Since Lanner: What I've Learned, What I Wonder

At a time when touching a student can trigger disciplinary action, is it fair to retroactively apply current standards of behavior to teachers?

Tue, 01/08/2013
Editor And Publisher
Gary Rosenblatt
Gary Rosenblatt

Two weeks after The Jewish Week broke the story of Rabbi Baruch Lanner’s abuse — sexual, physical and psychological — of scores of teens in his charge over a period of three decades within the Orthodox Union’s NCSY youth group, I wrote a column about some of the people who contacted me in response. They urged me to investigate other Orthodox rabbis or teachers said to be abusers, naming names and offering me details.

I was overwhelmed. It was as if a floodgate of pent-up anger and frustration had been released, and these people felt that now, finally, their persecutors could be brought to justice.

I questioned whether it was the role of The Jewish Week to “become the central communal clearinghouse for dealing with and outing Orthodox Jewish officials with various sexual deviancies.” I thought not, calling on the community to do a better job of policing itself because, as the Lanner case showed, going to a rabbi with evidence was not enough and the beit din, or rabbinic court, system was ineffectual or, in some cases, corrupt.

(I’ve come to believe that rather than forming our own tribunals or well-intentioned monitoring efforts we’d do better to simply encourage victims to go to the police.)

Of the hundreds of letters and e-mails we received at the time, praising or criticizing The Jewish Week for its reporting on the Lanner case, the message of one reader from Brooklyn stayed with me and strengthened my resolve.

“Failing to act because of fear you may be labeled anti-Orthodox is capitulation unbecoming” a serious newspaper, he wrote, reminding me that our role is less to be liked than to be respected for doing our job.

Still, I felt we were not the only ones with a responsibility to act.

“It is clear the instinct to ignore, dismiss or cover up potentially embarrassing problems in our community must be sublimated to the need to address and confront them,” I argued. “They won’t go away on their own, and by pretending they don’t exist, we only erode our values and endanger our children.”

Signs Of Progress

That was 12-and-a-half years ago. Are we any further along today in addressing and dealing with the problem of sexual abuse of young people in our own backyard?

Certainly there has been real progress.

The Lanner case prompted a number of schools, camps and youth groups across the religious streams to train staff and adopt standards about identifying and dealing with inappropriate behavior, and to incorporate more parental supervision into the process. The Orthodox Union, the parent organization of NCSY, undertook a painful but thorough investigation, made some personnel changes and has restored the good name of its youth group. Lanner was forced out of his post, and ultimately convicted of sexual assault crimes, serving nearly three years in prison.

In addition, our culture became educated in the language associated with child abuse, and more attuned to recognizing it and speaking out about it. Even in parts of the haredi community, where pressing charges against abusers is cause for ostracism, there are courageous victims and family members stepping up, as the recent Nechemya Weberman case in Williamsburg showed. And The Jewish Week, along with other Jewish media, has not shied away from reporting on specific cases, despite considerable resistance in parts of the community.

Last month’s Forward exposé on the alleged abuse of students at Yeshiva University’s high school for boys, still known as MTA, in the 1970s and ‘80s, underscores how different our attitudes are today from those of three or four decades ago in defining, assessing and responding to such charges. Clearly it is — and was always — beyond unacceptable for educators to make sexual advances toward students. But is it fair to apply many current standards of behavior, at a time when a teacher touching a student can be grounds for disciplinary action, to an era when it was not unusual for European-born yeshiva high school rebbes to slap or even hit boys, who tended to take such actions in stride?

The fact is that when, in his painfully candid comments, Yeshiva University’s chancellor and former president, Norman Lamm, acknowledged to The Forward that he responded to reports of sexual misconduct on the part of the two high school faculty members by quietly dismissing them, he was reflecting the conventional wisdom of that period.

That is not to excuse such action, or inaction. It is dangerously wrong to act in ways that allow abusers to continue their behavior in new venues. But it was common practice for schools and synagogues faced with an allegedly abusive employee. Unfortunately, such decisions are still made all too frequently, a case of protecting the reputation of an individual and institution rather than protecting vulnerable children.

‘Gray Area’ Cases Emerge

The report on YU has prompted a new outburst of activity in our community, with accusations now being raised, or sought, regarding rebbes or others from the recent and distant past, whose inappropriate behavior takes on a harsher tone in light of 21st-century standards. Each case presents its own challenge.

Here are a few situations that have come my way of late:

♦ There are reports now surfacing about a single man, then in his 30s, who would hang out in the evenings at the YU High School dorm and at NCSY events for young teens, and who allegedly molested boys. He is said to be a family man and pillar of his Orthodox community today, three decades later, in another part of the country. What can, or should, be done?

♦ The word has gone out on Facebook from a former day school student, now an adult, saying he had been verbally abused by his principal, whom he names, and urging other past victims of “sexual, physical or emotional abuse,” by the principal or any other member of the school’s staff, to contact him “to have justice done.” Is that a healthy sign of exposing past wrongs or a moral fishing expedition?

♦ What, if anything, should be done about a synagogue rabbi who has a long history of inviting teenage boys and young men in their 20s to go to the gym with him, shower together, and share intimate talk in the sauna, making at least some of them feel deeply uncomfortable? No allegations have come to light about the rabbi crossing the line, but is this normal socializing or inappropriate behavior?

♦ What action should a congregation take, if any, about a fellow member who has a history making inappropriate advances to boys, although no one has pressed charges against him?

I don’t think there are easy answers to these and many other such “gray area” cases, and I struggle with a response, not only as a journalist but simply as a member of the Jewish community.

We’ve come a long way in the last dozen years in terms of awareness of abuse. But we still have a long way to go in thinking first of the victims and potential future victims, and in being a confident and responsible community rather than one fearful and insecure.

In the end it’s not about “airing our dirty laundry in public.” It’s about cleaning it, and keeping it clean.

Gary@jewishweek.org. Follow Gary Rosenblatt’s blog, RosenBlog, throughout the week at www.thejewishweek.com

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Perhaps some of these rabbis are at fault and perhaps others are not. Our community is doing an embarrassing job by writing articles in publications like the Jewish Week in order to "deal" with these "problems. This is NOT how a dignified community deals with such issues. It does not need to be published so Gary Rosenblatt feels good about writing a controversial issue. If everyone who responded in favor of this useless article really believed in taking care of these allegations they would have done so in privacy without embarrassing the rabbis who are in fact innocent.
Do yourselves and the dignity of our great Orthodox community a favor and reevaluate your agendas.

The reason abuse is allowed to continue is that children are really not valued. We, as a society, pay lip service to the value of children and the Torah values the next generation, but when push comes to shove, the punishment, if it ever comes, is not as strict as it should be in the face of life long trauma suffered at the hands of victimizers.

" It is dangerously wrong to act in ways that allow abusers to continue their behavior in new venues."
"In the end it’s not about “airing our dirty laundry in public.” It’s about cleaning it, and keeping it clean."
Whatever you've been smoking, I want some.

Like almost everything else, this is NOT about Rabbi Bernhard Rosenberg.

To any and all who were abused by George Finkelstein.Please contact Atty.Kevin Mulhearn 845-398-0361. He's gathering info for a Mega-Lawsuit against George, et al .You're identity will be protected. He's got exp.in abuse cases and he's a Mensch!

Does this "brilliant attorney" know that the statute of limitations has long since passed? If he wants any money up front, he is a parasite who is ripping you off.

If the head of YU was not Gary's friend, Richard Joel, I think Gary would be singing a different tune.

Gary,who appointed you as the father of the Jewish People?It obviously is not your job to act as the police.Leave that to them.

Gary: I am disappointed with your article. You speak of the standards of the 70s and 80s. But the principal in question was kept on until 1995. And when he was let go, the school to which he went was not informed. Moreover, when the Great Synagoue, the principal's new employer, contacted YU after 2000 about the rumors which were circulating, YU offcials blanketly denied them. The Great Synagoue now is deeply embarrassed and I imagine its leadership is,-and justifiably so- furious at YU.

I was very dismayed to read Gary Rosenblatt’s article, What I’ve learned Since Lanner , since it seems to me that Gary hasn’t learned nearly enough. While it might be true that the “wisdom of the period” was to quietly dismiss faculty members for sexual misconduct, was that still the “wisdom” in August of 2000 when a former student sent an e-mail to Norman Lamm once again detailing the abuse? Or in 2003 when the same student e-mailed Richard Joel detailing the abuse again? In both cases the student’s e-mails went unanswered and his allegations allowed to quietly disappear. Are the so called gray areas that you describe, really so gray? You wonder what to do, if anything, about a man who allegedly abused boys while in his thirties who is now, three decades later, “a pillar in his community.” Here is what I wonder; what about his victims? Don’t they deserve justice? If they are too ashamed to step forward isn’t it the community’s responsibility to be their voice? I wonder if things would be clearer for you had the alleged abuser used a gun to inflict harm instead of his body. Perhaps it isn’t the sole responsibility of the Jewish Week to “become the clearinghouse for dealing with and outing Orthodox Jewish officials with various sexual deviancies”, but when they molest children, their behavior is no longer a deviance but a heinous crime. When we remain ambivalent about our responses to sexual abuse, we encourage the abusers and fail the victims. When our communities are built on rotten pillars, they ultimately crumble and shame us all.

Over the past few weeks I received communications from those who were sexually abused . I have learned a lot regarding the suffering they have gone through. Each person handles trauma differently and no one including me can judge their reaction to this trauma. The outcry of these individuals must be heard and answered.
Rabbi Dr. Bernhard Rosenberg

Ha!Since when has Gary Rosenblatt ever been afraid of Orthodox bashing.These types of problems exist in every culture.But to sit there and pretend you have a motivation other than bashing Orthodoxy.Is a joke.There is no PC rule against it.

Yosher koach for your change of tone and view here.

I applaud what the Jewish Week did 12 years ago. But they were not the first to publicize what Lanner did. Susan Rosenbluth published the first report of lanner's activities in The Jewish Voice and Opinion fully 12 years before the Jewish Week "broke" the story. For 12 years the information was public and Lanner's friends, colleagues, and employers covered it up and did nothing about it.

This is only partially true. Susan / the Jewish Voice actually chickened out and wrote a veiled article referring to what was going on at the time (September 1989), but choosing to discuss the allegations ar even naming Lanner in the article which was actually titled "The Story You Will Not Read In This Month's Jewish Voice". I was intervered by Susan at that time, and was dismayed that she never really did much with it. I can not prove this, but at the time the rumor was she backed out of the story under pressure from the Rabbinical Council of Bergen County.

Let us analyze the title of thias article.The exact same article could have been written under the title " What I've learned ,what I wonder after the last 10 years" without mentioning lanner. Why did Mr. Rosenblatt need to bring up that sad chapter all over again? Why didn;t he juast make his point without referencing lanner? Could it be to make the point that it is he, Garry Rosenblatt, and he alone, who ultimately deserves all the credit for any and all investigating reporting nin this area because of his ground breaking efforts ? Therefore even if was "scoopded" by the Forward we should all pay homage to Mr. Rosenblatt for being our true moral leader and guide and may we never forget that it is he who holds the true moral compass.Is this cheap form of self-aggrandizement really necessary ? Mr.Rosenblatt, just make your point and let us move past the unnessary charecter assasination that at this point only hurts his family members and let's focus on the lessons we should have learned from this most unfortunate incident.

Rabbi Baruch Lanner was an unfortunate case, but I do want to share a few things. I wasn't a big fan of Lanner when going to Hillel yeshiva high school in Deal, NJ. I didn't like his fear tactics and Behavior. He was the principal and was not the nicest. BUT, he should be judged on the good and the bad, not only the allegations of sexual abuse, but also his leadership. Most people at the school either thought he was the messiah or he was the devil. i could believe some if the allegations were of pure hatred for the man.He was the type of leader that really held his team together. Most of the rabbis that were coached under him are now principals of other yeshivas. He was a fantastic leader and motivator if he believed in someone. He also was one of the smartest and most dynamic rabbis of our time. He had great thing and terrible things about him. His knowledge of Gemara was untouchable. He taught Gemara and you felt the words moving on the page. He quoted awesome commentaries and current rabbis. He was brilliant and when he believed in you, you felt like a diamond. I wish him the best in life and hope that people can remember that we are a people that believes in forgiveness and redemption. I am not excusing his behavior, but at what point is the punishment enough? Why should he be in this paper ten years later? Has he not suffered enough?

He was convicted and imprisoned for the crimes he committed at Hillel. The abuse he perpetrated during his NCSY years went unpunished.

Whatever planet he is on, David Willig's statement is factually correct. Lanner was convicted of sexual contact, not sexual intercourse. None of the allegations I have seen mentioned intercourse.

Make no mistake, actions such as inappropriate sexual contact are reprehensible and should never be tolerated. However, there are degrees of reprehensibility. I believe that was the point being made, and I don't see why it calls for such a vitriolic response.

David Willig is correct ! Lanner wen to Jail for Child Endangerment and the lowest level of Sexual Contact; over the clothing touching. He was never accuse,let alone convicted, of any form of sexual assault. It is you and Mr. Rosenblatt who should get your facts straight. Let's see if you have the moral fiber to check out the truth and then admit your error !

with regard to the rabbi who invites to gym, shower and sauna -I personally know of at least 3 young men ( 2 recently and one who experienced discomfort as a teenager) who felt they were being used for the rabbi's prurient interests. There is a distance between actionable offenses and clearly inappropriate rabbinic behaviour that any synagogue board that is responsible and ethical should act upon --dismissing the rabbi in question. I would urge any young (or by now- not so young) men who were made to feel uncomfortable or felt the rabbi in question crossed lines--to write here as well--and/or to contact the synagogue board or the RCA or JSafe.
deeply concerned

David Willig.. what alternate planet are you on? Of course lanner was involved sexually with his victims..,he went to jail for aggravated sexual assault of a minor? You are entitled to your own opinion but not your own facts.. btw- could this have anything to do with the sham beis din your brother mordy was involved with.. one that even blau and levine recanted.. shame on you...just another loser trying to intimidate rather than accept the truth

I love how someone who is afraid to sign his name misreads what I wrote. I never said "was not involved sexually with his victims". I said he was not even accused of intercourse or sodomy. Read English. I am certain that the Catholic Church would be thrilled if all THEIR PRIESTS were accused of was touching over clothing.
I am not Rabbi Willig's brother. I can call him Mordy. He is my cousin. You should call him Rabbi Willig. He is a brilliant Talmid Chacham and, on a personal level, a great guy. He deserves respect, especially from a coward who is afraid to sign his name.Did he make a mistake re: Lanner? Of course he did! He admitted it many years ago. He is not the Messiah, he is a human being. The only people who never make mistakes are the people who never accomplish anything.
Again, I know Rabbi Finkelstein almost 50 years. I spent hours in his office, he was principal for my children, he was a friend to my parents, especially to my father, OH'. It seems to me that the laws of Loshon Horah forbid malicious gossip even if true. The one loophole that I know of is if the gossip serves a legitimate purpose. There is no good that can come from this story. The Statute of limitation has long since passed.
This is a story that is beneath the standards of Journalism found in the Jewish Week. It belongs in the National Enquirer.

The David Willig who writes is NOT the brother of the person you speak of as Mordy but their cousin.

There was no sham Beis Din! Only sham rabbis....

A courageous and appropriate article..keep up the good work

The last example is more than a "gray area case." The guy is an active molester. What's the question?

Inappropriate touching cannot be justified with blustering about "societal norms." Even without sexual harrassment seminars, most workforces manage to maintain professional conduct. These people knew exactly what they were doing, and their victims often made it even clearer by protesting. To rationalize abuse into a "gray area" in such situations is inexcusable.

Nothing's going to change if we're so insistent on re-victimizing survivors by questioning the validity of their trauma instead of dealing with the actual problem.

As an advocate for victims I am often asked this question and similar questions. My response to most questioners is this "What do you think victims want when they come forward, do you really think they are looking to sue, is money their objective?"

Surprisingly enough the general public is still clueless on this subject. Yes they still believe that this is the objective of victims. This is so far removed from the truth that it plunges me in to a teaching session. Do you know how difficult it is for a victim to come forward and even admit that he or she went through this horror? Do you even know how difficult it is for a victim to face the truth of their nightmares and trauma? Some victims of child molestation and sexual abuse can't even face it or deal with it until they are in their 30's or 40's when they are old enough to feel safer or are the same age as their abuser and are at a physical stage that they mentally feel are on par with their abuser.

Do you really want to know why most victims who do come forward, do so? Did you not learn anything from this young 17 year old victim in the Weberman trial? There is one thing that almost all victims have in common and that is the fear that what their abusers did to them, they will do to others. The most common reason for victims who do come forward is to protect others and stop the abusers from hurting others. That is the common thread among them, the fear and responsibility they carry to protect others.

In my humble opinion the entire scenario at YU would have gone completely differently if Dr. Normal Lamm would have said things a little differently. His statement was much different than any other Rosh Yeshiva or administrator who was brought to task, but still it was NOT what his student/victims needed to hear. Had he said...

"I too have been haunted since that time. I too have been traumatized with nightmares and have cried a million tears of remorse and worry over these students. Did I do the right thing back then? According to the standards and rules, back then "yes", that was the standard practice and that is what we were told to do. We know better today, and the answer today would be "NO, absolutely NOT!" Would I do things differently today, absolutely. But I can't go back and change history, I can only do what I can do today and from this day forward. I only wish we knew then what we know now, and we were more educated on the long term effects. I only wish we, as educators, were taught HOW to protect our students, how to train and warn our staff, and what the truly proper procedures to follow were. Things are much better today, even the authorities are better trained and are more qualified and sensitive today and that is a very good thing. The most important thing right now is that anyone that was victimized should get help to heal. I will make myself available to any student who wishes to speak to me. Please contact my office to set up an appointment."

What if he did say something like that instead of what he did say? What would have been the reaction of his students, victims, the media, the advocates? Had he said this, would he have taken enough responsibility? Would he have shown enough remorse? Would he have shown enough sensitivity to the victims, to the issue? Would they be getting together to sue the yeshiva?

I believe that this is something that really needs to be analyzed because I don't believe that money is the objective. I believe accountability, responsibility, remorse, apology and compassion is the objective. I believe that had Dr. Lamm set an example for ALL others, that would have made a huge difference for his former students. I believe that would have given them a safe platform for dialogue and a way in which to work with a Yeshiva who wronged them to make it right. Perhaps set up a fund for student/victims to get therapy or to publish their stories to teach Jewish kids and parents how to stay safe. Anything and everything can be accomplished when you bring together the guilty and innocent to work together.

As you said Gary "In the end it’s not about “airing our dirty laundry in public.” It’s about cleaning it, and keeping it clean."

As a victim of abuse from YU, I do not think you could have said it any better. Thanks for your compassion and understanding.

Please note that as far as I know, except in the chareidi community, the allegations, even against Lanner, do not include sexual intercourse or sodomy. We should not confuse our Rabbis with the scandals of the Catholic Priesthood. Wrestling is inappropriate behavior. Does it really merit being a major story 20 years and more after the facts?

The allegations against one Rabbi Gordon of MTA included sodomy. And the "wrestling" included a type of sexual assault. Finally, are you suggesting that a child has only been violated if there is some type of penetration?

If not the task of the Jewish Weekly, one might consider directing moral and financial support to the website failedmessiah, which courageously exposes the sorry underside of our religious life in an attempt to clear the air and improve the moral standing of our Jewish people.

But Dr Lamn didnt quietly dismiss the head of MTA. Lamn stayed quiet when this principal took another position in another state. It would have been honorable had Lamn told this principal that he could leave YU quietly but could not take a job in a school or anywhere he would come into contact with young men. But there is nothing honorable about the way YU behaved.

Excuse me, "Gray Areas"? "A harsher tone in the 21st century's light"? I can personally tell you that being a victim in "the old days", as you seem to imply, is just as painful as being one now. Seeking justice and closure in these situations can be a life long affair. There are a lot of us in pain, and the institutions and people who crushed us 30 and 40 years ago because we were too young to be taken seriously or powerful enough to force the issue need an accounting for their actions. We were denied the court of law by the adults around us. I feel no compunction in finally seeking redress in the court of public opinion and the media, if that is what it finally takes. Part of me understands your discomfort if the situation is not an obviously open and shut case. To us, these cases are very open and shut. We have better things to do with our time than to rip open scabs that will not heal and just frivolously accuse someone thirty or forty years later if that accusation had no merit.
If, years ago, people were dismissed quietly to avoid scandal, then a priori it was known that someone had been wronged, and the choice was to ignore it. In any era, that is a crime.

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