The firing last week of recently appointed BMH-BJ: The Denver Synagogue’s executive director Michael “Moshe” Spingarn — after the synagogue discovered he had been convicted of a sex crime 11 years ago — has caused the congregation to rethink the way it hires employees.
In a letter sent Nov. 5 to synagogue members, spiritual leader Rabbi Ben Greenberg and board president Michael Engleberg wrote that Spingarn, hired by BMH-BJ last July, “was terminated effective immediately; he is no longer affiliated in any capacity with our synagogue.
“Yesterday we learned that in 2002 in New York, Mr. Spingarn was convicted as a sex offender. Upon confirming the accuracy of this information, Mr. Spingarn was summarily terminated.”
The Intermountain Jewish News confirmed last week through the New York State Public Registry of Sex Offenders that Spingarn was convicted on Aug. 14, 2002 “for attempting to disseminate indecent material to minors . . . via computer for sexual contact,” and for “promoting or possessing sexual performance by a child.”
The incident was a sting operation run by the Westchester County district attorney and involved a person whom Spingarn believed to be a 14-year-old male. The first record of the incident was in June, 2002.
Although listed on the registry itself, Spingarn’s offense was apparently classified as “level one,” which does not mandate listing on the New York Registry’s website, but was confirmed by the IJN via telephone.
According to Westchester Country court records, Spingarn, then 53, pleaded guilty to the offense and was sentenced to five years probation. This was first reported locally by the Denver Post.
Attempts by the IJN to contact Spingarn last week and this week were unsuccessful.
His 2002 offense was reported at the time in the Westchester County Journal News and was later reposted on a website operated by the International Jewish Coalition Against Sexual Abuse/Assault that “outs” Jewish community professionals convicted of sexual offenses.
Neither of these sources, however, are what led to BMH-BJ’s discovery of Spingarn’s past.
According to Rabbi Greenberg, who spoke to the IJN last week: “A police detective from the Sex Offenders Registration Unit of the Denver Police Dept. came to the synagogue very late Friday afternoon [Nov. 1] right before Shabbat started. I happened to be here picking up my son from preschool and [the detective] was looking for Michael Spingarn.
“And so we spoke.”
Informed by the detective of Spingarn’s 2002 conviction, Rabbi Greenberg immediately contacted board president Engleberg.
“As soon as I found out I called the synagogue president and within minutes we decided to bar him from the building and suspended him from his job pending confirmation of the facts,” the rabbi said.
“By the end of the weekend, he was fired, terminated.”
Rabbi Greenberg stressed, both in his letter to the congregation and his comments to the IJN, that neither he nor anyone else at BMH-BJ knows of any sexual abuse or misconduct involving Spingarn during his time in Denver.
“None whatsoever. He was employed here for less than three months, during which he had no direct responsibilities over any aspects of our children’s programming.”
The question about how Spingarn managed to gain employment at BMH-BJ, considering his criminal background, remains largely unanswered, however.
Rabbi Greenberg, who said he is not deeply involved in the hiring process, deferred the question to Engleberg.
“We did our due diligence,” Engleberg told the IJN. “We found nothing out of the ordinary or questionable. I’m not sure I want to say any more than that.”
Engleberg did confirm that the synagogue did not hire a professional vetting agency with the Spingarn hire.
“We didn’t go through an employment agency of any other type of agency,” he said.
Such agencies run exhaustive employment and criminal background checks on behalf of corporations and institutions, including many which have programs involving children. Wary of potential sexual abusers who might be seeking jobs to gain opportunities for proximity to victims, these institutions are willing to pay substantial fees to weed out such applicants.
An Aug. 3, 2012 news story by the IJN on Denver area day schools and other child and education oriented organizations revealed that most of them routinely require all job applicants to undergo such thorough pre-hire investigations.
While BMH-BJ did not do that in the Spingarn case, Engleberg said that the incident will “absolutely” cause the synagogue to seriously reevaluate the way it vets prospective employees.
Although synagogue members have had a lot of their own questions about the hiring of Spingarn, “I wouldn’t say there have been a lot of upset people over this,” Engleberg said. “They’re just happy that we discovered this and that we took action.
“The letter that we sent to the congregants, which has been circulated all over, pretty much says it all. We did the right thing as soon as we found out about this, and notified our membership. The welfare of our children, our young adults, our employees, is number one.”
Rabbi Greenberg said the rapidity with which BMH-BJ fired Spingarn shows how seriously the congregation takes the threat of sexual abuse.
“We take the protection and the safety of the children in our community to be the top priority,” he told the IJN. “We take any threats about safety and security very seriously.”
The rabbi emphasized this theme in his most recent blog entry on the BMH-BJ website. Marking the Torah portion Parshat Vayetze, Rabbi Greenberg made several promises to his congregants:
• “I will always put the safety and security of our children first.
• “I will always take seriously and address any report of abusive behavior or inappropriate conduct.
• “I will not hesitate for a moment to report to the authorities to investigate allegations of abusive behavior or inappropriate conduct.
• “I will do all that I can to make sure that our synagogue is off-limits to pedophiles, convicted sex offenders and predators.
• “Lastly, I will be proactive in communicating with leaders of other communities should a perpetrator of abuse move from our community to theirs.”
The main lesson learned by the synagogue after the Spingarn episode, Rabbi Greenberg told the IJN, is vigilance.
“What it’s taught me and what I think it’s taught our community is the need to be vigilant — ever vigilant — for the safety and security of our children in our community.
“It’s taught us that the scourge of child abuse is not something that exists only in New York and only in the big Jewish metropolitan cities, but something that came right to home, to here. And that’s a lesson, I hope, for the Jewish community throughout this state and region.”
The synagogue’s quick action and commitment to vigilance, however, does not equate with vilifying the subject of these actions, the rabbi added.
In their letter to members, Rabbi Greenberg and Engleberg asked that Spingarn be included in people’s prayers.
“ . . . we know that carrying the burdens of his past continue to haunt him daily.”
Asked by the IJN about this plea for compassion, the rabbi said, “We pray for everyone. We pray for people who face challenges which aren’t honorable and who have urges which are heinous. We pray for them to lead lives that are successful and fulfilling, far away from the temptations that they face.
“Our job is not to demonize someone. Our job is to keep our children safe. That’s the most important thing.”
Copyright © 2013 by the Intermountain Jewish News