Orthodox synagogues in New Jersey that hosted National Synagogue Youth Conference events in the 1970s and 1980s, and the youth group’s professional counselors and volunteers during this time, are at potential legal risk due to a lawsuit filed last week by five plaintiffs seeking damages for sexual assault was allegedly committed by Rabbi Baruch Lanner, who was the New Jersey area director of the National Conference of Synagogue Youth from 1970 to 1999.
The five plaintiffs, who are not named in the lawsuit, were all minors at the time of the alleged assaults.
Lanner has been charged, tried, convicted and jailed on similar counts. This new lawsuit, unlike the first, is a civil action, primarily targeting Lanner and his employers: NCSY and his New Jersey area; the parent organization of NCSY, the Orthodox Union; and Hillel Yeshiva High School in Ocean Township, where Lanner was principal in the mid-1990s.
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The lawsuit alleges that prominent institutions knowingly allowed the rabbi’s predatory behavior at NCSY and Hillel High School to continue, despite numerous long-standing complaints that he physically and emotionally abused some of the girls and boys he was in charge. He alleges that the organizations which employed Lanner, directly or indirectly, were negligent in failing to supervise Lanner and not to follow up on repeated reports of allegedly abusive, inappropriate and criminal activities of Lanner. According to the lawsuit, a plaintiff reported Lanner’s conduct to the NCSY National Director as early as 1974.
But the lawsuit is also directed at the anonymous managers, employees and volunteers of the OU and NCSY who were responsible for overseeing Lanner, or who were responsible for ensuring the safety of children who participated in OU or NCSY programs. NCSY.
And this also includes anonymous synagogues and other institutions “which were responsible for the safety of children who attended schools, programs, facilities, trips or events in which the accused Lanner committed the horrific acts of sexual, physical and emotional abuse and harassment complained of here. “
The lawsuit does not specify where the alleged abuse took place, although the complainant identified as Jane Doe # 1 alleges she was groped as a 13-year-old girl “about twenty or more times at NCSY events over the week. -end in New Jersey over the course of two and a half years. “
Several Orthodox synagogues in northern New Jersey and Essex County hosted NCSY Shabbaton weekends during the 1977-1978 school year, according to a former NCSYer at that time who refreshed his memory by consulting the New Jersey NCSY directories in its possession.
Lanner’s career as a leader of the NCSY ended in 2000, following a briefing in New York Jewish Week by its then editor, Gary Rosenblatt. Lanner resigned a few days later. The following year, Executive Vice President of the Orthodox Union, Rabbi Raphael Butler, who had led the NCSY before taking the OU post, resigned under pressure following an investigation into The Orthodox Union by Richard Joel, then head of Hillel International and later president of Yeshiva. University.
The Jewish Week report also led one of Lanner’s victims at Hillel Yeshiva High School to tell her parents about the abuse she suffered in Lanner’s office and in Shabbatonim years before. She then filed a criminal complaint against Lanner, which led to the rabbi’s arrest. In 2002, he was convicted of abusing her and another Hillel student. He was sentenced to seven years in prison, served almost three years, and was paroled in early 2008.
The pending lawsuit was filed in Middlesex County Superior Court in the closing days of a two-year “look back” window during which victims of sexual abuse could come forward and prosecute their alleged abusers. Until then, a statute of limitations in New Jersey had precluded any civil action against organizations that employed Lanner. The window closed at midnight on November 30. The first four plaintiffs filed on November 29; the fifth joined in the action the next day, after reading the initial report on the case written by Mr. Rosenblatt for the Jewish Telegraph Agency.
The lawsuit seeks unspecified financial damages to be determined at trial.
In response to the lawsuit, three senior OU and NCSY leaders sent a letter to their board members across the country. In the letter, which the Jewish Telegraph Agency obtained, the three rabbis say their leaders “share deep regret for the suffering caused by past abuses” and are “firmly determined to act in a manner conforming to the highest standards. of the Torah and the law to ensure the well-being of our young people.
In their letter, the heads of the OU and the NSCY said that the “overhaul” of the Lanner scandal “reminds us of the continued pain suffered by its victims and our immense responsibility to be vigilant and proactive in ensuring physical, sexual safety. and emotional experience of every participant in our programs. We cannot allow the failures that have allowed the repetition of the abuses committed by Lanner. “
The letter was signed by Rabbis Moshe Hauer, executive vice president of the OU; Joshua Joseph, executive vice president and COO of OU; and Micah Greenland, International Director of NCSY. None of the three were involved in Lanner’s job two decades ago; they have all arrived at their posts in the last few years.
Their letter reiterated their organizations’ commitment to “the physical and mental safety of young people” and noted that “strong policies and procedures … to prevent abuse” have been put in place as a result of the abuse reports. de Lanner two decades ago and have been and expanded several times over the years ”and will continue to be revised in the future.
Several of the plaintiffs in the case, who suffered abuse from Lanner in their teens, told the Jewish Telegraph Agency that they felt the OU and NCSY had not contacted them at the time. to apologize or assist them.
“Our clients will finally hold Baruch Lanner responsible for his deplorable and abusive conduct, and the Orthodox Union for giving a known delinquent decades of access to vulnerable children whom he terrorized and victimized”, Boz Tchividjian, l one of the plaintiffs’ lawyers said. “By bringing this complaint, these daring women are reclaiming the power that was taken from them by an abuser and the organization that employed him and gave him power.”
The women who bring the lawsuits say they believe the problem persists and that despite impressive written policies and standards, systemic cultural change is still needed at the OU and NCSY as well as other institutions.
“What organizations need is to protect their members, not just to protect their organizations,” one of the complainants said in an interview with the Jewish Telegraph Agency. She also said that neither she nor the other Lanner victims she knew had ever been approached by the OU or NCSY with an apology or offers of help after their experiences became known through the Jewish Week report 2000.
According to the lawsuit, when Lanner chose one of the plaintiffs, described in the court file as Jane Doe # 2, to be the NCSY regional president, she agreed on condition that he did not assault her. If he tried, she told him, she would report him to Rabbi Pinchas Stolper, founding director of NCSY.
In response, Lanner laughed and told him that she “wouldn’t tell him anything that he hasn’t known for years,” according to the lawsuit. In the Jewish Week 2000 article, Rabbi Stolper acknowledged that there had been several complaints from young women several years earlier about Lanner’s inappropriate behavior, but said he found no actual substance to the charges.
Jane Doe # 2 has decided to take the leadership position.
Attempts by the Jewish Telegraph Agency to reach both Lanner and Rabbi Stolper were unsuccessful.
During her tenure as president, Jane Doe # 2 said she “witnessed Lanner’s prey on several 14 and 15-year-old girls,” according to the lawsuit.
The complainant identified as Jane Doe # 4 was 12 years old when she was active in the NCSY. According to the lawsuit, Lanner insisted on driving her home after a Shabbaton on a Saturday night. He pulled into an empty parking lot, she said, told him to take off his shirt and tried to kiss him.
“For me, it closed the door on religion,” she told the Jewish Telegraph Agency. “I feel like he took advantage of an innocent soul, and you can never get that innocence back.”
The two women who spoke to the Jewish Telegraph Agency recently pointed out that their main motive for taking legal action almost half a century after some of these painful incidents was not financial gain or revenge, and that it was a difficult decision to embark on a legal battle against two large, leading institutions.
“It always bothered me that the OU was never really responsible,” one said. “I want my day in court because I want to see real change. I wouldn’t mind people seeing that a few women can change the way things are. “
The other echoed the sentiment, saying she wanted “to see the culture change around sexual security in Orthodox institutions.”
“No real guilt was admitted. There was no real calculation. The process of teshuvah means admitting your mistakes, facing the harsh truth.
She said she was “delighted to see” that the NCSY released a new Standards of Conduct, Policy and Behavior manual on September 17, which includes guidelines on reporting “grooming behaviors,” ” boundary violations ”and“ inappropriate behavior with minors ”. “Whether it was because they knew a trial was coming or just a coincidence, this is a very positive decision,” she said.
She added that she hoped the trial would be “an important catalyst.”
Most importantly, she hopes that when it comes to security for all, the actions of the OU and NCSY will be “based on ethics and Jewish sources – not because anyone is monitoring or suing these organizations, but because that is what God and our religion requires of us.
Gary Rosenblatt of the Jewish Telegraph Agency contributed to this story.