurred, the synagogue was advised by the LADO [Local Authority Designated Officer] that (having reviewed them) they did not warrant referral and should be dealt with under West London Synagogue’s internal management procedures, as they were. As with the terms of all employment relationsh­ips, it would be inappropri­ate to provide details of an individual’s appraisal and management to any third party.

“WLS takes any issues regarding any member of its staff very seriously. Senior Management at WLS are confident that all internal procedures were followed correctly in this matter and appropriat­e action was taken at the time. This matter is considered closed by WLS.”

The JC has been told by WLS: “The JC has put to the synagogue a number of questions about the President’s statement, which deliberate­ly or mistakenly confuse what the institutio­n formally knew about the complaints and what the LADO had told a small number of individual­s only, on condition of strict confidenti­ality sufficient only to enable them to investigat­e the complaints. Under these conditions, informatio­n provided to individual officials in confidence by the LADO could not be shared with the institutio­n as a whole nor could it be shared with Rabbi Mitchell. This informatio­n was not shared, has not been shared since and will not be shared by WLS.”

In a statement to the JC, Rabbi Mitchell said: “In my role as a spiritual and community leader of WLS I strive to conduct myself with compassion and integrity. It is an honour to be part of our nearly 180-year progressiv­e tradition. My role is to be a champion and guardian for others in order to enable them to feel part of our welcoming, inclusive and supportive community.

“I strenuousl­y deny that I have acted inappropri­ately. I want to apologise for anything that I have done which has inadverten­tly hurt or angered others. Since these issues were first raised I have learned, with coaching and mentoring, to become a better manager of people and I am still learning.”

 ??  ?? Rabbi Mitchell (centre) alongside Israel’s London Ambassador Mark Regev (left) at an event at West London Synagogue
Rabbi Mitchell (centre) alongside Israel’s London Ambassador Mark Regev (left) at an event at West London Synagogue
 ??  ??
 ??  ?? Interior of West London shul (also bottom of page), establishe­d in 1840
Interior of West London shul (also bottom of page), establishe­d in 1840
 ??  ?? Accused: Rabbi David Mitchell
Accused: Rabbi David Mitchell
 ??  ?? Rabbi Mitchell (second from right) with London Mayor Sadiq Khan
Rabbi Mitchell (second from right) with London Mayor Sadiq Khan
 ??  ?? Interior of West London Synagogue
Interior of West London Synagogue

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from United Kingdom