NEW YORK, Sept. 25 (JTA) It would be an understatement to say that Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb is coming into his new job at a difficult time.
Just two weeks before Weinreb was appointed executive vice president of the Orthodox Union, the view from the Manhattan-based organization’s 14th-floor headquarters was of soot and debris from the World Trade Center catastrophe, just a few blocks away.
And in the year and a half preceding his appointment, the view inside the office has been filled with a different kind of debris from a major scandal.
Since July 2000, the O.U. has been reeling from accusations that Rabbi Baruch Lanner, the top professional in its youth group, sexually abused and molested scores of teen-agers over a period of 30 years, and that the group ignored complaints about his behavior.
Lanner, who resigned immediately after the allegations became public, was indicted earlier this year in New Jersey and is expected to stand trial in the coming months.
Weinreb, a Baltimore congregational rabbi who is also a psychotherapist and is known for his scholarly and oratory skills, replaces Rabbi Raphael Butler, who resigned in January amid criticism that top leaders had long failed to heed complaints about and properly discipline Lanner.
The O.U. also plans to hire a chief operating officer to oversee much of the day-to-day management.
Among the conclusions of a comprehensive investigation, an O.U.- appointed commission reported in December 2000 that “certain members” of the O.U. leadership “share responsibility for Lanner’s misconduct,” and also criticized the organization for “poor management practices,” including lack of accountability, and a “total absence of any policies regarding basic ethical issues.”
Weinreb, 61, will begin officially on Jan. 1, but is working part time before then. He acknowledges that one of his foremost responsibilities will be to restore faith in the embattled organization.
Interviewed Tuesday, his first morning at the office where electricity is still running on a backup generator as a result of the Sept. 11 devastation Weinreb said the O.U.’s “blemished” reputation will be restored both by correcting internal problems and becoming a “proactive” advocate on a range of moral issues, including matters of abuse.
He said he will devise a more detailed plan of action in the coming months.
Weinreb said he sees the O.U. position as an opportunity to “broaden my impact” and “bring the message of traditional Judaism to the entire world.”
Asked how he differs from his predecessors, Weinreb said he had similar values and goals, but a very different working style influenced by his training in psychotherapy. Before becoming a congregational rabbi, Weinreb worked for more than 10 years as a therapist, treating both Jewish and non- Jewish patients.
Weinreb, who comes across as a warm and gentle man, is known as an advocate for Orthodox victims of domestic violence as well as for his skill at bringing together diverse segments of the Jewish community.
He is a past vice president of the centrist Orthodox group Rabbinical Council of America and has served on a range of boards, including the Baltimore Jewish federation, NEFESH: North American Network of Orthodox Mental Health Professionals and The One Israel Fund, an organization that provides humanitarian assistance to Jewish settlers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
In a recent article in the Baltimore Jewish Times, Weinreb’s anticipated departure was mourned not only by local Orthodox community members but by a Conservative rabbi, Mark Loeb, who called Weinreb a “wonderful human being” with “enormous intellectual gifts.”
For 12 years, Weinreb has been spiritual leader of Baltimore’s Congregation Shomrei Emunah, which he described as “the most diverse Orthodox synagogue in the world.” Members vary in their levels of Jewish observance and enroll their children in everything from right-wing yeshivas to public and secular private schools.
“The best way to come together is to daven together,” Weinreb said. “If I have any influence, more shuls will begin to follow that model.”
O.U. insiders, along with people who had criticized the group’s handling of the Lanner affair, all praised the appointment.
Julius Berman, a past O.U. president, lauded Weinreb for simultaneously playing a local and national leadership role and balancing scholarly and nuts-and-bolts achievements.
“Because he has established an excellent reputation as a scholar-in- residence around the country, he’s been able to reflect his intellectual achievements, while at the same time he has shown he’s not in an ivory tower and can deal with a real community with real sensitivities,” Berman said.
Kenneth Hain, immediate past president of the RCA, called Weinreb “a wonderfully sensitive and eloquent spokesman for Orthodox Judaism.”
“He looks at the needs of the Jewish community with a great degree of clarity, identifying what the issues are, and is willing to take them on even if they’re areas that perhaps some in the Orthodox community would rather remain shrouded in secrecy.”
Murray Sragow, a parent active in the New Jersey region of the O.U.’s National Conference of Synagogue Youth who was sharply critical of the organization for not taking stronger action against Lanner and other top officials, said he is “absolutely thrilled” with the selection of Weinreb.
Calling Weinreb the “anti-Lanner,” Sragow said the rabbi had helped an acquaintance confront domestic violence and is as “squeaky clean as squeaky clean can be with regard to this kind of issue.”
“This is a person who knows our community includes all types, including those we’re not particularly proud of. He’s seen it firsthand. Therefore, all the issues the O.U. and NCSY have pledged to reform, he’ll be able to tell if they’re hitting the right points or not,” Sragow said.
Richard Joel, international president of Hillel: The Foundation for Campus Jewish Life and chair of the commission that investigated the O.U. last year, said Weinreb is a “wonderful man” and “bona fide scholar.”
However, Joel urged the O.U. not to view Weinreb’s appointment as the end of its soul-searching, or to assume that by selecting him it has solved all the problems particularly the broader issues of management and accountability identified in his commission’s report.
“The O.U. shouldn’t say, ‘Oh good, we’ve finished, we’ve hired a new professional,’ ” he said. “It’s great news if this marks the beginning and not the culmination of a period of transformation for the O.U.”