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.”