Friday, February 07, 2003

When silence is not a virtue

Op Ed

When silence is not a virtue 
By Dr. Stephen Glicksman
Jewish Standard - February 7, 2003

On Sunday night, Feb. 2, I went to hear Rabbi Mordechai Willig give a talk on Jewish parenting at Cong. Beth Abraham in Bergenfield. In truth, I did not attend the talk to learn Rabbi Willig's views on child rearing; rather, I went to hear Rabbi Willig discuss his role in the 1989 beis din of Rabbi Baruch Lanner, formerly a regional director of the National Conference of Synagogue Youth, currently a convicted child abuser. I must say, I left the talk disappointed. Here's why:

In 1989, a group of people I respected, my friends, my rebbeim, my NCSY advisers, even my high-school guidance counselor, went into a room at Yeshiva University either to accuse one of my heroes of, or defend him against, the crime of sexually, physically, and emotionally abusing children. At the time, I did not know which side was telling the truth. I had never been abused by Baruch. Indeed, Baruch was an important influence in my becoming observant. The fact that he threw in a joke about sanitary napkins during an NCSY skit or touched people in a way that my other rebbeim told me was inappropriate only served to make Baruch "cooler." And, back in 1989, when my friends put their reputations on the line to testify against Baruch at the beis din and told stories of how Baruch hit them, how he touched them, how he threatened them, I, as a teenager, defended these actions as I heard others defend them: as unconventional, but highly effective, kiruv (outreach) techniques.

After the beis din had seemingly found Baruch safe to work with children and demanded a public apology from his accusers, however, something strange happened. One of my rebbeim in Israel told me, " we had done what we were talking about doing in the '70s when I was involved in NCSY, none of this would be happening now." Other rebbeim told me that while they would never engage in that type of behavior themselves, Baruch can be excused because of all the good he had done. When I asked one of his defenders at the beis din if he had mentioned to the court that Baruch had kicked him in the groin, he told me, "They didn't ask me about that.” People seemed to understand the conclusion of the beis din to be either, "Baruch Lanner was found innocent of all charges", or "Nobody else should act like Baruch Lanner, but it's okay if he acts that way himself."

Ten years later, Rabbi Yosef Blau, one of the three rabbis on the 1989 beis din, approached me and said that he, like many others, had realized that the original beis din had made a mistake in its handling of the Lanner case. He was now gathering new testimonies regarding Baruch's abusive behavior and asked if I knew anyone who could help. By this time, of course, I knew the truth: Baruch was an abuser. It's not okay to kick boys in the groin or grope teenage girls, even for a rabbi. And, less than a year later, the world would know with the publication of an expose about Baruch's abuses in the Jewish Week. The rest, as they say, is history.

Much has changed since the publication of the article. NCSY has adopted a series of standards designed to prevent the abuses of the Lanner era from reoccurring. The OU itself investigated the accusations against Baruch, and found them to be true. The leader of the OU commission, far from being ostracized by the community as the witnesses who testified at the original beis din were, was recently named the new president of Yeshiva University.  Baruch has been convicted in a New Jersey courtroom of endangering children. But one question remains unanswered. How is it that the original beis din came to such a dangerously wrong conclusion? The answer, it seems, is this: The beis din was not fooled by Lanner; in fact, as Rabbi Willig clearly stated during his Jewish parenting talk and in statements recently released to the press, the beis din found that "Lanner was guilty of a number of charges." This statement (which, based on my conversations with other audience members following the talk seems to have been missed by many present) is, in truth, nothing new. In their public summary of findings, the NCSY Special Commission that looked into the Lanner affair following the Jewish Week article noted that the 1989 beis din "found some troubling allegations to be true" and blamed the OU for misrepresenting the ruling of
the beis din. The fault of the beis din was not in its psak, but in its silence.

One need not know the details of the case to understand the gravity to the Jewish community of Rabbi Willig's comments regarding Lanner's guilt. The 1989 beis din was charged with investigating the inappropriate and abusive behaviors of Baruch Lanner. Regardless of "how abusive" the behaviors were, we now know that Rabbi Willig and his colleagues on the beis din found Baruch Lanner guilty. Despite this fact, Rabbi Willig and the other members of the beis din chose not to publicize their verdict. While the community mistakenly believed that the beis din had found Lanner innocent of all charges, Rabbi Willig and his colleagues allowed shuls, schools, and parents to remain ignorant of a known threat to our community. They kept silent about their findings while Lanner continued to attend NCSY shabbatonim. They kept silent about their findings while Lanner continued his employment as a high school principal. 
They kept silent about their findings while other rabbis, shuls, and organizations, including the Orthodox Union, used (or, more appropriately, misused) the findings of the beis din itself as "proof" that Lanner is safe to work with children. They kept silent as mothers sent their sons to learn from Lanner at the NCSY Summer Kollel. They kept silent as Lanner lied to his followers, stating that the beis din had found him
innocent. They kept silent as rabbis in Bergen County spoke from their pulpits, berating Lanner's accusers for maligning such an "upstanding Torah Jew." They kept silent as Lanner continued abusing children for another 10 years.

While it is true that eventually (and, perhaps, heroically) Rabbi Blau did attempt to undo some of the damage that the decision to keep the guilty verdict secret had caused, and while it is true that during his Jewish parenting talk Rabbi Willig did apologize to the extent he seems capable to at least one of Lanner's accusers, the rabbis of the 1989 beis din clearly have not done enough. To this day, there are dozens, perhaps hundreds of rabbis and educators trained by Baruch Lanner all over the country and world who continue to believe that Lanner was found innocent by the 1989 beis din and, by extension, that his abusive methods of educating our children are appropriate.

Regardless of which "side" you were on, everyone lost something from the Lanner affair. Many people lost their friends. Still more lost their inherent trust of rabbis. Some lost their faith in Judaism. Some lost their faith in God. Some lost their childhood. Some lost their innocence. Some lost their jobs. I lost my heroes, because in the end, when I envision that room at Yeshiva University in 1989, I see a group of children on one side telling Rabbi Willig and the beis din the truth, and I see my former heroes, the people I looked up to, my teachers, my NCSY advisers, my rabbis, saying that Lanner is one of them and could not possibly have done what he was accused of doing. Maybe the people who defended Lanner at the beis din didn't know what he was capable of. Maybe they thought they were telling the truth. Or, maybe, the feeling in that room was that protecting Lanner and upholding the truth were unrelated to each other. After all, in the end, the beis din believed that the children were telling the truth but, in their silence, protected Lanner anyway.

I believe the time has come for Rabbi Willig and the other members of the 1989 beis din to speak the truth. It is time for the rabbis of the 1989 beis din to state publicly, clearly, and emphatically that their conclusion was and is that Baruch Lanner is guilty of abusing the children he was trusted to educate. It is time for the rabbis of the 1989 beis din to publicly apologize for their silence to all of the witnesses who testified against Lanner in 1989, as well as to all of Lanner's victims since the time of the beis din. It is time for the rabbis of the 1989 beis din to explain why they felt it appropriate to force a public apology from Lanner's accusers but felt it inappropriate to make public their own recognition of Lanner's abusive behaviors. It is time Rabbi Willig and the other rabbis of the 1989 beis din to take personal responsibility for the further victimization of those who testified before them in 1989 and for the mistakes made prior to, during, and after the proceedings. It is time for the rabbis of the 1989 beis din to announce forcefully and clearly, with no room for misunderstanding, that anyone using their names or their psak as evidence of Lanner's innocence is dreadfully and dangerously mistaken.

On Sunday night, Rabbi Willig concluded his comments regarding the 1989 beis din of Baruch Lanner by stating, on behalf of the beis din, saying, "We do not think it is appropriate to comment publicly at this time." When the mother of a son who was physically abused by Baruch after 1989 asked Rabbi Willig if he was willing to take responsibility for the pain his silence regarding Lanner's abuses had caused to her and her child, Rabbi Willig again withdrew into silence and simply repeated his statement: "We do not think it is appropriate to comment publicly at this time." This statement may have been the most truthful that Rabbi Willig made the entire evening.  Indeed, the "appropriate time to comment publicly" was over 10 years ago.

Still, I suppose, better late than never.

I'm still waiting.

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