Jewish youth group disavows former director over sexual harassment claims

December 19, 2017 14:50
3 minute read.
USY logo

Logo of United Synagogue Youth.. (photo credit: WIKIMEDIA)


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

The allegations include multiple instances of Gutin inviting USY participants to sleep in his bed, according to Rabbi Steve Wernick, CEO of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. In one instance, Gutin allegedly touched a 17-year-old male while in bed, according to the Jewish News Service.

“The allegations were wide ranging and all inappropriate,” Wernick told JTA. “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.”

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

Gutin, 67, was the international director of USY for two decades, until 2011. More recently, he led trips to Poland for the group. The allegations stem from the 1980s.

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

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

“Jules is renowned for his leadership, creativity, and ability to connect with our teenagers,” organizers of the event 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.”

Gutin is the second USY official to be accused of sexual abuse against teenage participants decades ago. Robert Fisher, 70, 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 is now retired.

One of Fisher’s accusers, David Benkof, told The Jewish Week that as an adult, he reported the allegations to Rabbi Jerome Epstein, who then was executive vice president of USCJ. Epstein claims to have investigated the allegations, though Fisher told The Jewish Week that he never spoke to Epstein about them.

Epstein referred queries from JNS to an attorney for USCJ.

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

When USCJ 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,” 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.”

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