2016-06-30
Reprinted by permission of the Jewish Week of New York.

The Orthodox Union would do well to heed the recommendations of its specially appointed commission to enact deep, sweeping, and systemic internal changes, as well as within NCSY, its youth group. Otherwise it will have spent six months and a million dollars to learn that Rabbi Baruch Lanner treated teens abusively during his decades of leadership within NCSY, as first alleged here in June.

The OU special commission, chaired by Hillel president Richard Joel, concludes in its 50-page executive summary, released this week, that based on interviews with 175 people and 50,000 pages of documents, "Lanner engaged in a pattern of inappropriate and abusive behavior (emotional, physical and sexual) toward a number of NCSY students" over a period of many years, causing "enormous pain and suffering that has had and continues to have a negative impact on the lives of vulnerable NCSY participants."

That is a tragedy. But unless the OU is able to meet the commission's challenge to transform itself from within through major improvements in management, financial procedures, and ethical behavior, few lessons will have been learned and practical results gained from this painful experience.

The OU, and particularly its embattled outgoing president, Dr. Mandel Ganchrow, deserve credit for having appointed the special commission to investigate the Lanner affair. And that nine-person commission is to be highly commended for its unanimous, thoughtful, thorough--and no doubt thankless--effort to produce a report that not only documents the wrongdoing of Rabbi Lanner and those lay and professional leaders who failed to act against him effectively. It also sets forth a path for the OU toward healing itself from within.

That will not be easy. The Joel commission's executive summary calls for the OU to "accept full responsibility for those who have been injured by the conduct described in the report;" to take "decisive and appropriate action" against those responsible; and to address the organization's "serious weaknesses" in the area of "overall management structure; procedures for staff selection, development, training, supervision, and evaluation; procedures for financial accountability and internal audit; and lay oversight."

It outlines in great detail recommendations ranging from restructuring the OU and NCSY, to creating guidelines for the youth group's staff to recognize and deal with abusive behavior.

Some leaders within the OU advocate ignoring the commission's recommendations or making as few changes as possible in the hopes that public interest will soon diminish and the organization can continue to operate essentially as it has until now. They argue that the OU has made important contributions to the betterment of Orthodox Jewish life in America in its 100-year history, from kashrut supervision to outreach to teens through NCSY, and that the current problems should be kept in perspective.

Don't throw out the baby with the bath water, they say. We agree, as does the Joel commission, three of whose members are on the board of the OU. Those urging the OU to embrace the recommendations recognize and value the many good works of the organization and believe that only this difficult but necessary process of introspection and proper action can strengthen the OU and NCSY.

As the Joel report notes: "The entire process, if followed by concrete steps, can serve to enhance the OU's reputation for integrity, openness and responsiveness to criticism. Conversely, we believe that the failure to respond appropriately and decisively could severely diminish the OU's effectiveness and the trust it must enjoy within the Orthodox community and beyond."

There are those in the community who are skeptical of the OU's willingness to reform itself. They no doubt will be disappointed that the executive summary, a public document based on a more detailed (331-page) private report, does not name names.

But it does assert that senior professional and lay OU and NCSY leaders made "profound errors in judgment" over the years in failing to terminate Rabbi Lanner. And it is clear to anyone with knowledge of the organization who those leaders are, based on the specific examples cited for their failure to take sufficient action on reported incidents of abuse. (The full report goes into great detail, and discloses identities.)

It is the responsibility of the OU itself, not the Joel commission, to take appropriate action now. Indeed, the commission concludes that "a significant issue facing our entire community, not just NCSY or the OU, is a failure to take responsibility. The number of people who told members of the commission, `Everybody knew about Lanner,' were legion," and while some protected their own children, not enough was done to safeguard future victims, alert the community and ensure that Rabbi Lanner could do no further harm to youngsters.

It is all too easy to blame others, but we must all recognize our responsibility to our fellow Jews--especially children--and make sure such tragedies never happen again.

It so happens that the OU is holding its biannual convention this weekend and electing new officers. What better time for the group to pledge to enact the Joel commission's recommendations swiftly and wholeheartedly. Such action would be more than smart public relations; it would represent an understanding and appreciation of the best, and perhaps only, way for the OU to regain its credibility and move forward, maintaining its noble ideals while addressing its deep-seated problems. As we noted in these pages six months ago, NCSY describes itself as a group that "inspires youth to live ethical and moral lives." The community expects no less from its adult leaders.

more from beliefnet and our partners