(December 15, 2017 / JNS)
The congregational arm of Conservative Judaism has severed ties with the longtime director of the denomination’s youth movement after receiving “multiple testimonies” that corroborated an allegation of sexual abuse.
Allegations about Jules Gutin, 67, who in 2011 completed his 20-year tenure as international director of United Synagogue Youth (USY) and since 2012 had conducted tours of Poland for USY, first came to light Nov. 9 through a Facebook post by a man who claimed that someone who worked with thousands of teens had abused him in the 1980s. After confirming with the man that he was referring to Gutin in his post, JNS communicated with several other men who alleged that they were underage victims of unwanted sexual touch by Gutin during that decade.
“Two of my USYers have said very similar things to me over the years, and named the same name,” said Arnie Draiman, a former USY youth advisor.
According to an email dated Nov. 21 that was obtained by JNS, Gutin asked the man who made the initial accusation on Facebook not to name him or USY in communication with the media in order to “spare my family from pain” and avoid “any harm to an organization we both love.”
“Whatever points you want to make would be just as powerful without people knowing the specific individual,” Gutin wrote to his accuser. He also wrote that USCJ was “totally justified” in suspending him from staffing any of its programs, and concluded the email, “Once again I am sorry.”
Earlier this month, when The New York Jewish Week first reported that Gutin had been terminated by the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (USCJ) due to sexual abuse allegations, the casual reader might have missed the news.
The development on Gutin appeared in the third-to-last paragraph of an article about an entirely separate abuser, Bob Fisher, who has since admitted to misconduct with children who participated in USY during the 1980s and 1990s. In fact, the initial accusation of abuse was connected to Gutin, not Fisher, and the Gutin allegation was what prompted USCJ to set up a confidential phone hotline and email address in November with the goals of uncovering alleged instances of sexual abuse and investigating their veracity.
After its investigation, USCJ terminated the contract employing Gutin.
Rabbi Steven Wernick, CEO of USCJ, and his staff initially tried unsuccessfully to contact the alleged victim, but they have since been in touch with him and have had multiple conversations. The abuse allegedly occurred 33 years ago, when the victim was 17 years old and Gutin was 34.
When USCJ first learned of the allegation last month and had two conversations with Gutin, he was suspended from his duties. At that point, USCJ established its hotline.
“We had three communications with Jules. In the first two communications, there was equivocation and phrases like, ‘I do not recall,’” but in the final communication, an email, Gutin denied the allegations, Wernick told JNS.
Yet Wernick said there were “multiple testimonies that corroborated what was said to us originally. Jules answered those questions with statements such as, ‘By today’s standards, some of the ways in which USY handled sleeping arrangements would not be allowed today.’”
One alleged victim told JNS, for example, that Gutin had invited him to stay in his home while his family was away, and they slept in the same bed. The victim claimed that Gutin touched him, prompting him to leave the room abruptly. He said that he reported the alleged incident to people in his region, “but I was one small voice and it would have been his word against mine.”
“Our investigation led us to sever the relationship with [Gutin] permanently. We found the allegations to be substantive,” Wernick said.
Gutin told JNS that under his guidance, USY instituted strict guidelines for staff and student contact during and around 1996-1997 following an incident that took place during USY on Wheels, a summer bus touring program. He expressed concern about people who felt that they had been wronged in some way and claimed he was not aware of any allegations other than the Facebook post that did not name him.
USY, like the Orthodox Union’s NCSY and the Union for Reform Judaism’s NFTY, provides social programming and educational events for students primarily from ages 14-18.
In the Orthodox Union’s youth arm, NCSY, strict protocols on this issue have been in place since 2001, following the guilty verdict and seven-year-imprisonment of former national NCSY director Baruch Lanner for child sexual abuse. The Reform movement’s NFTY also has such protocols in place, as do all accredited camps and schools. Gutin said NCSY had contacted USY when it was establishing its guidelines on abuse, and it utilized some of USY’s information in forming its own protocols in the wake of the Lanner case.
According to Wernick, USCJ’s hotline—managed by Vivian Lewis, the organization’s senior director of human resources—received “heavy traffic” and allegations against Gutin as well as Fisher, former director of the Far West USY region.
The allegations against Gutin and Fisher, Wernick stated, centered around the 1980s and early 1990s—before USY or any national Jewish youth organization had protocols and handbooks in place to appropriately prevent abuse or report it.
“We don’t have any records for that time period concerning these allegations,” said Wernick, noting that he tried to find a paper trail of anything discussed in the same Jewish Week article that revealed Gutin’s termination. That article primarily detailed allegations of Fisher’s misconduct that were reported in 2001 by David Benkof, a former USY international youth president, to Rabbi Jerome Epstein, then USCJ’s executive director. Gutin and Fisher had significant overlap in their years of employment for USY, but there is no evidence that Gutin was aware of any allegations against Fisher.
“I even went so far as to check if our general counsel at the time had the records, but that person is deceased. And this time period, in terms of what attorneys would have to keep…they would have long since destroyed these records,” Wernick said.
Benkof, who now feels his comments fell on deaf ears when he reported the allegations to Epstein, expressed skepticism about USCJ’s new hotline.
“There needs to be a way for victims to come forward, but the address should be in the media, law enforcement, or an outside company or Jewish organization,” Benkof told JNS. “The organization that faces civil action is the last organization that should be in charge of gathering the information.”
“The United Synagogue has a financial interest in silencing victims,” he added. “I believe they are using the hotline to do to other victims what Rabbi Jerry Epstein did to me when I reported what I knew about Bob Fisher in 2001, while Bob still worked for the organization: He told me I was yotzei (a Hebrew word meaning that one’s obligation has been fulfilled), thus convincing me I need not act further.”
Epstein declined comment when contacted by JNS, referring the matter to an attorney who participated in the phone interview between JNS and Wernick.
Wernick said the steps USCJ has taken in response to the allegations have gone “beyond any mandated reporting in terms of criminal liability. We are beyond anything we can do from an additional perspective other than severing our relationship with [Gutin].” Any awards given in the name of Gutin or Fisher have been discontinued, said Wernick.
The USCJ leader elaborated, “We talk in a language of chiyuv (obligation). If a person accused of these things continues to have a relationship with your organization, you have to separate, to assure the safety of people in your charge. Harassment issues, these kinds of issues, are not just for your staff, they are about anyone in your orbit.”
In 2011, two years after Wernick started his post at USCJ, the organization instituted new protocols for preventing and dealing with accusations of abuse. Staffers have a handbook providing guidelines for appropriate behavior with USY youths, and are required to sign a statement that they have read the handbook and have agreed to its policies. They are required to sign again if the handbook is updated.
Wernick said he is confident that USY now does everything in its power to keep students safe.
“All staff have to have a background check before being hired, and USY now has a youth protection officer assigned at every USY event,” he said. “Every USYer has that person’s phone number so they have an advocate if they feel threatened in any way, by anyone. USY is a safe place.”
Elizabeth Kratz is the associate publisher and editor of The Jewish Link of New Jersey and The Jewish Link of Bronx, Westchester and Connecticut.