In response to an allegation that a United Synagogue Youth (USY) teenage boy was subjected to “sexual improprieties” in the 1980s by a longtime professional male on the USY staff, the organization is calling on alleged victims to contact a dedicated and confidential phone line in effort to prove or disprove the report (see details below).
Rabbi Steven Wernick, CEO of United Synagogue of the Conservative Judaism (USCJ), the parent group of USY, expressed shock over the allegation and told The Jewish Week that the proactive move — the first time the group is seeking assistance from the public in such matters — is to help the internal investigation in determining if there is merit to the charge, and if so, to take whatever action is required.
“We take the allegation seriously, and it’s important for a religious and Jewish communal organization to act responsibly and be as transparent as possible,” the rabbi said, adding that at a time when reports of sexual harassment by prominent men are becoming an everyday occurrence, organizations “will be judged not by statements they make but by how they act when it comes to their door.”
USY serves some 15,000 youngsters through a variety of camping and experiential programs.
Rabbi Wernick explained that the allegation came to light through several Facebook posts in the last three weeks. The first post was public and did not name the alleged perpetrator. The second was a private post and did name him.
Rabbi Wernick said the alleged victim has not responded to requests from USY for details and more information, but that the organization has suspended the alleged perpetrator, who in recent years “had been working on a contract basis on various programs.”
Without more details, it will be difficult to make a judgment regarding the allegations, the rabbi said, “but we didn’t want to wait.”
USY professionals are mandated reporters, required by law to report sexual allegations. The statute of limitations for sexual misconduct depends on the jurisdiction where they occurred. USY officials are not sure where the alleged misbehavior took place.
In 2011, USCJ instituted a detailed policy, procedures and training regarding how adult employees and volunteers interact with USY teens, according to a statement from the group. It noted that no such policies and procedures were in place in the 1980s, the time of the allegation.
Rabbi Wernick cited two cases from the 1990s that came to light in recent years involving USY. Both involved volunteers accused of improper sexual behavior. In one case the volunteer had since died, and the allegations could not be substantiated. In the other, the allegations were substantiated and USY severed its relationship with the individual, and offered support for the victim who had come forward. But the deadline for mandated reporting had passed and no further action was taken.
Alleged victims are asked to contact Vivian Lewis, USCJ’s senior director of human resources, or USCJ’s resources chairperson via a dedicated and confidential phone line at (212) 533-7813 or firstname.lastname@example.org.