The well-known cantor of Buffalo’s largest synagogue has abruptly resigned from her pulpit, after months of bitterness between her and the leadership of Temple Beth Zion over her allegations of sexual harassment by the rabbi.
Cantor Penny Myers, who has been the liturgical singer of the congregation for 14 years, informed President David Goldberg and the temple Board of Trustees earlier this month that “she will not be returning from her leave" on Jan. 1, according to an emailed letter from Goldberg to the congregation’s members.
“We are so grateful for everything she has contributed in her 13 years at Temple Beth Zion,” Goldberg wrote in the three-sentence tribute, citing a slightly shorter tenure than Myers has previously asserted. “We wish her luck and happiness.”
The departure means the synagogue will now be without a permanent rabbi or cantor as it enters the new year, although it is preparing to hire an interim senior rabbi from Massachusetts – Sharon Sobel – for the next 18 months, if the congregation approves a contract this week through June 2022.
"We are confident that she will bring exactly the leadership we need at this time," Goldberg said in an email to The Buffalo News.
But it also comes as the synagogue confronts a deeply divided membership that is alternatively upset over the behavior of its clergy or angry over the actions of its leaders.
A petition was circulated online among members of the synagogue in recent weeks, calling for a special congregational meeting to discuss what had transpired. Goldberg said the number of "authentic signatures fell short of the requirement" to call such a meeting, but added that the synagogue plans to set one up anyway. "It is certainly not being ignored," he said of the petition.
The historic Buffalo congregation was rocked in late October, when The Buffalo News revealed that Rabbi Jonathan Freirich had been censured months earlier by the Central Conference of American Rabbis – his national union – for five violations of its ethical code, and that both the CCAR and the synagogue’s leadership had hidden the report from synagogue members to protect Freirich.
The violations stemmed from a complaint filed by Myers last year, accusing Freirich of sexual harassment and creating a hostile work environment. That complaint alleged a series of inappropriate comments and actions by Freirich over four years, starting with the weekend of his job interview.
Those included a reference to Myers as the "beautiful blond cantor" in remarks to the congregation from the altar – the bimah in a synagogue– during his interview weekend in February 2016.
He also referred to "Fifty Shades of Cantor" after Myers returned from an overnight anniversary celebration with her husband at a winery, and later claimed to the CCAR team that she had displayed a pair of "play handcuffs" – which both she and a witness denied.
And he referred to the first dinner out with the synagogue's new executive director as "popping his cherry," in front of the cantor and the Temple's sound engineer.
The censure followed a report by an independent fact-finding team from the CCAR that validated the substance of Myers’ complaints, which Freirich largely did not dispute although he sought to reframe the context. A family in the congregation had also filed a separate complaint, alleging improper behavior by Freirich toward their daughter and other teenagers by asking for their cellphone numbers.
There were no allegations or evidence of any sexual advances or physical contact by Freirich, and the findings related to ethical but not legal violations. However, the synagogue is ending the rabbi's contract six months early – at the end of December.
Even so, Myers has complained of the synagogue’s failure to protect her, and accused the synagogue leadership of a double standard in their treatment of men and women. In particular, she has noted that she was given a leave of absence for several months while Freirich remained in his role – despite the censure – because synagogue members were kept in the dark about what had happened.
And she said she just wanted the leadership to make amends in accordance with Jewish tradition, not only to her but to the congregation.
“If the elected people who run the temple aren’t listening to their very own congregants, that was the defining moment for me,” Myers told The Buffalo News. “It was clear to me that my desire to come back was falling on deaf ears… which indicated to me that they might not have been as interested in my return as I thought.”
Goldberg – who wrote a six-paragraph letter to highlight Freirich’s departure after just four years – praised Myers in an email to The Buffalo News for "her leadership, especially over the past High Holiday season."
"We wish her well in whatever the future holds for her," he said.