Two years ago, LILITH Magazine published a story about widely circulating allegations of sexual misconduct against the late Shlomo Carlebach, the charismatic singing rabbi. At the time, people asked us, Why would you publish these allegations now? What possible good can you do? And, if he did these things, can’t they be dealt with privately?
This summer, we saw strong arguments for bringing such issues to light. In June, The New York Jewish Week reported on three decades of alleged misconduct by another popular rabbi, Baruch Lanner, a leader in the National Conference of Synagogue Youth, an arm of the Orthodox Union. In meticulously reported articles, the paper’s editor, Gary Rosenblatt, documented what may be scores of incidents of sexual, physical and emotional abuse over the last three decades. Speaking to a dozen alums of NCSY programs, Rosenblatt reported allegations that Lanner kissed and fondled girls, repeatedly kicked boys in the groin, and in at least one incident took a knife to a young man.
As troubling as the incidents themselves is the willful disregard that the OU showed toward this erratic behavior. As in the Carlebach case, rumors of such incidents were for years widespread—”an open secret in some Orthodox circles,” Rosenblatt wrote. Officially a bet din (a tribunal of three rabbis) was available throughout this period to receive complaints, but Rosenblatt reported that “many said they lodged complaints with various rabbis and OU officials over the years but were rebuffed or dismissed, and they were never told to speak to a bet din.” And the man who hired Lanner to NCSY, Rabbi Pinchas Stolper, was still reminding The Jewish Week that while he had heard reports of improper behavior, Lanner “had such a magnificent impact” on so many young people.
Earlier this year the Chicago Jewish News roiled its own community with articles about two more cases of sexual abuse. In one of them, a prominent member of the community was accused of molesting girls for more than three decades. In the other, a teacher at one of Chicago’s Orthodox day schools, a rabbi, had been sexually molesting boys.
We need to note just how long these alleged crimes were allowed to go on, and how protective the communities are of their leaders, even at the expense of alleged victims. As The Jewish Week’s story was being prepared, members of the Orthodox community pressed the paper not to publish, to let the community deal with this problem intemally. To that end, in the wake of The Jewish Week articles the OU has appointed a commission to look into the allegations. But mark the words of one courageous leader, Rabbi Yosef Blau, who served on the bet din: “The pattern of protecting Baruch [Lanner] rather than his victims” goes back at least 25 years, he told The Jewish Week. It reflects “a broader inability within the Orthodox community to acknowledge improper behavior by rabbis.”
“In all the worry about ‘malicious gossip’ and the hand-wringing about not making trouble for the rabbi,” LILITH’s editors wrote in a letter to The Jewish Week, “defensive members of these religious communities are missing the real point: If the allegations against Rabbi Lanner are proven true, he is not only in violation of ethics. He is in violation of the law.”
Lanner has resigned his post, and there have been calls from the community— including a strongly worded letter from the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance—that other leaders from the OU follow his lead. But while committees and investigations proceed, some alleged victims in the Lanner case as well as in Chicago have gone to the police with accusations of sexual molestation. Nineteen-year-old “Marcia,” who at press time was pursuing charges against Lanner, told The Jewish Week she came forward because “it’s got to stop somewhere.” With her life deeply troubled, she said she has nothing to lose. But it’s clear we all have something to gain.