When Sara J. was a senior in high school and active participant in the National Conference of Synagogue Youth in Los Angeles in the mid-1980s, the culminating Shabbaton of the year was an all-night session for more than 100 teens. She recalled that during the awards ceremony, an emotional high point, an adviser of the Orthodox Union-sponsored group “praised me for defying my parents by choosing to study at a yeshiva in Israel for a year rather than start college at home.”“Defiance of parents,” Sara, who asked that her name not be used, said recently. “Is that what Judaism teaches?”Julie Geller, who served as national president of NCSY nine years ago, worries that in their zeal to motivate teens toward increased observance, some NCSY advisers lack a balance between emotion and intellect.Geller said that in some regions — not Denver, where she grew up — advisers are “telling kids, in effect, ‘we have the absolute truth, and we’re giving it to you, but your parents just don’t get it.’ ”She said she worries about “the dangers that occur when any group thinks it has a monopoly on the truth,” particularly when parents are left out of the equation.And Michael Kress, a former NCSYer writing about his experience in Salon, an on-line daily magazine, said he soured on the organization because it “openly disregarded parental concerns and prided itself on the courage of children who could make a complete lifestyle change overnight, the consequences be damned.”While attention has focused on Rabbi Baruch Lanner’s alleged physical and sexual abuse of teens during his three decade tenure with NCSY, there are serious concerns as well about his level of emotional control over youngsters and the climate he helped create, and foster, over the years in which the first priority was to make youngsters more observant.
As New Jersey prosecutors consider criminal charges against Rabbi Lanner, rabbis, parents and youth group leaders are calling for a serious examination of tactics and practices.Some parents are now advocating major changes within NCSY, and its national leadership seems eager to be responsive. Heads of youth groups in the Conservative and Reform movements are re-examining their own policies, and the Task Force on Missionaries and Cults of the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York plans to revisit the subject, exploring the gray areas between acceptable and harmful practices within Jewish religious movements.NCSY EffectiveClearly what has sparked interest in this topic is the alleged behavior of Rabbi Lanner, and whether his success in bringing youngsters to traditional Judaism was the result of — or in spite of — his controlling effect on teens.
One member of the special OU commission investigating the Lanner affair noted that he once heard Rabbi Lanner say publicly, at a forum on outreach, that his philosophy in bringing religion to teens is simple: “Do whatever it takes.”But clearly the concern goes beyond any one individual. The commission is said to be assessing blame not only in the Lanner affair but exploring “the culture of NCSY,” according to this member, including some qualities of its efforts at kiruv, or outreach, to nonobservant youngsters, pitting them against their parents. It is an issue more widespread, and more complex, than Rabbi Lanner’s behavior, though few have been willing to discuss it openly until now.One reason for that reluctance is the almost universal recognition that NCSY, which runs programs for up to 40,000 youngsters and calls itself “the most effective and respected educational Jewish youth movement in the world,” is indeed highly successful in the battle against assimilation. A 1998 study of the youth group found that 92 percent of its alumni are affiliated with a synagogue, half attended a yeshiva program in Israel, and three out of five say they are more observant today than in high school. So there has been a reluctance to find fault with the group’s successful formula in keeping Orthodox teens observant, and appealing to many Jewish youngsters from non-Orthodox homes.Steven Bayme, director of Jewish communal affairs for the American Jewish Committee, observes that the community may have tolerated a certain degree of extremism and criticism of Western cultural values in groups like NCSY “because they were so effective.”
Several teachers at the Torah Academy of Bergen County, a boys’ yeshiva in Teaneck, N.J., noted that a number of students returning from NCSY’s summer kollel program in Israel last fall not only dropped out of extracurricular activities, citing bittul z’man, or a waste of time taken from Torah studies, but insisted on learning Talmud rather than other Judaic subjects.Rabbi Yosef Adler, the principal, said he was concerned that this attitude would create friction with other classmates, so he and other Judaic faculty spoke to the students, emphasizing the need for balance and the notion that one can serve God in a variety of ways.“We told them that those who volunteer eight hours a week of their time with an ambulance corps are serving God no less than those who study Talmud those eight hours, and the message hit home,” he said, adding that while some NCSY kollel advisers had stressed studying Talmud at every opportunity, the administrators of the organization were receptive to the school’s request for stressing a sense of balance to the teens.
This dilemma — successful outreach vs. single-mindedness of purpose — applies as well in assessing Orthodox outreach groups to adults, from Aish Hatorah to Lubavitch, as well as Israeli yeshivas catering to American post-high school students, all of which are thriving but come under criticism from some quarters for how they achieve their goals.As a result of the recent focus on NCSY, a growing number of parents and some NCSYers are worrying aloud just where parents fit in the organization, and where to draw the line between positive motivation and unhealthy pressure on teens in a religious setting. Some note the potentially combustible atmosphere of having charismatic religious figures preaching to impressionable teens at Shabbat retreats or camps, away from family.Rabbi Tzvi Kilstein, a former day school principal in Boca Raton, Fla., who has worked in the area of cults and mind control for more than 25 years, asserts that Rabbi Lanner, whom he observed on numerous occasions, employed dangerous levels of emotional control over his charges.
“He demanded complete and total allegiance, and every decision in these kids’ lives had to go through him,” Rabbi Kilstein said.What’s more, the rabbi said that Rabbi Lanner trained a number of NCSY advisers over the years who emulate his style.Rabbi Kilstein calls these men, many of whom are rabbis involved in youth work, “baby Lanners,” and says they emphasize control of the individual, emotion over intellect, and often use guilt and manipulation to push teens toward increased observance.“Even if you get rid of a Baruch Lanner, his influence will be a problem for years to come,” Rabbi Kilstein said, adding that parents need to have a larger say in programming and that NCSY leaders need to step back and examine some of the group’s practices, such as sleep deprivation from all-night retreat programs and long, emotion-charged Havdalah services at Shabbatons. At these sessions, marking the end of Shabbat, the Havdalah candle is passed along in a darkened room and youngsters are encouraged to speak from the heart, often in a confessional style, about their efforts to take on more ritual obligations, often despite parental objections.“They need to examine the methods used, and bear in mind that results do not always justify the means,” Rabbi Kilstein warned.
Rabbi Yosef Blau, mashgiach ruchani, or spiritual guidance counselor, at the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary at Yeshiva University, agreed. “He educated a generation in his methods,” he said of Rabbi Lanner, “demanding loyalty and statements of affection. There was a cult of personality, and that’s dangerous and has nothing to do with Judaism.”Not A Cult, But …All of the more than a dozen rabbis, youth group leaders and former NCSYers interviewed for this article were loath to use what one called “the C word” — cult — in connection with NCSY, not only because they recognize the word is fraught with frightening images of zombie-like Moonies, brainwashed and devoid of personal choice, but because, they emphasized, NCSY clearly is not in that category. They noted, though, that youngsters in NCSY sometimes bandied the word about and even did skits on the subject.Several of those interviewed said NCSY, and other Jewish youth groups employing charismatic leaders to emphasize the joys of religious observance, needs to address some disturbing qualities that mirror cults.For example, they pointed out that according to the Interfaith Coalition of Concern About Cults, whose membership includes the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, issues of concern include abuse of teens (including psychological control), severe personality changes, and severing of ties to family and friends.To some degree, critics say, Jewish youth groups like NCSY have problems in those areas, particularly when youngsters, inspired by religious programs, are eager to take on the obligations of kashrut and Shabbat observance.A JCRC official told The Jewish Week this week that internal discussions are being planned on the overall subject.
“It’s an issue that needs to be re-explored,” he said.Highest on the list of issues being probed now is greater parental involvement, the focus of some 100 rabbis, parents and lay leaders of the Etz Chaim region of NCSY who met last month in Springfield, N.J. They passed a resolution calling for parental oversight of the organization, encouraging child development “in the context of respect for parents.”Parent leaders later said there is much work to be done in this area, and they plan to pursue it. In the past, they said, advisers had little contact with parents and sometimes seemed to drive a wedge between parent and child over religious issues, including honoring teens for disobeying their parents’ wishes regarding observance.“We have Lannerism deep in the culture here,” one father said, “and it’s time for a purge.”He added that the local professional leaders now seem willing to comply with longstanding parental complaints, and he is hopeful that “some real positive changes will result from all this attention.”Rabbi Dovid Kaminetsky, national director of NCSY since last fall, says one of his priorities is to improve relations with parents. “Our kiruv work has to be in concert with parents,” he said, noting that while he is unaware of past practices or criticisms, he hopes to bolster the organization’s existing youth commissions and create a parental group encouraging input, oversight and parent-to-parent interaction.“Ideally, we should be reaching out to parents at the same time we are reaching out to kids, but that’s difficult,” the rabbi said.
He stressed that the organization is primed to be more responsive to criticism and general feedback.“Out of adversity, we now have an opportunity to grow,” he said.Not Just NCSYScores of letters and phone calls received by The Jewish Week since its initial June 23 report on Rabbi Lanner’s alleged abuse of teens have dealt with broader complaints about NCSY’s practices, particularly in dealing with parents.One woman in her mid-30s said her involvement with NCSY when she was in her teens was marred by ongoing conflict between her increasing observance and her relationship with her parents, who were not observant. She said Rabbi Lanner, who headed the Etz Chaim region at the time, publicly praised teens, including her, who resisted their parents’ efforts to curb their ritual practices, and insisted NCSYers come to him, not their parents, with problems.Ironically, she noted, Rabbi Lanner once took a small group of NCSYers to meet his rebbe, the late Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, the dean of Modern Orthodoxy, who told the youngsters they should do everything in their power to show love and respect for their parents.“That was the message I chose to remember,” she said.Similarly, the AJCommittee’s Bayme recalled that in a 1970s conversation about kiruv, the Bostoner rebbe, Rabbi Levi Horowitz, told him “it’s un-Jewish to undermine the family.” Bayme said the rebbe stressed “his objective in bringing people toward observance was to strengthen family relations, not undermine them.”Still, those involved with bringing youngsters closer to Judaism recognize the difficulties in fulfilling their goal without occasionally creating rifts between the teens and their parents. And a youth group’s search for charismatic figures who can relate well to teens but not be overly controlling in personality is a constant source of concern, according to professionals in the field.
“Anyone who tells you that isn’t a problem isn’t telling you the truth,” said Rabbi Alan Smith, director of youth services for the North American Federation of Temple Youth, the Reform group known by its acronym, NFTY.“We are looking for pied pipers, the charismatic leaders kids will follow. But we have to be very careful in determining whether the person is creating his or her own following, or truly presenting the goals of the organization he or she is representing.”Rabbi Smith said that NFTY, which deals with up to 20,000 youngsters a year in camp, Israel or year-round programs, is “always on the lookout for absolutists, and always tries to be ready to intervene when there is a problem.”He added that his daughter was a member of NCSY and he has the highest respect for the organization.Bruce Greenfield, executive director of the metropolitan region of United Synagogue, said tension with parents over their youngsters’ increasing observance is an ongoing and delicate issue for United Synagogue Youth, the Conservative movement youth group that has 24,000 members between seventh and 12th grades.
“Some are fearful that their child will become Orthodox,” Greenfield said. “We try to involve the parents at every step, let them know our goals and see what we’re doing. We don’t want to frighten them, but they need to understand our goal is to promote Judaism, and see young people become more observant and marry fellow Jews.”As a result of the Lanner case, he said USY is preparing a specific manual on its policies and personnel codes.Jules Gutin, USY’s director of youth activities, pointed out that orientation meetings are held with parents before teens enroll in the group’s summer cross-country or Israel programs. He added that while an effective youth leader in a synagogue movement “has far more impact than any other Jewish educator a youngster will ever meet,” he downplays the significance of charisma.
“If channeled properly, it’s a real asset,” Gutin said, “but most important is supporting the group’s overall goals and finding educational role models young people can approach and emulate.”Barry Bender, national director of Kedma, an international association of observant college students, helped launch a grassroots hotline for victims of abuse in response to the Lanner affair. Stressing that the hotline (800 350-6509), which went into operation this week, is independent and not affiliated with any organization, Bender, who has 20 years of experience dealing with missionaries and cults, said it was psychologically sound to create a neutral atmosphere that callers could trust.NCSY set up its own hotline in response to the Lanner allegations, and reportedly has averaged five to 10 calls a day.Bender noted that when he does outreach work with young people, he cautions them not to rush into ritual observance.
For the last 13 years he has led a 10-day retreat in Winnipeg, Canada, for students at a community high school, and in emphasizing the need for them to explore their own Jewish identity, he tells the youngsters “to go easy” in integrating ritual into their lives.“No one should become observant because of pressure,” said Bender. “Religious observance should be based on intellectual and spiritual reasons, and we want the students to have time to reflect and to discuss these issues with their parents and families.”Youth group leaders from all denominations say that while the NCSY crisis was tragic, it can serve as a warning signal, and result in reassessments and correctives to strengthen and improve their important work.“The No. 1 priority is protecting children,” noted NFTY’s Rabbi Smith, “and that’s what we all have to focus on.”