Youth groups react to sex-abuse report

NEW YORK, June 27 (JTA) — A newspaper report on allegations that a high-ranking Orthodox youth professional sexually molested and harassed scores of teen-agers is raising questions about sexual misconduct policies at Jewish youth groups.

But leaders of most groups say they are already vigilant about preventing sexual abuse and take complaints seriously.

In a June 23 article, the New York Jewish Week quoted sources saying that the Orthodox Union had for years ignored complaints of Rabbi Baruch Lanner’s misconduct as a professional with the O.U.’s National Conference of Synagogue Youth.

The day after the article appeared, the O.U. announced that Lanner had resigned. Officials with the organization say they are now forming an independent commission to investigate the handling of the matter.

“The commission will have carte blanche to do the investigation and carry it in the direction seen fit,” said Sharyn Perlman, director of public relations for the O.U. The investigation, she said, will be of “the union’s role in this, specifically who knew specifics, what they knew and what was done.”

The commission will also issue recommendations about what to do to prevent such incidents, said Perlman.

Concerns about staff conduct come at a time when Jewish educational institutions — especially camps — are already having difficulty recruiting and retaining quality staff.

In the NCSY case, Lanner was known as a charismatic, talented educator who drew many teens closer to Judaism.

The Reform movement’s Union of American Hebrew Congregations youth division, the Conservative movement’s United Synagogue Youth, the B’nai B’rith Youth Organization and Young Judaea have in recent years drafted policies outlining appropriate and inappropriate conduct between staff and teens.

In particular, those organizations do not allow staff or volunteers to be alone in a non-public space with a child or teen.

At this year’s convention of the North American Alliance of Jewish Youth Professionals, about 40 people — or about 15 percent of participants — attended a session on sexual ethics and proper staff conduct, said Doron Krakow, chair of the organization.

“There’s been a heightened sensitivity,” said Krakow, who is also national director of Young Judaea, which runs year-round youth groups, summer camps and Israel programs.

Young Judaea, like other youth groups, has dealt with a handful of complaints and “every allegation results in full investigation on our part and typically includes temporary suspension of activity on the part of the staff person until we’ve cleared up the matter,” said Krakow.

Krakow and other youth professionals note that there has been far greater awareness of such matters in the past decade.

“In my early years with BBYO, I was not worried about hugging a youngster or having youngster alone in a room with me while we were planning programs,” said Al Freedman, who is director of special projects for BBYO and has been with the organization for 33 years.

“Never would I do that now,” he added. “We always make sure that whatever we do, we do in public or in the company of other people so we don’t place ourselves in situation where we can be accused.”

Freedman said that while BBYO has never heard complaints about its professional staff, there have been “questions raised” about some of the group’s volunteer advisers.

“We never disregard such an alert,” he said. “We’ve never to my knowledge had an incident that’s been sexual abuse, but we have had incidents where after talking to the adviser, we felt it would be best if they resigned.”

Those cases involved inappropriate comments, gestures and “touchy- feely” behavior, said Freedman.

Officials with the UAHC said there have been five-10 complaints in the past 20 years, all of which were dealt with promptly and internally.

Allan Smith, director of the UAHC’s youth division, said that “every couple of years we’ve been forced to take action of a very serious nature relative to either local or regional youth workers or camp workers.”

The UAHC conducts police checks of all staff hired to work with youth and asks about potential problems when checking references.

“If there seems to be anything in someone’s background we’re reluctant to risk putting a youngster in harm’s way,” said Smith.

Jules Gutin, national director of USY, said he knew of no complaints in USY, but that the group decided four years ago to set clear policies in writing anyway.

In Orthodox organizations, policies are less clear-cut.

Aliza Karp, a spokeswoman for Tzivos Hashem, a Lubavitch youth organization, said that she knew of no problems occurring but that “we choose staff who are aware of boundaries and have a reputation for not crossing them.”

She added that by promoting “strong values of what is right and what is wrong” and maintaining “open lines of communication,” her organization hopes “to keep children out of danger.”

Rabbi Avi Shafran, a spokesman for the fervently Orthodox Agudath Israel of America, which runs separate youth movements for girls and boys, said he didn’t know of any such problems in his organization and hopes that the group’s religious policy of separating the sexes would protect youth from unwanted heterosexual contact at least.

Jewish law “has in it the safeguards to avoid many such situations,” said Shafran, but he added that “any such complaint would be treated with tremendous seriousness.”

One downside of vigilance, say those working with youth, is that false allegations are sometimes made.

“But whatever the allegation, we’ll investigate to understand if there’s legitimacy to it, in which case we will make it impossible for someone to be under our employment,” said Krakow.

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