(JTA) – An investigation into sexual abuse and misconduct in the Conservative movement’s youth group programs over the past seven decades identified an “overly sexualized culture” and collected accounts of alleged abuse from 40 victims.
Most of the allegations included in the investigation took place between 1987 and 2019 in the New York City area, and the alleged perpetrators are no longer affiliated with the youth group, according to the report.
The investigation commissioned by the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the movement’s umbrella organization for congregations, was based on documents and interviews with the victims. It turned up allegations of “wrongful sexual contact, reports of grooming, reports of an over sexualized culture, and other boundary-crossing behaviors” at programs run by the movement’s youth group, United Synagogue Youth, known as USY. (The Conservative movement’s network of Ramah camps is not under the United Synagogue’s auspices.)
One section of the 20-page report is dedicated to the culture of sexualization within the Conservative movement’s youth programs and includes reports of inappropriate games and pressure on teens to engage in sexual activity with one another. The report comes amid a time of reckoning over child sexual abuse in the Jewish world. It is the latest in a series of similar investigations commissioned by major Jewish religious organizations that examine sexual misconduct against teens in Jewish youth movements, camps, schools and other institutions.
The report urges USCJ to keep its current practices around protecting children in place. It also urges the organization to improve its implementation of safety measures and record-keeping, and to “advance a healthier culture for teens.”
The investigation did not corroborate the allegations and did not discover “widespread or systematic abuse,” according to the report, which was written by UCSJ and approved by Sarah Worley, the attorney hired to gather information and draft recommendations. No one implicated in the investigation currently works or volunteers at USCJ, according to Worley’s investigation. Every adult accused of sexual misconduct has been barred from future participation.
The report doesn’t name anyone, victim or perpetrator. At least one former employee of the youth group, former USY Nassau County, Long Island, divisional director Ed Ward, is the subject of multiple lawsuits accusing him of sexual abuse of multiple teens. He worked for a USCJ-affiliated synagogue until 2020.
Following an initial report on one of the lawsuits in the Times of Israel in 2021, additional allegations against Ward emerged. USCJ and USY are named as co-defendants in that lawsuit. A second suit alleges that Ward’s abuse took place as recently as 2018. Days after those allegations were published, USCJ launched its investigation into misconduct at USY. The Times of Israel said Ward did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
“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,” Rabbi Jordan Soffer, one of Ward’s alleged accusers, told the Times of Israel in 2021. Describing a time when he says Ward took him into a bathroom and masturbated in front of him, he said, “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.”
Rabbi Jacob Blumenthal, CEO of the USCJ, said in a statement on Wednesday’s report, “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.”
The bulk of recent misconduct reported to Worley took place in the New York City area and was allegedly committed by two perpetrators, while the programs on the West Coast saw more cases in earlier decades.
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 unnamed 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, an allegation that was made against Ward in 2021. Allegations in the 2010s included groping of a teen by a staff member and sharing of a graphic video.
The report also describes a culture in which teens felt pressure to engage in sexual activity with each other. In particular, the report describes the “Point System,” in which participants in USY activities received a certain number of “points” for “hooking up” with another USY member, based on that member’s position in the youth group. Similar systems exist in other Jewish youth groups as well. “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,” the report says.
“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 says.
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. PJC