September 23, 2019

Summer of Shame

A lot of people have a lot of questions about the scandal involving the Orthodox Union and Rabbi Baruch Lanner.

Who knew what when, what did they do with the information, and how did the whole thing go on for so long? How is it possible that it took three decades and the public embarrassment of a newspaper article to out Lanner, who allegedly manhandled boys and sexually harassed and molested girls who were in his charge at the National Conference of Synagogue Youth (NCSY), the OU’s hugely successful youth movement?

No one wants these questions answered more than OU president Dr. Mandell Ganchrow, who has set up a commission to investigate the charges and come up with recommendations. “I don’t know what the answers are,” says Ganchrow, now in the final six months of a six-year run as president. “People are entitled to know. I’m entitled to know.”

Ganchrow says he was as shocked as anybody by the allegations published in a June 23 article by Gary Rosenblatt, editor and publisher of the New York Jewish Week.

“I didn’t know anything about this,” says Ganchrow, a retired colon and rectal surgeon. “I like to believe that had I known, I would have acted. I’m not afraid to act. It’s just sad that I didn’t know.” In fact, Ganchrow admits that just a few years ago he had recommended Lanner – widely acclaimed even by his victims as a powerful and charismatic leader – for the job of national director of NCSY. “Now I know why I was talked out of it,” Ganchrow says.

Rosenblatt’s report and several weeks of follow-up articles detail victims’ accounts of being emotionally, sexually and physically abused by Lanner over a period from the 1970s to today. Lanner, 50, was director of the New Jersey region for many years, then was made NCSY’s director of regions. In addition, he was principal of Hillel, a yeshiva in Deal, N.J., for 15 years.

Named victims accuse Lanner of kicking boys in the groin and fondling and kissing girls, and in one case he is accused of having pulled a knife on a teenaged boy.

His emotional manipulation extended further, and to more people. He is said to have demanded declarations of love and loyalty from his teens, and in one case, where the victim has filed charges in a New Jersey court, he is said to have proposed marriage to a Hillel student.

In his three decades of NCSY leadership, Lanner has trained dozens of advisors and regional directors. Many of the rumors about Lanner have been circulating for years; it was an open secret among many NCSYers to steer clear of Lanner. Several New Jersey chapters had banned him from coming to events. Rosenblatt traced several instances where reports to highers-up in OU and NCSY went nowhere, seemingly halted by a wall of protection around Lanner.

Ganchrow says all of these allegations are being investigated by the commission he appointed just after the article came out. The report is expected to come out in September, before the start of the High Holidays. “The charge that I gave to the commission is when did the OU know, what did it know, who knew it, what did they do with the information, how did it go up the chain of leadership, what did they do with the information?” Ganchrow says.

The OU has retained the Manhattan law firm Debevoise and Plimpton to conduct the hundreds of interviews – from employees to lay leaders to current and former NCSYers – and to produce thousands of pages of documentation.

“The bottom line is I’m determined to let the chips fall as they may,” Ganchrow says. “There is no one – not a lay person, not a senior employee – who is going to be protected.”

The 10-member commission, made up of traditional and observant Jews, four of whom are OU board members, is headed by Richard Joel, an attorney who is president and international director of Hillel, the Foundation for Jewish Campus Life. It includes several lawyers, philanthropists and politicians, a pediatrician who specializes in victims of molestation, psychiatrist Rabbi Abraham Twerski, and Jacob Yellin, a lawyer who is in charge of Disney’s worldwide ethics compliance program.

Ganchrow bristles at accusations that the commission’s report will be anything less than honest and thorough.

The commission members, all of them volunteers, all of them putting in hundreds of hours into a thankless task, “are people of stature,” Ganchrow says. “They are not going to allow their reputations to be sullied by the OU, me or anyone else,” he says.

Ganchrow says he expects the OU to act swiftly on the recommendations, or he and the chairman of the board have publicly stated that they will resign.

Plus, he adds, “the light of the publicity is not going to allow anyone to fudge it.” Ganchrow says he first heard about the extent of the article about 12 hours before it hit the stands, when he was in Washington meeting with the king of Morocco.

Ganchrow, who says he has a good relationship with Rosenblatt, first read the allegations the same day as everyone else.

“I would have been happy if Gary Rosenblatt had picked up the phone and called me a few weeks before and said, ‘I have this story, I’d like to meet with you.'”

He wasn’t interviewed about the charges until two weeks later.

But Ganchrow wants his voice heard now. He was in Los Angeles recently for face to face meetings with supporters, rabbis and lay leaders, giving the facts on what the OU is doing to respond.

“I think it’s very important for people to look me in the eye and see. Body language tells a lot,” says Ganchrow. “People can see that we’re very serious, we’re deeply distressed about what’s going on.” Ganchrow offers a more sympathetic image than has come across in the press thus far. He seems sincerely pained, acutely aware of the gravity of the scandal and willing to approach it with a candor that is both practical and compassionate.

Ganchrow is, of course, somewhat constrained in his comments because of the looming possibility of lawsuits. He also remains completely dedicated to the OU and the good work it does.

“NCSY and the Orthodox Union are not Baruch Lanner,” he said. Rather, he asks people to recognize the many positive programs, such as NCSY’s work with mentally and physically disabled kids; summer programs in the U.S., Israel and Ukraine; successful outreach to thousands of unaffiliated teens; and OU’s public affairs program, synagogue services and kosher certification of 220,000 products.

He says the incident has opened up discussions on every aspect of NCSY. All of the leaders of summer programs, he said, had extra training on harassment and emotional abuse of teens, and the union is working to come up with permanent guidelines to ensure the safety of the 40,000 kids who are involved with NCSY every year.

“I’m a parent, I’m a grandparent,” Ganchrow says. “There is no way I would knowingly, willingly put someone that is a sex molester in contact with children, no matter how good he makes Havdalah.”