January 4, 2001
A Scandal’s Echo
'We will come out even stronger,' say Orthodox Union leaders.
The day before a report came out confirming allegations that the Orthodox Union (OU) for years ignored signs that a top rabbi at the National Conference of Synagogue Youth (NCSY) was abusing teens in his charge, Ayelet Fischer and 300 other teens were at the Marriott in Woodland Hills attending NCSY's West Coast regional conclave. And nobody was talking about Rabbi Baruch Lanner.
Fischer, an 11th grader at YULA who is on her chapter board for NCSY, said the topic came up neither in formal presentations nor in conversations among the students.
"If anybody is trying to make a decision to be involved in NCSY, it's just not such a prominent issue," says Fischer, who this year attended an Israel summer learning program founded by Lanner.
Rather, students spent the weekend discussing Jewish morals and ethics and what makes a Jewish hero. "It was very inspirational. I really think it was wonderful because a lot of public school kids came, and they were really inspired, and it motivates them and gives them a feeling for Judaism and the chance to experience the beauty of it," says Fischer.
But if talk about the Lanner report hasn't filtered down to the student level yet, it is on the minds of local lay and professional leaders of the OU, the parent organization of NCSY, which serves about 40,000 teenagers.
While Lanner, who was New Jersey regional director and then national director of regions, had little to do with West Coast teens, the ramifications of his abuse will be felt on a nationwide level, says Dr. Larry Eisenberg, West Coast president of the OU.
"The organization itself needs to restate who we are and what we are doing and why people should be part of us," says Dr. Larry Eisenberg, West Coast president of the OU. "We need to answer why people should trust us and what we have done to repair the breaches."
Martin Nachimson, a West Coast OU past president and a senior vice president on the national level, sits on the 13-member committee designated to guide the executive board's response to the report's recommendations.
Nachimson says the organization will see changes on a nationwide level.
The report cited "profound errors of judgment" in the way OU leaders dealt with Lanner and also noted a larger problem of "poor management practices" in the OU, including a lack of accountability by professionals to volunteer leadership, lack of involvement by lay leaders in matters of governance, lack of financial controls and a "total absence of any policies regarding basic ethical issues" in both the OU and NCSY.
The report recommended revamping the OU's lay and professional structure, as well as implementing a code of conduct.
Nachimson and Eisenberg say the West Coast branch is functioning well and has active and high NCSY participation, and it will implement whatever the committee suggests.
"We will come out even stronger, because we will have policies in place which will give even greater assurances to all those involved in NCSY," Nachimson says.
At the OU's national convention in Rye, N.Y., last weekend, Harvey Blitz, the OU's new national president, called Lanner's alleged behavior a "stain and blemish" on the group -- one "we're going to work hard to remedy."
Blitz said the OU would appoint review committees in the areas of structure and governance, NCSY, personnel and finance.
Blitz said the Lanner report would be his first priority as president and promised that the committees would work quickly, though he did not offer specific completion dates for their work.
The 54-page public report is a summary of a much longer document culminating a four-month investigation by a special commission appointed by the OU. The OU is keeping under wraps that document, which includes names of victims and details of the alleged misconduct as well as what OU officials "knew or should have known" about Lanner.
The commission, headed by Richard Joel, the president of Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, was appointed this summer following a series of articles that appeared in New York's The Jewish Week about Lanner.
The Jewish Week articles, based on interviews with more than 12 former NCSY members, told of Lanner kissing and fondling scores of teenage girls, repeatedly kicking boys in the groin, wielding a knife against a young man and propositioning girls.
Lanner, a charismatic figure with a reputation for being able to spark enthusiasm for traditional Jewish observance, resigned the day after the article was published and refused to be interviewed by the special commission.
The commission report, based on interviews with 175 people, finds Lanner guilty of several kinds of abuse and asserts that "certain members of the OU and NCSY leadership share responsibility for Lanner's misconduct," which occurred over a period of 30 years.
It urges the OU to "hold individuals who failed to take action against Lanner responsible for their conduct," but does not specify how.
At the national convention, critics raised the concern that the organization has not stated how it will discipline top professionals, particularly executive vice president Rabbi Raphael Butler, who allowed Lanner to continue at his post despite "red flags" about his behavior.
Blitz said he does not think it necessary to place Butler on administrative leave while the organization decides whether and how to discipline him and other people.
Critics also wondered why decisions about implementing the report are being left to an all-male committee of 13 people, four of whom Blitz said are cited in the report as having some knowledge of Lanner's alleged behavior. Final decisions will be made by the organization's executive committee. Fewer than 10 percent of the committee's members are female.
Among the report's key findings:
Lanner sexually abused women and teenage girls, physically abused boys and girls, "attempted to control the lives of NCSY students" and "initiated sexual discussions with girls." He also behaved in a generally "crude and vulgar" fashion and engaged in various financial misconduct, including possible theft of funds solicited as NCSY contributions.
The OU and NCSY had direct knowledge of Lanner's sexual abuse of girls, yet the professional leadership failed to communicate critical information to the lay, or voluntary, leadership. o Senior OU and NCSY professionals "misrepresented" findings of a 1989 rabbinical court ruling on Lanner's behavior, inaccurately telling people that the ruling served as a mandate for Lanner to continue his employment and that his behavior was being monitored by the rabbinical court.
The OU and NCSY lost objectivity in evaluating Lanner because of a "perception that he was indispensable" and because of his "personal relationships with management." In addition, the OU and NCSY "failed to foster an environment in which students and advisors felt free to report misconduct without suffering retribution."
The OU and NCSY's management and structure have not kept up with growth -- both lack effective management structures, lines of reporting, accountability and evaluation, effective training programs, financial controls and policies and procedures governing critical issues.
The report offers a number of specific recommendations for both the OU and NCSY, mainly in strengthening the management structure to allow greater accountability, drafting a code of conduct and implementing formal policies for addressing complaints about staff members.
The OU issued a release announcing an upcoming "review of its leadership in order to implement any changes that may be necessary" and plans to develop "new policies and procedures for all OU programs and staff."
It also noted that in the months preceding the report, NCSY has already instituted a number of new programs. These include: a comprehensive sexual harassment policy for staff, sensitivity training program for staff, stricter hiring policies and training programs for youth group advisers and plans to appoint an ombudsman to investigate any allegations brought to his or her attention.