Charges of sexual harassment always are shocking and sad, but never more so than when they are linked with a school or a camp — a place parents chose to nurture and inspire their children. A place parents trust.
When that trust is violated, who bears the responsibility?
That question is very much at issue in the case of Leonard Robinson, the former executive director of the New Jersey Y Camps, who was forced to resign in April after allegations of sexual misconduct surfaced. Although an independent investigation into the allegations was completed in September, its conclusions became public only when the head of the MetroWest federation read the report and called on the entire board of NJY Camps to resign.
The investigators’ report “is a shameful, damning, heart-breaking and miserable study in leadership failure,” Dov Ben-Shimon, the executive vice president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest, wrote in a letter to his leadership just over a week ago. His letter was obtained by the Jewish Week. NJY Camps is a partner agency of the MetroWest federation, which covers mainly Essex and Union counties.
According to Mr. Ben-Shimon’s letter, the report unearthed 11 cases in which Mr. Robinson “harassed, abused, mistreated, intimidated and harmed women” during his 25-year tenure as NJY’s top executive. Mr. Ben-Shimon also wrote, citing the investigation, that Mr. Robinson would use “NJY funds” to “pay off victims.”
As a result, Peter Horowitz, who now is the president of NJY Camps, urged all 60 members of his board to join him in resigning for allowing Mr. Robinson “to operate for far too long without any real oversight, creating an environment in which his abuse of others was allowed to go unchecked.”
Jason Shames, the CEO of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey, which covers Bergen, Hudson, and parts of Passaic counties, has mixed feelings about a wholesale resignation. Clearly, he said, “the people who knew should resign.” Both those board members who did or should have known what was going on and Mr. Robinson “should be punished. What Len did was horrific and inexcusable.” And, without doubt, “the NJY board failed in its obligation.”
But, he said, what about “the legitimate newer younger people on board who walked into an existing culture?” That culture, he explained, was one where Mr. Robinson “took advantage of the fact that the board trusted him and gave him leeway.
“The camp was running well. It led to a bit too much authority for professional staff. Over time, there was a breakdown in oversight.
“Every board has its own set of bylaws,” Mr. Shames said, as well as the government and IRS standards that they are legally obligated to meet. But different boards operate differently, and some concern themselves mainly with fundraising, fiduciary matters, or organizational design. But no matter where their focus lay, he said, “the NJY board failed in its obligation. The people who knew should resign.”
It’s complicated, he acknowledged. “These issues are more commonplace now than even five years ago. Society is becoming less tolerant of inequities. It’s clear that people who 20 years ago would [have dismissed any rumors] would not find that acceptable anymore.”
How, then, could such misconduct persist? “Because over time there was general satisfaction with how Len was functioning. He was doing a great job.
“The problem is with the board members who heard rumors and didn’t do anything.”
Mr. Shames, whose organization provides funding that helps many children go to the NJY camps, also said he feels strongly that the misbehavior of Robinson and the board “has to be separated out from kids having a positive Jewish experience in the summer.
“`The kids shouldn’t be penalized,” he said. “There’s no camp in New Jersey that attracts as many Jewish kids for positive Jewish experiences as they do. The board needs to be dealt with and Len needs to pay a price. The kids do not.”
Jeremy Fingerman of Englewood, the CEO of the Foundation for Jewish Camp, said the FJC “is working collaboratively with Jewish Community Centers Association, the leadership of the local NJ Jewish Federations, and the board and staff of NJY Camps to assist in the effective transition to an interim governing board.
“Together, we all share a commitment to ensuring NJY Camps — the largest Jewish overnight camp — continue to provide high-quality, safe, and joy-filled Jewish summers for the more than 6,000 campers they serve.”