NEW YORK, Jan. 2 (JTA) With a new president and plans to overhaul the organization, the Orthodox Union is trying to restore its credibility after a report found “profound errors of judgment” in the way O.U. leaders dealt with a top professional who is accused of sexually abusing scores of teens.
However, judging from the responses at the organization’s biennial convention last weekend in New York state, it appears that the new plans will not be enough to satisfy all constituents.
Allotted 90 minutes, a heated session on the issue ran a full hour longer than scheduled. Harvey Blitz, the O.U.’s new president, called the alleged behavior of longtime youth leader Rabbi Baruch Lanner a “stain and blemish” on the group one “we’re going to work hard to remedy.”
Lanner is accused of sexually assaulting at least 26 teen-age girls and physically assaulting many boys. A summary of an O.U. report on the charges was released Dec. 26.
Blitz, who has been an officer with the O.U. for more than 20 years, replaces Dr. Mandell Ganchrow as president. Blitz, who had been scheduled to replace Ganchrow even before the scandal broke, said a 13-member commission of board members appointed by Ganchrow would recommend ways to implement the report’s recommendations.
The report also noted a larger problem of “poor management practices” in the Orthodox Union. Blitz said the O.U. would appoint review committees in the areas of structure and governance; the National Conference of Synagogue Youth, the O.U.’s youth group; personnel; and finance.
Blitz said the Lanner report would be his first priority as president and promised that the committees would work quickly, though he did not offer specific completion dates for their work.
In questions at the session and in comments afterward, critics raised the following concerns:
* The O.U. will not disclose the full 332-page report, which names members of the O.U.’s professional and lay leadership who were aware of Lanner’s alleged behavior. The summary released Dec. 26 does not contain names.
* The organization has not stated how it will discipline top professionals, particularly executive vice president Rabbi Raphael Butler, who allowed Lanner to continue at his post despite “red flags” about his behavior. Blitz said he does not think it necessary to place Butler on administrative leave while the organization decides whether and how to discipline him and other people.
* Decisions about implementing the report are being left to an all-male committee of 13 people, four of whom Blitz said are cited in the report as having some knowledge of Lanner’s alleged behavior. Final decisions will be made by the organization’s executive committee. Fewer than 10 percent of the committee’s members are female.
* There is a lack of consensus as to whether the O.U. engaged in a “cover-up” to protect Lanner or whether key professionals simply made errors of judgment.
The bulk of the criticism at the convention came from synagogue members in New Jersey, many of whom allegedly were victimized by Lanner or knew his alleged victims. Outside this core, the O.U.’s constituency members in almost 1,000 Orthodox synagogues throughout the United States appears divided as to whether the organization’s current plans are sufficient.
One issue that arose repeatedly at the session, and remained unresolved, was the extent to which O.U. officials were aware of Lanner’s alleged behavior but failed to discipline him.
The report summary says only that “certain members of the O.U. and NCSY leadership share responsibility for Lanner’s misconduct,” without specifying who knew what.
Ganchrow announced that the commission report concluded there was no cover-up, but simply “errors of judgment and failure to see red flags.”
Blitz, too, said “complicity was not something that came flying off the pages of the report.”
He added, “Some will reach the conclusion that they couldn’t have known, others that they must have known. It’s not 100 percent clear.”
The assembly reached its tensest moment when Elie Hiller, one of Lanner’s accusers, stepped up to ask questions. Hiller criticized Ganchrow for describing the charges against Lanner as a case of “he said, she said.”
Hiller also insisted there had been a cover-up, and urged the O.U. to make the full report public.
When Hiller stayed on for three questions, Ganchrow tried to dismiss him, saying, “We’ve given you more time than anyone else.”
“You deserve more time than anyone else,” Blitz quickly reassured him.
Later, when the session moderator again asked Hiller to sit down, audience members called out, “Let him talk!”
Vivian Luchins of Bronx, N.Y., asked why there are no women on the 13-member committee. Blitz said he regretted the scarcity of women in the O.U. leadership, and promised to make an effort to recruit women for the committees reviewing the organization’s practices.
In an interview afterward, he acknowledged that “it’s a mistake” not to have women on the 13-member committee, but did not announce plans to change its composition.
Not everyone in the audience was angry at the O.U. Using the Yiddish term for observant, David Mandell of Long Island, N.Y., said Lanner’s accusers should “take some comfort from knowing you’ve changed the way the frum community will look at the problem of sex abuse.”
After the session, many participants were hesitant to be interviewed and insisted that their names not be used.
One Long Island woman said the O.U. leadership is “trying to deal with” implementing the recommendations, but added, “it’s a hard job.”
Another woman, who identified herself only as a student at Yeshiva University’s Stern College, said she is “confident about the new president,” but “I definitely think there should be more women” on the committees implementing the commission’s recommendations.
Rabbi Isaiah Koenigsberg of Queens, N.Y., said “errors of judgment were made,” but did not believe the leaders were “willfully negligent.
“They knew this person for so many years and they couldn’t believe it could happen,” he said.
Ya’akov Schwebel of Brooklyn said, “They’re trying not to sweep it under the rug.”
However, critics of the way the O.U. has handled the affair left the session unwilling to give the leadership the benefit of the doubt.
Hiller said he is pessimistic that the matter will be resolved to his satisfaction, and fears that top leadership may go unpunished.
Allowing this, he said, “is sending the message to people that what happened was okay.”
Murray Sragow, a leader with the New Jersey region of NCSY and administrator of an e-mail list focusing on the Lanner issue, shared Hiller’s concerns.
While he approves of Blitz’s plans to have committees review the O.U.’s governance, Sragow said, “I’m very concerned that at the end of the day it’s all going to be like moving deck chairs on the Titanic.
“It seems to me that the reason all this with Lanner happened was there was a conscious decision of O.U. administrators to make a deal with the devil,” he said.
O.U. leaders may have known of Lanner’s questionable behavior, he suggested, but “were willing to turn a blind eye to his negative aspects” because of Lanner’s ability to inspire teens.
“I don’t think that that philosophy is going to change as long as Rabbi Butler continues to be around,” Sragow said.
Sragow said he and many of the 150 members of his e-mail group, most of whom live in New Jersey, hope to persuade O.U. officials to release the report and discipline people. They also are considering pulling their synagogues out of the O.U. and creating an independent youth group.
“If the O.U. continues to fail us, then it would be irresponsible to let our kids continue in NCSY,” Sragow said.