Probe into Conservative Jewish youth group finds ‘hypersexualized culture’

Inquiry following ToI exposé on decades-long abuse scandal identifies 41 alleged incidents of sexual misconduct by adults at USY, but concludes issues not systemic

Illustrative: A young woman sits alone (torwai; iStock by Getty Images)
Illustrative: A young woman sits alone (torwai; iStock by Getty Images)

An investigation commissioned by an umbrella group for Conservative Judaism to investigate the handling of alleged mistreatment of minors by the movement’s flagship youth organization in the US found it harbored an “overly sexualized culture,” after collecting dozens of accounts of abuse, misconduct, or boundary crossing behaviors.

However, the inquiry into the United Synagogue Youth (USY) movement also concluded that there was no systemic wrongdoing and that just a handful of people were responsible for almost all cases of misconduct.

The investigation was commissioned by the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (USCJ) in August 2021 after The Times of Israel published an exposé on decades of alleged abuse that had taken place inside USY by a senior staffer. At least four civil suits were filed against USY, a branch of USCJ, over its handling of the alleged abuse.

The probe was carried out by Sarah Worley, an outside attorney who interviewed over 100 alleged victims and witnesses. Her findings were compiled in a report released by USCJ on Wednesday.

Over a year and a half, Worley spoke with 22 alleged victims and identified 18 other alleged victims who did not come forward, the report said. In all, she collected testimony on 41 alleged cases of misconduct, including from one person who reported two incidents.

While the scope of the 20-page report covered all 70 years of USY’s existence, most of the allegations included in the investigation took place between 1987 and 2019 in the New York City area, and all of the alleged perpetrators are no longer affiliated with the youth group.

Most of the reported misconduct was perpetrated by the same five people, Worley found. The report did not name any of the accused individuals or alleged victims, nor did it corroborate the allegations that were made. However, Worley said that all of the individuals who provided testimony appeared credible.

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

The report said that Worley “did not find evidence of systemic or widespread abuse beyond the individual incidents” and that USY had handled sexual misconduct allegations appropriately in recent years.

The testimony she received included allegations that USY staffers or adult volunteers had engaged in inappropriate sexual contact, grooming, and boundary-crossing behavior with minors.

The report described a culture within the youth group in which teens felt pressure to engage in sexual activity with each other. It pointed out the existence of a “Point System,” in which participants in USY activities were awarded a score for having a tryst with another USY member, based on that member’s position in the youth group.

Similar systems exist in other Jewish youth groups as well and hook-up culture among teens is not unique to USY.

While the game was unsanctioned, its existence was well-known among staffers, Worley found.

“Multiple victim/survivors and others reported their concern with the Point System and offered it as an example of the hypersexualized culture that they believe pervades USY and its programs,” according to the report.

“Some explained that sexualized ‘traditions’ had been developed and passed down over generations, and in some instances, victim/survivors said they felt torn between their reluctance to participate in these traditions and their sense that, as teens in the Conservative movement, their participation was expected,” the report said.

Among the cases summarized in the report was a victim who said that an adult staff member threatened to blackmail them with a graphic photograph while at camp in the 1980s.

In the 1990s, one adult staff member allegedly sexually assaulted teens across four separate incidents. Five reports to Worley said that a single staff member encouraged teen campers to masturbate as a group in the 2000s. Allegations in the 2010s included groping of a teen by a staff member and a graphic video being shared.

Only one of the allegations of sexual misconduct occurred since 2020. The misconduct involved an adult staff member grooming a teen through text messages.

The Conservative movement’s investigation overlapped with a similar reckoning taking place in the Reform Movement, which carried out three investigations into sexual misconduct, including one that was focused on Reform youth programs.

Rabbi Jacob Blumenthal, who heads USCJ, said in a Wednesday statement, “We fully condemn past misconduct as reported to Ms. Worley and we remain committed to providing a safe and enriching environment for our Jewish teens without exception.”

Jordan Soffer, a former USY participant whose initial testimony in the August 2021 exposé led to the USCJ investigation said Thursday that he was grateful to Worley “for the time and effort she put in to make sure that the victims were heard.”

“Despite this part of my experience, USY remains a bedrock of my Jewish identity. I pray that this is the first step in healing, and in USY’s process of institutional self-reflection. I hope they hear our plea that they no longer undermine their holy mission by enabling those who seek to take advantage of it,” he said.

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