Voicing strong concerns about their children’s safety and mistrust of current policies of the National Conference of Synagogue Youth (NCSY), more than 100 parents, rabbis and lay leaders this week called for far greater parental supervision of the Orthodox Union-sponsored youth group.
Representatives of the 20 synagogue chapters of the Etz Chaim region of NCSY, the nation’s largest (comprising all of New Jersey as well as Allentown, Pa., and Monsey, N.Y.), met at a closed session in Springfield, N.J., Tuesday night.
They approved a resolution calling for standards and procedures to be put in place regarding interaction between staff and children and requiring parental oversight, a draft of which was obtained by The Jewish Week. The resolution also faulted the OU and NCSY for failing to protect
their children over a period of more than 20 years from Rabbi Baruch Lanner, a former director of Etz Chaim and later regional director of NCSY.
Allegations, first published in The Jewish Week last month, were made by more than a dozen former NCSY participants that over a period of three decades Rabbi Lanner abused teens sexually, physically and psychologically. Rabbi Lanner was forced to resign when the article appeared, and the OU has formed a special commission to investigate the charges and make recommendations regarding future policies and standards for the OU and NCSY.
Based on statements made at the meeting, many parents are concerned about the scope and independence of the commission. Several people noted that most of its eight members have connections to the OU and its leaders, and there was a strong wait-and-see attitude expressed regarding future policy.
“People want to see how far the commission will go in its policy recommendations, its laying blame on those involved in the cover-up, and the OU’s disciplining those responsible,” one parent in attendance at the meeting later told The Jewish Week.
The OU on Wednesday announced a ninth member of the commission, who has no prior ties to the OU. He is Jacob Yellin, vice president-counsel of Walt Disney Co., who oversees its worldwide program of ethics compliance. Sources say that one or two more people may be appointed to the commission, and it is believed that they, too, will have no previous connection to the OU.
The commission has hired legal counsel and begun interviewing people, but in the interim, a number of people at Tuesday’s meeting urged that local NCSY chapters withdraw from the organization, at least temporarily, until the commission results are known. At least two New Jersey chapters, one in Teaneck and one in Highland Park, already have suspended their involvement.
Others called for continued participation in NCSY, but with direct parental oversight. Observers said the two factions appeared to be about evenly divided.
“Each chapter will decide for itself, for now,” said Ilene Bayar, a parent and lay leader in Springfield who characterized many of the statements made by parents during the meeting, which lasted more than three hours, as “respectful in tone but very strong in their feelings.”
Dr. Mandell Ganchrow, president of the OU, and Rabbi Matt Tropp, regional director of Etz Chaim NCSY, had wanted to attend the meeting but were asked by organizers not to for fear that the session would turn into “a lynch mob against them,” according to one lay leader.
Rabbi Tropp had a draft of a document distributed at the meeting outlining a new NCSY sexual abuse policy. It does not mention Rabbi Lanner by name but includes a prohibition on “horseplay beyond reasonable limits.”
Rabbi Lanner had been accused of frequently kicking boys in the groin.
Some parents at the meeting said the NCSY document was too narrow in scope, and one person stated that any policy regarding abuse should include psychological abuse as well.
The resolution drafted and approved by the parent and lay group calls for restricting interactions between NCSY staff and youngsters; requiring staff and lay adult supervision of NCSY programs; encouraging child development “in the context of respect for parents”; establishing procedures for complaints by youngsters against staff; and creating a parental review board to deal with “child safety” and the possible disciplining of staff.
Murray Sragow, youth committee chairman at Congregation Rinat Yisrael in Teaneck and an organizer of the meeting, said a significant minority of those present felt the resolution was “too mild.
“Everyone agreed that the current administration of NCSY can’t be the repository of our trust,” he said.