NEW YORK (JTA) — Jacob Lew, the White House chief of staff, discussed allegations of past sexual abuse at Yeshiva University’s affiliated high school in his speech to the university’s annual Chanukah convocation.
Lew, an Orthodox Jew, made the remarks on Sunday evening during his address at New York’s Waldorf Astoria Hotel, where he was receiving an honorary doctorate from the university. He was referring to allegations recently reported in the Forward newspaper that two rabbis who formerly worked at Yeshiva University’s boys’ high school in Manhattan had engaged in sexually abusive behavior toward students in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
“The alleged behavior is despicable and cannot be tolerated in any place, at any time, and the response must transcend the confines of religious teaching,” Lew said. “Leaders of this and every educational institution have a sacred responsibility under civil law to protect children from any action that might endanger or exploit them.”
Yeshiva University’s president, Richard Joel, had previously issued a statement apologizing for the alleged abuse, which he called “reprehensible.”
Lew, who is widely considered to be a leading contender to be nominated the next Treasury secretary, devoted about a minute of his 11-minute address to the abuse issue.
“Across the country in recent years, we’ve seen too much evidence of inappropriate behavior at too many institutions responsible for nurturing our children,” Lew said. “We can and must take a stand against it, promote awareness, set up preventive measures and openly address concerns as they arise.”
In his speech, Lew also touched on Friday’s school massacre in Connecticut, his personal history as a public servant and observant Jew, and the importance of education, civic involvement and tolerance.
Lew, who defended President Obama’s Israel record during the campaign, made no mention of the Middle East and steered clear of political issues. He did, however, make a call for greater bipartisan cooperation in Washington.
“Reaching across party lines should be a badge of honor, not a mark of disgrace,” he said.
Lew was introduced by Joel, who called him “perhaps one of the highest-ranking Orthodox Jewish advisers to a head of state since the Abarbanel,” referring to the 15th-century Portuguese Jewish statesman and philosopher.