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 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.org 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 adviser.
According to an email dated Nov. 21, 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 the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism was “totally justified” in suspending him from staffing any of its programs, and concluded the email, “Once again I am sorry.”
Rabbi Steven Wernick, CEO of USCJ, and his staff have been in touch with the alleged victim 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 a confidential hotline to report incidents of sexual abuse.
One alleged victim told JNS.org that Gutin 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 said 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 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 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 received “heavy traffic” and allegations against Gutin as well as Bob 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 prevent abuse or report it.
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.
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, who is the associate publisher and editor of The Jewish Link of New Jersey and The Jewish Link of Bronx, Westchester and Connecticut wrote this article for JNS.org.