By Felicity Barringer (New York Times)
July 10, 2000
Most of a recent front page of The Jewish Week, the largest Jewish newspaper in the country, had a distinctly uplifting tone: "Racing to Rescue the Sephardic Past." "Catholic-Jewish Dialogue Reaches New Heights." "The Jewish Family in 2000."
All in all, it seemed to fit a newspaper whose subscribers are mostly regular contributors to the United Jewish Appeal philanthropy. But one headline in the June 23 issue was not like the others.
Under the words "Stolen Innocence," the newspaper's editor and publisher, Gary Rosenblatt, wrote 4,000 words extensively documenting accusations that a "brilliant, charismatic and dynamic" rabbi in Paramus, N.J., had abused teenagers in his charge, emotionally, sexually and physically. The article also quoted his accusers' contentions that the rabbi, Baruch Lanner, had been shielded for decades by his superiors in the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations, commonly known as the Orthodox Union, the most visible national organization in the Orthodox branch of Judaism.
Although Rabbi Lanner disputes many of the charges, either denying them or saying that he has no recollection of specific encounters dating back 20 or more years, his superiors announced, on the day the article appeared, that they had accepted Rabbi Lanner's resignation as director of regions of the National Conference of Synagogue Youth. The Orthodox Union, which operates the youth group, has since appointed an independent commission to investigate the assertions.
But for some of the 90,000 subscribers of The Jewish Week, most of whom live in or near New York City, the newspaper and its editors were the villains. One letter to the editor said, "You are giving the families of teens from nonobservant homes the opportunity to completely remove their children from anything that has to do with Torah."
Like reporters and editors at other publications devoted to religious groups or secular causes, observant Jewish journalists like Mr. Rosenblatt are dual citizens of sometimes conflicting worlds. They pledge allegiance to the imperatives of an aggressive press. They also believe in a mission -- in this case, celebrating Jewish life and abiding by Jewish law, one of whose tenets discourages "lashon hara," or malicious gossip, even if the gossip is true.
"The first commandment of a journalist is to probe, uncover, explore," Mr. Rosenblatt said. "The first commandment in the Jewish organizational world is pretty much the opposite: to present the united front. 'We are one.' That crystallizes the dilemma."
Phil Jacobs, the editor of The Baltimore Jewish Times and a former protege of Mr. Rosenblatt, said: "When I started working with Gary in 1982 we used to kid each other that there was an 11th commandment. No. 11 was Thou Shalt Not Air Thy Dirty Laundry. What we found then was that if you read the Jewish press, Jews were perfect people. They never got AIDS; they never did drugs; they never beat their wives."
Gradually, however, Jewish newspapers became comfortable with uncomfortable information. "I did a cover on these Orthodox teens -- how they were heavily into Ecstasy and all kinds of drugs," Mr. Jacobs said, recalling an article from last fall. "I was told that if that story runs in The Baltimore Jewish Times, you will become persona non grata in the Orthodox community." After publication, he recalled: "Some people canceled their subscriptions. Some people said it was sensationalist. It was lashon hara, they said."
Mr. Jacobs's experience is not unusual. For The Detroit Jewish News, a recent flashpoint was a report on declining enrollment at a local religious day school. For The Jewish Journal, in Los Angeles, it was a mid-1990's report on the heavy staffing and overhead costs of a leading charity. For The Chicago Jewish News, there were accusations of money laundering at a kosher restaurant.
In 1996, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, a news service to which nearly 100 Jewish newspapers subscribe, ran a five-part series on sexual misconduct entitled "When Rabbis Go Astray."
"It ran during the High Holidays," Lisa Hostein, the editor of the news service, said last week. And she recalled the typical response: "How could you, at this time, be writing about such a terrible thing?"
Such a sense of possession of the Jewish press perhaps reflects many of the newspapers' financial ties to Jewish philanthropy. Though Jewish papers in cities like Baltimore, Detroit and Atlanta are independently owned, others, including those in Los Angeles and New York, have direct ties to various regional federations of the United Jewish Appeal.
The Jewish Week charges its 30,000 direct subscribers $36 to $41 annually, depending on where they live; 60,000 more get subscriptions by giving $36 or more to the United Jewish Appeal. Still, Mr. Rosenblatt emphasizes the pledge of The Jewish Times that it is "an independent community newspaper."
His lean face creased with a worried frown, Mr. Rosenblatt sorted through sheaves of mail last week in his office in Times Square. Almost all dealt with the issues posed by the article about Rabbi Lanner.
Even the rabbi's detractors agree that his magnetic, eclectic intelligence drew teenagers to him, and sometimes to a closer sense of their Jewishness. Some accusers acknowledge his charisma but told Mr. Rosenblatt that the rabbi's actions had driven them from Judaism.
Mr. Rosenblatt did not succeed in persuading the rabbi to comment for the investigative article. Both Mr. Rosenblatt and Rabbi Lanner said last week that Mr. Rosenblatt called the rabbi about six days before the publication of the article and offered three dates for an interview. Rabbi Lanner, declining to be interviewed alone, said he sought to postpone the interview until a chosen witness could accompany him. Although Mr. Rosenblatt said he had explained there was a deadline, the rabbi said he had not known that by postponing the meeting he would lose his chance to comment before publication.
The article went to press quoting, by name, 10 people, most in their 30's and 40's. They said that, as teenagers, they had experienced either violence by the rabbi or sexually aggressive behavior by him.
In his interview with The New York Times, Rabbi Lanner went over each of the assertions, mostly from the 1970's and 80's. Asked about specifics of seven cases in which he was said to have propositioned or threatened young girls, including two who said he had struck them, he said: "I have no recollection of that" or "I don't remember that."
As for another incident referred to in the article, Rabbi Lanner did acknowledge that, as a high school principal, he had kneed a male student in the groin. But he said it was an inadvertent result of "horseplay."
The absence of action against Rabbi Lanner over the years by leaders of the Orthodox Union was perhaps the most inflammatory part of the Jewish Week article. "What upsets me the most," Dr. Mel Isaacs of the Hebrew Academy of Nassau County said in a letter to the editor, "is the lack of response by those in charge."
Dr. Mandell Ganchrow, a retired surgeon who is president of the Orthodox Union, said last week that he could not discuss specifics until the newly appointed commission had finished its investigation.
The Jewish Week and New York's other two Jewish newspapers, The Forward and The Jewish Press, "have a function and for the most part they perform well," Dr. Ganchrow said. "Sometimes they sensationalize." But, he said, "The author and editor -- they really have to weigh the harm versus the benefits."
The Lanner article reported that as the publication date neared, Mr. Rosenblatt was approached by various community leaders arguing against printing it. Mr. Rosenblatt, who is an Orthodox Jew, said that before publishing he had consulted an expert in Jewish law to help decide if the piece would constitute lashon hara. He said he was told that sometimes the need to protect individuals can outweigh the prohibition on malicious gossip.
Though the response to the article has been largely supportive, he said, some high-profile figures have been openly critical.