The sex abuse scandal that rocked the Orthodox Union’s National Conference on Synagogue Youth three years ago is “now behind us,” insists the group’s newly appointed national youth director, Zale Newman, who has announced a major recruitment effort.
Newman, a 35-year veteran of NCSY activities — almost all on a volunteer basis — is retiring from a lucrative financial services business in Toronto to assume the top post of the youth organization, which focuses on outreach to teenagers.
He said he plans to use his creative and business skills to expand the number of teens in NCSY, which currently serves 15,000 in North America and another 2,000 in Israel.
“Right now NCSY is in a giant renaissance,” said Newman, 47. Summer programs in North America and Israel are up from 450 teens last year to 1,000.
OU officials praised Newman as the right person for the job. David Luchins, a longtime NCSY officer, said Newman “combines the best of what NCSY has produced and is creative about the future.”
The only surprise, according to several OU leaders, is that the post was filled by an insider — Newman went through NCSY as a teen and has remained active as a lay person for many years— rather than someone from outside the organization.
In an interview at the OU offices here, Newman, whose appointment was announced this week, said his recruitment plans include making extensive use of market research and the Internet. To help keep teens in NCSY, he plans to use computers to track their development and involvement in the program and to help structure their activities into areas they would find most rewarding.
“One of our goals here is to connect young American Jews to Israel,” Newman said. “We have five different summer experiences in Israel this year. … Kids’ activities go in trends and you have to follow the trend. NCSY is very much in the trend of kids today. Kids know they are Jewish and that there is anti-Semitism, but they don’t know what it means to be Jewish and they don’t know about Israel and very little about Judaism.”
Newman, known as one of the Toronto Jewish community’s most active lay leaders, stressed that NCSY is “all about values — Jewish values, family values, societal values. We are more than anything teaching teens to take responsibility and to fulfill their obligations within the family, within the community and within the Jewish people.”
Regarding the sex abuse scandal involving Rabbi Baruch Lanner, the former NCSY regional director who was sentenced to seven years in prison in October for sexually abusing two teenage girls at a New Jersey day school he served as principal, Newman said many safeguards have been put in place “to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
Though he was imprisoned for crimes at the day school, Rabbi Lanner allegedly abused NCSY teens — boys and girls — throughout his nearly three decades with the group.
“There is no organization I’m familiar with in the field of education and youth work that does not experience similar problems,” Newman said. “But the response here is the most extensive I’ve seen. There is the pre-screening of all staff, constant in-service training, an ombudsman system to handle calls made anonymously to make sure they are dealt with at the highest levels of the organization, and a standards committee that meets once a month to review any issue.”
Asked if he believed there are parents who are still hesitant about their children joining NCSY because of the Lanner scandal and cover-up that followed, Newman said: “People understand that we dealt with it and that we are moving on. And I am from the outside — I’m from another country — and was not involved. So I’m not coming with baggage from the past.
“It has been dealt with and dealt with properly,” he said. “Now we can put it behind us and move to the future.”
But a critic of the OU’s handling of the Lanner case, Elie Hiller, a former victim, described that comment as “naive at best.”
“I’m not sure where his optimism comes from,” Hiller said. “I haven’t heard of any substantive changes in personnel at the OU, personnel who were responsible for letting this go on” during Rabbi Lanner’s NCSY tenure.
“There are people who were aware of [the repeated allegations of sexual abuse against Rabbi Lanner] and who are still in place,” he added. “So I’m not sure that this is all behind us.”
Murray Sragow, a member of an NCSY oversight committee, said there are still those in senior administrative positions of NCSY who were there during Rabbi Lanner’s tenure and who today “have a cloud over them.”
“It can easily be removed simply by saying that they know [NCSY] used to operate in a manner that was not appropriate and that it won’t anymore,” he said. “But nobody to my knowledge has said that. … I’d be reluctant to say that this has been put behind us. I’d prefer to think of it as something that is in the back of everyone’s mind all the time.”
Harvey Blitz, president of the Orthodox Union, said he believes the Lanner scandal “is behind us — not in the sense of not having a lasting effect on the way we do things, but that we are able to move forward and don’t have to have it hovering over us at every moment.”
Blitz, who was not the OU president when the scandal was uncovered by The Jewish Week in June 2000, praised Newman’s creative abilities to work with teenagers.
“He is focused on making sure that every kid is treated as an individual and that we do the best for him that we can,” Blitz said.
Mark Bane, chairman of the OU’s national youth commission and chairman of the search committee, said Newman was chosen because of his understanding of the programmatic challenges ahead, as well as his extensive business experience that can help NCSY grow.
Newman succeeds Rabbi David Kaminetsky, who left in June 2002. Shira Reifman, who has served as interim director of operations for the last year, will continue in that post on a permanent basis.
Married and the father of three, Newman first became involved with NCSY when he joined as a student at the age of 18 in Toronto. After earning his bachelor’s degree in economics from Yeshiva University, he worked as regional director of NCSY’s Canadian region from 1976 to 1978 while studying for his master’s degree in marketing and corporate strategy from York University in Toronto.
Since then, he has served as co-chairman of NCSY Canada, a volunteer position.
Newman started working in his new post part-time July 1. He will assume his duties full-time Jan. 1, when he will leave as a partner with Panfinancial, a financial services firm in Toronto in which he specialized in taxes and estate planning.
Although his financial work has been lucrative, Newman said his first love is his work in the Jewish community.
“To now get paid for your passion feels really weird,” he said.
A talented musician, Newman worked as the record producer who helped Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach record 115 songs and 40 stories on nine sets of albums. And in 1979 he was the creator of the Uncle Moishy and the Mitzvah Men series, which produced 15 music albums, six videos and 10 live concerts for children aged 2 to 8.
Newman said he was the voice of Uncle Moishy on the albums. The series was designed to teach the major principles of Judaism to children.