It's been a month of extremes for the National Conference of Synagogue Youth (NCSY) on the West Coast. As the Orthodox youth group basks in the joy of moving into its own building, it is also reeling from the shock of a scandal involving an East Coast regional director allegedly abusing teens.
Last month Gary Rosenblatt, editor and publisher of The New York Jewish Week, published an article exposing 25 years of possible sexual harassment, assault and emotional abuse by Rabbi Baruch Lanner, who immediately resigned from his position as director of regions for the NCSY, a division of the Orthodox Union (OU). The OU - the same organization that grants kosher certification to 20,000 food products - has set up a counseling hotline and an independent commission to investigate the OU's role in the Lanner situation.
According to Rosenblatt's article, in which alleged victims from the past three decades revealed their identity to expose Lanner, the OU was long aware of the accusations but did not remove him from the organization, and only after many years did they prevent him from working directly with teens.Even according to the alleged victims - many of whom became Jewish educators - Lanner was a dynamic and magnetic leader in the movement. For years he served as regional director in New Jersey, where he was also a yeshiva high school principal.
"Our goal is to restore the public's confidence in the Orthodox Union and NCSY, and to preserve and improve the programs that have benefited tens of thousands of young men and women involved in NCSY since its inception in 1959," said Dr. Mandell Ganchrow, national president of the OU.
Dr. Larry Eisenberg, president of the West Coast region of the OU, says the incident has dealt a blow to the faith and goodwill the community has toward the organization.
But, he says, the incident has already led regions around the country to compare notes on how they ensure the safety and well-being of the NCSYers.
"The organization is being upgraded and modernized, all of the systems and procedures and policies. NCSY is an institution that has been around for a long time, and sometimes you run a certain way based on how you've been doing it for decades," Eisenberg says. "When a problem comes up, you realize you have to set things up based on the realities of today."
For businesses as well as organizations, that means policies and training regarding harassment, he says. What has always been practiced as proper decorum and sensitivity now needs to be formalized.Rabbi Alan Kalinsky, West Coast director of the OU, says the region, with its joint professional and lay leadership, parent involvement, and ongoing staff training and oversight, is a safe and inspiring environment for the roughly 3,000 teens it serves from Vancouver to El Paso.
"I am very confident that the necessary safeguards are in place," he said. "My office is always open to the kids." Eisenberg cautions that despite the sense of betrayal, the community should withhold judgment until the commission issues its final report. According to The Jewish Week, NCSY's largest synagogue-affiliated chapter pulled out of the group last week, and the sponsoring synagogue, Congregation Beth Aaron in New Jersey, voted to withhold all fees paid to the OU.
Several OU-affiliated Los Angeles synagogues said their boards would discuss the incident, but none expected any actions would be taken. "I think the process should be given a chance to run its course before we disconnect from an organization that has done a lot of good," said Marc Rohatiner, president of Beth Jacob Congregation in Beverly Hills, where he said a handful of people have brought up the notion of withholding fees form the OU.
Eva Yelloz of North Hollywood, whose three older children were enriched by their involvement as teens and later as advisors with NCSY, says her trust in the group has been shaken, but she will not keep her youngest son, 14, from getting involved if he wants to.
"I believe it was one person like this, and the administration who let it go on surely has learned its lesson," says Yelloz. "After this has come out, they will clean up their act in every way possible and do their utmost to keep a clean record and do better than their best."
Kalinsky says none of the kids withdrew from local summer programs, including a boys' camp for 60 kids. In fact, according to Sharyn Perlman, director of public relations for OU, not one of the approximately 1,000 teenagers signed up for NCSY's Israel trips or local summer programs pulled out.
NCSY, working with volunteers from Nefesh, the association of Orthodox mental health professionals, has set up a toll-free hotline (877-905-9576) for present and former NCSYers to call for counseling on religious or psychological issues.
The investigative commission is headed by Richard Joel, international director of Hillel, the Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, and includes professor of psychiatry Rabbi Abraham Twerski, several lawyers, business people and philanthro-pists, and the former consumer affairs commissioner of New York City."The Commission will explore past actions of Orthodox Union employees and lay leaders to determine what remedial action should be taken and will formulate new guidelines for our personnel to ensure that these circumstances will never be repeated," Ganchrow said.
Gary Rosenblatt's article, "Stolen Innocence," (New York Jewish Week, June 23) is available at www.thejewishweek.com. The OU's comments are at www.ou.org. Any information for the commission can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org