Matt Driscoll

Pierce County rabbi scandal shows why Me Too movement still necessary

Traci Moran photographed at Ross Plaza Park in DuPont, Wash., on Saturday, July 27, 2019. Moran, a wife of a Joint Base Lewis McChord soldier, says she suffered months of harassment from Zalman Heber, a Tacoma rabbi. When she went to on base rabbi Michael Harari for help, she was rebuffed, she says.
Traci Moran photographed at Ross Plaza Park in DuPont, Wash., on Saturday, July 27, 2019. Moran, a wife of a Joint Base Lewis McChord soldier, says she suffered months of harassment from Zalman Heber, a Tacoma rabbi. When she went to on base rabbi Michael Harari for help, she was rebuffed, she says. joshua.bessex@gateline.com

It’s a disturbing story with an all-too-familiar feel.

A man in a position of power — a rabbi, in this case — accused of harassment, stemming from alleged persistent, unwelcome text messages that were sexually explicit in nature.

Another man in a position of power — and another rabbi, in this case — allegedly using his status and influence to silence and ostracize a victim and her family while protecting the accused.

It’s a story The News Tribune’s Craig Sailor reported this week about Traci Moran allegedly being tormented by Rabbi Zalman Heber, and JBLM chaplain and Army Capt. Michael Harari allegedly betraying the trust Moran and her husband placed in him when they came looking for help.

It’s a story of institutional failure on multiple levels.

While the specifics of the accusations are new and appalling, in a broad sense it’s also a tale we’ve heard before and we’ll surely hear again.

Cumulatively, all of it stands as a stark reminder of what the Me Too movement was about. It’s also an example of why that movement must continue and why there’s clearly plenty of work that remains.

Me Too is about addressing specific behaviors, yes. It’s also about exposing and addressing the power structures that too often enable them.

That’s why — to succeed — the movement must be more than a blip on the radar.

For me, Sailor’s story hit particularly close to home. Rabbi Heber invited me inside his synagogue, Chabad of Pierce County, in the aftermath of the senseless massacre at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue in October 2018.

I don’t know Heber, but I’ve met him and knew him as a man entrusted with a position of leadership in Tacoma’s faith community. I’ve seen the power he wields when he presides over his congregation.

I mention all of this — especially the last part — for a reason.

Nearly two years after Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein was publicly revealed as a monster, some of the lessons of Me Too should be obvious.

Don’t treat women as sexual objects. Don’t engage in gross, aggressive sexual behavior. Realize that victims often stay silent for a number of valid, real reasons. Take them seriously when they have the courage to come forward.

Rape is rape. Consent is not optional. No means no.

In short, don’t be garbage, which is a lesson that shouldn’t have to be taught but is clearly needed.

Other Me Too lessons are less obvious, requiring more work — and more vigilance — to address.

That includes the institutional scaffolding that allegedly allowed Rabbi Heber to persist and Rabbi Harari to leverage his power in his alleged attempt to silence and punish the Morans for speaking out.

Me Too didn’t happen simply because men too often act like trash. It happened because, in so many arenas — from religion, to business, to government and Hollywood — the behavior is condoned, enabled and covered up at the highest levels.

In an era of reckoning, this will surely be the most difficult part. Deconstructing the systematic deficiencies that created a need for Me Too is far more complicated than simply identifying behaviors that cross the line.

Reading Sailor’s extensive story, many of the key allegations turned the stomach. There are the texts. There’s the betrayal. There’s the anti-LGBTQ nonsense. There’s the attempted silencing and manipulation.

But it was a more subtle detail that illuminates why Me Too can’t be a short-lived exercise.

After coming to Rabbi Harari for help and being assured he would act as a confidant, Moran said he listened to her and then advised her as a trusted chaplain, in Sailor’s words, that “as a Jew, she must see everyone in the most favorable light.”

That’s another way of saying, “Drop it.” Don’t question a rabbi. Your experiences don’t matter because Heber is a man in power, and men in power are protected.

“That was his rabbinical advice to me,” Moran told The News Tribune.

The takeaway? Sexual harassment can’t be tolerated but identifying it is only part of the necessary response.

Me Too also requires individuals in power to step up when it comes to light and then do what’s right.

Matt Driscoll is a reporter and The News Tribune’s metro news columnist. A McClatchy President’s Award winner, Driscoll lives in Central Tacoma with his wife and three children. He’s passionate about the City of Destiny and strives to tell stories that might otherwise go untold.
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