More victims, lawsuits and mounting anger at USY after ToI report alleging abuse

Conservative movement vows probe, suspends 2 staffers, as more alleged victims of longtime official surface; Jordan Soffer, 1st to speak out, says USY, USCJ haven’t contacted him

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

Illustrative photo (iStock)
Illustrative photo (iStock)

NEW YORK — A Times of Israel report last week revealing allegations of child sexual abuse spanning decades by a leader in the US Conservative movement’s United Synagogue Youth branch has prompted eight more individuals to reach out to share allegations of abuse at the hands of former USY Nassau County divisional director Ed Ward.

In addition to those eight, two other individuals have filed new civil suits against Ward, USY and its parent movement, United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism  — bringing to a total of four the number of plaintiffs seeking damages for alleged sexual abuse that they argue should have been prevented by Ward’s employers. The two latest cases were submitted on Friday, hours before the expiration of the so-called “look-back window” created by New York State’s Child Victims Act, which granted child sex abuse victims additional time to file civil suits against their alleged abusers.

Rabbi Jordan Soffer, who was the first person to speak on the record about Ward’s alleged abuse, told ToI he has heard from dozens of people sharing stories similar to his in recent days. He said no one from USY or USCJ had reached out to him since he came forward.

This week, USCJ issued a pair of statements announcing an independent investigation into the allegations, the suspension of two officials who allegedly failed to report Ward after being notified of his alleged abuse, and an assurance to members that it was taking the matter seriously.

“The trust Eddie built with me was so strong and manipulative that what he did to me sort of felt normal, and I didn’t realize I was a victim until reading and processing the article,” said one of the eight further alleged victims, who was active in USY in the early 2000s and with whom ToI spoke after the publication of last week’s report. He and the seven others spoke on condition of anonymity due to unease over the sexual nature of the alleged crimes, with some of them expressing concerns of legal retaliation.

One of the fresh civil suits alleges crimes that took place between 2016 and 2018, which would be within the statute of limitations for the filing of criminal charges. The attorney representing the 20-year-old alleged victim did not say whether criminal charges would be pursued as well.

After declining to comment on the specific allegations raised in last Thursday’s report and instead pointing to newly instituted policies aimed at creating a safe space for its participants, USCJ issued a lengthy statement Monday in which it announced the suspensions of staff or volunteers identified in the report “as possibly knowledgeable of [the sex abuse allegations] and who did not take appropriate action.”

The statement, which opened by stressing that “the experiences reported absolutely do not reflect in any sense the values that we represent as a Jewish institution,” received a largely cold response from many alleged victims, who recognized the precarious nature USCJ now finds itself mid-litigation but argued that the Conservative movement failed to show empathy to those allegedly targeted by one of its staff members.

“USCJ seems to have heard the victims’ pain, but not our anguish,” said Soffer.

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

Several of those who spoke to ToI took pains to stress that they weren’t doing so in order to damage the organization that helped shape them as youths, but were seeking a level of accountability that they felt USCJ, as further evidenced by the statement, did not provide.

Late Tuesday night, a USCJ spokesperson sent ToI an additional statement, saying the organization was “well aware of the intensity of feeling and pain reflected in the recent article published in the Times of Israel, well understand the close scrutiny of our response, and are committed to restoring the trust of the community in our programs and staff.”

Ward did not respond to a request for comment on the new allegations and lawsuits.

From shock to anger

Reactions from one group of friends to the news regarding their former youth group adviser appeared to encapsulate how many former USYers active when Ward held prominent roles in the 1990s and early 2000s have been feeling over the past few days.

The seven friends who met in USY have maintained a WhatsApp group and have stayed in touch since graduating from the youth group over a decade and a half ago. They agreed to share screenshots of their conversation after the article came out on Thursday, on the condition that identifying information was removed.

After one of them sent a link to the story, another responded, “everything [Jordan] said rings true to me.”

“Agreed,” said another group member.

Screenshots of an August 13, 2021, WhatsApp conversation between a group of friends who met in USY reacting to a ToI report revealing that their former divisional director Ed Ward allegedly sexually abused members of their youth group. (Courtesy)

“I’m literally holding back tears right now. I always hated Eddie. He was a creep, but I never said anything. I never complained because he never did anything physical to me. He just kind of talked about things that were uncomfortable. And when he saw that I didn’t like him, he shunned me,” a third participant said.

“Eddie called me a couple times and wanted to jerk off on the phone together. Also invited me into a hotel room with maybe 5-6 other guys at [weekend retreat] to jerk off,” a fourth member chimed in.

“Wow this is heartbreaking… I can’t even articulate what I’m feeling,” added another member.

‘I cannot quantify the number of interactions’

Most of the alleged victims who reached out to ToI in the past several days offered stories of Ward’s abuse that were somewhat similar to what was previously reported — online chat rooms, phone calls and in-person group masturbation sessions that the USY staffer participated in.

Some of the alleged incidents they described, though, were more severe, and took place one-on-one.

Joey (a pseudonym), said Ward invited him to his hotel room at a USY convention where the counselor told him to masturbate so he’d be able to “last longer” when hooking up with a girl afterward.

Ward also watched while high school USYers played a game of “Ookie Cookie” where each of them ejaculated onto a cookie and whoever finished last had to eat it, Joey recalled.

Two alleged victims confided that Ward had coaxed them to touch him in one-on-one settings and that he touched them. Both compared the level of sophistication of Ward’s alleged abuse to that carried out by former US gymnastics coach Larry Nassar against hundreds of girls and young women.

In this file photo from November 22, 2017, Dr. Larry Nassar appears in court for a plea hearing in Lansing, Michigan. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya, File)

There were particular individuals who were allegedly targeted continuously by Ward throughout their years in USY, several alleged victims revealed.

“I cannot even quantify the number of (inappropriate sexual) interactions,” said Avi (pseudonym). “I think that it was almost so frequent that it’s hard to look back on it now and pinpoint specific instances.”

Avi recalled an alleged “grooming” process that started in his early USY days, with Ward first building a personal relationship that was not sexual. He then progressed to encouraging Avi to participate in group masturbation sessions, which the alleged victim said “normalized” the concept for him because his other friends were doing it along with Ward. It then escalated to private interactions, where Avi described feeling “trapped” by Ward.

“I don’t want it to sound that USY was an unsafe place… but there were a lot of holes that created an environment that allowed this to happen, and I didn’t know where to go to report it,” he said.

Avi remained in touch with Ward until recently but he said the sexual encounters ended around when he graduated high school — a detail repeated by other victims who spoke to ToI.

“The trust that Eddie built with me was so strong and manipulative that it felt very normal. I never really felt like a victim until now,” he said.

While he never discussed the matter with any of his friends until last week’s report, Avi said he knew of 25 others who were active in USY around the same period as he was and who were also allegedly victimized by Ward.

“I speculate that there were hundreds who have been impacted in some form throughout Eddie’s entire time at USY,” he added.

“Hundreds” was the same scale alleged by David Rifkin, a former USYer active in the late 1990s, in a Facebook post earlier this week.

“This was not an isolated incident, Eddie Ward was a sexual predator who attacked hundreds of teenagers over decades and USY allowed it to stand,” Rifkin said.

‘Jewish values’

In its Monday statement, USCJ updated members on its three-pronged response to the allegations made in last week’s report:

It was engaging a “third party agency to take over our reporting hotline operations, ensuring further accountability.”

It was “engaging an independent investigator to review and further investigate all the information we have received, to determine what happened and any current staff or volunteers involved. We will follow up immediately upon receiving recommendations from the independent consultant.”

It also said it was suspending staff and volunteers named in the ToI report as having allegedly failed to report Ward upon being notified. A USCJ spokesperson confirmed that the two individuals placed on leave were New York regional engagement associate Bruce Varon and Kadima engagement associate Mike Hirsch.

USCJ then referred to its “constantly reviewed and updated” protocols for keeping participants safe, including staff training, the assignment of a “youth protection officer,” background checks for employees and guidelines for staffing events, as well as a prohibition on staffers hosting USYers at their homes — something that happened regularly when Ward was divisional director, according to his alleged victims.

“Last week began the month of Elul, a prelude to the Season of Repentance. The Shaarei Teshuvah teaches that repentance requires that we ‘hear the words of the one who reprimands them, and accepts upon themselves… to do as he is taught’ (2:10). USY hears the words of victims in the article last week and commits to running programs that meet the very highest standards of health and safety,” the statement added.

Jordan Soffer. (Courtesy)

Soffer: Little confidence there will be enduring change

Despite its detailed nature, the response deeply disappointed Soffer and his brother Lee, who also came forward in last week’s story to make allegations of sexual misconduct against Ward.

“I am glad to see that USY is committed to making sure that this can never happen again. Ensuring it doesn’t happen again, however, must begin with recognition and empathy. Their failure to acknowledge that this happened, and their failure to express any empathy for their graduates, gives me little faith that there will be enduring change,” Jordan Soffer told ToI, lamenting the fact that no one from USY or USCJ had reached out since he came forward. He published an additional post on Facebook in which he reflected in greater detail on the matter.

He added that he had heard from dozens of people sharing stories similar to his in recent days.

David Rifkin blasted the USCJ statement’s lack of “compassion for those impacted” and derided its inclusion of a request for donations to USY on the side.

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

Others took aim at the statement’s assertion that the “experiences reported” do not represent the “values” of USCJ.

“While the experiences may not represent the values, they do reflect the reality of our USY experience,” wrote Lee Soffer in a Facebook post.

Another alleged victim, who asked not to be named, said he had a hard time “believing that this doesn’t represent their values.”

“A key value they always talked about was the prevention of intermarriage, and this was realized in part through the creation of a hypersexualized environment where hooking up [with other USY members] was encouraged,” he said.

“The promotion of this value had the exact opposite effect they intended and scarred me for a long time,” the alleged victim continued, adding that he is no longer involved in organized Judaism, in part because of what he experienced at USY.

Illustrative: Members of USY celebrating at the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism’s 2015 convention. (Andrew Langdal via JTA)

Others have remained religiously involved, though. Avi (a pseudonym) said he still identifies as a Conservative Jew and that until the article was published, he “absolutely” saw his children getting involved in USY one day. While he’s still processing the alleged abuse as detailed last week, he said his position on the matter would depend on how USY responds to the latest revelations and whether those implicated “are held accountable.”

Eliminating need for retelling such stories

In its subsequent Tuesday night statement to ToI, in which it recognized “the intensity of feeling and pain reflected” in last week’s article along with the “close scrutiny of our response,” USCJ added, “As we have repeatedly said but cannot say often enough, nothing is more important to us than the safety and well-being of the young people in our programs.”

“To that end, we have not only adopted stringent policies to safeguard our program participants but will be engaging an independent investigator to insure that everyone’s story is heard.”

“It is our sincerest hope that these steps will eliminate any need for the retelling of any such stories anew in the future, God forbid,” USCJ said.

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