The early months of 2012 at Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Synagogue were busy with the things typical for a liberal congregation: a phone bank for gay marriage, a silent retreat, a weekend study session on unorthodox ideas such as observing Sabbath through dance and movement.
Then in February, David Kaye, a longtime Montgomery County rabbi and registered sex offender, started attending Saturday services.
Adat Shalom’s three clergy had quickly agreed to a request from Kaye to pray at the synagogue, believing his presence to be in keeping with Adat Shalom’s identity as an open, diverse spiritual community where all are welcome.
Through the spring and early summer, Kaye was a part of the congregation. He came for Sabbath and oneg, the post-service lunch. He stood with other mourners to say the communal prayer for the dead, for his parents. He went to the silent retreat.
But over the months, discomfort with Kaye’s presence in some quarters of the 500-family congregation grew. Finally, he was asked to leave.
The matter came to a head last month in the days before Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the holiest days of the Jewish calendar, a time when Jews pray desperately for forgiveness, for themselves and others.
But even now, the issue continues to release a torrent of emotional arguments about judgment, inclusion and the purpose of a synagogue. Is it meant to be a sanctuary from the day-to-day world? Or a spiritual ER for even the most broken of souls? Is true forgiveness and redemption even possible in cases of pedophilia, which can be difficult to treat and, many experts believe, impossible to cure?
“Long-term friends aren’t speaking to one another,” said a member, whose children worked with Kaye at a youth program called Panim and who spoke on the condition of anonymity, like a dozen others, for fear of appearing to perpetuate discord. “People aren’t sleeping in the same way, they’re dreaming about it. People have made arguments that have fundamentally changed how people view one another.”
The horrific crime
Kaye had been a longtime rabbi at Potomac’s Har Shalom congregation and was a leader of Panim, a large organization that trained young Jews in social activism, when he was caught in a televised sting by Dateline NBC’s “To Catch a Predator.”
He was captured on tape waiting to meet for sex someone he thought would be a 13-year-old boy. His 2005 arrest hit like a bomb in Washington’s Jewish community.
Kaye was found guilty in 2006 in federal court of using the Web to persuade a juvenile to have sex and traveling from his Montgomery home to a sting house in Herndon to do it. He was sentenced to 61/2 years in prison and 10 years of supervised release.
To those who initially welcomed Kaye to Adat Shalom, the rabbi had served his time. To reject him would challenge whether people believe in repentance, a core Jewish value, and whether they believe a synagogue is a place where all people can work on personal redemption.
Reconstructionism, in particular, has long led Judaism in pushing the boundaries of inclusion, including equality in synagogue life for women, gays and lesbians, non-Jews and the disabled. Adat Shalom’s Web site describes Jewish life as a journey “from which no one should be excluded.”
Adat Shalom’s founder, Rabbi Sid Schwarz, a national leader in Reconstructionism and a longtime friend of Kaye’s, said he still struggles to forgive Kaye for the grave actions that threatened the stability of Panim, which he founded and called “my life’s work.” But when he first saw Kaye at Adat Shalom, he welcomed him warmly and advocated for him to stay.
“We aren’t intended to judge people all the time. It rarely takes us to a good place. It’s not our job to judge. Our job is to love and be compassionate,” said Schwarz, who is no longer officially in leadership at Adat Shalom.
In the spring, a rerun of “To Catch a Predator” aired, spreading word about Kaye’s presence, and a much different view surfaced. Some parents and other members were horrified by the presence of a registered sex offender and pedophile. The solution, in their view, was self-evident: They demanded that the synagogue board tell Kaye to leave. Advocates of Kaye, including those who had visited him in prison, spoke angrily about the possibility that a synagogue could exclude anyone, particularly one such as Adat Shalom that names inclusion first on its list of principles.
A congregation divided
Thus began the discussions with prosecutors, sex therapists, teachers and victims of sexual abuse, as well as the sifting of Jewish teachings, ancient and modern, on sin, excommunication and t’shuvah, or repentance.
The debate, first reported in Washington Jewish Week, raised endless moral dilemmas.