Law firm finds AJU students experienced discrimination, but problem was not systemic; complainants decry ‘whitewashing’

L.A. Jewish school pledges to do better in response to allegations of widespread sexism and homophobia; some graduates call for university to release full report, not just summary

In a 1,000-word email to stakeholders on Monday, the American Jewish University summarized an independent review of the complaints of discrimination and harassment made last year against the university, particularly its Ziegler School of Rabbinical Studies, which found that students did experience “sexism or homophobia” but that there was not a systemic issue at the institution.

Several former students disputed the findings and rejected the Los Angeles university’s decision to release only a summary of the findings instead of the report in its entirety and called for full transparency on the issue. 

“I certainly don’t speak for all 40 of the former students that we know of who have come forward with stories of being harmed by Ziegler,” Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg, who signed the initial complaint and has led the campaign to get the full report released, told eJewishPhilanthropy. “But I can say that many of us are angry, if unsurprised, that this statement by AJU so blatantly obfuscates what we know that former students have reported.”

In its missive, the university said it “pledge[d] to do better” and listed the recommendations made by the law firm Cozen O’Connor, which conducted the review, that it plans to implement immediately to improve the school’s policies. These included hiring a dedicated Title IX coordinator, devising written policies related to discrimination and harassment and improving the rabbinical school’s support for students outside of its existing formal administrative hierarchy.

“We are, in this context, guided by the Jewish tradition’s teaching that when we cause harm, we must acknowledge the harm, apologize for it, and take effective steps to make sure that it does not happen again,” the university wrote in the email. “We acknowledge these experiences and sincerely apologize to those individuals who have been harmed, particularly in a rabbinical school that prioritizes care and pastoral support.”

AJU declined to comment about the requests for the release of the full report.

In April 2023, 13 former Ziegler rabbinical students students and members of the AJU community contacted the ethics committee of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, known as Va’ad HaKavod (Honorable Council), with allegations that the school “enforced a double-standard against women, tolerated or contributed to homophobia and transphobia in the program and dismissed student concerns that the environment had become toxic.”

In response to the letter, AJU brought on Cozen O’Connor to investigate the allegations. Over the course of several months, the law firm contacted some 400 people, including current and former students, administrators, faculty members and other AJU employees. The firm also interviewed 12 of the 13 complainants. 

The firm found a significant disparity of opinions between those who graduated from the rabbinical compared to those who left the program early. 

Of the more than a dozen former students who did not graduate, a large majority — 80% — reported in survey responses that Ziegler does or did have a “culture or climate of discrimination or harassment.” 

The report found that nearly 90% of the roughly 150 Ziegler graduates who responded to the survey reported that Ziegler does not or did not have such a “culture or climate.”

Cozen O’Connor stated that it “found sufficient information to support that some students experienced sexism or homophobia while at Ziegler,” but did not conclude that these were widespread or systemic issues, according to the email from AJU. 

“Nevertheless,” the university wrote, “we are deeply saddened and upset to learn of the hurt expressed by these individuals. Our message to them: ‘We hear you deeply and pledge to do better.’” 

Rabbi Andy Shugerman, who attended Ziegler for three years before moving to New York’s Jewish Theological Seminary to complete his studies, rejected the university’s summary and said he believes that the problems are indeed systemic.

“The AJU statement today whitewashes what we hope and expect the investigation by the Rabbinical Assembly’s Va’ad HaKavod will reveal to be: misconduct that demands far more action than administrative tinkering alone,” Shugerman told eJP.

Ruttenberg, whose 2022 book On Repentance and Repair focuses on making amends, called for the university to follow the lead of the Reform movement, which has released the full independent reviews of harassment claims at its Hebrew Union College and Central Conference of American Rabbis.

“We continue to demand transparency and ask that AJU follow in the footsteps of the URJ, HUC and CCAR and release the report in full to the public,” Ruttenberg told eJP. “Transparency is the path of accountability and prevention of future harm — of t’shuvah [repentance].”