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Local

Second woman comes forward with allegations of harassment against Tacoma rabbi

 

UPDATE 5:50 p.m.: Rabbi Zalman Heber has resigned his position as rabbi of the Chabad of Pierce County, according to a statement released by Heber through his attorney. It was unclear if he is also resigning his position as director. “That will be determined,” said Heber’s attorney, Barry Wallis.

ORIGINAL STORY:

Another woman says she is the victim of harassment from Tacoma Rabbi Zalman Heber.

Kim Shomer, 50, a Tacoma attorney, said she suffered a year of harassing text messages from Heber, the leader of the Chabad of Pierce County. The harassment culminated in the rabbi requesting a hug, which was a violation of the tenets of her faith, she said.

Kim Shomer said Rabbi Zalman Heber told her to keep their communications a secret, both from her husband and the rabbi’s wife. “He definitely said, don’t tell your husband,” Shomer said. “And then it got weird. He would comment on my beauty, or my haircut, or what I was wearing.” Drew Perine drew.perine@thenewstribune.com

Shomer and her husband, Spencer Freeman, 49, were both members of the Chabad until they formally split from the Orthodox Jewish center in December when they learned of similar behavior Heber allegedly inflicted upon the Jewish wife of a soldier at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Traci Moran.

Shomer’s story was known to members of the Chabad and The News Tribune, but she was reluctant to come forward until now.

Moran’s allegations against Heber came to light during an Army investigation into JBLM chaplain Capt. Michael Harari. The Morans allege Harari breached their confidentiality after they asked him for advice about Heber’s alleged sexually overt messaging. Harari banned them from the base synagogue and Heber filed a restraining order against them.

Heber has denied the allegations made by Moran. He and his attorney also declined requests to comment for this story.

In an interview with The News Tribune on July 29, which mostly focused on the Morans, Heber said he asked Shomer if he could express his emotions with her during a meeting in 2017 and confirmed that he asked Shomer for a hug and that she declined.

“She said, ‘Rabbi, you should know better,’” Heber told The News Tribune.

Shomer said no such conversation took place.

“I didn’t say, ‘You know better.’ I couldn’t get out of there fast enough,” Shomer told The News Tribune on Tuesday.

Rabbi Zalman Heber in the sanctuary of the Chabad Jewish Center of Pierce County in Tacoma on May 25, 2012. Heber is currently at the center of allegations he acted inappropriately with at least two women at the Chabad. Joe Barrentine The News Tribune file

The body that oversees the Tacoma Chabad, the Chabad Lubavitch of Seattle and its leader, Rabbi Sholom Ber Levitin, have not responded to repeated requests for an interview.

Shomer was motivated to go public, she told The News Tribune on Tuesday, after recent news stories about Moran and Heber.

“I’ve turned the other way. I’ve forgiven. I’ve done all the right things,” Shomer said. “This is the last part that I think is right. The truth told from my point of view.”

Shomer said she had to work through shame and self-blame.

“He manipulated me, and I allowed it,” Shomer said. “I tried to make OK with it, and it’s not OK. And now he’s telling lies and I just wanted the record to be set straight.”

LAW COUPLE

Shomer, originally from Philadelphia, and Freeman, a Colorado native, met at the University of Puget Sound law school. They’ve been married 17 years.

Shomer is Jewish; Freeman is not. The couple chose to raise their two sons in the Jewish faith.

“Spencer and I decided, before they were born, that would be something we’d be doing as a family,” Shomer said.

Tacoma attorneys Kim Shomer, 50, originally from Philadelphia and Spencer Freeman, 49, a Colorado native, met at the University of Puget Sound law school. They’ve been married 17 years. Although only Shomer is Jewish, they decided to raise their two sons in the faith. “Spencer and I decided, before they were born, that would be something we’d be doing as a family,” Shomer said. Drew Perine drew.perine@thenewstribune.com

The couple met Heber at their youngest son’s bris in 2007.

When her sons were about five and seven, they began attending Hebrew school at the Chabad. Later, the family started going to the synagogue for special events and Jewish holidays.

Shomer’s oldest son revered Heber, even dressing like him on occasion, Shomer said.

“He held him in high regard,” she said of her son.

The family found themselves increasingly drawn to the Chabad, located on North Mildred Street in Tacoma.

“We were very charmed by what we perceived as the spiritual nature,” Shomer said. They were particularly interested in Kabbalah, a form of Jewish mysticism.

The couple began having weekly Kabbalah study sessions with Heber in March 2015.

“I feel like that was his door into me,” Shomer said Tuesday.

At first, the texts from Heber to Shomer were routine: changes in schedules, children’s activities. But, as in Moran’s case, they allegedly became incessant and personal.

NO TOUCHING

Segregation of the genders at Chabads is strict. During Shabbot (Jewish sabbath) services, the men worship on one side of the synagogue and the women on the other. A partition separates the two sides, Freeman said.

Men and women do not touch each other, not even a handshake, according to the Chabad organization’s website. Women wear wigs and non-revealing clothing, Shomer said.

Freeman said he needed to learn etiquette when he became more involved in the Chabad. He recalled meeting Heber’s wife, Miriam, for the first time and attempting to shake her hand.

“There was this awkward moment when she put her baby’s hand in my hand,” Freeman recalled.

Shomer found the gender segregation and strict contact protocols appealing.

“It’s a rule you live by,” she said. “You just come to understand it. You don’t have to give it a second thought.”

Rabbi Zalman Heber lights a menorah during a Hanukkah celebration at South 9th Street and Broadway in Tacoma on Dec. 9, 2012. Lui Kit Wong The News Tribune File

As Heber’s texts increased in frequency, they also increased in their intimacy.

“He would say he was lonely, he had no friends, no peer in the group he could talk to,” Shomer said. Heber told her they could relate to each because they were both East Coast Jews.

It was the same tactic he would later allegedly use with Moran in 2018, the Army wife said.

“He would always tell me that he has no friends, he has no peers, that I understand him in ways others don’t because I’m an East Coast Jew and we grew up in Jewish communities,” Moran said.

Like Moran, Shomer resisted Heber.

“I kept telling him, ‘Rabbi, there are men in the group. Even my husband. You should talk to them.’ I kept trying to steer him to other people,” Shomer said.

Heber always had an excuse for talking with her, she said.

“I ultimately, I think, just succumbed to his requests,” Shomer said.

Heber told Shomer she had to keep their communications a secret, both from his wife and her husband.

“He definitely said, don’t tell your husband,” she said.

“And then it got weird,” Shomer recalled. “He would comment on my beauty, or my haircut, or what I was wearing.”

She told Heber that he shouldn’t be noticing those things. Heber, Shomer said, wanted to know if she found him attractive.

Shomer said she treated Heber gently even while growing increasingly disturbed.

“I tried my very best not to harm him or hurt his feelings,” she said. “His maturity level was almost like a 14-year-old boy and not a 40-year-old rabbi.”

Heber insisted on speaking to Shomer every morning and every evening, she said.

“He demanded a good morning text,” Freeman said. “He demanded a good night text.”

“He would throw in a ‘love ya’ in his texts,” Shomer said. “It got weird and obsessive.”

Shomer’s friend Ty Brokaw was witness to one string of texts.

Brokaw, who was in the bail bond business at the time, was seated next to Shomer at a legal conference in the spring of 2016 when Heber sent a string of texts.

“It was to the point where she had to shut off the phone to stop the texts,” Brokaw said.

Brokaw, a good friend of Shomer’s, was familiar with the situation going on between Shomer and Heber.

“I was going to call him,” said Brokaw, who describes himself as protective of his friends. “But she wasn’t going to have that.”

Heber instructed Shomer to never email him and to erase all her texts to him, she said.

Eventually, Shomer told her husband about the incessant and personal communications. She wrote Heber a letter in August 2016 telling him she didn’t want any sort of personal relationship with him.

Freeman spoke to Heber about his behavior just before Rosh Hashanah in 2016.

“He admitted to me that he had crossed the line,” Freeman said. “He admitted that he had feelings for Kim. He begged me not to tell anyone, certainly not his wife.

“He said this has never happened before,” Freeman added. “He never had this type of a relationship with a woman, is how I took it. At the time, I believed that this was a man who had fallen in love with my wife and was incredibly emotionally immature.”

In an email sent to The News Tribune Friday night, Wallis said Heber apologized to both Shomer and Freeman two years ago. The couple said it was the last apology they received from Heber.

At the time, Freeman wasn’t mad at Heber. He just wanted it to stop, he said Tuesday.

Heber said he would “re-set” his relationship with Shomer and Freeman, the couple said. The improprieties wouldn’t happen again.

And they didn’t. For a short while, the couple said.

Slowly at first, Heber began texting Shomer again, the couple said.

Soon, “He’s back to texting me constantly,” Shomer said. At the time, she still was taking her sons to the Chabad for schooling.

Her oldest son wore a yarmulke, a Jewish cap, to public school.

“He really was a proud Jewish boy and loved our heritage,” Shomer said. “He even said he potentially wanted to be a rabbi.”

By early 2017, Shomer had reduced her attendance at Chabad services and functions. Shomer had forgiven Heber but she didn’t want to be part of his life any longer.

“Forgiving him is the easy part,” she said. “Living with the blurred lines is the difficult part.”

While Shomer wanted to disengage her family from the Chabad, it was Freeman who wanted them to stay.

“The only reason why we stayed is because she listened to me,” Freeman said Tuesday.

Their oldest son was studying for his bar mitzvah, a Jewish rite of passage from boyhood into manhood, Freeman said. Plus, Freeman liked the Chabad.

“There was a great community there,” Freeman recalled. “For me, walking into the Chabad was one of the few places where there was a community of men that I felt were genuine, that I felt were real, that were accepting. It was warm feeling to walk into every time.”

Freeman also thought that if Shomer went public. it would tear apart that community over the actions of just one man. He also feared that community would turn on her.

“None of this would go well,” he said.

Now, he said, he was wrong about his decision to stay.

THE HUG

On Feb. 27, 2017, Heber called Shomer into his private office. He told her two sons to stay outside, she said.

After Shomer went in, he blocked her exit from the room, she said.

“He said to me, ‘Will you just hug me?’” she said. “I just stared at him. Absolutely not. I had to walk around him. There is nothing more communicated to him at that point.

“It was awkward, manipulative and scary,” she said because the lines that separate men from women are clear and known.

“For him to breach it, it is such a violation,” Shomer said. “It’s a boundary crossing. They are boundaries that he has established as a Hasidic rabbi.”

Heber immediately began texting her with apologies and explanations as to why he wanted to hug her, she said.

“He made up this reason why it’s allowable for him to hug me in that instance, which, of course I didn’t believe or even want to hear,” she said.

On March 6, 2017 she texted a two-page letter to Heber.

“I told him that he’s not ever allowed to contact me again,” she said. “At that point, I completely did not trust ever being alone with him. I stopped going into the school to get my kids from Hebrew school.”

Heber followed the request and stopped texting Shomer. Heber’s inability to contact Shomer, according to her, got the attention of Heber’s wife, Miriam.

While in her car waiting to pick up her kids from school one day, Heber approached Shomer.

“He asked me to lift the no-texting rule,” Shomer said. “He said Miriam was getting suspicious. I said no.”

Freeman said Heber has never spoken to him or apologized for the attempted hug. Heber told The News Tribune that he had apologized to both Freeman and Shomer.

“That’s a lie,” Freeman said. “That’s just a flat-out lie.”

Worse than that, Shomer said, Heber has never apologized for violating his position as a rabbi.

“He’s never apologized for the loss that I have for this because of his selfish motives or needs,” she said.

SUPPORTING MORAN

In early December 2018, the Army’s Harari banished the Morans from the base synagogue due to, the chaplain said, safety concerns.

A few days later, Heber and his attorney, Barry Wallis, filed a restraining order against Moran and her husband Jared.

That was the act that pushed Freeman and Shomer over the edge. They formally ended their relationship with the Chabad, including their financial support.

Until then, the Morans, Freeman and Shomer had never met or knew of each other.

A Chabad member had heard both their stories and recognized the similarities. She connected Shomer with Moran.

“We stayed on the phone, crying, laughing, embarrassed, violated for an hour,” Moran said of their first chat.

“It was relieving,” Shomer said. She finally didn’t feel alone.

At that point, Shomer and Freeman knew they had to take action.

“I wasn’t going to allow (Moran) to take the fall because I saw what (Heber) was doing to her,” Shomer said. “We backed her every which way. We went to court with her.”

“He manipulated me and I allowed it,” Tacoma attorney Kim Shomer, seen here with her husband Spencer Freeman, said of a year of harassing text messages from Rabbi Zalman Heber, the leader of the Chabad of Pierce County. Drew Perine drew.perine@thenewstribune.com

On Dec. 20, Heber asked the court to withdraw his requests for permanent restraining orders against the Morans, the temporary orders were dismissed and the cases closed, according to records provided to The News Tribune by the Morans.

“Once we heard from Traci, the way (Heber) introduced himself to her … the I’m lonely, I’ve got no peers, it’s his schtick,” Freeman said.

Shomer and Freeman shared their story with Chabad member Mark Friedman. Friedman and two other men would go on to confront Heber on Dec. 13, 2018 and ask him to step down and seek counseling.

The couple also told their two sons about what had happened.

“Once we told them, I feel like I was set free,” Shomer said. “I never went back.”

Within days of the Dec. 13 incident, Rabbi Levitin called Shomer. Levitin’s wife was also on the phone, per Chabad protocol.

“He does the appropriate thing,” Shomer said. “He can’t even talk to me without another woman listening. And he apologizes.”

Freeman was on the phone as well.

Levitin, the couple said, told them Heber had been forcibly removed as the Chabad’s rabbi while they investigated him. Wallis, Heber’s attorney, told The News Tribune last month that Heber voluntarily stepped aside.

WHY NOW

After reading a column about the controversy by Matt Driscoll in Saturday’s News Tribune, Shomer decided to go public. Driscoll placed the local story in the context of the Me Too movement — the world-wide effort by women to speak out against their harassers.

“I don’t think I’m a Me Too woman,” Shomer said. “But, I was violated. And I was taken advantage of.”

Many of the statements made by Heber about her weren’t true, Shomer said.

“I feel like the woman, the individual that I am deserves for that part of the story to be corrected,” she said.

The couple would not rule out legal action against Heber and the Chabad.

“What I told Levitin, and I’ll say it now, (Heber) shouldn’t be a rabbi,” Shomer said. “He should never have been allowed back in a position of having power over people.”

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