Presidential Task Force On Safe And Respectful Environments: Report

I. Introduction

II. Contextualizing the Mission of the Task Force

III. Review of Campus Climate

IV. Review of Policies

V. Findings and Recommendations

I. Introduction

President Andrew Rehfeld and Board of Governors Chair Sue Hochberg announced the formation of a Task Force on Safe and Respectful Environments in the fall of 2019 and charged it with conducting a thorough review of Hebrew Union College’s policies and practices related to the establishment of a safe and respectful campus environment. They asked Professor Dvora Weisberg, HUC-JIR Rabbinical School Director, and Professor Richard Feldman, former President of the University of Rochester, to serve as co-chairs of the Task Force in order to have expertise from both within and outside the institution leading the effort. The Task Force reports to the President and the Board Chair and is empowered to recommend changes in policies and practices that, in its view, will strengthen the campus environment of what is already regarded as a caring and effective institution.

As the Task Force chairs initially formulated their plans, they intended to visit all four HUC campuses to meet with students, faculty, staff, and administrative leaders in an effort to get their perspectives on the issues under review. They completed visits to the Los Angeles and Jerusalem campuses before travel restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic arose. Since that time, they have conducted online meetings with students and staff, as well as the Task Force itself. Despite the challenges presented by the pandemic, the Task Force was able to continue its work and is pleased to provide this Report of its findings.

The months since the Task Force was formed have been tumultuous ones for the world. Two events, in addition to the dramatic changes in the operations of HUC resulting from the pandemic, deserve particular mention. First, in June 2020, President Rehfeld and other senior leaders of HUC received a “Petition to Increase Anti-Racism Resources at HUC-JIR”. The Petition, signed by 100 HUC students, called on HUC to publicize data on the number of people of color within its community, to expand workshops and training sessions for all members of the community on anti-racist behavior, to strengthen hiring and support activities to increase diversity and to establish several positions to foster these and related efforts. Second, a One HUC presentation by President Rehfeld in early October provoked considerable student concern about HUC’s commitment to inclusivity and to maintaining a safe environment. Subsequent Town Hall meetings with students, faculty, and staff provided an opportunity for many to express their views on issues directly relevant to the Task Force’s work. The information gained from these events is reflected in the report that follows.

II. Contextualizing the Mission of the Task Force

The Task Force includes faculty, staff, students, and alumni of the College. Its members reflect the diversity of the HUC community. Despite that diversity, the members of the Task Force believe that we share a common vision of and for HUC in relation to the need for creating and maintaining an environment in which every individual feels seen, heard, and respected. Moreover, both the Jewish and non-Jewish members of the Task Force view this value as the key to HUC’s mission as a Jewish institution. HUC-JIR, as an institution that prepares clergy and other professionals, has an obligation to model best practices for our students, who will lead diverse communities and serve as exemplars of respectful behavior.

HUC’s mission statement says, in part, that its purpose is to study “the great issues of Jewish life, history and thought with an open, egalitarian, inclusive and pluralistic spirit;” and to do so “in accordance with the highest standards of modern academic scholarship.” While the focus of HUC’s mission on the great issues of Jewish life, history, and thought differentiates it from other institutions of higher learning, it shares with many the values of openness, egalitarianism, inclusivity, pluralism, and high standards of scholarship. HUC’s values, however, derive specifically from a set of Jewish values or concepts that we espouse and which we believe can guide the establishment of a safe and respectful community. These include:

  1. BTzelem Elohim: Each human being is made “in the image of God” (Genesis 1:27). This assertion endows every individual with inherent dignity and worth. When we fail to treat another person with respect, we denigrate the image of God, and in so doing, we lessen God Godself.
  2. Mshaneh HaBriyot: Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5 teaches that one of the unique qualities of God is reflected in the diversity of creation. “When a human being mints coins using a stamp, each coin made from the stamp is identical to the others. But the Holy One forms every human being using the seal of the first human being, and not a single one is identical to another.” We celebrate diversity as an indication of God’s hand.
  3. BYad HaLashon: Proverbs 18:21 teaches us that “Death and life are in the power of the tongue.” Speech matters. It is not enough to create an environment where individuals are safe from physical assault. A respectful community is one in which speech is not used as a tool to demean or humiliate. The Talmud (Baba Metsia 58b tells us that embarrassing another person in public is tantamount to murder, and reminds us that hurtful speech can never be completely erased.
  4. Eilu vEilu: Jewish tradition values the exchange of ideas. Our sacred literature is replete with records of disputes among the sages, and many of those disputes are recorded without a final resolution. Pirkei Avot teaches that disputes “for the sake of Heaven” are enduring. We should be able to disagree and speak of those disagreements while maintaining a respectful stance towards those whose views differ from our own.
  5. Tikkun: The Reform Movement endorses the idea of tikkun olam, a commitment to repairing or improving the world. HUC should strive to be a space in which each member of the community is engaged in tikkun not only on a macro level, but on a micro level as well. This type of tikkun manifests itself in awareness that each of us is an imperfect being who may make mistakes, but who is capable of change and open to teshuvah, the process of recognizing, asking for forgiveness for, and striving to repair those mistakes.

III. Review of Campus Climate

A. General comments

The Task Force chairs met with community members in person at the Los Angeles and Jerusalem campuses and had video conferences with a number of individuals from the other campus. Their reception was regularly warm and cooperative. In general, the community expressed an eagerness to live up to HUC’s values and to provide a welcoming and supportive environment to its members. At the same time, some students expressed the need for greater equity and inclusiveness along several dimensions, and many reported that some members of the community did not feel as welcomed as would be desired. To the extent that there was awareness of the issues, there seemed to be uncertainty about how best to address them. The concerns expressed below were reported by just a few students in response to invitations from the Task Force, but they were conveyed with considerable strength. However, they were expressed by many, and with great strength, in connection with the Petition and the Town Hall meetings mentioned earlier. To preserve anonymity, the issues will be described below without identifying details.

It should be noted at the outset that the HUC community includes people with a wide variety of viewpoints and differing perceptions of the campus climate. In addition, desirable as it might be to envision HUC as one community, it is in fact an institution with four campuses and a number of programs at each campus. It would be a mistake to assume that there is uniformity across all campuses and programs, and it would also be a mistake to assume that there is a single, monolithic HUC student culture. Nevertheless, several themes did emerge, and we attempt to characterize them here.

B. Concerns about equity and inclusiveness

A theme that emerged in meetings and interviews and came across more vividly in the Petition and even more forcefully in the Town Hall meetings in October is that some members of the community do not regard the HUC campuses as fully welcoming and inclusive. Feelings of this sort were reported along several dimensions:

  • Gender Identity: During meetings and interviews, several students reported that their use of gender non-binary pronouns is not always received respectfully and appropriately, and that some faculty members have been dismissive when students reported that they use they/them pronouns. The meetings in October expanded upon this issue, going well beyond the issue of the use of pronouns. LBGTQ+ students reported feeling unwelcome, unsupported and burdened by the expectation that they are responsible for explaining (or defending) their identity in public. Some faculty, while supportive, expressed uncertainty about how best to navigate what is, for them, unfamiliar territory.
  • Race: The faculty and students of HUC are overwhelmingly white. Some of those who are not felt that their presence at the institution was questioned because they did not fit the image of what a member of the community was “supposed to be” and they felt that others assumed that any success they achieved was due to preferential treatment. They reported frequent micro-aggressions that contributed to strong feelings of alienation. One person suggested that some of the perceived issues may have more to do with class than with race. As noted, the Petition, signed by more than 100 students, expressed concern for the treatment of racial minorities on HUC campuses. Many expressed their disappointment that HUC had not formally signed on to a Reform Movement statement endorsing Black Lives Matter. That fact led them to question what HUC’s values really were and what the depth of commitment to those values is. (More on this below.)
  • Power Dynamics: Some students reported feeling that some professors maintained an excessively hierarchical atmosphere in their classrooms. They reported that students’ views were not respected, that they were made to feel shame when their performance failed to meet expectations and that they were not engaged in the shared learning experience they expected and desired. There were also reports that students did not know where to go with concerns of this nature. In some cases, the fact that faculty members served dual roles exacerbated these problems since the faculty member about whom a student had a concern might be the very person responsible for addressing it. In thinking about these issues, it must be acknowledged that faculty do have a level of authority in their classrooms and that they too are deserving of respectful treatment. It is also noteworthy that in the current environment fear of harsh consequences for an inadvertent offense can have a deleterious effect on teaching. Clarity about the College’s expectations and effective training can help to avoid such offenses.
  • Political Viewpoint: A few people who do not share what is widely understood to be the community’s predominately liberal/progressive political viewpoints reported feeling unwelcome and disrespected. In their view, people simply assumed that everyone shared the dominant view, and those who do not share that view felt alienated and even anxious simply because they did not conform. In association with the October Town Hall meetings, even more, people expressed this concern. In the discussion of the diversity of political viewpoints during these meetings, it became clear that there are distinctions that are worth highlighting. There are political differences about many issues, and it has been widely observed that the United States is deeply divided at the current time. Some of these differences are on matters of economic policy, foreign policy, and other issues that may be deeply felt but do not strike at the core of personal identity in the way some social issues do. In particular, some students spoke of their concerns about policy decisions that could compromise their ability to marry, adopt children, and obtain health insurance. They see these issues as threats to their well-being and not categorically comparable to political disputes about other issues. As several people made clear, in these cases, “the political is personal”. The Task Force affirms that it is particularly important that HUC, in its efforts to promote free and open inquiry, avoid giving the impression that the institution is not fully committed to the humanity and equal rights of all members of its community.
  • Gender Equity: Despite major progress in expanding the number of women on the faculty and in the administration, some female students continue to report experiences that suggest gender inequality. Sometimes these occur in fieldwork, sometimes they occur on campus. This can range from inappropriate sexualized remarks in a congregation, or calling men by their titles and women by their first names, to the experience of being interrupted or dismissed in class discussion by male classmates.

IV. Review of Policies

In a series of meetings during the spring and summer of 2020, the Task Force reviewed several of HUC’s policies related to diversity, inclusiveness, and campus climate. In general, the Task Force found that the policies appropriately addressed the issues at which they were directed. Beyond some minor tightening of language or updating of details, the policies were acceptable. What became apparent is that the policies are not widely known, that in some cases they are not easily accessible, and that multiple statements of them are not always fully aligned. This report will comment briefly on these policies and identify some points that require clarification. Several specific questions and comments that arose in Task Force discussions will be forwarded to the Board or other appropriate people at HUC for their review in possible updates to the policies.

A. Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA)

Because FERPA addresses the confidentiality of student records, its implementation affects students’ perceptions of their treatment by the institution and thus is central to the Task Force’s charge. The stated policy conforms to the law and properly addresses confidentiality issues. However, the discussions revealed a number of questions about related policies concerning exactly what records are maintained and for how long, what counts as a legitimate academic purpose for which information can be revealed, and what information may be shared among faculty.

B. Disability Policy

The Task Force heard numerous concerns and questions about the implementation of the disability policy. In particular, there were concerns about the effectiveness of the follow-through of some requests and the extent to which faculty supported students receiving accommodations. In addition, there were questions about what the definition of “reasonable accommodation” is and how disability issues are addressed in off-campus locations. The varying laws in the locations of the four campuses added complexity to the issue. As noted earlier, HUC recently created a position for a Director of Student Support. The Director is responsible for assuring that HUC complies with the Americans with Disabilities Act and that it provides appropriate accommodations to students.

C. Sexual Misconduct Policy

HUC-JIR’s sexual misconduct policies are addressed in the document: Sexual Misconduct and Interpersonal Violence Policy and Complaint Procedure. Again, the policies seem adequate and appropriate, but there are questions about their application and implementation. (It is, however, important to note that the US Department of Education has announced changes to Title IX that may require updates to this policy. In addition, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 does apply to LGBTQ individuals).

The discussion of the sexual misconduct policies made it clear that there is a need for a greater community-wide understanding of these policies and that there are some questions about exactly how the policies apply. For example, some community members expressed uncertainty about how the Sexual Misconduct policy applies in off-campus locations such as in fieldwork, others wondered how confidentiality rules apply to employees who hold dual positions as rabbis and administrators, others questioned the implications of the differing state or local rules governing the different campuses.

D. Admissions Policy

The information on HUC’s website about admissions includes the following statement: “HUC-JIR will only admit, graduate or ordain candidates who, if in a committed long-term relationship, are in such a relationship with a Jewish partner.” It was reported that this policy has a number of potentially unwelcome consequences: the vagueness concerning what counts as a “committed long-term relationship” caused uncertainty about the eligibility of potential candidates and in some cases may encourage them to be deceptive rather than open about their status, and it places a special burden on students in non-dominant categories who may find it especially difficult to find Jewish partners and it places their identities under greater scrutiny. The Task Force believes that this policy merits review.

E. Handbooks

Many of HUC-JIR’s policies are included in three handbooks: one for students, one for faculty, and one for staff. A Board committee is currently reviewing and updating these handbooks. Collecting important information about the policies under review here in sources such as these handbooks is useful, though it is important that this be done in a way that assures that materials are kept up to date and that information is presented in uniform ways. Currently, as far as we know, only the student handbook is available online. The others should be available online as well.

V. Findings and Recommendations

What follows is a statement of the Task Force’s findings and recommendations.

  • Code of Civility: As noted earlier, the behavioral issues most affecting the HUC community do not involve violations of the law but rather violations of the institution’s own standards and expectations. The Task Force recommends that HUC formulate these standards as explicitly and clearly as possible in a Code of Civility. This would be an affirmative document, characterizing behavior appropriate to a safe and supportive environment. The Task Force recommends the establishment of a small group of faculty, students, and staff to draft such a document. In general, the hope is that all members of the community can be encouraged to respect, and assumed to know, mutually professional boundaries in any context involving any member of the community, and that they address issues that arise with that assumption in mind.

A significant fraction of the undesirable behaviors described earlier occurred during student/student interactions. An effective Code of Civility could help address these issues, which generally involve conduct that reflects insensitivity or a lack of understanding. It is this fact that makes so essential the strengthening of orientation programs (discussed below), as well as ongoing reinforcement of messages about expectations. Students must understand the culture of the institution. In the vast majority of cases, students do support, indeed strongly support, the values HUC expresses.

The key findings of the Task Force regarding student/faculty issues relate to the topics of power dynamics and gender identity described earlier. Faculty also reported a desire for additional guidance on how best to address these issues. It is clear that information and support for faculty, as well as a clear statement of the faculty’s rights and obligations, is required. A Code of Conduct could helpfully address these issues as well.

  • Orientation, Training, and Educational Programs: The Task Force recommends that the College reassess its orientation programs to assure that incoming students receive clear information in an effective format that provides them with an understanding of HUC’s values, the expectations for their conduct and what they can expect from their faculty, and the resources available to them. Much of the information to be conveyed in such sessions would be addressed in a Code of Civility. However, it is not reasonable to think that a single presentation during an orientation session will in all cases have a lasting impact. The messages conveyed at the outset must be reinforced throughout the academic year.

HUC currently has training programs for faculty and staff. While annual training programs can be useful, and in some cases legally required, training will be most effective if it is part of an extended and ongoing educational program aimed at reinforcing HUC’s values and couched in the language of Jewish tradition. The Task Force, therefore, recommends that HUC review its training and orientation programs to ensure that members of the HUC community not only know the relevant policies and what to do in the case of a problem but also fully understand the institution’s values and aspirations.  Particular attention should be paid to training regarding the interactions of managers and staff, with the goal of clarifying the expectations and professional development associated with supervision at all levels of the organization.

  • HUC values and public statements: HUC, like all institutions of higher learning, is an academic institution with a role to play in the larger public sphere. HUC aspires to be a thought leader for the Reform Movement and liberal/progressive Judaism. This aspiration forces the leaders of HUC to face difficult decisions about when to speak out on behalf of the institution in matters of public debate. There are issues on which academic institutions typically remain silent for legal, moral, or business reasons. For example, they do not generally endorse political candidates. They do speak out on issues that directly affect education, for example, policies regarding financial aid or student loans. Taking an institutional stand on a public issue generally requires the completion of an approval process, often requiring the approval of the Board of Governors. Such decisions can be contentious, as has been the case with respect to the decision not to sign on to the Reform Movement’s endorsement of Black Lives Matter. The Task Force does not take a stand on this particular issue, but it does recommend that HUC review its policies and practices on this matter and make clear to the community the principles it will invoke in making decisions on public statements. It is clearly detrimental to HUC for there to be expectations that are not met or standards that are not understood. The Task Force notes that students and student groups, as well as faculty and staff members and groups, are free to take public stands on issues independently of any statements made by the President or Board on behalf of the institution.
  • Organization, Presentation, and Administration of policies: The Task Force review found that the institution’s policies are generally appropriate, but they can be hard to find and are in some cases represented in different ways in different places. The Task Force, therefore, recommends that there be one central repository for all policies and links to those policies in other places where they are referenced. Student, faculty, and staff handbooks should also link to this central source. In addition, there should be clear, simple, and readily available resources available to all identifying where to go to seek help when it is needed. In some cases, it is in moments of duress that a person seeks help and a resource buried deep in some unknown webpage is of no help. The HR department, with input from the campus deans, should make sure that the contacts listed in the policies are up-to-date.

Questions arose frequently about whether policies and practices are uniform across campuses (when appropriate). While there are curricular and academic programs and policies that may be unique to each campus, it is important that there be a publicly understood and uniformly applied process for managing legally mandated matters, such as policies regarding discrimination and harassment or the provision of accommodations for disabilities. This requires oversight from the central administration. Many of the issues addressed in this Report fall into areas overseen by the College’s Director of Human Resources. At this writing, there is someone serving in this role on an interim basis. Given the centrality of the position and the need for consistent application of policies, the Task Force urges that the position be filled on a permanent basis soon.

  • Review Admissions Policy for Rabbinical and Cantorial Programs: As noted earlier, it was reported to the Task Force that some members of the community objected to the existing Admissions policy requiring that applicants in long-term committed relationships involve only Jewish partners. Although the Task Force does not take a stand on the merits of this policy, it does recommend that the policy be reviewed in light of the problematic consequences it may have for potential applicants from some minority communities.
  • Support for all students: The recent appointment of a Director of Student Services, charged with assuring compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, is a positive step. There are additional steps to be taken to assure adequate support for all students, in particular, preparation for field work and careers for students with needs differing from those of the majority. If a staff member is designated on a particular campus to serve as a contact person for students with concerns, to avoid potential conflicts of interest, this person should not otherwise supervise students.
  • Further Engagement with Staff and Other Constituencies: It became clear to the Task Force that some members of the HUC community, particularly staff, were less comfortable than others in coming forward to express their views or to identify issues. There is always more to learn about how best to make HUC the safe and welcoming community it aspires to be. Without willing voices, this learning will dwindle. Toward this end, the Task Force recommends that the Director of HR, the successful candidate in the current search for a consultant to help the College determine how to encourage additional conversations and continue to address issues related to Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, and others HUC leaders continue to collect data and learn more about the climate on HUC’s campuses.


Task Force Membership

Name Position
Rachel Adler Faculty – Los Angeles
Gordon Dale Faculty – New York
Haim Rechnitzer Faculty – Cincinnati
Talia Avnon Faculty – Jerusalem
Lisa Frankel Staff – Cincinnati
Andrew Goodman Staff/Admin – New York
Angele Osborne Staff – New York
Hattie Pearson Staff – Los Angeles
Max Antman Student – Jerusalem/Los Angeles
Ze’evi Berman Student – New York
Libby Fisher Student – Cincinnati
Hannah Elkin Student – Los Angeles
Becky Jaye Student – New York
Stan Davids Alumnus – Cincinnati (RAB)
Alison Wissot Alumna – New York (SSM); Los Angeles (RAB)
Spencer Hirsch


Alumnus – Los Angeles (Zelikow School)
Rich Feldman Co-Chair
Dvora Weisberg Co-Chair