By Maayan Hoffman
More than 1,000 Conservative Jewish students and staff members converged on Chicago on Sunday for the United Synagogue Youth’s (USY) 67th annual international convention. The event is centered on fun, friendship, social action and interactive learning, according to USY’s website.
However, 2017 festivities might be somewhat clouded by last month’s revelation that Jules Gutin, 67, the longtime director of the denomination’s youth movement, was fired for alleged sexual abuse.
In November, a Facebook post by a man who claimed that someone who worked with thousands of teens abused him in the 1980s sparked the Jewish press to investigate the allegations. It became clear that the Facebook post was referring to Gutin and that several other men also alleged that they were underage victims of unwanted physical approaches by Gutin.
Though the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (USCJ) and its CEO Rabbi Steven Wernick took immediate action, first suspending Gutin and later severing all ties with the former director, who was still leading tours of Poland for USY, the situation has left several questions for the organized Jewish community to consider.
- Why does it feel like new allegations of sexual misconduct occur so often in the Jewish community?
- Why does the Jewish community tolerate sexual abuse or even take steps to cover it up?
- Gutin’s offenses happened nearly 40 years ago. Could something similar take place today?
Nancy Aiken, executive director of Baltimore’s Counseling, Helpline and Aid Network for Abused Women (CHANA), said the impulse to commit sexual misconduct is embedded in the human psyche. She said the first references to how men are supposed to treat women are found in the Torah.
“Do not have carnal relations with your neighbor’s wife and defile yourself with her” (Leviticus 18:20).
In other passages, the Torah teaches that an adulterer would be put to death.
The Jewish sages also spoke about inappropriate sexual acts. In Shemot Rabbah 16:2, it states: “And says God: ‘Do not say, ‘Although I may be forbidden to be intimate with a certain woman, I can pursue her without sinning [i.e. sleeping with her], I can hug her without sinning, I can kiss her without sinning.’ For just like someone who takes the Nazarite vow prohibiting himself from drinking wine can’t even have fresh or dried grapes, grape mixtures, or anything else from grapes, similarly any woman who is not your wife – you cannot even touch!”
According to Aiken, these passages – whether one believes they come from God or not – demonstrate that at least as far back as Biblical times, sexuality and the inclination to have power and control over another person were part of the human experience.
“Jews are just as vulnerable as everybody else,” said Rabbi Michael Melchior, a former minister and Knesset member (Meimad) and the founder and chairman of several organizations that work to facilitate social change in Israel. However, he said Jews cannot be comfortable with the status quo. Rather, they have “an even greater responsibility” to halt sexual abuse and misconduct.
According to the organization DoSomething.org, 1 out of three girls and 1 out of five boys will be sexually abused before they reach age 18. Melchior said a child who is harmed in a place where he or she should feel the greatest security will likely find it difficult to ever find personal security.
“We have to do much more and educate much more than other communities and certainly than what our communities have been doing,” he told eJewish Philanthropy. “These are often life and death issues.”
Aiken said most sexual abuse occurs when a person in a position of power takes advantage of his or her role to control or manipulate others in a sexual manner. Sexual abuse can happen between a parent or adult relative and child, teacher and student, counselor and camper, or employer and employee. When it comes to sexual abuse or harassment between two adults, often the actual act is not illegal, but what is illegal is the context in which the act occurred.
USCJ’s recent scandal is not new to members of the Baltimore Jewish community, where since the early 2000s, the community has been dealing with a series of sexual abuse scandals that started in 2007 with reports that the late principal of Baltimore’s largest Orthodox day school, Rabbi Ephraim Shapiro, may have molested Jewish students at the school and other youngsters who came to him for bar mitzvah classes.
A year later, Shapiro’s son, Rabbi Yisroel Shapiro, was found guilty of child sexual molestation and given five years of probation.
Around the same time, the reputation of the late Rabbi Jacob Max disintegrated. Max, a dominant figure in Baltimore’s Jewish community and founder of what was in his era one of the community’s most important synagogues, was accused of sexually molesting women half his age.
Aiken said that after the first allegations against Shapiro and Max came out, dozens more allegations surfaced.
“It was rumored for decades that Jacob Max was inappropriate with women,” said Aiken. “He performed countless simchas and funerals and provided comfort and inspiration to many Baltimoreans. And to a small subset of those, he took advantage of them sexually, and people knew it, and did nothing about it.”
The same seems to be the case with Gutin. Former USY leader Arnie Draiman said he first heard allegations against Gutin close to 20 years ago.
“At the time the kid – who was no longer a kid – did not want to pursue it,” Draiman told eJP.
Draiman posted information about Gutin on Facebook and received close to 70 comments from his friends and colleagues. Seven people contacted him privately with additional information and he told eJP that he believes more people were involved in sexual abuse scandals at USCJ – “and I don’t mean necessarily only kids who were victims, other staff who were involved in inappropriate actions, as well,” he said, though he would not provide any additional information.
Melchior said research shows that on average it takes 25 years for victims/survivors to disclose their abuse to someone, with the estimated total of only 10 percent of all abuse victims ever disclosing it to anyone. He said part of the delay is that often the perpetrators or the institutions at which the perpetrators work try to dissuade the victims from going to the police with excuses such as, “he has a wife and children so why make his entire family suffer?” or “the abuse happened many years ago in a moment of weakness,” or even, “he is a righteous, God-fearing person.”
Sometimes the victim is told that he or she will be bringing shame on themselves and their entire family by telling the truth.
When the accusations first surfaced against Gutin on Facebook, according to an email obtained by JNS, Gutin asked the man who made the initial accusation not to name him or USY, in order to spare him and the organization harm.
“Whatever points you want to make would be just as powerful without people knowing the specific individual,” Gutin wrote to his accuser, according to JNS. He also wrote that USCJ was “totally justified” in suspending him from staffing any of its programs, and concluded the email, “Once again I am sorry.”
“This is a misguided and morally reprehensible attitude,” Melchior said, noting that remaining silent not only does additional injustice to the victims but could also put other children at risk of abuse by the same perpetrator.
Aiken said the judicial system can make it difficult to pursue a case against a sexual abuser. Children don’t make great witnesses and the law itself is limited to what you can prove. Further, people are often afraid of retribution once it gets into the legal realm. Aiken said there are cases where victims have lost their jobs or been harassed for coming forward. Often, this is because members of the community don’t want to accept the information as truth because it turns some aspect of their own world upside down.
“We don’t want to believe it,” Aiken said. “It is hard for people to think that good and evil can co-exist in the same person. They think, if you were a great youth director, then you must not be a child molester. It is hard for the human brain to figure out how you could be a rabbi who consoled many widows and sexually molested 1 percent of them. And if you were that 1 person out of 100, who is going to believe you?”
USCJ’s Wernick said since the information about Gutin came out, he has learned first-hand the mentality of “if you don’t name it, it is easier to push it away.”
ACTION AGAINST ABUSE
But Wernick did not push the situation from the limelight. Rather, it was USCJ that went to the press and not the other way around.
USCJ set up a confidential phone hotline and email address in November to help uncover additional alleged instances of sexual abuse that should be investigated. The line is staffed by the human resources department, and Wernick said it has received many calls with additional allegations against Gutin and another sexual abuser, Bob Fisher, who has since admitted to misconduct with children who participated in USY during the ‘80s and ‘90s. Fisher is the former director of the Far West USY region.
Although Wernick said the “Me Too” movement has proved “disappointing and sad in that we now realize we have not come as far as we thought,” USCJ since 2012 has had in place a comprehensive risk management protocol that also targets potential sexual abusers.
All staff and youth participants sign a code of conduct that includes transparent policies against bullying, sexual harassment and misconduct. In addition, USCJ employs a youth protection officer whose job it is to be available to field complaints by youth and staff about these types of issues. All staff and volunteers undergo some level of background check, as well.
USCJ is a mandatory reporter of child abuse and neglect, which means it must report suspicions of each abuse immediately to the appropriate government authorities.
“There has been no claim that USCJ has not been dealing with this seriously,” said Wernick. “We want to act responsibly, thoroughly and transparently.”
Aiken said it can take decades to see the impact of a proper community response to sexual abuse and misconduct. Baltimore a few years ago implemented the Magen Yeladim Safety Kid lessons for students K through 5. The Safety Kid method is a tested and successful method to teach abuse prevention to children, parents and professionals in the Jewish community. Currently, all Baltimore day schools are running the program. Aiken’s CHANA runs programming for middle-school and high-school students.
“We won’t know if it works until these students are in a position of power,” said Aiken. “But we certainly hope it does.”
Wernick, too, is hoping to move USCJ and USY on from the Gutin scandal, without discounting the feelings of those who were wronged by the organization’s staff so many years ago.
“I believe USY is still a deeply transformative place for Jewish engagement for Jewish teenagers,” said Wernick, amid preparations for Sunday’s international convention. “It is a safe place – spiritually, emotionally and physically, and we are making sure that it is the case and that it will continue to be the case. There is nothing more important to us.”