Richard Joel, who was named this week to chair a special Orthodox Union commission investigating its role regarding Rabbi Baruch Lanner, pledged a “full and open” inquiry aimed at ultimately “restoring confidence” in the organization and its youth arm, the National Conference of Synagogue Youth (NCSY).Joel, president of Hillel, the Jewish campus organization, will head an eight-member commission of respected men and women in the Orthodox community. He told The Jewish Week he hopes the commission “will chart an agenda that will result in strong recommendations” regarding the role of the OU in its administration of NCSY.“This is not about pleasing anyone,” Joel said, “but discharging our obligation with integrity, honor and strength” to effect “radical change” within the culture of the organization.
Rabbi Lanner was the subject of a special report by The Jewish Week two weeks ago, focusing on allegations that in his three decades of youth work with NCSY, he abused scores of teens and that the OU did not take decisive action against him. He resigned the day the article appeared.The other members of the special commission, appointed by OU president Dr. Mandell Ganchrow, are businessmen Fred Ehrman and Matthew Maryles, attorneys Allen Fagin and Lydia Essrog Kess, law professor Suzanne Last Stone, former New York City consumer affairs commissioner Jules Polonetsky, and Rabbi Abraham Twerski, who is also a psychiatrist.
In a press release and advertisement in this week’s Jewish Week (see page 22), OU officials said the commission will “explore past actions of Orthodox Union employees and lay leaders to determine what remedial action should be taken, and will formulate new guidelines for our personnel to ensure that these circumstances will never be repeated.”
Joel reportedly insisted that a summary of the commission’s findings be made public, and the OU agreed.Sources say the OU is preparing for the possibility of legal action being taken by alleged victims of Rabbi Lanner, and reportedly has hired a criminal attorney to represent it.One issue the commission will have to deal with at the outset is how wide the investigation should be. One top OU official said he hopes it will determine “what did the Union know, who knew it, and what did they do with the information.” Another said he wants it “to explore the whole culture of NCSY, and what changes need to be made, not just whether which, if any, top officials should go.”The officers would like the report to be completed by Labor Day, but the commission has just been formed and has not met. Joel stressed that “while we don’t want to prolong anyone’s pain and concern,” the group will take the time necessary to do a full and accurate study.Ganchrow declined to be interviewed, but he has told associates he does not want to end his six-year tenure with a scandal hanging over his head, and has staked his reputation on ensuring a thorough and open investigation. He is due to step down this fall, and New York attorney Harvey Blitz is expected to succeed him.The commission has established an e-mail address that will go directly to its members, and urged interested parties to contact them at email@example.com.
A number of Orthodox rabbis have delivered sermons on the topic, with some emphasizing that the good works of the OU and NCSY deserve continued support, despite the serious allegations in this one instance. Others have been more critical.Rabbi Basil Herring of the Jewish Center of Atlantic Beach, LI., who heads the Orthodox Caucus, an independent Modern Orthodox group dealing with ethics and values, strongly criticized both the OU, for three decades of failing to sufficiently discipline Rabbi Lanner, and The Jewish Week for publishing the report rather than effecting change by first showing its findings to OU officials and insisting they “clean house.”This, the rabbi said in a text of his sermon obtained by The Jewish Week, would have spared the OU, NCSY and the Orthodox community from needless embarrassment.