Last summer, accusations of sexual and physical abuse were made public against Rabbi Baruch Lanner, a youth leader working for the Orthodox Union (OU) and its youth group, the National Conference of Synagogue Youth (NCSY). The OU was also accused of failing to act against Lanner, even though numerous complaints were lodged against him over a 30-year period.

On Dec. 26, 2000, the OU released a summary of a report issued by a commission it established to investigate the matter. The following is a short excerpt of the 54-page summary:

The OU/NCSY Culture Contributed to the Leadership's Failures.
The commission believes and has explained in greater detail in the report that the profound misjudgments made by some in the OU and NCSY leadership in their handling of Lanner resulted in part from a culture prevalent within the OU and NCSY that was--and still is--too focused on certain aspects of its mission and inattentive to the development of serious, professional management.

Among these cultural weaknesses in management were:

  • prioritizing, organization and program growth at the expense of attention to each individual participant;
  • a loss of objectivity in evaluating Lanner because of a perception that he was indispensable;
  • a loss of objectivity in evaluating Lanner because of his personal relationships with management;
  • a lack of full communication between professional staff and lay leaders;
  • and a focus on NCSY's positive results without sufficient consideration of potential problems.
  • The most striking example of this was that NCSY touted the results of a professional study conducted by the Lilly Foundation in 1998 which found that NCSY successfully inculcated its alumni with a sense of Jewish identity, while at The same time utterly ignoring and failing to disseminate to the lay leadership the study's critical findings about the management of NCSY contained in a companion report by the authors.

    Additionally, the many witnesses who spoke to the commission and whose testimony is discussed in the report indicated that the OU and NCSY failed to foster an environment in which students and advisors felt free to report misconduct without suffering retribution and failed to have in place appropriate reporting mechanisms and processes. There was a widespread perception that complaints would be disregarded or that the person making the complaint would be subjected to scorn and even banishment from NCSY.

    Regardless of the accuracy of these views, the Commission finds that the leadership of the OU and NCSY did nothing to create the opposite impression among NCSYers: first, that there was someone who could be contacted; second, that complaints would be handled seriously and sensitively; and third, that they would not suffer retribution. To the extent that members of the leadership of the OU and NCSY did not know of the serious physical sexual abuse by Lanner, they bear responsibility for not creating a climate that would encourage a teenager to make them aware of such conduct.

    The Need for Reform within NCSY.
    NCSY began in the early 1950'sas a small volunteer youth outreach program. By 1954,the chapters that had been forming throughout the United States were woven by the OU into a national organization, the National Conference of Synagogue Youth. In the early days, the NCSY National Office was able to maintain significant Oversight over the local chapters and regions. Over time, the regional leadership positions gradually progressed from volunteer to paid part-time and, eventually, full-time status. The regions thus grew in both number and independence.

    Today, NCSY has chapters in 39 states and 215 communities, divided into 12 regions throughout the United States and Canada. Through these it reaches out to over 40,000 high school-aged youths, both in public schools and yeshivas [Jewish day schools], who wish to reinforce their commitment to Judaism.

    Collectively, NCSY has a professional staff of over 150 individuals, including Regional Directors, supervisors, field workers, rabbis and teachers. Additionally, NCSY enlists the support of almost 2,000 part-time volunteer advisors. Through the National Office and the Regions, NCSY runs over 750 major events annually in the United States, Canada and Israel.

    The commission finds that NCSY's management structure has not kept up with its tremendous growth over the years. The result is that NCSY has not been operated in the professional manner that would befit an organization of its size and purpose. NCSY lacks an effective management structure; true lines of reporting; accountability and evaluation; effective training programs, financial controls; and policies and procedures governing critical issues. The Commission thus believes that NCSY is in need of substantial reform on several fronts.

    Set forth below are the commission's recommendations to the Orthodox Union. A few preliminary observations are in order:

    First, our recommendations derive from and are indirect response to our findings and conclusions. Many of these recommendations are specific in nature and, we believe, can easily be implemented on an expedited basis. Certain of the recommendations will need to be studied with care, and may require refinement and planning in order to implement.

    Second, we firmly believe that the OU, as an organization, must engage in the most serious process of introspection to determine how and why the situation discussed in the report came to pass. In this process, we believe that the OU must be guided by a clear sense of purpose in determining,, responsibility for the actions (and failures to act) at issue and, thereafter, in taking decisive and appropriate action. We further believe that the Orthodox community will watch with care how the OU responds to the report.

    Third, we believe that this process of introspection, if followed by concrete steps, can result in strengthening the OU. The entire process, if appropriately conducted, 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.

    Finally, we believe that the OU must continue--both in word and in practice- to accept full responsibility for those who have been injured by the conduct described in the report. While we note the substantial accomplishments of the OU in such areas as Kashruth [kosher supervision], youth work, adult education, synagogue services, publications, public affairs and advocacy, our review of the Lanner situation has uncovered serious weaknesses in the organization's overall management structure; procedures for staff selection, development, training, supervision and evaluation; procedures for financial accountability and internal audit; and lay oversight.

    It appears that the OU's structures and procedures have not kept pace with the substantial growth in recent years in the OU's programs, budget and personnel. Further, we believe that the OU's lay and professional leadership generally(and of NCSY in particular) has devoted inadequate attention to defining the organization's mission, setting its goals, and establishing criteria to measure attainment of its goals.

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