Conservative group cuts ties with former director accused of inappropriate sexual behavior

Conservative group cuts ties with former director accused of inappropriate sexual behavior

United Synagogue Youth, the Conservative movement’s youth group, has cut ties with Jules Gutin of Teaneck, its former longtime director, after some former members accused him of long-ago inappropriate sexual behavior.

The allegations claim that Mr. Gutin invited USY participants to sleep in his bed in the late 1980s, according to Rabbi Steven Wernick, CEO of United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, which runs USY. In one instance, Mr. Gutin allegedly touched a 17-year-old boy while in bed, according to the Jewish News Service.

“The allegations were wide ranging and all inappropriate,” Rabbi Wernick said. “There are allegations in which Jules and a USYer shared a bed, and what happened there. There is more than one allegation. It’s all inappropriate, even from being in the bed.

“Even if they were in the bed and nothing happened, that’s still inappropriate.”

Rabbi Wernick said that at the end of an extended email exchange in which he did not confirm or deny the allegations, Mr. Gutin said they were not true. The New York Jewish Week was the first to report that United Synagogue was severing ties with Mr. Gutin. JTA left unanswered messages with Mr. Gutin seeking comment.

Mr. Gutin, 67, was the international director of USY for two decades, leaving in 2011. More recently, he led trips to Poland for the group.

The allegations first emerged last month, and USY suspended Mr. Gutin in late November as it investigated the matter. USY severed ties with him on December 5, and set up a hotline for victims of sexual harassment and assault in the organization.

Mr. Gutin is the second USY official to be accused of sexual abuse against teenage participants decades ago. Robert Fisher, 70, a former director of the group’s Pacific Southwest Region, is accused of inviting at least three boys to sleep in his bed and touching at least one of them inappropriately, according to The Jewish Week. He also pressured at least one teen into undressing for him.

Fisher told The Jewish Week that the allegations were true. He ended his affiliation with USCJ in 2002 and now is retired.

One of Fisher’s accusers, David Benkof, who used to write crossword puzzles for the Jewish Standard, told the Jewish Week that as an adult, he reported the allegations to Rabbi Jerome Epstein, who then was United Synagogue’s executive vice president. Rabbi Epstein claims to have investigated the allegations, though Fisher told the Jewish Week that he never spoke to Rabbi Epstein about them.

Rabbi Epstein referred queries from JNS to an attorney for United Synagogue.

Since setting up its hotline earlier this month, Rabbi Wernick said that United Synagogue has received a call every day or two. While many of the calls relate to abuse perpetrated by Mr. Fisher or Mr. Gutin, others have implicated synagogue staff members or people outside the Conservative movement.

When United Synagogue is able to find two independent corroborations of an allegation, they refer it to the synagogue where the alleged perpetrator worked.

“We’re not the church and we’re not an investigative agency,” Rabbi Wernick said. “We do believe we have a moral obligation when approached to pass on information and encourage a synagogue to do an investigation. It’s up to them to figure out their own process.”

“What I find interesting about all the allegations that have been made against both Jules Gutin and Bob Fisher is that they’re all in the same general time period, the mid-to-late 80s to the early 90s, ’92 or ’93. There’s a pattern, but the pattern is very narrowly defined to this particular timeframe at the moment, to people that were boys, that were in high leadership roles, and also had other vulnerabilities,” Rabbi Wernick said.

Mr. Gutin, a popular figure in the Conservative movement and in USY for most of his life, was honored at a gala in Teaneck when USY celebrated its 60th anniversary in 2011.

“Jules is renowned for his leadership, creativity, and ability to connect with our teenagers,” gala organizers wrote at the time in a Facebook post that attracted dozens of favorable comments. “Under Jules’s leadership, USY and Kadima have flourished and alumni throughout the world refer to him as their mentor, citing his influence in their choices and successes achieved in their adult lives.”

But even though the alleged abuses took place a long time ago, Rabbi Wernick said, “We felt we have a responsibility — especially today in the larger context of the society in which we live — to communicate to our network that we take allegations seriously and that we’re going to respond to them thoroughly and transparently and confidentially. Having the hotline and confidential emails helps us do that.”

In contemporary USY practice, he said, “at the beginning of every Shabbaton we review the code of conduct and our values about human dignity and respect. In every person’s registration materials, and attached to the name badges, is the name and phone number of a senior staff member who functions as a youth protection officer.

“They’re advised that should they feel bullied or harassed or made to feel uncomfortable for whatever reason at the convention, they are to contact that person and we will work with them to address it.”

JTA Wire Service

Larry Yudelson contributed to this story

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