A man in his 40s called me the other day to say that he had just contacted the Conservative movement’s new confidential hotline for victims of sexual abuse. He described to me in detail his allegation that an adult director of a Conservative congregation youth group touched his genitals on several occasions, when he was a teen, more than 25 years ago. The accused now holds a key role in another Conservative congregation; he told synagogue officials that he categorically denies all of the charges.

Whose responsibility is it to determine the facts in such cases and pass judgment of guilt or innocence? And how do Jewish institutions balance a presumption of innocence for the accused with the need to hear the voice of the alleged victim and protect young people from abuse? These and similar questions are being asked far beyond Jewish institutions these days as the nation continues to absorb and seek to process the outpouring of accusations from victims of sexual misbehavior aimed at well-known men in positions of power in a variety of fields.

How do Jewish institutions balance a presumption of innocence for the accused with the need to hear the voice of the alleged victim and protect young people from abuse?

In the last two weeks, allegations called in to the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (USCJ) hotline have led to revelations first published in The Jewish Week about two longtime and much-admired former leaders of United Synagogue Youth (USY). Jules Gutin, 67, was an iconic and much-beloved figure to teens over the decades as national director, and Robert Fisher, 70, was a former charismatic and popular West Coast director (Full story here).

When confronted, Fisher readily acknowledged his improper behavior with boys, and apologized for his past actions. Gutin wrote that USCJ was “totally justified” for ceasing its relationship with him and said he was sorry.

USY expressed shock and sadness in both cases, severing its ties with Gutin, who since his retirement three years ago has been connected to the movement by leading group tours to Poland. And it noted that Fisher has not been associated with USY since 2002.

Members of USY celebrating at the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism’s 2015 convention. JTA

But in the case of the most recent allegation, from the man in his 40s, he and the accused are in total disagreement over what did or didn’t take place. What to do?

Based at least in part on this case, USCJ decided this week on a new practice in its approach to sexual allegations against employees of individual congregations. The new practice spells out that once USCJ receives such an allegation and two corroborations of the improper behavior — as it did in this instance — it will pass the information on to the synagogue that employs the accused for further investigation and possible action.

Officials of USCJ say they have no legal responsibility to act, since the case does not involve anyone who was or is now in its employ. But they will offer to provide moral guidance and practical advice to member congregations dealing with these issues.

Leaders of the congregation in question are not on board with the decision, though. The rabbi and president say that USCJ, as the parent body of the movement, should play a more central role, financially and otherwise, in investigating the allegations and “not treat us as a stepchild.” And they believe that it would be more credible for the probe to be conducted by third-party professionals rather than from within the USCJ so as to maintain the organization’s integrity.

David Benkof, a former international president of USY who told The Jewish Week he was a teenage victim of Robert Fisher almost three decades ago, asserts that “the organization that faces civil action is the last organization that should be in charge of gathering the information.”

(Benkof makes the point that statutes of limitation apply to criminal cases, not necessarily to civil cases.)

Three Credible Stories

After spending hours on the phone in separate interviews with the man making the allegations, officials of USCJ and leaders of the congregation, I concluded that each party sounded sincere and credible.

The accuser provided a remarkable amount of detail about the alleged abuser in recounting the traumatic events that he said set him on a troubled life path many years ago.

The congregational leaders described how they have responded quickly and fully in looking into the allegations against their employee, hiring professional investigators, and that they are ready to take action if necessary. But they are mindful that their employee has a sterling record with no hint of rumors against him, and strongly denies any wrongdoing.

“Right now the Jewish community does not have a formal system for handling these types of allegations.”

The USCJ officials spoke of how they created the hotline to encourage victims to come forward and to care for them if they are in need and to take action if employees were in the wrong. The officials also said their hotline effort is fulfilling an ethical obligation to non-employees — including people who work for member congregations — who have recounted incidents that took place beyond the statute of limitations.

So far, I don’t feel I have enough solid information to publicly name the accuser or accused, much less know who is telling the truth here. I’m not even sure who should act as judge and jury in cases like these. Apparently, I’m not alone.

Shira Berkovits, Esq., PhD, Founder and Executive Director of Jewish Sacred Spaces. Courtesy

“Right now the Jewish community does not have a formal system for handling these types of allegations,” explained Shira Berkovits, a psychologist who is founder and CEO of Sacred Spaces, a cross- denominational initiative to create systemic solutions to abuse in Jewish institutions. The goal, she explained, is to “develop policies and training to prevent and respond to institutional abuse” in a way that minimizes damage to the institution and provides support for the victim. (Berkovits was one of The Jewish Week’s 36 Under 36 this year, recognized for her work creating Sacred Spaces. Read her profile here.)

A former Riverdale resident now living in Pittsburgh, Berkovits said it will take years to train and accredit large numbers of institutions and build a national network. “We are getting three to five calls a week, sometimes a day, for help. For now, institutions want to do the right thing but they are left to handle these matters on their own.”

“We are getting three to five calls a week, sometimes a day, for help.”

Berkovits believes the “best practice is for organizations not to investigate themselves,” but rather to employ professionals to do the necessary independent investigations. She says trained investigators on matters of abuse “often find information that others cannot, and will understand facts that are uncovered in a different light, based on knowledge of the dynamics of abuse and how offenders operate.”

The Orthodox Union has “detailed, comprehensive policies” regarding required behavior for employees and advisers in its youth programs. But it “does not have formal procedures in place to monitor the conduct of employees of its member synagogues,” according to the umbrella group’s executive vice president, Allen Fagin.

A post on the Sacred Spaces Facebook page shed’s light on their work. Screenshot/Facebook

Decisions about when to hire a third party and when to investigate its own personnel depend on the situation, he said.

The Reform movement appears to have the most detailed approach in dealing with matters of sexual abuse, and plans to broaden its reach. Speaking at the recent biennial of the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ), its president, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, noted that while some of its professional organizations, led by its rabbinic association, have “outstanding ethics codes and procedures … not all do, and there is no movement-wide code to which our synagogues can ascribe.” He added: “There should be. There will be,” and announced plans to expand and enhance URJ’s sexual harassment policies to cover the movement.

Rush To Judgment

Meanwhile, the Conservative congregation with the accused employee has hired professionals to undertake a thorough investigation of his past and is compiling information on his accuser as well. “The stories aren’t matching,” one synagogue officer told me. He said he would like “to see the leaders of the Conservative movement lead” rather than follow in such cases.

What if the congregation was not committed, financially and otherwise, to determine the full truth? No doubt many in that situation would accept their employee’s vigorous denial, and that would be the end of the story.

When no one in the system is clearly in charge and there is no accepted procedure for dealing with competing versions of what took place, it’s easy to imagine the process breaking down along the way.

When no one in the system is clearly in charge and there is no accepted procedure for dealing with competing versions of what took place, it’s easy to imagine the process breaking down along the way.

As a community, “we’ve been operating ad hoc,” says Berkovits, with organizations scrambling to create or enact appropriate policies.

In working on this piece, I couldn’t help thinking of comparisons to the #MeToo phenomenon and the rush to judgment taking place in high-profile cases around the country. Some of the accused abusers are swiftly named and dismissed from their jobs on the basis of an allegation. There is no excuse for any form of sexual harassment, but what about due diligence and innocent until proven guilty?

I’m not ready to make public the names of the accused or his accuser in this particular case, and am still exploring both sides, trying to balance honoring the alleged victim while not ruining the reputation and career of his alleged abuser. But unless and until the community takes sexual abuse of youth seriously enough to find a way to monitor itself or work with groups like Sacred Space to do it for them, it will continue to fall on the media to bring examples of sexual harassment to light.