The response to the recent news reports I’ve written, with a sense of sadness, about Rabbi Baruch Lanner, the National Conference of Synagogue Youth (NCSY) and the Orthodox Union (OU) has been overwhelming — hundreds of letters, e-mails and phone calls from all over the United States and from Israel. In light of the unprecedented interest in this issue, I’ll offer a bit of background and a few observations.
The story came about when several individuals who described themselves as former victims of Rabbi Lanner approached me months ago. They told me their stories, encouraged me to talk to others, and asserted that if NCSY did not take decisive action, the entire matter should be brought to public attention. Their goal was to ensure maximum pressure be brought to bear in the hopes of removing Rabbi Lanner from working with young people.
Since publication, the letters and calls have been almost evenly divided between those who expressed complete shock at the allegations that Rabbi Lanner abused teens over the last three decades and those who said, in effect, what else is new?
More than 90 percent of the mail and calls has been extremely supportive of The Jewish Week’s role in exposing this situation. In recent days, communal anger has shifted from Rabbi Lanner, who immediately was forced to resign, to NCSY and the OU for allowing the situation to go on for so long. Most of the critical responses have been anonymous. None have refuted the charges, but focus on the alleged violation of lashon hara, the Jewish law prohibiting spreading embarrassing information.
At least two Orthodox rabbis in New Jersey’s Bergen County delivered sermons on this theme, castigating Jewish newspapers for violating lashon hara, though both rabbis announced from the pulpit they had not read the article in question.
Prior to publication, I consulted a prominent Orthodox rabbi, having heard him give a cogent analysis of the issue — lashon hara and the parameters of Jewish journalism — several years ago at a program sponsored by the Institute for Public Affairs, a branch of the Orthodox Union. After outlining my dilemma to him, withholding the names of the individuals and organizations involved, I marveled at how quickly he honed in on the crux of the matter.
He said in the end mine was a judgment call. If there was anything I could do to resolve the existing danger to the community and not publish the story, I should do so. On the other hand, he continued, if I believed that unless the story was published, the danger would continue, I was not only permitted but obligated to publish.
That is the conclusion I reached, and subsequent events have only deepened my conviction.
Jewish amnesia, on an institutional level, appears to be rampant these days, with lay and professional leaders passing the buck about responsibility for what transpired. Some of the excuses and dissembling I’ve heard from Jewish leaders reminds me of a Jackie Mason routine: “I didn’t know about it. I mean, I knew about it, but I didn’t believe it. And if it happened, it didn’t happen recently. And even if it happened recently, I never actually saw it,” etc.
A number of people have called or written to confirm the events and behavior described in the article, particularly former NCSYers and high school students where Rabbi Lanner was principal. Several people have said the article changed their lives, including women who said they were victims who had never told their families and who never knew there were others.
Perhaps most disturbing has been the number of people urging me to investigate specific rabbis and Jewish educators in the Orthodox community, naming names and offering me details. One is said to be a pedophile with a history of arrests who is a principal in a Brooklyn yeshiva; another pedophile reportedly now works with Jewish youth in Florida; a womanizing rabbi has changed his name and moved to Israel, I was told; and a local rabbi is said to have an unhealthy interest in teenage boys.
The professional dilemma this poses for me, and this newspaper, which already has a reputation — I believe undeserved — for Orthodox bashing, is whether we are now to become the central communal clearinghouse for dealing with and outing Orthodox Jewish officials with various sexual deviancies. I don’t think that’s our role.
But someone or some institution of authority should be looking into these and other serious charges that have surfaced in the last several weeks. Clearly there are problems out there, and our community, and particularly the Orthodox community, with its deep concern about shandas, needs to do a far better job of policing itself.
Unfortunately, in this case going to one’s rabbi was not enough, nor was the bet din system, both of which are prone to an old-boy network where rabbis tend to cover for colleagues. We need a kind of bill of rights for the protection of our young people. A new monitoring system is required, and based on suggestions from several readers, perhaps the Board of Jewish Education and/or the various boards of rabbis should create and maintain a personnel data bank, including confidential lists of problematic potential employees. This information could be shared with schools, camps and youth groups in screening applicants. In addition, personnel codes should be drawn up describing acceptable and unacceptable behavior for interacting with young people. Anyone found to transgress the rules should be dismissed, and his or her name kept on the database.
All too few youth workers today, from camp counselors to organizational advisers, are professionally trained in any meaningful way for their important work. Many of our finest summer camps and youth organizations have only the briefest of preparations for staff in these sensitive areas of interpersonal relationships.
This is not to say that they don’t do good, important, and even wonderful work, but the potential for serious problems in the future must be averted now.
The OU, with its long and proud list of accomplishments, from kosher food certification to Torah education to inspirational youth work through NCSY, should not be forever tainted by this episode. The charges of a long-term cover-up by top leadership, lay and professional, are serious, and must be addressed. But an investigation is already under way and hopefully it will be thorough and objective, recognizing the critical imperative of restoring confidence in the OU.
In the meantime, it is clear the instinct to ignore, dismiss or cover up potentially embarrassing problems in our community must be sublimated to the need to address and confront them. They won’t go away on their own, and by pretending they don’t exist, we only erode our values and endanger our children.