Conservative Jewry has #MeToo moment as decades-old sexual abuse surfaces
Community in crisis'We are taught not to air our dirty laundry'

Conservative Jewry has #MeToo moment as decades-old sexual abuse surfaces

After an internal investigation, the movement cuts ties with its longtime youth head. But a leading child advocate says it shouldn't take one person's courage to change a system

Illustrative photo (via iStock)
Illustrative photo (via iStock)

NEW YORK — An anonymous November 9 Facebook post cracked a dam of silence surrounding a decades-long child sex scandal as allegations of abuse began trickling forth from the dozens of alleged victims of Jules Gutin, the longtime and much lauded director of the Conservative movement’s youth movement.

Earlier this week the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (USCJ) severed ties with Gutin, 67, after an internal investigation substantiated an allegation of child sexual abuse dating back 33 years.

For many former USY members, the airing of the abuse allegations is a moment of reckoning that is late in coming — and not entirely embraced by all.

Speaking from his Jerusalem office, former United Synagogue Youth (USY) leader Arnie Draiman said he wasn’t shocked late last week to hear USCJ had severed ties with Gutin, but is dismayed by the shattering silence from his cohort in the announcement’s wake.

Jules Gutin (Screen capture: YouTube)

“The surprise for me came 15 to 20 years ago when I began hearing about this,” said Draiman, speaking to The Times of Israel from his office in Jerusalem. “This” refers to allegations of decades-long child sexual abuse against youth group members.

“One of my USYers came to me to discuss an event that had happened, but he wasn’t interested in pursuing it at the time. I am 100 percent sure about what he told me,” Draiman said, but did not go into details.

According to an article in JNS, the first alleged case of abuse occurred when Gutin was 34 and the alleged victim was 17. Several other men have since come forward alleging Gutin molested them when they were underage.

Upon reading the JNS story Draiman posted it to the USY alumni Facebook page, not wanting to see it “swept under the rug.”

“It was removed. So I posted it on the USY reunion page, it was taken down. I don’t see this as a cover-up, but why am I the only one speaking out when there are so many professional USY staff?” asked Draiman.

“There are hundreds of them. Something is missing. And that’s the surprise to me — that nobody wants to get involved. Something is wrong here,” said Draiman.

Rabbi Steven Wernick, CEO of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. (Mike Diamond Photography)

It is the second such incident to involve USY leadership. Earlier this month 70-year-old Robert D. Fisher, the leader of the Pacific Southwest Region of USY Youth, was terminated for alleged sexual misconduct with underage boys in the late 1980s.

Speaking with The Times of Israel, Rabbi Steve Wernick, CEO of USJC, said the movement is taking all allegations seriously, but they should be put in context.

“Both incidents were confined to the same narrow period of time, the late ’80s and early ’90s. What is going on now is part of a larger national reckoning regarding sexual abuse and harassment,” said Rabbi Steve Wernick, CEO of USJC.

According to Wernick, USJC got involved almost immediately after the initial Facebook post in early November.

“The Monday after Thanksgiving I was made aware of the allegations. I contacted Jules and his response was not satisfactory. I was convinced the allegations were substantative,” he said.

As part of their investigation Wernick and his staff spoke with the alleged victim. As a result Gutin’s contract was terminated. (The Times of Israel reached out to Gutin via Facebook; at the time of publication he had yet to respond.)

Conservative movement’s #MeToo moment

The allegations may not signify systemic sexual abuse and misconduct in USY. However, it’s important to understand how the Gutin incident fits into the broader picture of child sexual abuse in the Jewish community, regardless of denomination, said Manny Waks, CEO of Kol V’Oz, an Israel-based non-profit established to prevent child sexual abuse in Jewish communities worldwide.

“There is consistency in the way such cases develop. It requires the courage of one person to come forward. When that happens, often dozens more victims come forward. In the Jewish community, whether it’s a religious community or a sporting community, it’s the same. The community often puts the interests of the community ahead of the individual,” Waks said.

To make his point Waks cited the recently released final report by Australia’s Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, which highlighted instances of child sexual abuse, cover-up and intimidation at Yeshivah Melbourne and Yeshiva Bondi, which is located in the suburbs of Sydney.

Manny Waks, the founder of Tzedek, an Australian advocacy group for Jewish victims of sexual abuse, in front of Melbourne’s Yeshivah College, which has been rife with allegations of abuse. (News Corp. courtesy of Manny Waks)

With one in five children victims of child sexual abuse, Waks said he hopes the report will assist many victims and survivors in the global Jewish world, not only in insular Chabad-Lubavitch and other ultra-Orthodox enclaves, but also in less insular Conservative and Reform communities.

Born in Israel to a Chabad family, Waks went public in 2011 with his personal experiences of child sexual abuse within the Australian Jewish community.

“It’s such a sensitive and complex issue, unless you’ve experienced it you really don’t understand what it takes to pursue justice. There is a long-term and profound impact of child sexual abuse. Many victims are suffering in silence and they need to know they are supported,” Waks said.

“But even in less insular communities, we do generally like to stick together. We generally trust our own more than the outsider. We are taught not to air our dirty laundry,” said Waks.

Child abuse affects up to one in five children, according to activists. (iStock Getty Images)

‘One of the best things the Conservative movement has’

Gutin was popular in USY circles. In 2011 he completed his 20-year tenure as international director of the youth movement. At the time Wernick tweeted “Jules Gutin USY one of the best things the Conservative movement has to offer. Thank you Jules for 48 years. #USYIC2011.”

Screenshot of Tweet by Rabbi Steven Wernick.

“That these events involved people so iconic to the community is what makes it so earth shattering. That it happened at all is what makes it so sad,” Wernick said of the accusations.

In the wake of the allegations USY created a confidential telephone hotline and email address to enable and encourage victims of sexual misconduct and abuse to come forward. Wernick said he hopes the measures help USCJ uncover and investigate any such cases.

“It’s like a ritual cleansing to be able to speak about it, [for victims] to feel like they’re being heard and to see accountability,” Wernick said.

Defending the move to keep the investigation internal, Wernick said that “the first reason one would go to an outside consultant is because of a concern about transparency. We have been extremely transparent about this to our staff, our board, our constituents and our parents.”

However, Waks, who has dedicated his professional life to advocating for victims of child sexual abuse, said internal investigations don’t always lead to desired outcomes.

Waks said institutions such as USY might consider following the Royal Commission’s recommendations for reporting, which include having an independent oversight body, obligatory reporting to authorities by heads of institutions, a definition of employee that covers paid employees, volunteers and contractors, and protection for persons who make reports in good faith.

“I’m not suggesting the institution [USY] is mishandling anything, but it seems to me the issue isn’t only them investigating themselves, but understanding it takes decades for victims to come forward and when they do they need to have the confidence they will be heard,” said Waks.

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