Angry and frustrated over what they consider to be the Orthodox Union’s failure to act properly and decisively — namely, to terminate its executive vice president, Rabbi Raphael Butler, during the organization’s biennial convention last weekend — a New Jersey group of parental leaders of the OU’s youth arm this week prepared to withdraw from the national body and launch an alternative organization.
At least six chapters of Etz Chaim, the largest of 12 National Conference of Synagogue Youth regions in North America, are seriously considering forming the new group, asserting that the OU has had more than enough time to recognize Rabbi Butler’s culpability in allowing Rabbi Baruch Lanner to continue as a key leader of NCSY despite allegations that he was abusing boys and girls in the group.
In addition, several well-known members of the OU board, including Sen. Joseph Lieberman, have stepped down. According to OU officials, the senator made the move because he is “paring down his communal obligations.”
Among the other officers who chose not to serve on the board are Matthew Maryles, who was one of nine members of the OU special commission that issued the report, and Lydia Kess, who resigned as a commission member in October.
OU officials this weekend accepted blame for the Lanner affair and pledged to respond fully and quickly to a wide range of recommendations from an OU special commission headed by Hillel president Richard Joel.
Harvey Blitz, the new OU president, told a large plenary here Sunday that he “deeply regretted this stain and blemish on the OU,” and said “we recognize our obligations to the victims.” He indicated later in an interview that the group’s executive committee will meet this month to determine the fate of Rabbi Butler.
Rabbi Lanner was found to have committed sexual, physical and emotional abuse of teens over a three-decade period, according to an OU special commission, whose executive summary, released last week, also found professional and lay leaders of the group responsible for “profound errors of judgment” in allowing him to continue in his post.
Although Rabbi Butler was not named in the executive summary, he is cited in the full (331-page) private report as being among the individuals with “direct knowledge of Rabbi Lanner’s abuse of teenage girls,” according to sources close to the OU.
Rabbi Butler has not returned phone calls from The Jewish Week, but in a Shabbat address at the convention, where the Lanner affair hung heavy, he reportedly compared the current situation to the weekly Torah portion, noting that Jacob’s sons sinned by not responding to their brother Joseph’s cries.
Rabbi Butler said that he, like a number of OU past presidents, several of whom he named, were similarly guilty of not hearing their brothers’ cries, referring to the Lanner victims. He said that as a team, staff and lay leaders will work together to make the proper correctives.
But a leader of the fledgling parental group said such responses were too little, too late. He asserted that the OU has had 30 years to address the problem, six months since the allegations were made public, and three weeks since the OU report was completed.
Murray Sragow, a member of the oversight committee of the Etz Chaim region and an activist in the new group, said in an interview that “no serious reform can take place” within the OU and NCSY as long as Rabbi Butler is at the helm, “and we have been saying this from the beginning.”
The fledgling group of parents view Rabbi Butler’s status within the OU as a litmus test for the seriousness of the organization’s claims to reorganize and transform itself. These parents blame Rabbi Butler for allegedly protecting Rabbi Lanner while either insisting he was unaware of the problem or asserting that a bet din, or religious court, was responsible for monitoring Rabbi Lanner’s behavior.
Another parent, who is chairman of his synagogue youth group, said the OU report’s strong criticism of the organization’s ethics, finances, management and personnel procedures indicate at the very least that “the man at the helm was asleep on the job.”
“And if he knew the allegations [about Rabbi Lanner] and did not act, that’s even more malignant,” he said.
Added Sragow: “What we see from the report is that the leaders valued fund raising and kiruv [religious outreach] more than they did protecting children. They made that bargain, consciously or not, and that’s why they need to go.”
Rabbi Chaim Frazer, chairman of the policy and standards committee for the Etz Chaim youth chairperson’s conference, said intensive consultations are taking place to reconvene a second meeting of concerned NCSY parents, rabbis and lay leaders in the near future. The first grassroots conference was held in Springfield, N.J., in July when more than 100 people came to voice concerns about national NCSY’s policies and personnel, and approved devising new policies and standards for the region.
The Etz Chaim region, the nation’s largest, comprises all of New Jersey, as well as Allentown, Pa., and Monsey, N.Y. Its 20 chapters are said to represent about 10 percent of all of NCSY. One Teaneck chapter,
Congregation Beth Aaron, at the vanguard of the new effort, has about 200 youngsters active in its three sections — junior NCSY, senior NCSY and outreach — and is the largest NCSY chapter in North America — larger even than some regions, according to a parent leader there.
The Beth Aaron parent group was among the first of several chapters to secede from NCSY this summer after the allegations against Rabbi Lanner became public. For years Beth Aaron has had a policy of not allowing Rabbi Lanner to participate in its events.
New Jersey NCSY parents and lay leaders have been among the outspoken critics of the national group, in part because Rabbi Lanner led Etz Chaim for many years and most of his alleged victims are from the area. In addition, the bet din of 1987 met in Teaneck and found in favor of Rabbi Lanner, though it cited him for improper behavior.
The new group reportedly has been working for weeks to line up member chapters and funding, and says it is willing to cooperate with any organization that agrees to its strict standards of ethics, guidelines and procedures. Leaders said they sent their guidelines to national NCSY months ago, encouraging them to adopt them as a universal standard, but received no response.
“We can’t wait” for the OU to go through its deliberations,” said Sragow. “Our first responsibility is to the kids.”
Another leader noted that “the OU has zero credibility with us. We are looking for action, not soothing rhetoric.
“This is not just New Jersey,” he added, insisting that chapters from other regions have expressed interest in leaving NCSY to join the new group.
Blitz, the new president of the OU, told The Jewish Week he would welcome the opportunity to “have a chance to talk to” the new group and “try to understand their rationale.”
In his first days in office, Blitz, an attorney from Queens, sought to put a conciliatory and responsive face on the venerable organization, which has come under sharp criticism in the last six months, most recently from the report it commissioned.
At an often tense and emotional plenary session Sunday at the convention dealing with the OU’s response to the commission report, Blitz and his predecessor, Dr. Mandell Ganchrow, apologized and took responsibility for past wrongdoings. Blitz explained in detail a plan to enact the recommendations of the report, and called for patience and support from members.
The session, planned for 90 minutes, ran an hour overtime as two dozen members of the packed audience of several hundred rose to question Blitz and Ganchrow about past grievances and future plans.
Their contrasting styles were evident. Blitz repeatedly expressed remorse for the Lanner affair, including his own admitted failings to respond to “red flags” over the years, while Ganchrow appeared defensive, asserting that “no organization on earth” could have its past investigated so thoroughly “and not come up with embarrassing information.”
Ganchrow said he was proud of his appointment of the special commission, whose harsh report proved that “this was no whitewash,” and he asserted that its findings concluded “there was no cover-up.”
Blitz told the conference he himself had failed to heed “red flags” pointing to Rabbi Lanner’s abuse during the lay leader’s years as chairman of the OU youth commission, which oversees NCSY, and later as treasurer. He said if he had to give himself a grade for his behavior at the time, “it would probably be a C.”
But he also noted that he had discussed his past record openly with members of the nominating committee and urged them to help decide whether he was fit to be a candidate to lead the OU. They made him their candidate unanimously, he said.
“Today, I would just as soon not be president of the OU,” he declared at the Sunday plenary, but implied that in part because of his own past role, “I feel a need to fulfill an obligation to clean the organization up.”
The most dramatic moment came when Ellie Hiller, a former NCSY staffer whose late brother allegedly was attacked with a knife by Rabbi Lanner 13 years ago, identified himself as a victim and asserted that there had been a cover-up and that the full report should be made public. When the moderator sought to move on, telling Hiller he had been given more time than anyone else, Blitz stepped in and said, “you deserve more time than anyone else.”
One theme that arose from the session was the OU’s dearth of women in positions of leadership. When challenged, Blitz and Ganchrow said there “at least three” women on the executive board of more than 60 lay leaders. In addition, a key 13-person committee appointed by Ganchrow to read and analyze the Joel commission’s full, private report is all male. When a woman in the audience pointed out that fact and noted that most of Rabbi Lanner’s victims were female, Ganchrow explained that he chose veteran leaders of the organization who had the experience and time necessary to participate.
Blitz sought to assure women in the audience that he would try to be sensitive to their concerns, including the selection of lay leaders for four key new committees he plans to form in an effort to enact the Joel commission’s recommendations. The committees will deal with structure and governance, NCSY, personnel and finance. They are expected to begin work this month and report back within six weeks on how long the full process will take.
Blitz acknowledged the conflict between “doing it right and doing it fast,” but insisted his goal was to improve the organization and how it functions.