Soldier's wife accused a rabbi of harassment. Army chaplain then ostracized her, she says
By CRAIG SAILOR | The News Tribune | Published: July 29, 2019
TACOMA, Wash. (Tribune News Service) — Two local rabbis — one a chaplain at Joint Base Lewis McChord, the other the leader of a civilian congregation in Tacoma — are under fire for their alleged treatment of an Army soldier and his wife, both Jews living in Pierce County, Wash.
Jared and Traci Moran contend Capt. Michael Harari and Rabbi Shneur Zalman Heber tried to ostracize them from their Jewish community after Traci Moran accused Heber of sending her inappropriate messages last summer.
Traci Moran said the messages were of a sexual nature and that she considered them harassment, allegations Heber has denied through his lawyer.
The Army launched two investigations of Harari as a result of the Morans’ accusations. One found he made disparaging comments about gay people that were not in keeping with the character of an Army officer.
The other investigation is ongoing.
I Corps commander Lt. Gen. Gary Volesky wrote in a Feb. 20, 2019, letter to Jared Moran that he was ordering the second investigation to determine whether Harari violated the confidentiality provisions of his position, exceeded his authority when he had the Morans barred from base religious events, and made false statements.
Volesky also ordered an investigation into whether Col. Randy Brandt, JBLM senior chaplain, exceeded his authority by advising Harari to “implement a bar,” according to the letter, which was provided to The News Tribune by the Morans.
The News Tribune sought comment from Harari, but the Army would not provide access to him.
Heber referred two interview requests to his attorney, Barry Wallis. Wallis, who has spoken to The News Tribune numerous times since Friday, denied his client has harassed anyone associated with his synagogue, Chabad of Pierce County.
On Sunday, Wallis offered to make Heber available for an interview at 1 p.m. Monday, an offer accepted by The News Tribune.
Wallis confirmed that Heber and Moran communicated but denied the messages were of a sexually explicit nature.
“She’s trying to use false claims in the media to damage this rabbi who did nothing wrong,” Wallis told The News Tribune.
Frustrated by what they see as stonewalling and obfuscation on the part of the Army and Chabad of Pierce County, Jared Moran, 31, and Traci Moran, 30, reached out to the Military Religious Freedom Foundation for help. The nonprofit group is dedicated to civil rights advocacy for active duty military personnel.
“Traci and her family were forced to come to our foundation,” foundation president Mikey Weinstein told The News Tribune. “The Army has massively failed Traci.”
The case began when Jared Moran was transferred to JBLM in summer 2018. He is a special agent working in military law enforcement.
Before arriving at JBLM, the couple sought out Harari to help them find religious resources in the community.
Harari referred the Morans to the Chabad of Pierce County, part of an Orthodox Jewish movement.
The Morans signed up for a Kosher food service. The food deliveries came to Heber’s home, Traci Moran said.
The Morans drove to the Chabad on July 4, 2018, she said.
“He and his wife invited us in,” Traci Moran said. “He showed the synagogue, and we left.”
Minutes after leaving the home, Moran received a text from Heber, she said.
Over the course of the next few days the texts increased, Moran said.
“Then the texts became relentless,” she said. “Bizarre hours of the night.”
The texts also became increasingly personal, Moran said.
Moran, a Modern Orthodox Jew, is reluctant to describe them other than to say they were sexually explicit.
“He would ask me to meet up with him,” she told The News Tribune. She said Heber wanted her to drop off her children with Heber’s wife so they could go somewhere together.
“I would block his number and then he would find other ways to contact me,” Moran said.
Heber would call Jared Moran and then tell him to have Traci call him, she said.
Heber asked Traci Moran for pictures of a sexual nature, she added.
All the while, the Morans were hesitant to confront a spiritual leader.
“Both of us were afraid to aggressively address him,” she said. “We knew we would be ostracized the moment we spoke out.”
Samantha Jannelli heard some of the WhatsApp voice messages Heber allegedly sent to Moran. Jannelli lives on JBLM with her Army husband. They are also members of the Jewish community.
“They were really messed up,” Jannelli told The News Tribune of the messages Heber sent. “He was talking to her from the shower. It was weird.”
Moran, Jannelli said, was in tears over the messages.
The News Tribune has listened to and seen several of the messages.
Another member of the JBLM Jewish community listened to the messages.
“I heard some of the messages he left with Traci, and they were disgusting,” the woman said. The News Tribune is not identifying the woman because she fears retribution against her family.
“No woman should have to go through what she went through,” the woman said. “(Heber) has a problem.”
Wallis has not heard the incriminating messages but said he considers them fabricated or altered.
On Nov. 28, 2018, according to an Army report, Jared Moran sent Heber a text message “informing Rabbi Heber that he is aware of the sexual harassment of his wife, Traci Moran, and that they will not be silenced.”
In December 2018, Heber filed separate requests for restraining orders against both Jared and Traci Moran in Pierce County Superior Court.
In two page-long declarations, he said he was afraid of the couple and that they’d been harassing him, according to a copy shared with The News Tribune by the Morans.
Morans seek help from Harari
On Aug. 12, 2018, the Morans went to see Rabbi Harari for advice about Rabbi Heber, Traci Moran told The News Tribune.
“I asked him for help,” Traci Moran said. She believed information shared with a chaplain is confidential.
“And we implored him to be confidential,” she said. “He laughed and said, ‘If I didn’t know how to keep a secret, I wouldn’t have a job.’”
Harari defended Heber at the meeting, Moran said. He advised her that as a Jew, she must see everyone in the most favorable light.
“That was his rabbinical advice to me,” she said.
That same day or soon thereafter, according to an Army investigation conducted by Maj. Kathleen Hamilton and other JBLM officers, Harari told Heber about Moran’s harassment allegations. At the same time, Heber allegedly began spreading malicious information about the Morans to his congregants, according to the Army report.
“The information Chaplain Harari provided appears to have been used by Rabbi Heber to harass and attempt to intimidate and ostracize the Morans from the civilian Jewish communities surrounding JBLM,” the Army’s investigative report states.
Soon after the Aug. 12 meeting, Harari began ignoring the Morans when they attended Jewish services at the base synagogue, according to Traci Moran.
“It was so awkward, we just stopped going,” Moran said.
Jannelli, who also attended the synagogue, confirmed Harari’s treatment of the Morans to The News Tribune.
The messages from Heber to Moran ended on or about Aug. 31, Traci Moran said.
The Morans, Jannelli and others attended a Hanukkah party at the base synagogue on Dec. 3.
“Traci and I were in the main room,” Jannelli said. “Rabbi Harari had pulled Jared, Traci’s husband, to the back and was visibly yelling at him.”
Moran and Jannelli both said Jared returned and told them they had to leave the synagogue immediately. Harari had banned them from the synagogue, Traci recalled Jared saying.
Jared wanted to leave immediately but Traci questioned Harari.
“Traci asked why, and there was no real reason given,” Jannelli said. “[Harari] said this was coming down from the garrison commander.”
In shock, the Morans left.
The next day, Jared Moran received an email from Harari repeating the ban and telling him the Morans were safety concerns. The News Tribune reviewed a copy of the email.
In the Army report, investigator Hamilton said the relationship between Harari and the Morans deteriorated over time due to differences in beliefs, Jewish protocols, gossip and rumors.
One of those major differences occurred over beliefs sexual orientation and identity. The Morans consider themselves to be allies to the LGBTQ community.
“Chaplain Harari stated that he ‘believed all gay people were acting,’” the Army’s investigative report states.
Harari’s wife, Mishi, made anti-LGBTQ statements at a meeting the Morans attended. Harari, the report said, condoned the statements.
“Transgender people, especially children, were crazy and needed to be institutionalized,” Mishi Harari said, according to the report.
“We were appalled,” Moran said.
Jannelli confirmed the anti-LGBTQ statements.
“I remember being very uncomfortable when he spoke out against [LGBTQ people],” Jannelli said.
“I said, ‘I’m an ally of that community.’ He didn’t like that,” Jannelli said. “He would ignore LGBTQ people at his services.
“I’ve seen him ignore another service member’s daughter who has come out as lesbian.”
That service member is the woman who commented anonymously to The News Tribune about Heber’s text messages. She and her teenage daughter entered the synagogue for the first time in fall. They were new to JBLM and were attending their first Shabbat (Friday evening service) at the temple.
The teen girl presents herself in a way that is not stereotypically feminine, her mother said.
Harari mistook the girl as a boy and offered her a yarmulke, the skull caps worn only by males in the Orthodox Jewish faith.
“When she said, ‘I am a girl,’ then he really made her feel uncomfortable,” the woman said. “We’ve never felt welcomed since.”
Heber confronted at Chabad
Jedidiah Kent and his wife moved to Tacoma in 2016 for work and so they could attend the Pierce County Chabad. They lasted a little more than two years.
“I am definitely a former member,” Kent told The News Tribune on Friday.
Kent was interviewed by Army investigators about the Harari investigation. He is not in the Army.
After joining the Chabad, Kent and his wife found Heber’s behavior off-putting, he said.
Members of the Orthodox Jewish community do not complain about their rabbis, Kent said. Heber demanded obedience and loyalty, Kent said.
“We put up with a lot of stuff you normally would not tolerate,” Kent said.
That ended when Kent and others learned of alleged sexual harassment three women in the Chabad had received from Heber.
“The stories are very similar,” Kent said. “They had the same problems.”
The women had not yet come forward.
“There is a lot of social pressure against these women to say anything,” Kent said.
Wallis, Heber’s attorney, said his client has never made or sent comments to the three women that were of a sexual nature. In an interview with The News Tribune, Wallis first said he didn’t know who the women were but minutes later said that he had spoken to them extensively.
“They didn’t feel there was sexual harassment,” Wallis said. “He wasn’t himself.”
Wallis said Heber was “inappropriate” with the women but would not elaborate.
The worst thing Heber did, Wallis said, was asking one of the women for a hug. She declined, Wallis said.
In the Orthodox Jewish faith, touching between (non-family) men and women is forbidden — even shaking hands, according to the Chabad organization’s FAQ page.
Kent and others also became aware of Moran’s claims. She had confided in Kent’s wife, who is a friend, about her alleged harassment from Heber.
“[Kent’s wife] pushed her to tell us because she was hesitant to even bring it up,” Kent said.
On Dec. 13, 2018, Kent, Mark Friedman and another congregant confronted Heber in his office. They said they were trying to be discrete.
“We were three members of the community,” Friedman told The News Tribune. “This was highly sensitive information. We didn’t feel like we could go to people and say, ‘Hey, we got this bombshell thing and can you support us?’”
But they felt like they were speaking for the larger community, Friedman said.
“I felt certain that if people knew the facts that we knew, they would be just as outraged and appalled as we were,” Friedman said.
They gave Heber an ultimatum.
“We asked that he resign but also that he receive professional help so that he could respond to this in a healthy way,” Kent said. The group told Heber they would not talk publicly about the agreement if he accepted.
At first, Heber denied the allegations, Kent said. When Kent said they had proof, Heber admitted he had problems and tried to make excuses.
“When he realized we weren’t going to budge, he went irate,” Kent said. “He was yelling at me, saying he had filed a restraining order against the Morans, and I was violating that order, that I was an agent of theirs.”
Wallis said Heber was upset because he thought his entire congregation wanted him to step down.
Heber threatened suicide, Kent said. Two regional rabbis responded, Kent said.
Tacoma police officers responded to the Chabad as well, according to a police report from that night.
“[Heber] was upset about being asked to step down from his position,” the police report states. Heber assured the officers that he wasn’t suicidal and the officers left, according to Tacoma police spokeswoman Loretta Cool.
Wallis said Heber never threatened suicide.
A week later, rabbis from the larger Northwest Chabad organizationpresided over a meeting at the Tacoma Chabad, according to Kent and Friedman.
The rabbis, Kent said, apologized for Heber’s actions and said Heber had been removed from his position indefinitely. However, the rabbis never specifically defined what Heber had done wrong, Kent said.
Wallis confirmed the removal but said it was voluntary on Heber’s part.
When the Kents received a letter from Wallis on Jan. 31 threatening legal action, they quit the Chabad, they said.
The News Tribune has reviewed the letter.
“... your actions against Rabbi Heber are actionable in a court of law,” the letter reads. “You knowlingly misrepresented to members of the Jewish community that Rabbi Heber ‘sexually assaulted three women.’”
Kent estimated that about half of the 40-odd members the Chabad served a year ago are gone now.
Heber’s actions and the Chabad’s reactions feel like a spiritual betrayal, Kent said.
“You don’t go after the victims,” Kent said.
On Dec. 5, the Morans were served with two temporary restraining orders that Heber had told Kent and Friedman about. The orders mentioned the banishment from the base synagogue due to safety concerns. The News Tribune reviewed the restraining orders.
“Harari’s exact verbiage was quoted,” Moran said. “The only way he would have known that is from Rabbi Harari.” It was the first indication for the Morans that Harari and Heber might have been talking with each other.
Wallis said he wrote the language requesting the restraining orders, which were signed electronically by Heber.
“Her slanderous harassment and false allegations are completely without merit and are hurtful to me, my family and our community,” according to a declaration seeking an order against Traci Moran. “A permanent order is justified because of her exceptionally hateful, slanderous statements and her voiced commitment to ‘take you down.’”
On Dec. 20, 2018, Heber asked the court to withdraw his requests for permanent restraining orders, the temporary orders were dismissed and the cases closed, according to records provided to The News Tribune by the Morans.
The original court records have been archived by Pierce County District Court. The News Tribune has requested them and is awaiting their retrieval by court officials.
Wallis said he has never met Harari and does not represent him. He would not confirm nor deny if he had been in contact with Harari via telephone.
Jared Moran contacted the Army’s I Corps inspector general’s office to find out why he and his wife were considered a safety concern.
The inspector general’s office opened two investigations. One looked into Harari’s alleged anti-LGBT comments, and the other, which is still ongoing, investigated the alleged breach of confidentiality and other allegations.
The 7th Infantry Division declined requests from The News Tribune to interview Harari and JBLM commanders.
“All of Mrs. Moran’s allegations over which the U.S. Army has jurisdiction have either been investigated or are currently under investigation,” said I Corps spokesman Lt. Col. Scot Keith. “In those cases where the investigations have been completed, the involved command has taken appropriate action. We cannot comment on ongoing Army investigations or matters where the civilian authorities may have jurisdiction.”
On Friday, Heber referred interview requests to his attorney. Wallis denied the claims made against Heber by Moran.
Wallis also confirmed that Heber and Harari know each other and later offered to help a reporter speak directly to Harari.
Wallis said an investigation by the regional Chabad-Lubavitch office based in Seattle cleared Heber of any wrong doing and he continues as rabbi at the Tacoma Chabad.
No one from the Chabad investigation contacted Moran, she said.
The rift has fractured not only the Chabad but the JBLM Jewish community, according to congregants.
“It has been heartbreaking over the past year now to see what this has done to her family,” Jannelli said of Moran. “And my family, too. It’s really affected the whole community. We really haven’t had a place to go for religious services.”
Jannelli no longer attends temple on the JBLM base.
“I stopped going before Traci did because I was so disgusted,” Jannelli said. “Traci tried so hard to reconcile and make it work.”
At JBLM, an Army spokesman was unable to confirm if Harari is still the synagogue rabbi.
Traci Moran thinks he might be.
“Why the hell is the guy still in a position of trust, of leadership?” Moran said. “Why is he still counseling soldiers?”