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February 06, 2004 - Image 65

Resource type:
The Detroit Jewish News, 2004-02-06

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Confronting Abuse

Local rabbis react to Conservative guidelines to fight harassment, abuse in the synagogue.

Jewish Telegraphic Agency

New York


oving to combat instances of sexual
harassment and abuse in synagogues,
the Conservative movement's congrega-
tional body is issuing a new set of
guidelines to deal with the problem.
The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism
unveiled the non-binding guidelines on its Web site
last week in response to what Rabbi Jerome Epstein,
the organization's executive vice president, said were a
series of reports of "abusive behavior" by clergy and
synagogue staff.
"It wasn't widespread, but over the past 17 months,
I've heard of 15 to 16 cases," Rabbi Epstein said.
"Some of it may have bordered on sexual" harassment,
he added, and some cases "were hushed up."
"The more this is out in the open, the better the
chances will be of diminishing it," he said.
Rabbi Daniel Nevins of Adat Shalom Synagogue in
Farmington Hills plans to personally make certain the
guidelines are shared with the congregation's lay leaders
and staff. "[The guidelines] are an excellent tool for
strengthening our communities," he said.
"Today, we are all aware of the terrible failures of
many religious leaders and communities, and we all
must constantly improve our methods for preventing
harassment from occurring."

Specific Instances

An incident that Rabbi Epstein said helped spark the
latest United Synagogue move involved Rabbi Richard
Marcovitz, 66, of Oklahoma City who pleaded guilty
last March to groping two women and two girls at the
Solomon Schechter Academy at his Emanuel
Synagogue. He was sentenced to 20 years in jail.
The move also comes more than a year after the cul-
mination of one of the most highly publicized sex-
abuse cases to hit the Jewish community, that of
Orthodox youth leader Rabbi Baruch Lanner.
In fact, some of the new guidelines reflect efforts to
grapple with fallout from the Lanner case.
Rabbi Lanner, 54, of Fair Lawn, N.J., a regional
director of the National Conference of Synagogue
Youth (NCSY), was sentenced to seven years in prison
in October 2002 for sexually abusing teenage girls and
women and physically abusing boys and girls as a prin-
cipal of a New Jersey yeshivah.
The case drew fire in part because a report by an
investigative commission of the youth group's parent
organization, the Orthodox Union, criticized O.U.
leaders for failing to intervene even though they knew
of the abuse allegations for several years.
"This was a sick man, and I cannot fathom why the

O.U. protected him for so long," said Rabbi Nevins, a
former student of Rabbi Lanner at the Frisch Yeshiva
High School in New Jersey.
"He was a dominant figure in the school, particular-
ly with students involved in NCSY."
Rabbi Nevins said, "At school retreats, he would
mesmerize the room with his speaking
style, even though he was always on
the edge. Although some students
idolized him, I always found him
bizarre and repugnant," he said. "I
recall him reducing his 'favorite' stu-
dents, often girls, to tears in the mid-
dle of class by insulting their intelli-
"I also remember him demonstrat-
ing the equation 'force equals mass
times acceleration' by shoving a classmate into the
blackboard. Boruch behaved like a little kid hiding
from the principal and telling us how he used to prop
a Gemara (Talmud) on the steering wheel of his car
and learn as he drove to gamble in Atlantic City.
"I was horrified a few years ago to learn that Rabbi
Lanner was still a leader of NCSY and was, in fact,
coming to Detroit to work with our youth.
Fortunately, several brave victims finally emerged from
the shadows and exposed his crimes, which were worse
than anything I had witnessed."

Orthodox Reaction

The Lanner commission called for Orthodox groups to
enact new policies on reporting and dealing with abuse
allegations, following charges that the community
turned a blind eye to Rabbi Lanner's behavior. In the
report's wake, the NCSY enacted broad guidelines
against abusive behavior.
And last May, the Rabbinical Council of America
(RCA), an Orthodox rabbinical group, condemned
"sexual, physical and emotional violence, abuse or

impropriety," and urged the adoption of its own new
The O.U.'s executive vice president, Rabbi Tzvi
Hersh Weinreb, said the RCA is still working on such
rules in tandem with the O.U. and that they could be
adopted at the RCA's annual meeting in May. Rabbi
Weinreb also lauded the Conservative guidelines and
said the O.U. would "follow suit" for itself in the near
"I'm sure we will be studying the Conservative
movement's document,' he said. This is not something
that discriminates by ideology."
Aftershocks from the Rabbi Lanner scandal that
reverberated throughout the modern Orthodox world
sparked earlier organizational crackdowns. Torah
U'mesorah, the National Society for Hebrew Day
Schools, adopted an abuse policy in 2002.

Other Movements

In proposing the guidelines, the association of more
than 800 Conservative synagogues in North America
joins several congregational and rabbinic bodies in the
other major denominations that have issued similar
standards over the past decade.
Other groups have proposed or enacted similar rules
on sexual conduct in recent years. Liberal groups issued
similar policies much earlier.
The Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association intro-
duced a policy on "breach of trust" in sexual and finan-
cial dealings in 1996.
The Union for Reform Judaism, the movement's
congregational arm, approved rules against harassment
and offensive conduct a decade ago.
"Our Reform Movement has long urged its congre-
gations to respond immediately to such charges, and
our leadership at the national level has publicly
addressed and responded to incidents of abuse," said
Rabbi Joseph Klein of Temple Emanu-El in Oak Park.
ABUSE on page 52

Prior Cases


Cher instances or charges involving sexual mis- .
conduct and inappropriate behavior by Jewish
clergy include:
• Orthodox chaplain, Rabbi Israel Kestenbaum, 55,
of Highland Park, N.J., caught in an undercover sting
and pleaded guilty last August to charges of trying to
arrange a sexual tryst with someone he met over the
Internet who he thought was a•13-year 7old girl.
• Reform Rabbi Sheldon Zimmerman, 58,
resigned as president of the Hebrew Union College-
Jewish Institute of Religion in Manhattan in

December 2000 after HUC-JIR said he had carried
on "personal relationships" with members of his con-
gregation while serving as a pulpit rabbi.
• Cantor Howard Nevison, 61, of a prominent
New York City Reform synagogue, Temple Emanu-el,
was accused of molesting a young nephew and
remains on trial.
• Conservative Rabbi Sidney Goldenberg, 58, of
Petaluma, Calif, pleaded no contest in February 1997
to charges of sexually molesting a bat mitzvah student.

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