I have called the East Coast my home for almost 20 years. However, most friends of mine know I grew up in Southern California, where, in addition to still having family there, I maintain many friendships from my childhood and high school years. I credit a fair few of my universally great high school era memories to my participation in Far West USY, the regional youth movement for the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.
Therefore, I don’t need to use my skills as a journalist to react to the Far West-world-shattering story that Gary Rosenblatt broke this week in The New York Jewish Week, that former director of Far West USY, Bob Fisher, left his job in 2002, a job he held throughout the 1980s and 1990s, only after allegations surfaced regarding his abuse of multiple teenage boys. The news was made worse by the reported fact that the United Synagogue did nothing about it and the allegations stayed secret or went unreported for decades. The reason for Bob’s abrupt departure from the movement was not known publicly until the story broke. The USCJ has only now set up a hotline to take reports of abuse in this case.
I am not here to tell you that abuse of any kind is wrong and criminal, because it is. I am not here to tell you that I knew about Bob's actions, because while I knew him, I have no information about any abuse claims. And I am not here to tell you that the USCJ dropped the ball on Bob Fisher, because I don’t know if they did or not.
But here’s what I do need to share: Far West USY is owed part of the credit it making me a proud Orthodox Jew today. Far West USY was not determined by a place or a person; but a gathering of Jewish friends, many of whom, like myself, were public or prep school students; We didn’t get religious content or have too many Jewish friends in school during the school week, so we lived for the weekends, where our Shabbatot were filled with songs, laughter, tefillot, rubber chicken dinners and many, many private jokes.
For me, USY, as well as Camp Ramah, was a stop on my journey into Judaism and the intricacies of halachic observance. USY and my camp experiences consisted of fellowship with people my own age who observed Shabbat with incredible ruach (energy), and we recognized and appreciated each of the unique contributions we could make to each others’ lives. We went to different schools and had vastly different kinds of home lives from each another; but everyone could be their best self at Far West USY events.
When I found, in college and beyond, that Conservative Judaism was not for me; I kept my relationships strong with those who supported me at every point on my journey, many of whom I am still in touch with today via Facebook. I began affiliating as Orthodox through Chabad in college, which was a positive throwback for me to my elementary school years because I also attended Chabad day school. There was never any doubt for me that I would marry Jewish or send my children to Jewish schools. I never even considered myself a “baalat teshuva” because that would insult my mother’s scrupulously kosher home and my parents’ irreproachable code of Jewish ethics. The rest, as they say, is history and my own story for another day.
But Far West USY was, for me, never characterized by one person’s experience, or one program. Far West USY was many things for many people. For some it was a home away from home that had a built-in value system based, possibly a bit loosely or permissively, on Torah and tikkun olam. For others it was a way to get away from divorcing parents or a difficult home life. For others it was something their parents forced or imposed on them. However, for me and most of my friends, it was an unforgettable, positive time in our lives and we celebrated and cherished every moment we spent together.
Many of my friends are deeply disturbed, as am I, by the “Bob-Fisher-my-hero-is-a-pedophile” side of the story. One friend said she couldn’t sleep the night after the story broke, so difficult was it to reckon the idea of Bob being a criminal on the one hand, with having witnessed Bob doing so much good, on the other. Other friends urged each other to discuss this, on our Facebook Far West USY alumni group, together, in much the same way we resolved problems through respectful, passionate debate during our USY years. Many are also quick to note that Far West USY was not ever great because of one person, and one person’s criminality should not stain the good things that USY’s many excellent staff members did for most kids. Still others have noted they are in the process of reporting Bob’s abuse.
The only wise words or lessons I can take from this terrible story have to do not with what I learned from USY, but what I have learned from the intensive text study I have engaged in, as I look back at two decades since my teen years.
The Tanach in Parshat Vayikra tells us, “You shall neither take revenge from nor bear a grudge against the members of your people; you shall love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.”
From the Ramban (Iggeres haRamban), I learned we must guard our anger, and think and walk humbly as though every person is greater than yourself. “Whoever flares up in anger is subject to the discipline of Gehinnom as it is says in (Kohelet 12:10), ‘Cast out anger from your heart, and [by doing this] remove evil from your flesh…’Once you have distanced yourself from anger, the quality of humility will enter your heart.”
But as is repeated dozens of times throughout the Book of Shoftim (Judges), I have learned that it is not good for people to only do what they personally think is right. “In those days there was no king in Israel: every man did that which was right in his own eyes.” The Jewish community must have and utilize judges and rules and laws to keep everyone from acting in their own best interest. From Kohelet (Ecclesiastes), I have learned, as everyone else has, that there is nothing new under the sun.
From these lessons, I draw comfort. I don’t know if my friends from USY will find comfort from them; and I don’t know if the quotes without context will be of any help at all, because for me, I have learned that I have been able to internalize words of Torah best only when I have learned them myself, with the added benefit of knowledgeable learning partners.
Regardless, the United Synagogue will have to reckon with itself on this, and sadly, no movement of Judaism (or any religion) is free of such reckonings. I cannot begin to imagine what its leaders (and past leaders) and the victims must be going through. But I pray there are and will be re-evaluated, evolved systems in place to prevent this from happening again.
Bob Fisher was the director of Far West USY for decades and he will face judgement for his actions, if not in the U.S. court system than with our Eternal Judge.
But Bob is not Far West USY and never was.
Elizabeth (Book) Kratz is the associate publisher and editor of The Jewish Link of New Jersey and The Jewish Link of Bronx, Westchester and Connecticut.