The nation’s largest synagogue-sponsored chapter of the National Conference of Synagogue Youth seceded this week from the youth arm of the Orthodox Union, sending a powerful message to national leadership over how the Baruch Lanner situation was handled over the years and indicating the crisis is not over.Even after Rabbi Lanner’s resignation as NCSY director of regions was announced last Friday, wide-scale communal fallout continued from The Jewish Week’s special report on the rabbi’s alleged long-term abuse of teens — physical, emotional, psychological and sexual — and the failure of the OU to take decisive action over a period of three decades.In addition to hundreds of letters, e-mails and phone calls to the newspaper from individuals expressing outrage at the OU, there were signs of dissension within the OU and its synagogues.
Congregation Beth Aaron of Teaneck, N.J., a large and active Orthodox synagogue led by Rabbi Ephraim Kanarfogel, voted overwhelmingly at its annual membership meeting Sunday night “to immediately withhold all monies to be paid to the Orthodox Union and to national and regional NCSY” until it was satisfied that provisions for supervision of young people at NCSY events are improved and that responsible OU and NCSY personnel are in place.The mood of the congregation was described as “fighting mad” by one congregant who attended, adding that the OU and NCSY have “zero credibility around here.”
This congregant said members were deeply concerned over what they observed to be a lack of proper adult supervision in NCSY programs in other regions and chapters, where some advisers reportedly tell youngsters to put religious observance above parental instructions and ties.
The wider complaint, according to several insiders, is that Rabbi Lanner has molded and trained a number of rabbis and youth leaders who emulate his charismatic style and sometimes eccentric behavior, encouraging advisers to do whatever is necessary to make youngsters more observant.It was noted at the Beth Aaron meeting that Rabbi Lanner has not been welcome at its NCSY programs, and has not attended, for years. That in itself is not unusual: one NCSY official acknowledged that Rabbi Lanner has been unwelcome in up to half of the 12 regions in the country because of his behavior and style.The Beth Aaron board member said he believed other chapters in the region are considering similar actions to separate themselves from NCSY.Rabbi Chaim Fraser, chairman of the NCSY youth committee of Beth Aaron, said he was authorized by the vote this week to explore affiliations with other youth programs.
He said Rabbi Lanner’s outreach methods “don’t strengthen teenagers’ relationships with their parents” or help them develop a sense of independence. Rabbi Fraser said his synagogue’s junior and senior chapters, with more than 150 members, emphasize blending increased observance and increased ties to parents for teens, even if they differ in religious beliefs.An OU spokesman said the response in Teaneck, with its strong connections to the Lanner case — he almost became a rabbi there 11 years ago and lives nearby — was atypical of NCSY chapters around the country, which number in the hundreds.
Dr. Mandell Ganchrow, president of the OU, the national central body of Orthodox synagogues, left for meetings with political leaders in Israel on Sunday and was unavailable for comment this week. But in a statement released last Friday in response to The Jewish Week article, he said “we regret and are greatly saddened by the charges contained in” the report.“Having decided, in light of the seriousness of the allegations made against him, that he can no longer continue in his position with NCSY and its parent body, the Orthodox Union, Rabbi Baruch Lanner has tendered his resignation, which has been accepted, effective immediately.”
The statement said that NCSY “has a policy of zero tolerance of any inappropriate behavior,” but several top OU officials would not directly respond as to whether that policy has been effective until now.Instead, they noted that Ganchrow was forming a commission of seven to 10 men and women from inside and outside the OU who will be given free rein to review procedures for monitoring personnel and will, according to his statement, “immediately make such changes as the study may find necessary.”
Some community leaders are concerned about the level of independence of the commission, though. At least three people who were approached — Brooklyn state Sen. Seymour Lachman, New York state Supreme Court Judge Herman Cahn and Hillel executive Richard Joel — declined to participate.Marcel Weber, board chairman of the OU, emphasized the commission will be “wholly independent and chart its own course.” He told The Jewish Week “the entire sorry episode” would be explored with the goal of ensuring “nothing like this ever happens again.”He added that “the overwhelming good works of the OU and NCSY ought not be dismissed,” and he called for perspective from those angered by the Lanner issue.
Meanwhile, conversations this week with lay and professional OU leaders indicate a split within the organization, with some, primarily lay leaders, insisting that only the resignation of top personnel will address what many in and out of the Orthodox group consider to be a crisis of credibility.
Others, mostly top professionals, believe the Lanner issue, painful as it is now, will soon abate after it is out of the headlines, and they are calling for limited action.When notified last Wednesday that The Jewish Week article on Rabbi Lanner was about to appear, top OU professionals reportedly were prepared to issue a statement saying Rabbi Lanner was being given a leave of absence.The following day, an emergency meeting of OU lay and professional leaders met to assess the situation. Several expressed shock and pain at the revelations and called for Rabbi Lanner’s immediate dismissal, sources said. Rabbi Raphael Butler, executive vice president, was said to have been resistant. By meeting’s end, the decision was made to call for Rabbi Lanner’s resignation and institute a thorough review of personnel policies.Another possible casualty of the crisis is Rabbi Pinchas Stolper, the founding director of NCSY, who is in his late 60s and who had planned to retire at the end of this year. He may be pushed to take early retirement this summer, sources say.While this would please some critics, who note that Rabbi Stolper hired Rabbi Lanner three decades ago and overlooked his disturbing behavior, others say he should not bear the burden alone.“Rabbi Stolper would become the karban [or sacrifice] being offered” on the altar of stemming the criticism of top professional leaders “who oversaw and enforced the cover-up for 20 years,” said a senior officer of the OU. He insisted that a number of lay leaders over the years have complained about Rabbi Lanner’s behavior. “But every time we conveyed a complaint, invariably it was the person who complained who was punished.”An emergency meeting of the entire OU board is set for next week to discuss the situation and move toward launching the commission.
Reflecting the swirl of conflicting emotions surrounding Rabbi Lanner, who has been such an integral part of NCSY for so long, some youngsters attending the group’s annual national convention last weekend in the Catskill Mountains greeted the news of his departure with tears. According to sources in attendance, one leader at the conference publicly compared the rabbi’s troubles to those of King David, whose actions with women appeared immoral but who was, the leader said, loved by God and ultimately forgiven.Elsewhere, though, news of Rabbi Lanner leaving was received with relief, as attention turned toward the depth and scope of the OU investigation.“I believe the wounds to NCSY are real, and self-inflicted,” said one prominent lay leader of the organization, who acknowledged there is internal concern about alleged victims of Rabbi Lanner taking legal action. He said there is talk within the organization about compensating victims.The OU this week set up a toll-free phone line for NCSYers to call “to discuss their concerns” with “an independent, professional counselor or rabbi,” according to Rabbi David Kaminetsky, national director of the youth group. The number is 877-905-9576, and the young people are being asked to call between 5 p.m. and 10 p.m.
But Barry Bender, national director of Kedma, an association of observant college students, said a separate grassroots effort is under way to set up an independent 800 number to deal with anyone who wishes to call for counseling.Bender, who has 20 years of experience dealing with missionaries and cults, said it is psychologically sound to deal with an independent group over such sensitive issues. He said a group of rabbis, teachers, psychologists and social workers would handle the calls.An additional 800 number will take information from people with complaints about lack of responsiveness to previous grievances over the Lanner matter and other potential scandals in the community, he said. The goal is to find out what happened and when, who the alleged victim informed, and what, if any, was the response.