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Jordan Soffer. (Courtesy)
courtesy: Rabbi Jordan Soffer
ExclusiveSoffer: USY must ensure this can never happen again

Eye on statute of limitations, alleged victim of US youth group leader speaks up

Rabbi Jordan Soffer demands USY, the Conservative movement’s youth branch, explain why it turned blind eye to abuser for years, later allowed his employment as a synagogue director

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

Main image by courtesy: Rabbi Jordan Soffer

NEW YORK — Jordan Soffer could not begin opening up about the alleged sexual abuse he endured at the hands of his United Synagogue Youth counselor some 15 years ago without first making clear how unsettled he feels about tarring the Conservative movement’s youth branch.

“I’m just so torn because I loved USY and still do. It was my life,” he began, speaking by phone with The Times of Israel on Monday. “I was regional president, international general board member — the whole nine yards. I would never want to do anything to hurt it.”

“It’s why I contacted them quietly for years,” he continued. “But when it became clear that they were sweeping it under the rug, just like all of those horror stories you hear about in the [Catholic] Church or [certain parts of the] Haredi world, I felt like I was being morally irresponsible by not speaking out.”

So now, the 32-year-old Soffer said, he has decided to do just that, becoming the first alleged victim of former USY Nassau County divisional director Ed Ward to go on the record. Two other alleged victims have filed civil suits against Ward, with one naming USY and its parent organization, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, as co-defendants and arguing that the movement was liable for his abuse. Those two plaintiffs have thus far chosen to remain anonymous. The Times of Israel has also been in contact with a fourth alleged victim who asked to remain anonymous.

Soffer, a Modern Orthodox-ordained rabbi who now serves as head of school at Striar Hebrew Academy in Sharon, Massachusetts, is sure there are other victims.

But time is not on their side: The “look-back window” created by New York State’s Child Victims Act (CVA), which grants child sex abuse victims additional time to file civil lawsuits against their abusers, expires on Saturday.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, bottom center, gives a thumbs-up after signing the Child Victims Act in New York, Thursday, Feb. 14, 2019. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

Soffer said that until recently he had been unaware of the law signed by outgoing NY Governor Andrew Cuomo in 2019, which raised from 23 to 55 the age by which a person must file a civil suit for abuse they experienced as a minor.

He only learned about the CVA a few weeks ago, when the lawyer for the two John Does suing Ward approached Soffer and urged him to join the effort.

Soffer, a father of three, initially agreed, while stipulating that he would make a public vow to donate any money won to Jewish organizations devoted to ensuring that sex abusers are not able to continue hiding within communities.

“I was going to use this ‘dirty money’ to clean up a broken system,” he said.

“USY must ask itself what about its own identity allowed this to transpire, and what must it do to ensure that it can never happen again”

But he subsequently came to feel that no amount of money could provide what he was really seeking — a public reckoning from USY — and therefore decided to pull out of the lawsuit. Instead, he said, he was reaching out to The Times of Israel in the hope that media exposure would compel the youth movement to publicly explain how and why it continued to allow an alleged abuser access to its adolescent members for years, and then, after being explicitly notified of the allegations in 2017, allowed Ward to continue working as the executive director of a USCJ-affiliated Long Island synagogue until last year.

Soffer noted that he also wants to ensure nothing similar is happening in USY today, nor would be allowed to recur. “USY must ask itself what about its own identity allowed this to transpire, and what must it do to ensure that it can never happen again,” Soffer said.

In going public now, Soffer further said, he hopes he’ll be able to reach other alleged victims who may not be aware that the statute of limitations under the CVA expires on Saturday.

“They should at least know about what may be the last opportunity to get justice,” he said.

‘Knew and/or reasonably should have known’

The civil suits alone paint a damning picture against Ward and USY.

The first one, filed in May 2020, alleges that Ward, now 52, sexually abused the plaintiff repeatedly between the years of 1999 and 2004 while employed by USCJ.

The alleged victim was abused by Ward “in his [own] home, in his [accuser’s] home, at summer camps, offices, classrooms, religious spaces, conventions, meetings, classes and/or events, run, owned, sponsored and/or supervised” by USCJ while the co-defendant was under its employ, the complaint states.

USCJ “knew, or was negligent, careless, and reckless in not knowing” that Ward was abusing the plaintiff,” it adds.

In an affidavit submitted by the plaintiff in that case, the mother of a second John Doe testifies that she contacted USY and USCJ in 2002 to report that Ward sexually abused her 12-year-old son more than a decade earlier at Camp Surprise Lake, a pluralistic Jewish camp in Cold Springs, New York. The woman said she emailed USY regional engagement associate Bruce Varon and “advised” Gila Ward — Ed Ward’s wife, who was an assistant director at USY then.

Reached for a response, a spokesperson for USCJ said, “We do not comment on pending nor potential litigation.”

A source familiar with the matter said USCJ believes the case against it is without merit and has moved for a dismissal.

Ed Ward did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

The second John Doe, whose mother testified in the 2020 case, went on to file his own civil suit against Ed Ward and Surprise Lake Camp last June for repeated sexual abuse that took place in 1989-1990. In that case as well, the plaintiff alleges that the Jewish institution “knew and/or reasonably should have known” that Ward had a history of sexual abuse and was abusing John Doe.

The second John Doe’s complaint led to Ward’s firing from Surprise Lake in 2002, according to the first lawsuit.

Surprise Lake Camp has not confirmed that Ward was fired, and did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Gila Ward also did not respond to a request for comment.

Block O’Toole & Murphy attorney Daniel Seiden, who filed the lawsuits against Ward on the John Does’ behalf, said he and his clients could not speak about ongoing litigation.

Eddie’s boys

Soffer and others who spoke to The Times of Israel for this article noted that rumors about Ward’s 2002 firing, and the reasons for it, made the rounds at the time among active members in USY’s Metropolitan New York Region (known as METNY).

But for Soffer’s older brother Lee, who was a sophomore in high school that year and active in USY, the rumors of sexual abuse by Ward were hard for him and his friends to believe.

“We were all defending him, saying that he was probably just joking around,” Lee recalled.

The elder Soffer said his friend group adored Ward from their early USY days in middle school.

“It was almost like a fraternity. We were known as ‘Eddie’s boys,’ and we knew guys three years older and three years younger who were close with him,” he said of Ward, who was in his 30s at the time.

Lee described Ward as an infectiously charismatic personality who “made Judaism cool.”

“He could talk to you about God, religion and spirituality, but then turn around and talk basketball,” Lee said. “Most Jewish educators don’t know about sports; Eddie did.”

But as Ward became more comfortable with his campers at on-the-road conventions or at 10-day end-of-summer overnight camps, he began to oversexualize them as well, said Lee.

“He talked to us about jerking off, porn and sex. And not just sex, but how to do it — how many fingers to use, what move to make,” said Lee.

Lee Soffer at a USY convention in the late 1990s. (Courtesy)

In the most graphic memory he cited, Lee said Ward “sat in the middle of the room and watched as a bunch of 15- and 16-year-old [campers] masturbated.”

Lee said it took years before he understood the inappropriate nature of Ward’s relationship with USY members, and at the time didn’t believe it extended any further than what he described.

But to others in USY METNY, who weren’t one of “Eddie’s boys,” there was something deeply awry about how Ward interacted with male campers half his age.

Hypersexualized culture

“I was always was struck by his relationship with boys in USY. They stayed at his house, he drove them everywhere,” said fellow New York native Merav Hasler, 35, who was involved in the youth movement in the early 2000s as well. “I remember thinking then that he has a wife and child, and it doesn’t add up.”

“We heard stories in high school about him masturbating with kids and him asking to touch or be touched by other kids,” said Hasler.

“I remember just sort of sitting with it then, and I feel awful. It’s haunted me that we didn’t do anything at the time to personally report it. I just don’t think I knew how.”

Asked whether she thought USY was aware of Ward’s conduct, Hasler offered a near-identical response to one given by Lee. “I’ll tell you how I know they were aware: How was it that a bunch of 15-year-olds knew that he was dismissed from Surprise Lake for sexual abuse, and USY never looked into it and [instead] allowed him to continue doing those very same things.”

She described a “hypersexualized culture” at USY in which middle school and high school members were encouraged to hook up with one another. There was a “penis Olympics” where boys compared penis size and competed to see who could ejaculate first. “This was publicized, welcomed and the staff knew about it.”

Hasler said Ward used the hypersexualized atmosphere “as a shield for his own inappropriate behavior” and thought “he could hide in plain sight because so much promiscuity was going on.”

‘You can’t be so afraid’

Indeed, Ward managed to remain on the staff of USY, despite his apparent 2002 dismissal from Surprise Lake Camp. Roughly two years later, he began inappropriately interacting with Lee’s brother Jordan Soffer.

Soffer was 15 when Ward approached him during prayer services one morning at a USY convention in East Rockaway, New York.

Soffer described the incident in vivid detail in his phone interview this week. “I can still feel his hand landing slowly on my shoulder, asking if I want to take a break.”

Ward — who was more than twice Soffer’s age — directed his camper to the hallway toward the bathroom where, before entering he said, “You know, when I get bored during services, I like to go beat one out.”

“I told him I wanted to leave. He told me to stay until he finished,” Soffer recalled. “I can still hear the grunt he let out before he said, ‘alright man. We can go back in. But if you’re going to be cool in USY, you can’t be so afraid.’”

He then ushered Soffer inside, unbuckled his own belt, unzipped his pants and began stroking his penis, encouraging the 15-year-old to masturbate as well.

“I came up with every excuse I could think of. I’m tired. I can’t. I’m embarrassed. I told him I wanted to leave. He told me to stay until he finished,” Soffer recalled. “I can still hear the grunt he let out before he said, ‘alright man. We can go back in. But if you’re going to be cool in USY, you can’t be so afraid.’”

Jordan Soffer at a USY international convention in 2007. (Courtesy)

‘Looking out’ for Jordan

Soffer said he immediately reported the incident to another counselor, who told him that he too had heard rumors about Ward and encouraged the camper to stay away from him. In addition, the counselor, who Soffer identified as Mike, said he would look after Soffer during his three remaining years as a USY camper.

Soffer subsequently told Mike about every inappropriate interaction Ward initiated, including a late night chat-room Ward created online, in which he described how he masturbated and asked campers about their own habits.

But Soffer said Mike never reported Ward’s behavior to USY higher-ups, and Ward was able to remain involved in the youth movement in various capacities for over a decade longer; he was still a staffer at USY conventions until at least the summer of 2016.

While Soffer knew immediately how uncomfortable the bathroom incident had made him, it took him many years “to realize that this wasn’t just a counselor taking things a little too far.”

For the love of USY

In 2017, Lee and Jordan Soffer ran into Ward in the crowd at a hockey game in Brooklyn accompanying a teenage boy.

“When Eddie described the teen as one of ‘Eddie’s boys’ I almost lost it,” recalled Jordan Soffer.

It was at this point that he decided he had to get in touch with USY administration and share his story. Soffer said he spoke for hours with USY’s lawyers, human resource representatives, and USY’s international director at the time.

“I insisted that I was doing this out of my absolute love and gratitude for USY. I cannot imagine my life without all the good that USY did for me, and I know they wouldn’t want someone like this in their midst,” he said.

A month later, USY administrators called Soffer to share that they had concluded their investigation into the matter, and were able to verify the allegations. Ward did not deny them, Soffer said he was told, and the administrators assured him Ward would never be allowed to attend a USY event or be on USCJ staff again.

USY declined a request to specify when Ward was in its employment. The Times of Israel established that he was hired in 1996 and went on to become Nassau County divisional director until around 2004. He remained involved in various capacities for well over a decade after that.

Jordan (L) and Lee Soffer at a Jewish Theological Ceremony event in 2015. (Courtesy)

The case of Ed Ward wasn’t the first time USY had itself mired in a child sex abuse scandal. In December 2017, the youth group cut ties with Jules Gutin, its former longtime director, after former members accused him of inappropriate sexual behavior. Gutin denied the allegations against him.

A year later, The Forward published a story alleging that the USY leadership had refused to report to US law enforcement a counselor who molested four campers during a 1999 “USY on Wheels” summer road trip. One of the parents ultimately called in the FBI. The administrator of the “USY on Wheels” program was Gila Ward. According to the report, Ward’s wife interviewed the campers involved, called the parents, fired the counselor, but didn’t tell anyone else. She informed the Forward that anything she did would have been in consultation with USCJ’s attorney.

Following the 2017 call and the assurances from USY administrators, Jordan Soffer believed the matter was behind him and that Ward posed no further danger. But then, last year, his brother Lee did a Google search and discovered that Ward was working as executive director of Dix Hill Jewish Center on Long Island, a USCJ-affiliated Conservative synagogue.

Livid, Soffer reached out to the DHJC rabbi Howard Buechler and “told him my story in the most graphic detail, asking him to do the right thing.”

“Eventually Eddie was let go [later last year] — a wildly insufficient reaction, further sweeping the [abuse] under the rug,” Soffer said.

Asked for comment, a DCJC spokesman said the synagogue “never received any allegation about Mr. Ward acting inappropriately as executive director of the Center.  He resigned from the Center in the early fall of 2020.”

One last chance

While still furious at USY and USCJ, Soffer said he was forced to put the matter aside as the pandemic directed all of his attention to his work and family.

When the lawyer who filed the two suits against Ward reached out last month, Soffer began to reconsider his options.

Lee, who was also in touch with the lawyer, published a post on Facebook on July 21 in which he expressed his appreciation to USY for providing him with his Jewish identity, along with his utter disappointment with the youth group for “fail[ing] miserably to protect many of its teenage members from staff members who are sexual predators – sometimes despite full knowledge of those staff members’ reputations.”

“Those perverts should be outed. They should have to pay for their crimes,” Lee wrote.

“It’s recently come to my attention that NYS opened a window of opportunity extending the statute of limitations to file claims against these sickos. However, that window closes in just a couple weeks, so there is an urgency in acting quickly. If you were impacted and want to learn more, I am happy to connect you with someone who can help you.”

Lee said three people reached out to say they knew who he was referring to, that Ward had sexually abused them as well, but that they weren’t willing to come forward.

One of them agreed to speak to The Times of Israel, saying he wanted to support Jordan Soffer, but was only comfortable doing so on the condition of anonymity.

This individual, who is several years older than Soffer, related that at a USY convention he attended in high school Ward led him and one other boy into a hotel room.

“It was clear that he wanted us all to masturbate together, and he did it, but we were just kind of there,” he recalled.

The anonymous accuser said he tried not to think about the incident afterward and never discussed it with Ward or the other friend who was in the room with them. “But it for sure happened. You cannot actually forget something like that.”

Asked why he decided to come forward, albeit anonymously, the former USY camper said, “I wouldn’t want Jordan to think he’s the only one or that he’s alone. People should know that it wasn’t just rumor and conjecture. Jordan’s experience was had by other people.”

While USCJ’s spokesperson refused to “comment on pending nor potential litigation,” they issued an additional statement that addressed the issue more broadly:

“Any and all such allegations are taken seriously by USCJ/USY and fully investigated. Nothing could be more important to us than the safety and wellbeing of the young people involved in our programming. Over the past few years, we have put into place policies, procedures and training to assure that USY is an even more safe physical, spiritual and emotional space. Additionally, we continue to further upgrade and review our protocols and training. Our most recent upgrade is complete, new staff training has been implemented for USY staff this summer, our confidential tip line/email (212.533.7813/ confidential@uscj.org) remains open, and we continue to encourage – and support – any person who comes forward to report abuse or inappropriate conduct.”

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