Communal Culpability

Accusations of abuse against a youth leader raise disturbing questions about why--and how--a community could look the other way.

BY: Blu Greenberg

 

Rabbi Baruch Lanner, a charismatic personality and influential youth leader within Orthodox Judaism, has been accused of sexually harassing girls and physically abusing boys entrusted to his care during the past 30 years. The accusations, made by a number of his victims, came to light last summer in an extensive article in Jewish Week by that newspaper's editor, Gary Rosenblatt.

Following publication of the story, an independent investigative commission was convened by the leadership of the organization for which Lanner worked, the National Commission of Synagogue Youth (NCSY), the youth movement of the Orthodox Union (OU), the main denominational organization of Orthodox Judaism. Recently, an executive summary of the full report was issued, confirming and expanding upon Rosenblatt's findings and recommending major changes in the organization.

Lanner has denied the allegations, though he refused to speak with the OU's investigative commission. Following the end of the investigation and the publication of its findings, an OU press release said the organization believes Lanner had engaged in "abusive" behavior.

While any accused retains the presumption of innocence, the evidence against him--mostly in the form of detailed testimony of former NCSY members--compels me to side with his accusers. The final say, of course, is for a judge or jury.

So the picture looks like this: A respected rabbi accused of horrible misdeeds, and his employers accused of ignoring complaints about him for three decades. What's wrong with this picture?

First, there is Lanner's behavior, as it was documented by Rosenblatt and the OU's investigative commission. Sexual harassment has become a violation of standard norms of behavior in this country, often a prosecutable crime or cause for civil action. This change of attitude toward harassment represents a major symbol of the betterment of women's lives. Lanner's accusers describe a man who seems to have missed all of this.

The behavior described in the published reports also violates a second code of law, Jewish law. Biblical and rabbinic teachings are explicit about protecting values such as sexual modesty and marital fidelity.

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