Courage overcomes shame at Tacoma Chabad

A pair of South Sound women who recently made credible allegations against Tacoma orthodox Rabbi Zalman Heber, resulting in his resignation Friday, should be applauded for coming forward.

The leader of the Chabad of Pierce County is accused of sending relentless strings of harassing text messages to Traci Moran and Kim Shomer, and asking Shomer for a hug — a major infraction of Jewish gender roles. Not only does the reported behavior violate tenets of their shared religious faith, it’s a clearcut case of an abuse of power.

It took courage for Moran and Shomer to speak up. A lot of it. Historically, when harassment happens in a place of worship, victims are initially ostracized and blamed for causing a good leader to fall.

The storm swirling around Heber is reminiscent of another case of alleged clergy misconduct in Tacoma. In 2018, Life Center church’s lead pastor Dean Curry was removed from his position after several allegations of sexual misconduct were lodged.

One of Curry’s accusers told the TNT that women who spoke out against Curry were called “crazy” and were said to have drinking problems.

Indeed, Moran, who’s married to a soldier stationed at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, told News Tribune reporter Craig Sailor that when she reported Heber’s unwanted advances to a JBLM chaplain last year, her complaints were dismissed. When she persisted, the chaplain, Capt. Michael Harari, banned her from the JBLM religious community.

Heber also filed a restraining order against Moran, which meant the military spouse was essentially shunned from any local religious support.

In addition, the restraining order indicated that confidentiality had been breached. It seemed obvious to Moran that the two religious leaders had talked and conspired to shut her down.

Shomer, a Tacoma attorney, learned about Moran’s plight through a fellow female Chabad member. When Shomer learned of banishment and hostility inflicted on another victim, she felt an immediate connection, despite not knowing Moran personally.

It often takes two or more victims to add credibility. It was only when Shomer shared her story with the TNT last week that Heber resigned as rabbi, though he apparently remains Chabad director.

Of course the familiar tactic of victim-blaming doesn’t just happen in religious communities. Women in the workplace have suffered in silence out of fear that speaking up could jeopardize their current work or employment prospects.

It doesn’t help that male colleagues have been quick to rise to another male’s defense, or excuse bad behavior by calling it a mere flirtation or a harmless joke.

While sexual harassment has long been allowed to fester as part of the power culture, people in all positions of authority are increasingly expected to model upright conduct.

The state Legislature in 2018 helped transform the toxic paradigm by enacting several sexual harassment laws; lawmakers also asked a Human Rights Commission to continue developing policies that ensure workplace safety and prevent predatory behavior from getting swept under the rug.

But laws alone won’t stop harassment. A shift must happen in the culture, and that starts by eliminating assumptions that patriarchy should never be challenged.

Religious leaders are not exempt from laws, regulations or common decency.

News organizations like the TNT also have a part to play; we exist to give voice to the powerless so they no longer have to live in the shadows.

Whether the victim is a defenseless child or a successful lawyer, all allegations must be taken seriously. And when a person is complicit in the cover-up, he becomes complicit in the crime.

Cultural changes don’t happen overnight. To move the dial, it will take the kind of courage Moran and Shomer displayed when they pierced the veil of silence.